Thinking about Chinese today (and procrastinating from doing my homework), I drifted to the idea of Chinese (Mandarin) as a lingua franca, and wondered if such a thing was possible.
Since I took the HSK yesterday, I looked up information on language tests on Wikipedia. As someone who’s studied TESOL, linguistics, and second-language acquisition, it’s all pretty fascinating. One of the things I found out was that passing a standardized English exam is a requirement for a college degree, even in countries where English isn’t an official language, such as Italy. As far as I can tell, no other language has become a standard like this.
There are numerous reasons why English has become a lingua franca, and people will undoubtedly debate which ones are more important, and which ones aren’t important at all. My personal thoughts are because of the proliferation and global availability of English language media (movies, music, tv shows, etc), and because there isn’t an official English language academy. Because English lacks an official academy, it’s a bit of a mongrel language that incorporates many bits and pieces from other languages, and it also gives English a lot of flexibility to come up with new words while other words fall out of favor.
But I digress. This post is meant to be about Chinese as a lingua franca, not English. Searching for “Chinese as a lingua franca” on the internet, it’s not surprising that many others have also wondered about it. (It might seem ironic that all the articles I saw are written in English, but that’s probably a selection bias since my search term was in English. There might be some equally good articles in Chinese or in other languages.)
Most of the articles I read indicated doubt that Mandarin (or any other version of Chinese) will ever become a lingua franca. Most of those articles can be boiled down to “Chinese is too hard to learn” or “tones and/or characters are too hard to learn”. As someone who’s variously taken classes in French, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese, and who has occasionally studied Swedish, Norwegian, Latin, and Hebrew, I’m fairly confident in saying that Chinese is no more difficult to learn than any other language. It takes time to learn any language. The more time devoted to studying a language, the easier it becomes to understand and use.
One of the best posts I came across, someone in a forum posed the following question: “Can anyone make a good case for making Chinese the official language of international interactions?” While the question was interesting, one of the replies caught my attention. The author suggested that certain things would need to happen in order for Chinese to become a lingua franca. These are:
1. China becomes a superpower, and US is no longer a superpower
2. China dominates the world in international trade, economy and exert (sic) cultural influence around the world
3. Chinese movies and modern culture are everywhere the world (sic)….
Another author in the same thread also suggested that it would take at least a generation after those things happened before Chinese truly became a lingua franca.
It’s incredibly fascinating, but rather than post to a nearly decade old thread, I’m using my blog to express a different thought:
While online translation tools aren’t perfect, they’re getting better all the time. They’re pretty good when it comes to words or short phrases, but less so when it comes to abstractions such as similes and metaphors. Still, as they get better, that might change in the future.
With the development of translation tools (e.g. Google Translate, among others), and with the addition of speech-to-text and text-to-speech tools, will the idea of a lingua franca continue to be important in the future?
If a person in the US can speak English to someone in China who only understands Mandarin, but with both of them using a “universal translator” of sorts, will we still need the concept of a lingua franca? Will it still be important?