Every now and again I hear someone say something along these lines: “oh yeah, well, everyone’ll be speaking Chinese in…“. As I’ve been down that path, I thought I’d share the insider story and why I have a hard time ever seeing that happen. So, without further ado, 4 reasons why I don’t think Chinese will be the next lingua franca:
1) Most everyone will share a language, but it won’t be Chinese.
a) It will be (or rather, it is) English. English hasn’t been crowned the lingua franca, and it never will be, and maybe the reason for that is that there is no longer a symbolic head to be crowned. That’s the magic of what English has become: international. It has grown far beyond national borders, and well past its native speakers.
b) On Tuesday I enjoyed listening to Stephen Krashen speak at an IATEFL and EVO online presentation. Beyond the many ESL insights he shared, he also quipped: “In the US, everyone thinks Mandarin is going to take over, but no, not even close. I think this is a fantasy. English is still so far ahead”. Dr. Krashen did also mention that drinking multiple cups of coffee, becoming bilingual and reading can help delay senility. Good to know!
c) Become bilingual because it’s wonderful (and because it’s good for proper aging!). For what it’s worth, there’s been another interesting NY Times article floating around this week which poses the question: “English is global, so why learn Arabic?” centering around increasing international job competition for the majority of monolingual US citizens. I do think it’s beneficial and important that native speakers of English venture outside of their linguistic comfort zone, but that’s a whole ‘nutha issue.
2) The Chinese are all learning English
Upon returning from Shanghai this past year I saw this:
3) If the Chinese speak English, then what need is there to learn Chinese?
Of course, for scholastic reasons it’s important. For cultural exchange. For fun, but bottom line, if two speakers who don’t share a native language in common are communicating, they will almost always choose the language which is most comfortable for both parties. I can’t imagine how students around the world will ever learn enough Mandarin to match the Chinese level of English.
More importantly, it would probably be those international student’s third or fourth language, and considering the amount of time required to master Chinese, is it really worth the necessary investment of time? (unless of course they’re a big language geek like me who can’t seem to get enough). Here’s another blogger’s interesting take on the subject (5 reasons why learning Chinese might be a waste of your time), but in the end, one language will be the common language and if the Chinese speak better English than the the rest of the world speaks Chinese, then English it will be. No?
The international scales have tipped towards English, and I can’t see it tipping back for this final and probably most significant reason…
4) Chinese is an enormous linguistic challenge
a) Been there, done that… still doing that because it really is a lifelong journey. I just answered a question on Quora comparing the difficulty of learning Chinese with that of French, Spanish and Italian. BIG difference.
b) The most famous foreigner in China is DaShan, (大山, “big mountain”) a Canadian who has appeared on Chinese television since the late 80s and speaks “impeccable Mandarin”. Here’s his take on Quora on “how long it takes a foreigner to become fluent in Chinese”:
“Fluent” is a relative concept. I would summarize:
2 years to lie on your resume and hope no Chinese speaker interviews you for a job (because 2 years is enough to bullshit your way through a situation in front of non-speakers). 5 years for basic fluency, but with difficulty. 10 years to feel comfortable in the language. One lifetime is not enough to attain the level of a native speaker, unless you start before the age of 10. (I was 19)
c) I’m really enjoying reading a book called “Babel No More” by Michael Erard exploring language superlearners (hyperpolyglots) and how we can make sense of their linguistic feats. The author traces the history of one of the world’s greatest known polyglot, Mezzofanti, an Italian cardinal who supposedly had 70+ languages under his belt. However, when the master of languages started learning Chinese characters, “he suffered a nervous breakdown and lost every language he knew except his mother tongue, Bolognese”. Ok… anecdotal at best, I know… and don’t worry, Mezzofanti got this hard-earned languages back and did tackle spoken Chinese later.
Yeah, it’s tough… which reminds me of a fun post I pulled together last year in June: What’s the hardest language in the world is the wrong question.
I agree with Stephen Krashen. ;-) This is a fantasy whipped up for a bit of controversial conversation, but really it doesn’t have much founding at all, kind of like that question we saw in November: “Is English Really Dying again?”. I think there will certainly be a surge in learners of Chinese around the world and more power to them. I continue to love my journey down the path of Chinese, however, I just can’t ever seeing it become a lingua franca. There’s only so much that can be expected linguistically of the students of the world, and English has the upper hand and why would that change?
So… whaddya think?