Monday 11 July 2011

Will Chinese become the world’s most important language?


Will we all be speaking Chinese in the future?

David Graddol considers this question in relation to China’s rise to becoming the world’s second largest economy and the expectation that it will become the world’s largest manufacturer within the next year. Will its economic rise mean that its language will reach equally global proportions? The rise in the number of users of a language is of course linked to economic and political developments. The rise of English can be seen within the historical context of the spread of the British Empire and, in more recent years, the global importance of the US economy as well as the impact of Microsoft in computer technology. 
However, as Graddol points out, the language situation is somewhat different in China than in English speaking countries. All Chinese speakers share the same written code but, unlike English, the different varieties of Chinese are not necessarily mutually intelligible. Standard Mandarin, or Putonghua as it is known as in China, is only spoken by just over half the population. In Hong Kong and Macau the standard spoken language is Cantonese.  It is this tension between the different groups of speakers which may determine the role that Mandarin and English play in the future of China and, indeed, around the world. As Cantonese speakers strive to maintain their variety against the surge of Mandarin they may opt to use English as a lingua franca as a way of protecting the future of Cantonese. Of course, much will depend on whether people’s attitudes change and whether economic factors come into play if Mandarin becomes the language of power in Cantonese speaking regions.
Graddol reminds us that Chinese is not the only language to be considered as a competitor to English and that in some regions across the globe Spanish is increasingly the partner language to English. He does not reach a conclusion on the future of English but suggests that ‘different regional patterns of English-knowing bilingualism’ is the likely outcome with ‘no single language taking over the role of English as a global lingua franca’.
                     Graddol, D. (2010). Will Chinese take over from English
                      as the world’s most important language? 
                      English Today 104 Vol. 26 (4): 3-4.

This summary was written by Sue Fox

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