For those of us born and raised in places like the United States, the United Kingdom, or Australia, it can be easy to forget that there are over 7,000 different languages spoken on our planet. English is a globally recognized language; one can travel all over the world, from China or India to Europe, and still be greeted by comforting signs and advertisements with at least a few words in English.
As far as why that’s the case, all one has to do to figure that out is look back through history. For centuries the British empire ruled over a vast majority of the world, establishing colonies all over the Americas, Africa, and Asia. More recently, the United States rose to prominence as a top global power in the 20th century. So, it makes sense that English is spoken, to at least some degree, all over the Earth.
Of course, the world is constantly changing, and a new study has proclaimed that there will soon be a new global language on the world scene. Dr. Jeffrey Gill, a Flinders University academic, believes Chinese is set to rise shortly as a prominent global language spoken frequently outside of China and Asia.
This prediction is sure to be somewhat controversial given China’s notorious distinction as the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Asian nation has continued to assert that it acted responsibly in its attempts to contain the coronavirus, numerous world leaders have publicly criticized Chinese officials’ early response to COVID-19. Still, though, what’s happened over the first six months of 2020 doesn’t change the fact that China has established itself over the past few decades as a growing global economic and trading power.
The coronavirus will eventually be brought under control, but China’s prominence on the world stage, both economically and geopolitically, is here to stay.
The idea that Chinese will become a global language isn’t exactly new, but many have pointed to the intricacy and complexity of Chinese written letters and words as a major barrier to the language’s global proliferation. Dr. Gill’s analysis challenges this notion.
After closely investigating the typical practices and ideologies of the Chinese writing system and the usual manner in which English is used globally, Dr. Gill formulated numerous reasons why Chinese will probably become a common global language in the future.
His first point is that an individual doesn’t have to be fluent in Chinese to use it, just like how millions of non-native English speakers use English when necessary.
“There is a flawed assumption that all learners of Chinese must learn to read and write to a native-like level – although this does not reflect the global use of English. People learn as much English as is required for their purposes, and the same would apply if Chinese was a global language,” Dr. Gill says in a university release.
Next, Dr. Gill notes that most modern smartphones and devices can easily convert the Chinese phonetic alphabet into romanized letters (a,b,c, etc). So, people don’t need to learn how to read and write classic Chinese, they just have to be able to recognize Pinyin (Chinese written using the Roman alphabet). With this in mind, learning Chinese isn’t nearly as hard as it once was.
There’s also the fact that many non-Chinese nations, such as Japan and Korea, already feature millions of Chinese speakers.
“There is a historical precedent for the adoption of characters outside of China, with a long-standing use of written Chinese for scholarly and official purposes in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam,” Dr. Gill explains. “This occurred due to China’s status as the most powerful country in the region, if not the world, and demonstrates that people in any country will learn and use characters if there is sufficient reason to do so.”
All in all, Dr. Gill thinks that people still dismissing the likelihood of Chinese becoming a widely used language all over the world are burying their heads in the sand.
“The inconsistencies and irregularities of English’s writing system show that linguistic properties alone do not determine whether a language becomes global,” he states. “I conclude that a character-based writing system will not prevent Chinese attaining global language status.”
Since English is so widely used, native speakers often don’t have much motivation to learn another language, but there are plenty of benefits associated with being bilingual. A recent study even concluded that fluency in two languages keeps the mind young well into old age. Perhaps there will be far more bilingual English speakers in the future.
The full study can be found here, published in Global Chinese.