23 April 2006

Don't Tell Me I Should Learn Chinese

I've noticed an increasing number of articles about people promoting learning Chinese- that it will soon be a major global language and that the Chinese government is promoting its learning around the world. I disagree with the idea that Chinese is well on its way to becoming the next global language.

Chinese is simply not an internationally influential language. According to George Weber (Language Today, Vol. 2, Dec 1997), Chinese comes in sixth on a scale that takes into account the number of primary and second language speakers, number and populations of countries where the language is used, the number of major fields using the language internationally, economic power of countries using the languages, and socio-literary prestige (numbers inparenthesess are the points awarded to each language according to Weber's scale):

1. English (37)
2. French (23)
3. Spanish (20)
4. Russian (16)
5. Arabic (14)
6. Chinese (13)
7. German (12)
8. Japanese (10)
9. Portuguese (10)
10. Hindi/Urdu (9)

While Chinese has a huge number of native speakers, that is the only place where it clearly leads. There are relatively few second language speakers, not many countries use Chinese in government, and few major fields use Chinese. Chinese is really only useful as a foreign language for those who are interested in doing business in China or East Asia.

English and French are useful politically and academically in addition to business. Since my husband and I have studied Arabic and Russian, we obviously see their importance. We've almost found them to be more useful in Central Asia than the native Turkic languages. My husband has also found Spanish to be a very useful language. He has traveled around the world and the only time Chinese ever would have been useful was the week we actually spent in China. But we found enough English speakers in China that it wasn't even an issue.

You can make a case that China has become much more economically important since this research was published 10 years ago. But I don't believe that's enough to move Chinese up to second place. Arabic has also become a lot more useful in the last 10 years. I wouldn't argue with dropping Russian below Chinese though.

Does this mean I don't think people should be encouraged to learn Chinese? On the contrary, I wish more schools offered Chinese. I wish more people would learn Chinese in the US, especially if they are interested in business. But I don't think Chinese should be promoted as being the next-best language to learn after English. There are several others that can make a stronger case for that position and I'd hate to see schools or homeschooling families focusing on Chinese simply because of the number of native speakers or the Chinese government's campaign.

Maybe the Chinese government can change all that. I doubt it can because of its political system- the usefulness of Chinese will remain limited to business as long as China continues its repressive policies.

I won't be learning Chinese anytime soon, and I won't be encouraging my children to, unless they are particularly interested in business. I think there are better language choices out there. Like Persian and Kyrgyz. :)


  1. I'm a little nervous, Amira. I think China could take over the world fairly peacefully through financial means. And then a lot could be here and we would need to communicate.

    I guess if they're here, they will speak English, but it'd be nice to talk to our conquerors.

  2. This is exactly what I keep telling people when they proclaim the inevitable replacement of English by Chinese. There's simply too much institutionalization of English--reflected in those scores--that mean Chinese will have an awful lot of ground to cover. What I find especially telling about the ranks is that German and Japanese rank so close to Chinese despite having such small populations of speakers in comparison.

  3. You are right, Chinese will not overcome English and become the worldwide accepted language, but I must say that with their recent economic growth, I can see why learning Chinese is encouraged.
    But lets be realistic-most people don't have the brain capacity to learn the Characters anyways.