Monday, January 4, 2010

China pwnage

Ah, hyperbole. Remember when Japan was going to take over the world in the 1980s? Somewhere between my G.I. Joes and Transformers, I recall my dad insisting on not buying Japanese automobiles back then. Of course, he didn't buy a single automobile during the 1980s—he rode that good ol' American 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme right into the ground—but his attitude left enough of an impression to have stuck in my memory until now.

Well, it now seems to be China's turn for all that. "When China Rules the World" by Martin Jacquesjust got some traction in the New York Times. I haven't read the book, but it seems to be quite well researched—but, then again, so did those many books about Japan way back when. China is clearly on its way up, rising in stature and power of all sorts, but I still can't help but look skeptically at any book with a title like that.

Geopolitics aside, there was of course some language-connected fun in the article.

Here's what they have:
Many Chinese have learned English to compete better in the world economy. But the future, Jacques writes, belongs to Mandarin. It is the national tongue of one in five people in the world, and it is rapidly edging out English as the preferred second language in Asia.
That one-in-five statistic needs to be taken with a grain of salt. While Chinese, i.e., Mandarin, is undoubtedly the "national tongue" of one in five people in the world, that hardly means it's their mother tongue, and in some cases it's not even an effectively acquired second language. (People from regions where another language is the native tongue—Cantonese, Fujianese, etc.—often say that foreigners like me speak better Mandarin than they do, although I generally take that as too much praise for being able to ask where the bathroom is.)

Regarding the second concept—that Chinese is displacing English as a second language in Asia—I just don't see it yet. Although, as discussed nearly a year back, Chinese undoubtedly will grow and is growing in importance and in popularity, I still don't see it assailing English's position just yet, in Asia or elsewhere. In Japan especially, English is everywhere, and Chinese competes with Spanish, French, German, etc., as the second foreign language of choice. That said, if anyone's read the book, I'd love to hear what data he uses to support all of this.

And the article goes on:
In the early days of the Web, the language of cyberspace was English. But the explosion of Internet use in China will tip the balance to Mandarin before long.
If you're counting the number of pages, this may very well be true. But until Chinese has the wide acceptance of English, English will remain the way in which people of various linguistic backgrounds communicate on the web. When Europeans begin regularly writing web pages in Chinese so that they can be read by Americans, Arabs, Asian, etc., let's talk about revising this.

Link: Waking Dragon [New York Times]


  1. Here, by the way, is some more evidence of Chinese's growing popularity in the U.S. as well.

  2. "When Europeans begin regularly writing web pages in Chinese so that they can be read by Americans, Arabs, Asian, etc., let's talk about revising this."
    By then it might be too late already ... ;)

    Sarcasm aside, I get the feeling that the author has jumped on the "China is the future" bandwagon, but I have to read the book for myself to see whether he is merely parroting popular views.

    As for the linguistic situation in Europe, according to this study (, Chinese is gaining favour among employers, with 32% looking to employ someone with knowledge of Mandarin OR Cantonese, but it still lags far behind French and German. At my university in Germany, though, I can go for days speaking Mandarin instead of my mother tongue, and 70% of students enrolled in a Master's programme in engineering are Chinese, so there might be an impact on the preferred language of research and business in this academic area.

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