A teacher conducts a Chinese language lesson in a school in Namtit, Wa territory, northeastern Myanmar, on November 30, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun
A teacher conducts a Chinese language lesson in a school in Namtit, Wa territory, northeastern Myanmar, on November 30, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

English is so widespread and frequently used that it’s aptly called the global language. No other language has ever achieved this status, and English appears well entrenched at the top of the global linguistic order.

There is, however, much debate about whether it will continue to be so in the future, and much of this has focused on whether China’s rise will lead Chinese to replace English as the global language.

Many scholars have argued that the character-based script used to write Chinese will prevent this from occurring because characters are too difficult and time-consuming to learn.

John H McWhorter, for example, says that “truly mastering the writing system virtually requires having been born to it”, while Paul Bruthiaux  argues that the “continued reliance on a primarily logographic script is likely to limit the chances of Chinese as currently written acceding to a global role even in the likely event of a massive expansion of China’s geopolitical clout in the coming decades”. Similarly, Dan Lu says “the complexity and difficulty of the writing system handicap its spread”.

Chinese characters undoubtedly pose challenges to second/foreign language learners. But is a character-based script really so inimical to global-language status?

Questionable assumptions

The above statements assume everyone must learn to read and write, and must do so to a native-like level. However, this does not reflect the current situation and use of English. Not everyone can read and write, and certainly not to a native-like level. What actually happens is that people learn as much English as is required for their purposes.

The same would apply to Chinese as a global language. To offer an example, I observed a stall holder in Adelaide’s Central Market say to Chinese shoppers, “买菜,买菜” (mai cai, mai cai), which means “Buy vegetables, buy vegetables.” It’s unlikely the stall holder knows how to read or write the characters, but there’s no need to: He only needs enough Chinese to attract the attention (and money) of Chinese shoppers. This is similar to stall holders in markets in China who call out “Hello, look, look” to foreign tourists.

Even where reading and writing are necessary, good teachers, effective teaching methods and quality teaching materials can facilitate the learning of characters. Some learners, such as Japanese speakers, will also be familiar with many Chinese characters already.

The role of technology

Technology can make learning and using characters considerably easier.

Chinese can be written phonetically using the romanization system hanyu pinyin, literally meaning “Chinese spelled sounds” and commonly just called pinyin. Originally developed in the 1950s, pinyin consists of symbols derived from the Roman alphabet and is taught to Chinese children and foreign learners as a first step toward literacy. Today, computers, mobile phones and other electronic devices have software that converts pinyin into characters.

For example, if one wants to write 你好, the Chinese word for “hello”, which in pinyin is rendered ni hao, one simply types the symbols “ni” and the software will display all Chinese characters that are pronounced “ni” and one selects the correct character. The same is then done for “hao”. This is now arguably the dominant means of writing for Chinese speakers.

In the context of debates about the possibility of Chinese replacing English as the global language, this means people need only learn pinyin and character recognition, rather than character writing. This obviously saves much time and effort.

A (partial) historical precedent

Chinese has been adopted by people outside of China before. Scholars and officials in Korea, Japan and Vietnam used Chinese characters for communication from the third century of the current era to the second half of the 20th, as documented by American academic Don Snow. Its use and status were akin to Latin in medieval Europe.

Chinese was not used because of the merits of its writing system, but because China was admired as the most advanced and civilized country in the world, and these people desired to emulate China. This admiration of Chinese culture and civilization was sufficient to prompt the learning and use of characters despite the difficulties involved.

This is a somewhat limited precedent, as the use of Chinese at this time was not on the same scale as present-day English, but it does demonstrate that people will invest time and effort to learn and use characters if there is sufficient motivation to do so. China’s economic and political importance could well provide such impetus today, as suggested by the fact there may now be as many as 100 million people learning Chinese worldwide.

Making of a global language

It’s also worth remembering that English has its own script problems. In their popular introduction to linguistics, Victoria Fromkin and her co-authors identify six discrepancies between how English sounds and how it’s spelled: A single sound can be represented by different letters, one letter can represent different sounds, a single sound can be represented by more than one letter, some letters do not represent any sounds in a word, some sounds do not have a specific letter to represent them, and a single letter can also represent two sounds.

None of these stopped English becoming the global language; it became the global language because it was the language of the two most powerful countries of recent centuries, Britain and the United States.

In other words, it’s not the linguistic characteristics of a language that  make it global but the power and influence of the countries in which it is spoken. Assuming China’s power and influence continue to grow, so too will the use and status of Chinese. In particular, China would need to establish a stronger profile in science and technology, education and popular culture, as developments in these fields in Britain and the US were instrumental in making English the global language.

Only time will tell if Chinese really does become the next global language, but a character-based script is not the obstacle to global-language status it’s often assumed to be.

Jeffrey Gil

Jeffrey Gil is a senior lecturer in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia. He is the author of Soft Power and the Worldwide Promotion of Chinese Language Learning: The Confucius Institute Project, published by Multilingual Matters.

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