Number learning Chinese soars

According to an article on the BBC, the number of people outside China learning Mandarin Chinese has soared to 30 million over the past five years. The report mentions that in London the majority of kids learning Mandarin have parents who work in finance industry – they perceive that a knowledge of Mandarin will be very useful for their offspring in the future.

In 1998, 6,000 students were studying Mandarin in the USA; there are now 50,000. The report goes on to claim that “It’s self-evident that children will be much better off economically and in job seeking if Chinese programmes are adopted.” I’m not convinced of this – knowledge of Chinese can be useful but isn’t necessarily sufficient to secure you a good job. Other skills and qualifications are needed as well.

The article speculates that Mandarin may replace English as the global language, and concludes that this probably won’t happen just yet, but could do within 100 years or so.

What do you think – could Mandarin take over from English as the most widely spoken language?

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This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

30 Responses to Number learning Chinese soars

  1. Edwin says:

    Anyone can speculate anything they like in 100 years time, hoping that they won’t be alive at the time to take up the responsibility.

    I think we should not ignore the fact that there are also millions of people in China who are earnestly learning English, for exactly the same reason.

    Personally, I think diving into a language for pure job-security reasons bounds to fail. You really have to love the language and the culture.

  2. Rachel says:

    I agree – trying to learn Chinese purely to get a better job or more money is silly and you’re better off doing something else, especially if you have no other motivation or interest in languages. I’m going to be studying Mandarin at university at the end of this year and it really annoys me that everyone seems to nods knowingly and lecture me on how it’s a very good career move – “China’s going to be the next United States, lots of jobs going for those with Chinese” etc – as if I am in it for the money! Personally I’d hate to be a businesswoman.

    I’m not really convinced by the idea that Mandarin will overtake English as the lingua franca of the internet/the business world/whatever – after all, the internet and computers were designed by and therefore are better adapted to English speakers, and as for international trade etc, think how many countries use English as the official or unifying language in comparison to those who use Chinese. Okay, so China is big in many ways, but it’s only one country, and can’t really outweigh the importance of the USA, the UK, Australia and the rest.

    It’s a definite contender for second place though :)

  3. jdotjdot89 says:

    This is a topic that particularly interests me, as I kind of have a stake in it. I’m currently a student of international business, and one of the interesting stipulations of my program is that each of us must choose a language to focus on, and we have to concentrate our business and international studies through that language. Everyone I have mentioned this to has said “Oh! Chinese! You should learn Chinese; it’s a GREAT career move.” I couldn’t disagree more, to be honest.
    China is big and important economically, but the way business works is incredibly different (partly because of the Communism, though not anywhere near entirely) and just learning Mandarin doesn’t change the vast cultural differences. Chinese is a great language to learn because of the interesting structure and history, the culture, and its applications–but learning it for the sole reason that China is gaining in strength is silly. No one has any idea what the future will bring, and merely being able to speak Chinese is no guarantee anything.
    It is also a spectacularly hard language to learn for anyone, especially for anyone west of Pakistan who is used to Western, Middle-Eastern, or African languages that are set up very differently than Asian languages such as Chinese. And I’m only talking about the grammatical structure now, the actual alphabet/pictographs turn a difficult situation into something nothing short of nightmarish. I’ve heard–though you shouldn’t quote me on this–that most Chinese children can’t read the newspaper up until eighth grade. Whether or not the previous statement is true, I think it’s definitely true that it’s easier for Chinese to learn English than Americans to learn Chinese–and even more so, it’s easier to get other Western-type language once one knows English. I don’t think it’s quite the same for Chinese and other Asian languages.

    That was probably the longest post I’ve ever written. *phew*

  4. jdotjdot89 says:

    On a totally different subject, has any more thought gone into the whole forum idea?

  5. Weili says:

    I believe when people claim that learning Chinese could improve your chances of getting a job in the future or getting a better job, they assume you have actual skills. Even if you wish to teach Chinese you must have teaching skills, just knowing the language isn’t enough.

    Will Chinese replace English as the “unofficial international language”? Probably not anytime soon unless something drastic happens. English got to where it is today thanks to first the British Empire and then the “American Empire”. English has deeply entrenched itself as the basis of much of our modern technology as well. So no matter how popular or important Chinese becomes, it will be very difficult to dethrone English from its current status. But of course, a lot can happen in 100 years, or not much at all.

    jdotjdot89:

    “I’ve heard–though you shouldn’t quote me on this–that most Chinese children can’t read the newspaper up until eighth grade.”

    I know you asked not to be quoted but I thought I’d shed some light on this anyway ;)

    That statement is simply ridiculous. I don’t know if there are studies or tests that have been conducted in the past as to what grade a Chinese child needs to be before he or she can read the newspaper. But from my personal experience, having grown up in Taiwan until the age of 10, I was able to read the newspaper since the third grade. Did I want to or understood every single word? Not really, I preferred reading my comic books but I was able to read the newspaper and get good idea of what the article entails if needed. Heck, we started doing book reports in the third grade too. :)

    “I think it’s definitely true that it’s easier for Chinese to learn English than Americans to learn Chinese”

    This is a typical stereotype/impression of Westerners… If you ever get a chance to go abroad, ask the locals who are learning English just how easy it is for them. Just as how Westerners hate the nuisances of Chinese, I hated those of English when learning it.

    “and even more so, it’s easier to get other Western-type language once one knows English. I don’t think it’s quite the same for Chinese and other Asian languages.”
    What are you basing this opinion on?

    After learning English, it didn’t make learning Spanish any easier except I already know how to write the alphabets. I still had to memorize new vocabulary, new pronunciation, new grammar… uh new everything else.

    Depending on which Asian language you’re speaking of, if it’s one that was heavily influenced by Chinese in the past, namely Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, you’ll noticed that there are many shared vocabulary and maybe even expressions and point of views.

    I believe knowing Chinese does make learning other Asian languages easier, the same goes for English and other European languages. But HOW MUCH EASIER is completely debatable.

  6. Joseph Staleknight says:

    “Mandarin may replace English as the global language”

    Whoa. If that happens, then it’s going to be phenomenal.

  7. jdotjdot89 says:

    For a second there, Weili, I thought that you were tearing what I said apart, like I expected someone to. Actually, you didn’t really so much, mostly just the part about eighth-grade newspaper-reading which I had thought was incorrect, anyway.

    Let me clarify. When I said that learning other Western language was easier, I meant that for those who already speak Western languages as the vernacular. What I said was is I think it’s easier for Westerners to learn other Western languages than for Asians to learn other Asian languages. I could be wrong, of course, but from the people I’ve spoken to and the research I’ve done that seems to be the case. But don’t get me wrong–I’m not a doctoral linguist or anything like that.

    Am I right? I’m really interested in the answer to that one.

  8. Weili says:

    “Let me clarify. When I said that learning other Western language was easier, I meant that for those who already speak Western languages as the vernacular. What I said was is I think it’s easier for Westerners to learn other Western languages than for Asians to learn other Asian languages. I could be wrong, of course, but from the people I’ve spoken to and the research I’ve done that seems to be the case. But don’t get me wrong–I’m not a doctoral linguist or anything like that.”

    I can’t say whether that’s right or wrong because there are so many variables.

    However, I would like to see the results if any real studies were conducted on such a subject.

  9. Alain Vaillancourt says:

    No. The importance of English as an international language might dwindle but it’s place won’t be taken by Mandarin. Mandarin has the severe handicap of being tied too much to chinese characters. It might be different if the characters were abolished and replaced by something like the pinyin alphabetisation.

  10. Zachary R. says:

    As China is opening more and more to the rest of the world, I think that this phenomenon could be very possible (not soon, but in time). However, you also have to acknowledge that China’s economy is highly unstable, just as history shows when it goes up, it definitely goes down.
    In Canada, the knowledge of a Chinese language is probably more beneficial if you live in British-Colombia, where there’s a higher concentration of Asian settlers. Yet, even walking around in one of the malls in the capital, I hear a lot of Chinese (either Mandarin or Cantonese) being spoken. Chinese is also becoming a lot more readily available everywhere you look here (restaurants, books, music, etc.).
    So it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to me if it would ever become a more popular language than English eventually; it already is to a certain extent in many Asian countries (as I’ve noticed during my trip to Cambodia). But don’t take it as if Mandarin would completely take over, English would still be present, just slightly less used in comparison.
    — On a side note, I’ve also heard that Spanish has the potential of becoming the next”de facto” language.

  11. Weili says:

    Spanish does indeed have a large number of speakers, about 420 million according to Wikipedia. Spanish is also spoken by numerous countries, pretty much everywhere in Central and South Americas except in Brazil. However, this is merely a legacy of the former Spanish empire which fell hundreds of years ago.

    With that said though, Spanish does already have a good foundation toward becoming the next lingua franca assuming one of more Latin American country rises to become the next superpower, or at least just a world power.

    Throughout history, a language only spreads when the nation becomes powerful in terms of economic, military and political influence.

  12. BnB says:

    English did not achieve it’s status as lingua franca by pushing out some other dominant lingua franca. Empire had much to do with it, sure, but in technology, for example, there was just lots that developed in the US in a pre-global time, such that by the time it went elsewhere it was firmly entrenched in English. Will the major programming languages be rewritten into Chinese? Not likely.

    So it seems to me that for Chinese to push English out, there has to be some native development that occurs in China, one that is fairly mature at the time the rest of the world is offered access to it, so that the rest of the world is forced to learn Chinese to gain access. That’s less likely to happen in this more global world, where there are few secrets, and I think it would be hard pressed to push English out of the places where it is already well-entrenched. Not going to be anytime soon, anyway… (and a hundred years feels soon)

    As to the ease of learning Asian languages, don’t assume just because they use characters — even Chinese-derived characters — that the languages are alike. Chinese and Japanese couldn’t be more different. It’s like saying that, based on writing and location, Swedish and Finnish should be alike. I mean, ok, so they both lack of a deep rich tan, but other than that… :)

  13. Victoria says:

    This BBC article caught my eye too. Have posted my thoughts up on my blog, with reference to this post.

  14. Tim says:

    Something is bound to replace english as the world lingua franca sooner or later, probably not any time soon, but it’s definately going to happen. Wheather or not the new language will be Mandarin or not is anyone’s guess.

  15. SamD says:

    English has so much of a head start on Chinese as a world language that any change will happen gradually.

    How flexible is Chinese? How readily does it add new words–particularly foreign words–to its vocabulary?

    Many of the people who speak English don’t speak it as natives or even all that much like what we in the USA or UK or other anglophone countries might think of as “standard English.” It’s possible to speak rather imperfect English and get your point across in many situations. How easy is it to do that with Chinese?

  16. Weili says:

    SamD:

    “How flexible is Chinese? How readily does it add new words–particularly foreign words–to its vocabulary?”

    Quite simple actually IMHO. Unlike most languages where foreign words are “borrowed” phonetically, in Chinese, foreign words are simply “Sinized” and translated through meaning. For example, television is translated as 電視 dianshi, literally “electronic-vision”.

    The advantage of this is if one already knows the meaning of the characters that are used to make up the word, one could easily guess what it means if he doesn’t know it already.

    “Many of the people who speak English don’t speak it as natives or even all that much like what we in the USA or UK or other anglophone countries might think of as “standard English.” It’s possible to speak rather imperfect English and get your point across in many situations. How easy is it to do that with Chinese?”

    I guess you’ve never been to China… ;)

    Mandarin wasn’t made the official speaking Chinese until early 1900′s. However, if you know anything about modern Chinese history you’d know that China was plagued with wars, conflicts and general chaos ever since the West made “official contact” with China in the 1800′s. Point is, although Mandarin was made official, with all the wars and conflicts going on, it was difficult to make sure everyone learned it. It wasn’t until after the 1980′s did China enjoy relative peace.

    The result is, today, while the younger generation (30-40 and younger) can almost always speak “standard Mandarin”, many of the older generation, depending on where they are from, either speak Mandarin with heavy accent, broken Mandarin and none at all.

    Point is, if you ever travel in China, especially to the various parts outside of the big cities, you’ll hear all sorts of accents and Mandarin-speakers. I can’t speak for others but for me, a Taiwan-born, U.S.-raised Chinese, I was able to understand 80% of the speakers who spoke “non-standard Mandarin”.

  17. ISPKN says:

    I have noticed the trend of people learning Mandarin lately. In fact, the Governor of my state has been trying to get Mandarin taught in every school. I have heard it called many times the “language of the future.”

    However, I think the idea of any global language is silly. I hate how Americans think we can go to any other country expecting everyone there to have learned OUR language and be capable of communicating with us. Though I’ve learned a little Chinese and plan to finish up with this language, I would hate it if Chinese people came to America expecting me to speak their language without any knowledge of ours. If everyone spoke 2 or 3 languages, common and uncommon, we wouldn’t really have a need for 1 global language.

    A global language just gives an unfair advantage in life to people who were born into a family that spoke it.

  18. Weili says:

    ISPKN:

    “However, I think the idea of any global language is silly. I hate how Americans think we can go to any other country expecting everyone there to have learned OUR language and be capable of communicating with us. Though I’ve learned a little Chinese and plan to finish up with this language, I would hate it if Chinese people came to America expecting me to speak their language without any knowledge of ours. If everyone spoke 2 or 3 languages, common and uncommon, we wouldn’t really have a need for 1 global language.

    A global language just gives an unfair advantage in life to people who were born into a family that spoke it. ”

    I could not agree with you more!

    When I was in Taiwan, I saw in a few American movies where Americans traveled to a foreign country and get upset when they found out the locals don’t speak English as if they were supposed to. I’ve always thought it was something that only happens in movies until I moved to the U.S., made American friends and traveled with them to other countries and saw the same attitude first hand…

    Of course, I can sort of understand where Americans are coming from as many countries do indeed speak English, like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, Singapore, parts of India… etc. but if you’re traveling to say Mongolia, you should know better to expect the locals there to speak English…

  19. Declan says:

    If you take a little history lesson, no language can ever truly a entirely global. While dialects devoloped more easily with the lack of media such as television, the simple fact of the matter remains that we as English speakers have an arrogance to claim that English is international or global. As an Irish person, I have a tendancy to speak a lot faster than Americans in general,and while I slow down when speaking to other nationalities, people coming to the west of Ireland often have difficulties in understanding native speakers.

    The very fact that they are native may change that point a little, but a native English speaker who lived in France for twenty years, recently asked me to command something for them. I had the French to understand commander is the verb to order, but still she had difficulties in switching.

    ISPKN: “A global language just gives an unfair advantage in life to people who were born into a family that spoke it” is a lovely view. Because as somebody else said, not all people in China speak Chinese that the job language learners would understand.

  20. Weili says:

    Declan:

    “If you take a little history lesson, no language can ever truly a entirely global.”

    That largely depends on how you define a language being “global”. IMHO, for practical purposes, if say a great portion of the world speak a certain language, I would consider it “global”, even if not EVERY country and EVERY individual speak it.

    English is not only WIDELY spoken, it is also spoken by some of the most important countries in the world, namely U.S., Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand, among others. By “important” I mean militarily, economically, and the amount of political influence. Of course, there are important countries that don’t speak English natively such as Russia, China, Japan… etc. but they are also heavily influenced by English.

    “Because as somebody else said, not all people in China speak Chinese that the job language learners would understand.”

    Already, a great majority, if not everyone, who you are likely to do business with in China will be able to speak Mandarin, and this number is only growing, rapidly too. I personally estimate that in about 20 years, it’ll be unlikely to find anyone who does business in China that can’t speak Mandarin. Of course, I’m speaking of only the Chinese population, not all foreign businesspeople in China will be able to speak Mandarin, otherwise the translation industry wouldn’t be able to survive ;)

  21. ISPKN says:

    SamD:

    “How flexible is Chinese? How readily does it add new words–particularly foreign words–to its vocabulary?”

    From what I’ve read in books on Linguistics, there are many different forms of Chinese pidgin languages in regions of China such as the south and West. There are also Mandarin Pidgin languages around Singapore and Hong Kong. I don’t know if that means it can easily add new words to its vocabulary but, it probably means that it is somewhat flexible for speakers of less common languages.

  22. ElAlceGrande says:

    First post….great blog!

    A funny unrelated side note on this subject, the science fiction TV show “Firefly” takes place in the not too distant future where the characters speak English and quite a few bits of Chinese (Mandarin) due to the fact that the US and China became a global superpower (aka The Alliance) that eventually takes over Earth and many other solar systems as humans travel out to space to colonize other planets.

    When I read the article, I found the similarities funny, odd, and a bit sobering.

    Keep up the great blog. Chao!

  23. BnB says:

    As to the number of people learning Mandarin, that could be the flavor of the month. A decade or two, Japanese was the must-learn language. That sort of faded. Time will tell with respect to Mandarin.

    As to Chinese coming over and expecting us to know their language, I’ve lived in a town with a lot of very recent Chinese immigration, and in fact that’s exactly how it is. There are new Chinese-owned businesses where you might as well not go if you don’t speak Chinese of some sort (and frankly, if you’re not Chinese, you’re made to feel pretty unwelcome in some of them too). And the Mandarin courses in the schools there are largely driven by the recent immigrants, not some other expectation that Mandarin is useful for Americans.

  24. Weili says:

    BnB:

    “As to Chinese coming over and expecting us to know their language, I’ve lived in a town with a lot of very recent Chinese immigration, and in fact that’s exactly how it is. There are new Chinese-owned businesses where you might as well not go if you don’t speak Chinese of some sort (and frankly, if you’re not Chinese, you’re made to feel pretty unwelcome in some of them too). And the Mandarin courses in the schools there are largely driven by the recent immigrants, not some other expectation that Mandarin is useful for Americans.”

    It’s not exactly the same…

    Unlike Americans who go to foreign countries and expect the locals to speak English, these Chinese immigrants don’t actually expect Americans here to speak Chinese. They merely can’t speak English or speak very little of it themselves.

    As for the Chinese-owned businesses, their target audience may be other Chinese and if you aren’t their target audience, of course you won’t feel very welcome. If I started a business where my target audience is Christians and you come in as a Muslim, do you think you’d feel welcome?

    I can’t really say much about the Mandarin courses at your local schools though as I’m not sure what the situation is just by your comments…

  25. SamD says:

    No, I’ve never been to China. I have to admit that I learned more about Chinese from these posts in a few days than the rest of my life.

    I had a Taiwanese friend when I was in graduate school and tried to learn Chinese from him. The real stumbling block was tones. Apparently I have a really bad ear for tones, and tonal languages have scared me off ever since.

  26. Brain says:

    Hi All
    I’ve go through the whole list and fully agree with the idea ‘Chinese will become more pop but will not take the No.1 position in 50 years:)’

    i’m interesting in learning Chinese for knowing Chinese ancient culture, what’s going on in China, and having more business opportunities. If there’s anyone is interesting in learning Chinese too, please send me email for exchanging information. Thanks a lot!

  27. Brain says:

    Hi guys, i’ve forgot to past my email address for exchanging info about learning Chinese. Sorry for that.

    manx007@gmail.com

    Looking forward to receive your email:)

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  29. Ruyi Cui says:

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  30. Ruyi Cui says:

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