Monday, August 03, 2009

Mandarin: not a world language anytime soon

Every so often we see wide-eyed futurists talking about how Mandarin will usurp English's role as the world's most important second language, and become the "language of the 21st century." At first, this seems vaguely plausible: China is much larger than the United States and all other English-speaking countries put together, and it may eclipse them in economic influence sometime in the next 50 to 100 years. The status of English, after all, has mostly been a function of the economic power of the United States—why won't China take the crown as its economy grows?

Well, first of all, you have to contend with the massive base of people who already speak English as a second language. More students currently study English in China alone than in the US. Add this to a strong desire for English proficiency in other East Asian countries, extremely strong penetration of English in continental Europe, and English's importance among the economic and social elite in India (soon to be even more populous than China), and you have formidable momentum on English's side. You certainly don't see millions of German schoolchildren lining up to learn Mandarin, or ambitious Indian students attending Mandarin institutions to land a plum job in an office park.

Sure, you say, but Latin and French were the "world languages" of their time—what's to stop English from suffering the same fate? Frankly, there's no equivalence. Latin and French may have been the languages of diplomacy, science, and the cosmopolitan elite in Western Europe, but they had nowhere near the worldwide prominence that English now enjoys, nor its wide base of second-language speakers of varied economic standing.

And at the same time, Chinese is hard. Yes, more people speak Mandarin or Cantonese as a first language than English, but that's not necessarily the most accurate comparison. One of the most difficult aspects of learning Chinese is the massive number of characters used for writing, which are far harder to learn than an alphabet. In fact, if we tally up the number of native speakers of languages using the Latin alphabet alone, we easily pass a billion: English, Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, Italian, Turkish, Polish, and so on. These people—and indeed almost anyone who uses an alphabet rather than a logographic script, which is the vast majority of the world—will have a far easier time reading and writing in English than Chinese. This is a particularly critical advantage in the Internet age, as it's faster and simpler to write in English characters than painstakingly hammer out the pinyin for Chinese ones.

The conclusion is inescapable: English is here to stay. Mandarin may well become the world's second most prominent language, but we English speakers will continue to unfairly benefit from stumbling into the world's lingua franca at birth—and given my limited linguistic capacity, I'm damn glad about that.


Edit: Follow-ups here and here.


Shane said...

You're right that Mandarin Chinese is a difficult language to learn. I think you're a little bit off as to why. In addition, you are wrong about how quickly one can type in Chinese, for the same reason.

The greatest difficulty I saw when watching Americans learn Chinese is the tones. I watched a small number master the writing system, but I never saw a person who could differentiate the tones like a native speaker. And so once you get into an intermediate level, it becomes far easier to read and write Chinese than it does to understand and speak it.

Because the tones carry meaning, Chinese has actually developed into a language where the "meaning density" (I'm just making up a term here) is very high with regard to the syllables.

To draw an example - from a random VOA headline from today:
白宫否认克林顿替奥巴马传口信 (14 characters/syllables)

Pinyin: baigong fouren kelindun ti aobama chuan kouxin (41 characters not including spaces, which aren't typed when typing Chinese)

It means "White House denies that Clinton sent a verbal message on behalf of Obama" (61 characters not including spaces, 21 syllables). There are easy ways to say it shorter, but a lot of meaning is lost if you take shortcuts in the translation.

This becomes a huge problem when trying to watch the news, when they use Chinese acronyms (think the way the military abbreviates "Central Command" to "CENTCOM" or how the "Ministry of Peace" was abbreviated to
"minipax" in Orwell's 1984). The anchors simply say so much in such a short amount of time that non-native speakers (or even less-educated native speakers) are quickly overwhelmed.

You also touch on the true problem with the "Mandarin is going to take over the world" thesis - the Mandarin Chinese that we learn as students of a second language is completely different from what is spoken on the ground. Like your examples of French and Latin, it's only spoken and understood by the elites in China. I can't understand someone from Sichuan or Shandong speaking "Mandarin", the same way I can't understand some English accents from the British Isles. I would even venture to say that Standard Mandarin Chinese has fewer native speakers than English. For these reasons I think Mandarin Chinese has almost no chance of ever overtaking English in importance.

wrightak said...

Chinese is difficult for English speaking people to learn, but what about other people? People from Asian countries whose languages are related to Chinese, such as Japanese, Korean and many others, find Chinese easier than English. If you add up all of the people who speak languages related to Chinese, I'm sure you'll reach a much larger number than those who speak languages related to English.

As Shane mentioned, I'm sure that Chinese people can type just as quickly in their native tongue as English people can. You're way off base there.

I agree with the points made in the second and third paragraphs and I think that English is here to stay for a long time. As someone who's now fluent in Japanese (a language that uses Chinese characters btw), I think you're overestimating how difficult it is to learn Chinese and this isn't the reason that it won't eclipse English.

Matt Rognlie said...


You're definitely right that we should consider the other side of the coin -- the fact that speakers of languages related to Chinese might have an easier time learning Chinese than English. I don't deny that this is possible; I just think it will have a much less significant effect.

Japanese is easily the largest other language that uses Chinese characters as the basis of its writing system. Like Korean and Vietnamese, Japanese also borrows many words from Chinese (naturally, since it's using many of the same characters), and for these reasons alone I can imagine that Chinese is much easier to learn. Japan alone, however, isn't going to make a particularly big impact in the battle for language primacy: it has ~125 million people and will start shrinking quickly as the century continues.

Korean historically used Chinese characters as the basis of its writing system, but in the 20th century the homegrown Hangul alphabet became dominant, and today the use of Chinese logographs is dying out. My Korean friends report that most kids can't be bothered to learn the Chinese characters (except when they're necessary for tests), because it feels like a bothersome waste of time -- and frankly, since Korea already as an excellent phonetic alphabet, this is pretty much true. As an economist, I think that this "revealed prefence" evidence is quite compelling.

Admittedly, many Korean words are borrowed from Chinese (in much the same sense that many English words derive from Latin), but the languages aren't closely related in a structural sense, and the pronounciation is only vaguely related. There just doesn't appear to be any compelling reason for Korea to shift to Mandarin as its primary second language, and certainly English has a lot of momentum on its side.

Vietnamese also borrows plenty of words from Chinese (and uses tones in pronounciation), but it uses an adapted Latin alphabet. (!) Amusingly, Vietnamese seems to have adopted its current alphabet in place of Chinese characters -- the traditional mode of writing -- because it was much more effective at promoting literacy. Yes, Western colonialism played a role, but the story isn't that simple, because anti-colonialists also promoted the new Latin-style script under the belief that a more literate population would better resist foreign influence. The initial hurdles to becoming literate are simply far, far lower with a phonetic alphabet, as repeated historical experience demonstrates.

bob goodwin said...

I am in Asia for two months for one reason - to make sure my 3 youngs kids are fluent in Chinese. My language skills are terrible, and I cannot speak 10 words in Mandarin. However there is a huge world in Asia that will never learn sufficient english to succeed. I expect the english hegemony to fade, even if the Mandarin does not take over.

The real interesting time will be when there are iPod translators. Then tones and characters wont matter, but there will still be all the idioms, facial expressions, norms and shortcuts to trip over. Then will become the universal language based on a least common denominator of bad language traits build on a translation machine.

10-20 years away.

wrightak said...


Thanks for taking the time to reply to my comment. I've been studying Japanese for a long time and I've just started Korean so I knew about those but I didn't know about Vietnamese, interesting stuff!

I think you're concentrating too much on the complexity of the writing systems. It's certainly true that the Chinese writing system poses a significant barrier to learning. This is a big factor, but I don't think it's the biggest.

What's far more important is the potential to understand the concepts contained in languages. When I learn Japanese words or phrases, I have to put in a lot more work than a Chinese or Korean person. With the exception of universal concepts like "dog", "water", "computer", "health insurance" etc., I have to learn from scratch. This mainly involves doing what dictionary creators do: looking very carefully at how the word is used. Looking up an English translation only gives me a guide. However, when I encounter words and phrases when learning French or German, I can frequently relate them almost one-to-one to concepts in my native language.

I live and work in Japan and speak nothing but Japanese all day, so it's the only language I can speak with authority on but I believe that the same argument holds for Mandarin. I'm sure that Asian people will find Mandarin easier than English because Mandarin words and phrases encapsulate ideas that are familiar to them. I'm pretty sure that Chinese lies at the top of the family tree of languages in Asia too. Inheritance of concepts and ideas is therefore going in the right direction. To explain: the majority of Japanese words are imported from China but I don't think that any native Japanese words exist anywhere else. i.e. Japanese is an importer and Chinese is the ultimate linguistic exporter in the Asia region.

Additionally, I believe that learning the Hanzi, given the proper teaching methods, can be a lot easier than people think. I've mastered the 2000 Chinese characters specified by the Japanese government and believe me, if I can do it at my age, anyone can do it! I used a number of techniques

OK, I'll stop rambling now! I agree with you that unlike English, Mandarin will not become everyone's second language anytime soon. I just disagree with the reason - it's not because the language is hard. Hard is a relative concept. English is astonishingly hard for so many people and they still learn it because they must.

Anonymous said...

1. For "Adults",I sugget learn the simplified, but for 3 yr olds "traditional" chinese.Adults often say learning Chinese is so difficult already, why burden kids with even more compilcated "Traditional" Chinese. That's from an adult's point of view. But to a kid whose language skill is at its PEAK in life, he won't find it Difficult at all because he would not KNOW what's a SIMPLER language to compare YET ! It is only the adults who have learned an "EASIER" language would complain. So for adults, the best is to send your kids to learn Mandarin AS YOUNG AS possible because only when they are 3 yr old, their ears can TELL the TONES well, after that, it only gets worse, and their tongues set.
2. The reason one learns English is usually for jobs.Now Chinese invest heavily in many countries now. U may not need Chinese, but ur kids may one day.
3. Linguistically, Chinese is the ONLY language in the world that has the highest "meaning density" ( as u coined ). I.e. given same number of syllables, the "amount" of meanings can be transmitted. This is like comparing FM to AM, or DTMF dialing vs Pulse dialing, just more efficient. Take a look at ANY multi-lingual signs or Handbooks, Chinese is ALWAYS the "SHORTEST". During state visits by Chinese Leaders to other countries, the TRANSLATORs always seem to take SO much time to "translate" Chinese into other languages.Chinese tend to use "idioms" where 4 syllables would drag out a long-drawn out historic story which YOU are supposed to have learned in life. Chinese doesn't have gender articles, nor plural/singular endings. Sign language is like Chinese, no "baggage" either.
4. Efficiency in Computing. For the word "ENGLISH", it would take 7 bytes, but it would only take 4 bytes if written in Chinese. So the 2000 to 4000 characters u must learn in Chinese is the trade off that "strings of characters" u must remember in other non-chinese languages. So in computing terms, Chinese offers MORE meanings for a given number of bytes.
5. English will not likely be replaced because it does have great advantage far better than French/German/Italian etc without those useless linguistic "baggage" such as a new invention object should be a male, female or neutral.
6. Chinese has 3000 yrs of unbroken history that one can still read those written thousands of years ago. Unlike Chinese, all other languages, due to the very reason that it is EASY to learn, it is also EASY to CHANGE, thus, losing the continuity in words used, except the most basic 26 alphabet. If u consider 2000 chinese characters as alphabets, then u might see why few changes were made to Chinese for thousands of years. The spoken Chinese is now standardized to be Mandarin, with TV and Internet, more dialects will disappear and Mandarin will become the only spoken Chinese in a few decades.
7. If u have never learned Chinese before, it will be hard for u to understand why Chinese WILL be the next dominant SECOND language WITH English. I just haven't heard any language MORE efficient than Chinese. That includes English. If u complain that it will take longer to write Chinese, then I will agree with u. FORTUNATELY, I will argue that how often do YOU write with a pen these days?? probably only signing cheques or credit card slip. So, Chinese will also be the same. With the help of technology, which was not taken into consideration when China simplified the writing, the SPOKEN chinese will be likely the way in the future rather than KEYBOARD entry that FEW chinese in the future will even WRITE either Simplified or Traditional Chinese, but simply SAY it in Mandarin.Keyboard will be a thing of the past.

It is ironic to me that the OLDEST language in the world that is still in use today is Chinese, and the speed that Chinese can be spoken should make u wonder why a Chinese "thinks" faster too, thus, efficient for your kids to master. Speed and efficiency are strong reasons why Chinese tend to do WELL financially everywhere they settle. Shouldn't your children profit from it too?

Anonymous said...

modern chinese are inported from Japanese.
ir is said 70% of modern chinese words are Japan made


Anonymous said...

Four reasons why English not only here to stay but on the rise:

1. Billions of Chinese & Indians are learning English. ie Supporting English growth. It's the meeting ground between different cultures.

2. English is constantly evolving and adding new words to describe the world -it's language has already more than 1.2 Million words, nouns, verbs, etc. Mandarin only has 10,000 and NOT growing.

3. English Alphabet is far too ingrained into Technology and also Science of Maths (eg. algebra) Physics, Chemisty. E=mc2 anyone?

4. Anyone can easily spell it, and doesn't require memorization such as with Asian languages.

Anonymous said...

Also the Mandarin language lacks articles, verb conjugation and tense, singularity and plurality of nouns making it less effective than English at expressing complex meanings.

duan said...

Mandarin Chinese is hard to learn, of course, however, it's considerably much faster to pronounce and type in Chinese than in English if the same amount of information is expressed.

Besides, Chinese words have meaning. Like the phrase "meaning density" mentioned above. If you understand the basic 2000 to 4000 words, the variety to express yourself is much richer by using mandarin. By using a few syllables, you can express a rich and deep meaning. It's just a more efficient way of expressing ideas.

If you translate a book into any language of the world, the one which is translated into Chinese would be the thinnest one because of its higher level of condensation of meaning.

The fact that Chinese is meaning-based indicates it won't change in the form dramatically over the years even with the change of pronunciation, which is not the case for alphabet-based language. And I think that accounts for one of the reasons why Europe has so many languages and still remains non-united in the strict sense. If their language is the same, which may be realized if their language is meaning-based, maybe they’ll have louder voice for uniting as one country, giving them a better chance of competing with America.

When a new word is made up in the alphabet-based language, you can only get a vague or maybe for German language an exact pronunciation, but the meaning is in most cases unknown. However, if a new word is made up in Mandarin, you can not only read it out, but also you can understand clearly what it means, no matter it’s a new disease or a new type of technology. Because it’s made up by the 2000 to 4000 basic characters a Chinese has already mastered. Again, it’s because of the Chinese language’s inherent characteristic of containing meaning.

Maybe the only inherent disadvantage for Mandarin is its difficult form of writing, but in 21st century, who would take the pains to write lengthy pages by hand writing. With the much speedier way of putting Chinese characters into the computer than any other language, I think the difficult way of writing won’t be a problem nowadays.

Anonymous said...

I agree.. Chinese language is too simple to describe the modern life. There are no paste or future tense in Chinese, therefore no sense of time. Also no 'she' or 'he' in Chinese sentence. English has more than 1 million!! words and can describe anything, esp in field of medicine, technology, science, etc. Chinese is an old and inadequate language, like Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

For any given word, Chinese characters require more ink to write than English words.. I'm in printing industry so I know. If u look at any Chinese newspaper, u will see the words a so small & cluttered.

Anonymous said...

Also ALL languages contain meaning, not just Chinese, because words or characters are actually symbols. Eg, the word 'Horse'.. if you know it, then you will always remember it as related to the animal horse. For Chinese they use characters to contain meaning, for English they use words to contain meaning. Some older cultures actually use a picture of horse for their language. Everything is actually symbols.

Anonymous said...

I think it's great that Europe has chosen to adopt English as their common language. It's a beautiful language and constantly evolving all the time. It's the langauge that unites the world together in peace. Asia + Europe + South America + Oceana.. all learning a common language.

sensei morpheus said...

Haha, as what they say in debate, "Here, here".
I definitely agree with your point of view Mandarin is difficult. I am 25% Chinese but I didn't trouble myself to learn Mandarin. Afterall, in my country, Chinese people use another Chinese dialect so it really made no sense to me. Haha so I'd rather major in English and study in Korean for fun. I really hate to speak a language and can't even write it correctly. That really sucks. Unlike Hangul (Korean language) and Nihonngo (Japanese language), it's easy to study the characters and put them together. But definitely, ENGLISH is a real necessity! >_<

Anonymous said...

Chinese should be wise and start learning English properly so they can communicate & do business with the 1.5 Billion Indians, who have made English their official language. India about to become world's next superpower... get ready!!

Anonymous said...

Chinese language won't be used in the future because Mandarin is a divided language. There is no standard.

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Clement said...

I agree.. Chinese language is too simple to describe the modern life. There are no paste or future tense in Chinese, therefore no sense of time. Also no 'she' or 'he' in Chinese sentence. English has more than 1 million!! words and can describe anything, esp in field of medicine, technology, science, etc. Chinese is an old and inadequate language, like Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

Are you serious? Too simple to describe modern life? You must be freaking kidding me by saying 1.2 billion people can't describe their daily life. Chinese is a very dynamic language & there are heaps of new words every single year if you ever bother to learn Chinese(Maybe too much for learners of Chinese, such as myself).

No past or future tense thus no sense of time?

No inflections doesn't mean there is no past or future tense,let alone sense of time. English lacks inflections compared to French/German/Latin, would you say that English native speakers have less sense of time compared to French native speakers?

Learn something before you make a conclusion.

I think Chinese won't be a world language anytime soon but not because of such ridiculous reasons. said...

My primary language is English but I speak Thai, Mandarin, Japanese and Spanish and the significant barrier to my further development is the lack of commonality in the written forms particularly thai ( อักษรไทย,) and in Japanese learning the Hirigana and Katakana and Kanji that is used in Mandarin as well. Phew - head hurts just thinking about it and it is so easy to get confused. In all my travels despite having learned these languages it is always easier to speak in English.

I've spent a lot of time in Thailand because my wife is thai and English is dominant out there, not because of economics since trade with Japan and China is just as strong as with the USA but because of culture and tourism. Schoolchildren study it, company names are in อักษรไทย,and in English. Do you know one primary reason why? You can always assume that whether it is a German or a Pole, Russian or chinese that everyone will speak English. D

It has become the international business and science language and guarantees that everyone will speak the same thing in a meeting. I don't think English is dominant and will stay dominant because it is better, it will stay dominant because it already is dominant.

Patsy said...

In Chinese, although the pronouciation of he and she is the same, but different in writings. He in chinese is written as 他and she is written as 她.

Pui Kien Hong said...

Hi, I myself is a native Mandarin speaker. About things like tenses, singular and plural nouns, and so on, We have other ways to "express" them.

In fact, when I was a child, I even wondered why there were things like tenses and article in English. Now, to me, they are just other ways of expressing ideas.

Anyway, I have to admit that learning Chinese would be more difficult compared with English. However, after mastering the most basic characters (about 4000-5000characters) and words(words and characters are different), things will get easier.

In English, often you need to know the Latin and Greek roots to guess the meaning of an unfamiliar words or new words; and often you need to refer to a dictionary. However, in
Mandarin, the characters themselves are our "Latin and Greek roots". I myself rarely need to refer to a dictionary to know the meaning of a word. (However, if you really want to attain a level which is comparable to that of a wordsmith or journalist, then you have to)

Well, tones and the writing system are hard though. Even as a native speaker, I often forget how to write some characters. (Not totally forget, but more like unsure).

Well, perhaps nothing could be perfect. If we were to find a perfect language, maybe the Heaven's language could be the answer.

Seem I am out of subject. Personally, despite my comment above, I think English will continue to be the most dominant language in the world. However, I do also believe if one day English-speaking countries had been surpassed by China economically, technologically, culturally and militarily for a long period of time, the status of English as a lingua franca would inevitably be replaced by Mandarin. So far I think that would unlikely to happen. But who knows? Could anyone living a hundred year ago foresee the development and progress of the modern world today?

Charles Darwin said...



PINYIN must replace.

mao zedong and many Nationalist want to completely replace the old old old computer of Block-writing..


ABCDEFG..... magic of 26

012345678990 magic of ten

1010101100 magic of two..

internet: magic of english..

Coding a computer...

Note the world lanugage is Alphabet and english...

china needs to abolish Hanzi.. old archaic and Ugly...

Charles Darwin said...

Indutrial age needs knowledge of mechanics, electricty.

Information needs to know to program..

Code or Be coded.

Alphabet is only way to Code a computer....

Bury Hanzi, primative, barbaric, ugly, beast -writing

Galileo Galilei said...

1. farm age. land. land. land.

2. Industrial age. cars. airplanes. electricity. ports, freeways, suburbs.

3. Information/internet/knowledge age



ABC/12345 is only way to code a computer

Hanzi is old old old and obsolete.

gone gone gone, replaced by ABC