English has been the leading global language for 100 years, but is it the language of the future? If Mandarin Chinese is to challenge English globally, then it first has to be used in its own backyard, South East Asia. Nearly three-quarters of the population in Singapore are ethnic Chinese but English is the national language. Many believe that this has helped the city state earn the title of being the easiest place to do business, by the World Bank.
The assumption that Mandarin will grow with China’s economic rise may be flawed. Consider Japan which, after large post-war economic growth, became the world’s second-biggest economy. The Japanese language did not rise in power and prestige.
The same may prove true of Mandarin. The character-based writing system requires years of hard work for even native speakers to learn, and is a difficult problem for foreigners. In Asia, where China’s influence is thousands of years old, this may be less of a problem. But in the West, even dedicated students work for years before they can read a text of normal difficulty.
Up to 7,000 different languages are estimated to be spoken around the world. Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, German and French are world’s most widely spoken languages, according to UNESCO. 2,200 of the world’s languages can be found in Asia, while Europe has 260.
Many languages in Asia, Africa and the Amazon use “tones for different words. For speakers of tonal languages (like Vietnamese) learning the tones of Mandarin is no problem. But speakers of non-tonal languages struggle to learn tones in adulthood – just ask any adult Mandarin-learner for their funniest story about using a word with the wrong tone.
The future of English is not a question of whether it will be overtaken by Mandarin, but whether it will co-exist with Chinese. Many people believe bilingualism will result in South East Asia. Companies in China, who prefer to operate in Chinese, are looking for managers who speak both Mandarin and English if they want to expand abroad.
In Vietnam’s case, there is resistance to learning Mandarin. The country may share a border with China, but the Vietnamese government’s choice to not support Mandarin is an emotional one. “All the streets in Vietnam are named according to generals and emperors that have been fighting against the Chinese invasion for 2000 years,” says one Vietnamese politician.
Anti-Chinese feeling means that young Vietnamese are choosing to learn English – the language of a defeated enemy. Many families still bear the psychological scars from the Vietnam War with the United States. Yet there is no anger towards English because Ho Chi Minh made a clear distinction between the so-called American imperialists and the American people. Many Vietnamese who have lost family members during the war are now studying in America.
It is debatable whether English or Mandarin will dominate in South East Asia in the future. There are arguments for both on the economic front. But culturally, there is no dispute. As one Singapore Mandarin language speaking businessman says, “English will remain popular so long as Hollywood exists.” The success of movies such as Kung Fu Panda, an American production about a Chinese animal, has caused a lot of anxiety in China, he says. “The moment Kung Fu Panda hit the cinemas everybody watched it. They bought the merchandise and they learned English.”