Why Mandarin won’t ever be our lingua franca

I’m a month late, but I took a month off so I think it’s ok.

On April 1st, the BBC aired their last Mandarin-language broadcast. Their first broadcast in Mandarin was in 1941, which, as the article to which I just linked points out, was before the actual founding of the People’s Republic of China. Personally, I was sorry to hear about the cancellation since I made it a point to include the BBC in my listening practice. From the article:

Shortwave programming in Mandarin is a casualty of spending cuts announced by the BBC World Service in January.

From now on, Mandarin-speakers will be served only by the BBC’s Chinese-language websites; a weekly radio broadcast in Cantonese will continue.

I was a bit surprised that Cantonese gets to live while Mandarin must die, but so be it. It got me thinking. As an language teacher, which I have been on and off for the last 6 years, and especially as an English teacher in China, the conversation comes up at one point or another about how English may be on the decline and how Mandarin will be the new global language. My Chinese students were particularly strong fans of this idea, though not unanimously. I’ve heard it from other nationalities as well, and in some English language training centres — companies that exist for the sole purpose of teaching English to people who need to be convinced of its continued usefulness — have gone so far as to include the inevitability of Mandarin’s rise into their teaching materials.

Personally, I don’t buy it, and I’d like to hear some other opinions on the subject.

The short of it is that I think that, despite my own adamant position that no language is harder than any other language, Mandarin is quite difficult for most people to learn. Part of this is the reputation, but I must admit that part of it is also the language itself. The majority of those with whom I’ve spoken on the subject believe that characters suck and tones are impossible. That’s a slight exaggeration, but one with which I don’t entirely disagree. The average person will probably find it much easier to learn Simple English, even if only enough to get by in trade, than to learn enough Mandarin to accomplish the same. The Sinitic writing system is awesome, but impractical for most people. These days I don’t necessarily think IMEs make it much easier, since the learner still needs to learn to recognise all the required characters in order to choose the correct one.

I don’t think much needs to be said on the subject of tones. Any taxi driver in Shanghai can cover the subject of foreigners and tones I much greater detail than I ever could.

The cancellation of the BBC’s Mandarin service, to me at least, seems to support my belief. Keeping in mind that this is only my own belief, and one that may very well change by the time the leaves return to all the trees, I ask for your own thoughts in the comments below.

73 responses to “Why Mandarin won’t ever be our lingua franca”

  1. chris says:

    I tend to agree with the idea that Chinese as a fully fledged global lingua franca would be a bridge too far… but as we all know the power of a language comes through economy and it is obvious that in the future, basic knowledge about it is going to gain importance. Of course lots of Chinese would like to have it become a “world-language” then they don’t have to bother with learning English any more, B it definately caters to some lingering (but strong) nationalistic sentiments that I perceive in my Chinese friends and family. I doubt that laziness and nationalism are positive factors in contributing to the world’s acceptance of Chinese, but then again you could argue that everywhere in the world Chinese language learning is up, so it might actually be the rest of the world’s economic need to interact with China that will eventually make it a de-facto world-language. A bit like latin in medieval times, where it was the language that distinguished the educated from the uneducated masses…

  2. Travis says:

    I’m not sure the cancellation of the BBC’s Mandarin Service can be used as evidence that Chinese will not become a lingua franca. As far as I know, that cut was made on the basis of budget difficulties. As for why Cantonese is sticking around…maybe there are more Cantonese speakers in Great Britain? Or it has something to do with Hong Kong.

    It’s such a difficult thing to predict, especially with the biases that crop up concerning China. At the very least, as the guy above me said, basic knowledge of Chinese will more than likely become very important. I highly doubt that it will ever be some sort of “language of the learned” anywhere outside of China. Beyond that…I’ll find my crystal ball and let you know. :)

  3. Travis says:

    A short addendum to my first paragraph: Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t BBC’s Mandarin Service was officially blocked in China? Meaning that the vast majority of their target audience either couldn’t or had great difficulty accessing it.

    Whereas Hong Kong…

  4. I think your article gives us a very concise account of why Mandarin (or any type of Chinese) isn’t going to be the world language anytime soon.

    I’m Chinese myself and I find Chinese phenomenally difficult, even harder than Arabic. I spent fully seven years studying it, and I still can’t read or write Chinese. Maybe it’s just me, but maybe it’s also because Chinese is inherently hard.

    Even in a place like Hong Kong, it isn’t uncommon to see people going into overdrive about Mandarin will one day conquer the world and all that jazz. The strange thing (at least to me) is that in my kiddie days, every Chinese kid complained that Chinese was hard. Today, especially since our handover back to China, almost every kid says Chinese is easier (presumably, than English) – although it plain (and plaintive) to see the Hong Kong Chinese kids still struggling with Chinese. Go figure.

    Personally, I think Japanese movement in the 1800s to switch from Japanese to English as Japan’s national language is both instructive and enlightening as to the shape of things to come for the Chinese langugae.

    Just my twopence worth.

  5. Chinese as it is today would have a hard time becoming a true lingua franca. But that doesn’t mean Chinese tomorrow won’t be.

    Languages make dramatic shifts and changes over time. Romanized terms are becoming more and more common, and there’s always the pressure for full romanization. I think the number of students learning Chinese can have a dramatic effect on the Chinese language. If more and more non-native speakers speak Chinese, then the standards for Chinese will get fuzzier. Anyone who’s dated a native Chinese speaker has seen the havoc that their bad Chinese inflicts on native speakers. Multiply that effect by 10’s of millions and maybe Chinese starts to lose some of the elements that make it so difficult.

    BBC’s decision is an economic one. Apparently they have the audience/sponsorship to support a Cantonese broadcast but not a Mandarin Chinese one. Cantonese speaking HK being a former British colony is probably more than a coincidence to the economic feasibility of Cantonese programming.

  6. Brendan says:

    Steven’s got a point, I think. Assume a large population of non-native speakers interacting with native speakers (as happened with English, say) and over a long enough timeframe you’ll get something resembling a middle ground. I remember seeing something suggesting that this is partly what happened with Mandarin, but I’ll have to do some digging to turn up the citations for that.

    With full romanization, Mandarin might conceivably have a shot. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though.

  7. Robert Delfs says:

    Many regret the demise of the BBC’s Mandarin-language service, a casualty of budget cuts in the UK (where the Beeb’s future even as an English-language broadcasting service still remains in doubt) and a belated acknowledgement that the Cold War ended more than 20 years ago.

    Back in the days before there were international hotels with satellite TV news channels in every provoncial capital, people working in the news business in China depended on shortwave radios to keep up with what was going on in the world, particularly on trips outside of Beijing. The analog tuning Sony ICF-7600A was a favorite. I still have mine, with a yellowing typed chart taped to the back listing the best BBC and VOA broadcast times and frequencies.

    With roughly one billion speakers worldwide each, English and Chinese are now roughly tied for the title of “world’s most widely spoken language”, the difference being that fewer than one-third of the people who speak English learned it as their native tongue. For the majority, English is a 2nd or even a 3rd language, acquired as a lingua franca, while nearly everyone who speaks Mandarin Chinese can be considered a native speaker of some Chinese tongue.

    The use of characters (and the unsuitability of any phonetic transcription system in Chinese) do make it unlikely that Mandarin will displace English as a global language anytime soon, but there is little doubt that as China’s regional and global economic and political importance grows, the role of the Chinese language will also expand. This will be a long-term, gradual process, as was the emergence of English as a global language, but it is already happening in much of Southeast Asia, and even in Africa.

    Some languages really are harder for outsiders to learn than others. English, with its irregular, bastardized Germanic (Frisian,Norse) plus French grammar is one of them. It became a global language today not because it is simple or easy to learn (it is neither), but because English speakers happened to rule two successive world empires which dominated much of the world from the mid-19 Century through to the early 21st Century.

    When we speak of a language being difficult to learn, we often confuse intrinsic complexity with the degree of relationship to the student’s mother tongue. Learning French or Italian is fairly easy for Spaniards, less so for Japanese or Thais. Many more Indonesians than Americans or British have learned to speak Dutch, despite the fact that Dutch is much more difficult language for Malay speakers to learn than it would be for English speakers, if English speakers felt they had reason to learn it.

    A linguistics professor once told me that of all the languages he had studied, Czech, Hungarian and Finnish were three that nobody should ever try to learn except at their mother’s knee. Like Japanese and Basque, these languages are intrinsically difficult in part because they were never creolized as languages of conquest, a process that generally (though not always) reduces linguistic and phonetic complexity.

    Ancient Indo-European languages had eight morphological cases, all of which survive in a some Balto-Slavic tongues, but Creolization has reduced the role of case (inflectional changes in nouns to indicate grammatical role) in other Indo-European daughter language groups. German and modern Greek still use four cases, while in English there are only three (nominative, accusative and genitive), whose use is essentially limited to pronouns. Romance languages such as French, Italian and Spanish, while retaining two of the three gender distinctions of Proto Indo-European, have also eliminated case grammar except for pronouns.

    The original lingua franca (literally “the Frankish tongue” was a bastardized version of Italian incorporating elements of French, Spanish, Provençal, Greek, Arabic and Turkish widely used during the Middle Ages throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Technically, the real “Franks” were the people who dominated northern Gaul and West Germania after the 5th Century, but for Turkish and Arabic speakers, all Europeans were simply “Franks” (faranji), a word for “foreigner” which still echoes today in a host of other languages, from Amharic (Ethiopia) to Thai — and in our English word for the aromatic gum resin of a Somalian tree that the Biblical Magi were said to have brought as a gift to a stable in Bethlehem — “frank-incense”. And in Chinese, in words such as 番茄 (“Frankish” eggplant, or tomato), 番瓜 (“Frankish” squash, or pumpkin), 番红花 (“Frankish” red flowers, the crocus or saffron), 番薯 (“Frankish” yam, the (New World) sweet potato), and 番菜 (a now archaic word for “Frankish” or Western food).

  8. Carl says:

    Chinese already seriously changed the vocabularies of Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese and served as their writing system for a while. That’s a pretty big accomplishment.

  9. Empires don’t create lingua francas. The British Empire was important to the spread of English, but in my view Hollywood has done more to spread English around the world. Lots of large empires (the Dutch, Mongol, etc.) don’t manage to spread their languages very far at all.

    I’m reading a good book on the subject, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, by Nicholas Ostler. It looks at the history of the world by following major language groups and has a lot to say on the how and why of language dissemination.

  10. I have to agree with a lot of what Robert Delfs said. Some of these points include the intrinsic complexity versus relative difficulty compared to one’s native language. This is a vital distinction. English and Chinese don’t have a lot in common, thus you have little to fall back on as a foundation when you start your acquisition/learning process.

    Furthermore, social factors play a much larger role in language dominance. Inherent linguistic traits seldomly stop the growth of a language. One could argue that Chinese characters are a big hurdle, but if the Chinese are bent on domination, and we are keen to study them, then there’s no stopping it.

    I might be a victim of confirmation bias, but I see Chinese more and more everyday. The Confucius Institutes are infiltrating many Universities. They are taking their culture and language to the people. Just this weekend, my girlfriend and I (we both learn Mandarin) visited a friend of hers in Cape Town. Lo and behold, as luck would have it, one her roommates’ friends started studying Chinese this year as an extra subject, because of a newly opened Confucius Institute at the University of Cape Town. The reach of Confucius Institute is definitely something to keep an eye on. I predict Chinese will grow a lot. Maybe not the next lingua franca, but will definitely reach even more numbers.

  11. Robert Delfs says:

    I follow the point you’re trying to make, Steven, but empires do indeed spread languages and create lingua francas. After the US, the largest English-speaking country in the world is India, which has over 125 million speakers, more than twice the number of English-speakers in the United Kingdom. “Indian English” consists of several distinct but related dialects (technically creoles) which developed during Britain’s commercial and colonial rule of the territories corresponding to modern-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (1772-1942), and which have continued to develop since WWII. The Hollywood film industry did not play an essential role in any part of this process.

    Another important English-speaking country is the Philippines, an American colony from 1898 to 1946. There are 48.8 million English speakers in the Philippines, where it is the more important of the two official languages and the most important lingua franca, with roughly as many speakers as Filipino, the national language based on Tagalog, the dialect of central and southern Luzon, Marinduque, and Mindoro Oriental.

    Canada (25.2 million) and Australia (18.2 million), are both former British Crown colonies (as was the US and New Zealand) and are still part of the British Commonwealth. English remains the primary or else an important second language in the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Falklands, Gibraltar, Grenadine, New Zealand, Singapore, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh, Brunei, Malaysia and the UAE. All were (wholly or in part) former colonies or protectorates of Britain. In most, if not all of these cases, English was well-established long before Hollywood movies could have had much measurable impact.

    The Dutch Empire existed on a much smaller scale than the British Empire, and while the Dutch language made inroads in Indonesia, particularly in Maluku (the key spice producing region) and Batavia (the capital, now known as Jakarta), its impact has been partly erased since World War II and Independence.

    France did a better job of spreading its language and culture in its former colonial possessions, and remains an official language in 30 countries, including Canada, Haiti, and 21 different African countries (mostly former French or Belgian colonies), as well as former French possessions in the south Pacific. French is also widely used as an administrative language and lingua franca in Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. It is possible that early films produced by Pathé Frères may have helped establish French culture across these widely separated territories, but I doubt that this was the most important factor in francophonism.

    You are correct that the Mongol Empire did not result in spreading the Mongol language, but the Mongol Empire was exceptional. It did not really much resemble the earlier Roman Empire——responsible for the spread of Romance languages (Latin creoles) through much of Europe—— nor earlier Chinese Empires, such as the Han dynasty, which expanded China’s linguistic and cultural borders from the Yellow and Wei River valleys to most of the territory of contemporary China.) Nor did the Mongol Empire resemble later formal empires ruled by the European littoral states (Spain, Portugal, Britain and the Netherlands), nor the Pax Americana and expanding American cultural zone of the 20th and early 21st Century.

    The Mongols did establish an immense, unified political and commercial Pax Mongolica which briefly dominated Central and Eastern Eurasia, from the Danube River and the Red Sea to the Pacific Ocean. But by 1294, when Khubilai Khan died, it had already broken up into four more-or-less independent (and sometimes warring) Khanates, each ruled by different grandsons of Genghis Khan.

    Even in China, where Mongol rule lasted continuously from the fall of the Southern Song in 1276 until 1368, no effort was ever made to spread the Mongol language or culture among non-Mongol peoples even within core areas of the Central Asian steppe, though Khubilai Khan and many other Mongols did become enthusiastic supporters of Tibetan Buddhism.

    As Beckwith notes, “The widespread view that [the Mongol Conquest] was a fundamental, formative event in Eurasian history does not really accord with the evidence. Most significantly, the major ethnolinguistic divisions of Eurasia in pre-Mongol times and post-Mongol times were all in place and remained unchanged down to the 20th Century. But one of undoubted side effects of the Mongol Conquest was the transmission of some practical elements of Chinese culture and technology to Western Europe, most important of which were gunpoweder and firearms. The earliest known cannon in the world, found in China’s Heilongjiang Province, formerly Mongol territory, is dated 1282.” (Christopher Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road)

    I would agree, however, that Hollywood films have been effective in spread American culture around the world, particularly in regions where English was already well established for deeper politico-historical reasons.

  12. Carl says:

    I guess my point is that Chinese has already been a lingua franca, characters and all. The only question is whether it can repeat that performance, and whether that prior example is as relevant today, since in the past China was the only name in the game when it came to East Asian civilizations worth basing your country off of. (Kyoto and Nara were both meant to be copies of Chinese cities, for example, but nowadays, people are more likely to copy Paris or New York than Beijing in city architecture.)

  13. The point Ostler makes (mor convincingly than I) is that languages tend to be spread by people and culture, or a combination of the two (he uses the terms migration, diffusion and infiltration). The examples of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US are examples of migration. Diffusion took place in India and Scandanavia, and is responsible for the current growth of English (via Hollywood and the BBC for that matter).

    Lots of empires failed to establish language dominance: the previously mentioned Dutch and Mongol Empires. The Qing Empire, too failed. The Franks, too, did not create a stable lingua franca. What I’m saying is languages are spread by people moving or cultures/religions being taken up by other peoples. Empires have an advantage in bringing these elements together, but it’s the other reasons that matter more. For every language that was “spread by an empire”, there are cultural reasons for the language being spread.

    Spreading language by the sword doesn’t work. England was conquered by the Roman Empire (and the French), but managed to maintain to survive. Farsi survived Arabic’s intrusion. And there are examples of languages spreading without an empire at all: Sanskrit being the most prominent.

    Final point: read Ostler’s book. It’s really interesting.

  14. Robert Delfs says:

    We’re talking (writing) at cross purposes here, Steven. Yes, one could say English became the dominant language of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US through “migration”, but that migration occurred mostly as a result of intentional policies of the leaders of a powerful and expansive British empire. All three territories had been previously inhabited by non-English speaking peoples, whose descendants (or rather the descendants of the survivors among them) now mostly speak English, either as a primary or second tongue in the context of school, jobs, commerce and public life. It was the fact of the British Empire (and its American aftermath) which determined that many of the people who happened to migrate to those territories from the 17th through the 20th centuries were English speakers, not speakers of Farsi, Korean or Arabic. And it was the fact of the British Empire and the ensuing Anglo-dominated power structures in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand that determined that French, German, African, and Chinese migrants to those territories over the same period mostly ending up learning English, rather than continuing to speak only their own native tongues, or “taking up” the languages of those territories’ native peoples.

    I never suggested that the Dutch Empire established the “dominance” of the Dutch language in Indonesia (it did not), nor would I suggest that English is dominant today in India (it isn’t), for that matter. What I actually wrote is that the reason why English (not Spanish, not Dutch, not French, not Portuguese, not Mandarin Chinese) is tied with Chinese as having the largest number of speakers in the world——despite the fact that only one third of those English speakers actually learned it as their native tongue——primarily is due to the global dominance of the British and American Empires over the past three hundred years.

    Nothing that you have written in this change, nor anything in Nicholas Ostler’s work leads me to want to retract or significantly qualify that view. I would also mention Ostler’s most recent book, ‘Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin’ (2007), the story of the rise, spread and dominance of Latin in the Mediterranean world and its subsequent influences on the languages of Western Europe in the post-imperial period. It includes a wonderful chapter on how Latin and its daughter languages, Spanish and Portuguese, became the dominant languages of South (Latin) America. I would submit that, read carefully, this book and Ostler’s earlier work which you cited both strongly support the idea that empires are important agents in the transmission and expansion of languages.

  15. Julen says:

    My take is Chinese (or Spanish, Russian or any other language) will never be a lingua Franca. Not for any technical reason to do with the language itself, but due to the historical situation we have today: For the first time in History there is a Worldwide Lingua Franca, which is English.

    Lingua Francas have a clear network advantage, this is, like Facebook or Vodaphone, they increase enormously their value when more people join in. Once the network has covered practically the whole World, it is impossible to change the system unless there is a major disruption. In the case of language, this major disruption would amount to a massive World War 3 involving most of the Earth. I want to think it is unlikely.

    Even of the power of English-speaking countries seriously declines (unlikely in the coming decades), the rest of the countries will continue to use English as the only vehicle that is understood by all, in a similar way as latin continued to be used long after the power of Rome had vanished.

    The most likely long-term future is that English will cease to be “English” as we know it, and will become just “the Human language”.

  16. Katie says:

    I’ve heard the same as Brendan but don’t have any actual references to back it up off the top of my head: that Mandarin is actually considerably simplified thanks to the outsiders who came in and used it to run the Qing dynasty. This seems very plausible–the sound system of Mandarin (including the tones) is far simpler than our reconstructions of earlier versions of Chinese and also than (some) other currently spoken dialects, most notably Cantonese.

    I don’t think there’s anything inherent in the language that would prevent it from becoming a lingua franca. Mandarin speakers seem to be extremely tolerant of hearing their language butchered. I guess this is in part because Mandarin already really is a lingua franca within China. I’m too lazy to look this up at the moment, but I guess less than half of Mandarin speakers speak Mandarin as their first language, and even for those who do, there’s strong regional variation. Plenty of local Mandarin dialect speakers I’ve encountered are almost unintelligible at first encounter to my “struggling to learn standard language” ear. I’d predict that lingua franca Mandarin would have a pretty good chance of ending up toneless, but I’ve seen enough foreigners speak toneless Mandarin and be understood that this seems plausible. It might also lose the retroflex/palatal distinction, but then again, it seems like most Mandarin speakers already have. And if you get rid of some tricky pronunciation issues, really, you’re not ever going to get a (non-creole) language with grammar that’s simpler to learn, or at least make do in, than Mandarin grammar is.

    The writing system, though–although Carl does have a good point, I’d still say that it probably has to go before Mandarin has a chance at lingua franca-hood. But given strong enough cultural/economic incentive, perhaps not.

    Confused Laowai–I don’t think it’s just confirmation bias. When I was in college in the US (graduated all of a decade ago) I didn’t know anyone who had studied Mandarin in high school. I think I had one friend who had studied Japanese. Now, thanks to Confucius Institute programs, there are elementary schools teaching Mandarin. I was recently helping a friend look into schools in Portland, Oregon, and found that it’s possible to participate in a Mandarin immersion program from kindergarten through 12th grade in the Portland public school system.

  17. @robert: I noticed the cross purposes.

    @Julen: did you notice that the language you compared English with is no longer spoken? English is completely dominant right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s future is secure. In 200 years people could very well be saying that English’s decline was obvious and inevitable.

    I think better real-time translation could kill off the idea of a lingua franca all together. If you can get generally accurate real time translations in major languages, what’s the purpose of language study?

  18. Robert Delfs says:

    @Julen, Katie,

    Chinese does not have to displace English to be a “lingua franca“; there’s room for more than one on this planet. Spanish is a lingua franca for much of Central and South America; before WWII, Malay was only spoken as a native tongue by a minority of “Indonesians” (the country didn’t exist at the time) on Sumatra, but now serves as a lingua franca for both Indonesia and Malaysia. Russian is a lingua franca for many peoples, not all native Russian speakers, in the Russian Far East.

    Mandarin, as a matter of policy, is an official lingua franca used both on the Chinese mainland and on Taiwan as a lingua franca by speakers of so-called “dialects” of for Chinese which differ from each other at least as much as the mainstream Romance languages, and it also serve as a lingua franca for among and between native Chinese speakers and various non-Han minorities who share no other common tongue. I don’t speak Tibetan, Uighur, Kazakh, Mongol, Kyrgyz, or Xibe (a Manchu dialect), but I’ve interviewed members of all these ethnolinguistic groups sans interpreter by using Mandarin as a common tongue, i.e., a lingua franca.

    What we’re really discussing, I think, is whether Chinese is likely to serve as a regional lingua franca outside the current boundaries of the Chinese emperor (including Xinjiang, Xizang, Nei Menggu etc.) Vietnam, Korea and Japan would probably resist anything along these lines, but countries like Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia may be more open to the future expansion in the use of Chinese as one (among other) lingua franca in commercial and regional political contexts.

    @Katie, Modelled on similar programs such as the British Council and the Alliance Francaise, the first Confucius Institute= was established in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in June 2004, and quickly expanded to Seoul, Serbia, the US, and other countries. As of 2010, there were 316 Confucius Institutes and 337 Confucius Classrooms in 94 countries and regions, and have helped expand the scope and scale of Mandarin instruction abroad, but the first stages of that expansion predates the first Confucius Institute by many years. When I graduated from university in 1970, I was one students taking a degree in Chinese language and literature that year. At that time, American citizens could not even visit mainland China. (We did our advanced language study in Taiwan.) By 1990, 14 years before the first Confucius Institute opened, there were already several hundred students majoring in Chinese at the same institution, and thousands more at larger colleges and universities around the US. I can also attest to the fact that there were at least a few high school programs in Chinese and Japanese as early as 1972 — I know because I taught in one.

    I agree with you that if Mandarin does become a regional lingua franca, tonal distinctions will become less important as phonemic discriminants. In fact, this is already the case in Chinese. Has anybody on this thread had a conversation with a Chongqing Mandarin speaker recently?

    @Julen, I agree with you about the network advantage for relatively dominant lingua francas. But we may be underestimating the importance of medium-term commercial incentives. The expansion of US business presence in Asia (as well as military activities) from the 1950s on certainly played a role in the post-World War II emergence and solidification) of English as a lingua franca in Asia. But something similar may be starting to happen, admittedly on a smaller scale, with China and Chinese in Southeast Asia, and to an extent even in Africa, where Chinese businessmen far outnumber Europeans and North Americans on the ground. (See “The Chinese in Africa”, The Economist, 22 April 2011). In Indonesia, where I live, there is currently much more interest in studying Mandarin and Russian than English. This reflects the changing profile of tourism and business visitors. The number of English speaking arrivals to Indonesia — mainly Australians, Americans and Hong Kong or Singapore-based expatriate businesspersons — dropped precipitously after 9/11/2001, again after the Bali bombings in 2004 and 2005, and then again after the US economic crisis that erupted in 2008. Over that same period, the declining number of visitors from Australia and the US have been essentially replaced by growing numbers of visitors from China, Russia and Korea, but mainly China.

  19. Julen says:

    @Steven: “did you notice that the language you compared English with is no longer spoken?”

    No, I didn’t notice. The language of the Romans is still spoken in half of Europe, large parts of Africa and all of South America. It is the second most spoken mother language in the World. The only reason why it didn’t become the World lingua franca is that communications where not developed at the time, and political fractionation led to different versions of the language in different areas.

    “English is completely dominant right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s future is secure. In 200 years people could very well be saying that English’s decline was obvious and inevitable.”

    I don’t think so, barring major war/cataclysm. The Roman language was not even close to dominating the World economy as the English does now. Plus: modern telecoms ensure that English will not become fractured in various different languages as was the case for Roman.

  20. Julen says:

    @Robert – I get your point. There can be, and it has often been the case that there were different regional lingua francas in different regions. That is because global communications were less developped and regional economic areas were essentially independent from each other. So you had different linguas francas developing in the mediterranean, the SE Asian Islands, China, etc.

    But it is the case today that the economy has become global. It doesn’t matter which regional area you are in, if you want to get into serious business, serious science, serious whatever, you better start learning English. No other language comes even remotely close to English in any field of human activity, and the trend is only becoming stronger.

    I like the idea of automatic-translation, you might have a point there. But still, I think by the time these devices have achieve perfection, all the World will already be used to speaking English. Elites are doing it already worldwide — it is a matter of time before the rest follow.

  21. Chris Waugh says:

    Two points, the first very minor:

    @Steven Daniels: “Spreading language by the sword doesn’t work. England was conquered by the Roman Empire (and the French), but managed to maintain to survive.”

    England was not conquered by the Roman Empire. England simply did not exist at the time of the Roman occupation of Britain. The invasion of Britain by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and therefore the founding of the kingdoms that after the overthrow of the Danelaw were united to become England, occured after the Roman withdrawal. The Roman influence on English comes via French following the Norman Conquest and the Latin of the Church and education. And the Norman Conquest doesn’t look terribly much like a conquest by the French Empire, either…

    More pertinent to a discussion of Chinese as a lingua franca:

    @Robert Delfs: “With roughly one billion speakers worldwide each, English and Chinese are now roughly tied for the title of “world’s most widely spoken language”, the difference being that fewer than one-third of the people who speak English learned it as their native tongue.”

    First up, these numbers bug me. Sheer number of speakers strikes me as being a
    very crude definition of ‘widely spoken’. English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic and Russian are spoken as official languages or as lingua franca in a large number of countries. While Spanish, French, Arabic and Russian tend to dominate in certin regions, and Portuguese seems rather scattered, English has significant populations on every continent and in every ocean (French almost manages that, but I’m not convinced that Pondidchery and whatever Francophone populations survive in Indochina count as significant populations in Asia). Chinese, on the other hand…. China and Singapore. And yet it seems to have struggled in the face of English in Singapore. And while there are significant economically dominant ethnic Chinese populations in Southeast Asia, they don’t seem to have achieved the political, linguistic and cultural domination the English, Spanish, Portuguese and French peoples managed in places like Africa and South Asia where they were constantly outnumbered by the indigenous populations.

    And a billion people speak Chinese? Really? What is Chinese? The population of China is 1.3? 1.4? 1.5? billion. “根据国家语委进年所做的语言文字国情调查,全国范围内懂普通话的人口比列只有53%” (李如龙, 《汉语方言学 (第二版)》,高等教育出版社,北京,2007, p42). So nearly half of these billion people only speak “dialects”, many of which really are languages in their own right, mutually unintelligible with one another and with Mandarin (whether ‘Mandarin’ means ‘Putonghua’, ‘Guoyu’ or the generally northern collection of dialects (官话) on which the standard is based). And don’t forget that historically various dialects of Min, Hakka and Yue have dominated the Southeast Asian and other diaspora communities. So saying “a billion people speak Chinese” is as useful and meaningful as saying “a billion and something people speak Germanic”.

    Putonghua would seem to be the most likely Chinese candidate for global lingua franca, although Yue does still have significant economic power (and don’t forget the role economics plays – who has the money calls the shots, including which language to speak). But 53% of a billion doesn’t make for quite such a sexy comparison with English, does it, especially when it’s still in the process of solidifying its hold on its own country?

    Oh, and a third point, one I’m sure people as eminent as Victor Mair, Y.R. Chao and Lu Xun will disagree with:

    Last time I compared literacy rates for the Mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan, HK and Taiwan came out on a par with any developed territory, while the Mainland was a fair bit behind but pretty good for a developing territory. It would seem to me – and this is, I admit, a big inference that really should have more evidence – that access to education, which is still dicey in some of the more remote regions of the Mainland, is far more important to literacy than script. So no, I don’t see any need for romanisation or any other phonetic or phonemic replacement for the characters.

  22. Robert Delfs says:

    @Chris, Interesting points. Last one first: I’d be the last person ever to recommend romanisation or replacement of characters with a phonetic alphabet. At least, that is what I meant to suggest when I referred to the “unsuitability of any phonetic transcription system in Chinese” in an earlier post in this thread. (Perhaps you meant to direct that comment to someone else, not me.)

    Yes, Victor Mair would presumably disagree with both of us. But with all due respect to Dr. Mair——and as the leader researcher of the team that did the critical genetic research on the “Tarim mummies”, establishing that these were the remains of West Eurasian peoples who inhabited the Tarim Basin during the Early Bronze Age ~3,000 years ago, Dr. Mair deserves a great deal of respect indeed—— I can only say that I think he he is crazy on the subject of replacing Chinese characters with a romanized alphabet. Since Dr. Zhao and Lu Xun are no longer with us, perhaps we needn’t worry overly what they would think about these matters today.

    The numbers for English and Chinese speakers I cited probably are wonky, as all comparative data of this sort tend to be. I originally pulled these from an online database about a year ago, for a short piece I was writing about [English-language] usage prescriptivists. The point I was trying to make then, and yesterday, was simply that a majority of the world’s English speakers (broadly defined) are not native speakers of English, whereas nearly all—or at least a large majority—of Chinese speakers, inside and outside mainland China and Taiwan, learned some Chinese language/dialect at their mothers’ knees, not in a classroom or from a teacher or a book. For my purposes, I think those rough numbers are probably good enough, and do not require settling the perennial terminological dispute over whether Chinese 方言 are languages, dialects or something else.

    Has Chinese “struggled in the face of English in Singapore”? I wouldn’t put it that way myself. and I spend a fair amount of time in Singapore. Functional fluency in both English and Chinese is very high, but English has been and still is the first of Singapore’s four official languages (English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese and Tamil). There are two changes over the past 20 years that that most impressed me. One is the decline of Malay and Tamil, which now appears to be spoken only by ethnic Malay and Tamil residents, respectively. As recently as the 1950s, Malay was regarded as Singapore’s most important lingua franca (as it is for Malaysia and Indonesia), spoken as a second language by many Chinese and Tamil residents. That role seems to have been taken over by English. The second change is the dramatic rise in the proportion of the population who speak Mandarin Chinese.

    As I’m sure you’re aware, most Singaporean Chinese were originally Hokkien (Fujian) or Taiwanese ancesatry and speakers of Hokkienese/Fujianese/福建話), with some speakers of Mandarin, Teochew (Chaozhou/潮州话), Cantonese (广东话) and Hakka 客家话, mainly 梅縣话.

    Just 25 years ago, speaking Mandarin was as useless in Singapore as it was in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong. Hokkien (Min) Chinese was the language of business within the Chinese community, and it was also spoken by a surprisingly large number of Malays who used it in business contacts. Hoqwever, the government’s “Speak Mandarin” campaign, which began in 1979, has been surprisingly (at least to me) successful. Business meetings among Chinese are now as likely to be carried out in Mandarin as in Hokkiennese, and Mandarin is widely understood throughout the community, including members of business communities who are not ethnic Chinese. Mandarin Chinese is not almost as widely usable in Singapore as English, and more usable than Malay.

    According to official government data, there has been a dramatic change in the language most frequently spoken at home among ethnic Chinese (age 5 or older) in Singapore. English, which was spoken at home by 19.3% of ethnic Chinese in 1990, had expanded to become the standard tongue for 32.6%, while Mandarin Chinese, spoken by 30.1% of ethnic Chinese at home in 1990, is now the daily language of 47.7% of the Chinese population. The percentage for all other Chinese dialects (Hokkienese, Cantonese, Hakka, taken together), was 50.3% of ethnic Chinese Singaporeans in 1990, but their percentage share had fallen to 19.2% in 2010.

    The emerging picture thus appears to be one in which both Mandarin Chinese and English are gaining at the expense of other regional Chinese dialects, but Mandarin is emerging as the dominant language for both daily and business use within the larger Chinese community, while Mandarin and English both function as lingua francas in a variety of official, business, extra-community and external contexts.

    If some sort of quasi-unification scheme for Taiwan ever comes into being, then Taiwanese/Fujianese could conceivably expand its role as a lingua franca on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Beyond that, my guess would that K. Y. Lee’s successful promotion of Mandarin as the primary Chinese lingua franca of Singapore has probably wiped out any chance that Hokkien/Min or Hakka dialects could ever emerge as regional Asian or Southeast Asian lingua franca. Except for a small number of ethnic Chinese kids forced to learn their family’s traditional dialect on weekends, the language that most Indonesians, Malaysians and Thais who are studying Chinese study is Mandarin, not Hokkien, not Cantonese, not Hakka.

    But I can only say that any suggestion that Yue/Cantonese dialects could ever serve as a regional or even sub-regional lingua franca to be bizarre, particularly given that speakers of different Cantonese dialects, including dialects used in adjacent countries, often must rely on Mandarin as a means of verbal communication.

  23. Katie says:

    I’m also not in the “romanize Chinese” camp, despite the way my comment might have sounded. I’m just skeptical that most non-Chinese people are going to be willing to take on characters unless, perhaps, the motivation increases drastically. Amongst the expats I know in China, I would say at least 75% are trying to learn at least basic spoken Mandarin, whereas maybe 5% are trying to learn characters, even enough to, say, read a few words on a menu in a restaurant. The other 95% presumably find it less painful to be illiterate than to try to learn to read. Of course, the monetary consequences of illiteracy are fairly low for them. But if living in China, in a city where English is not widely spoken, is not sufficient motivation to learn to read Chinese, it’s hard to see how this is going to catch on unless we hit a point where Chinese becomes the language of education outside China.

  24. Robert Delfs says:

    @Katie, I take your point, but I don’t think this is just monetary motivation or the lack therof. I know only two adult expats who managed to learn to read as well as speak Chinese at a functional (not native or even close) level while working full time at demanding, real jobs in China. Both were very disciplined people (far more disciplined than I), and this was still very difficult for them, required several years hard work. I also know two Chinese persons who moved to the US as adults with little or no functional English, both were essentially refugees. One managed to learn English fairly well (but not that well); the other (who was older) never did.

    In the end, this may end up becoming an argument in support of parents who start their kids on Chinese as early as possible. Some will drop it, but the process of studying Chinese in grade school for a few years is unlikely to harm them seriously, while those who go on will have a realistic chance to acquire functional fluency and literacy. What this really would mean is a kind of parity with (urban) children in countries like China and Japan, most of whom start studying English at a very young age. Many never get very far in terms of functional ability to speak, but some do, and those who stick with it through college/university are usually reasonably close to being adequately prepared to undertake study abroad in English in a genuine (non-Mickey) academic program. How many North American or European 留学生 arrive in China with language skills strong enough to get through the standard Chinese language curriculum at a Chinese university? How many get ever that far?

  25. Chris Waugh says:

    @Robert, I meant no disrespect at all for Dr Mair. I just disagree with what seem to be his views on romanisation.

    And yes, my comments on script and literacy rates were aimed elsewhere. Actually kind of a scattershot reaction to a couple of comments here and things I’ve read elsewhere.

    As for Singapore, that was just a vague impression, as reliable as any other vague impression of a country gained from afar. Your statistics seem to add flesh to the bare bones of the impression of Singapore I had.

    I can certainly see local dialects maintaining a local role, be they Min and Hakka in a cross-straits context or Yue in the PRD and perhaps a wider Guangdong or Liangguang context, perhaps even extending as far as Hainan, but so long as the central State, the Mainland and therefore Putonghua are on the rise, local dialects are going to feel a lot of pressure. Singapore’s Mandarin drive (and correct me if I’m wrong, but they also use simplified there, don’t they?) seems to me to be a symptom of this.

    Even so, with only 53% of Chinese able to understand Putonghua, the numbers and geographical spread simply do not even come close to comparable with English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic or Russian. Well, not yet.

    @Katie: I think a lot depends on the reason for study. My impression is that a lot of people only what basic survival-level oral Mandarin so they can navigate everyday life in China – but then a lot of people are here for a myriad reasons that don’t involve Chinese language, literature and culture.

    There also seems to be a certain measure of politics (to use that term loosely) involved, in that an awful lot of the Westerners I meet here seem to consider the Chinese, and therefore their language, literature and culture, inferior and less worthy of study and respect. After all, aren’t we here on our mission civilisatrice? Isn’t “Western culture” the pinnacle of civilisation?

    I do think that as China rises and gains more self-confidence, these attitudes will change and we will see more foreigners learning to read Chinese.

    I also don’t see any problem with a language becoming a purely oral lingua franca. Language is primarily spoken, after all.

  26. I don’t think the language being “hard” will hold anyone back. Part of what makes it hard is the lack of good resources and lack of good teachers. With the help of good teachers, my Chinese was at a functional conversational level after two years of university classes and a month of a good immersion program. My point is not that I am some kind of language genius; rather, I just had great teachers and good resources. Most people don’t (having worked as a Chinese teacher in the US, and gotten the chance to observe several of my colleagues, I’d estimate that most Americans studying Chinese don’t have good teachers, and many are also using terrible textbooks…)

    The bigger issue is motivation, which is something I also had because I was interested in Chinese culture. Since the culture is so intimately tied to the language, though, learning Chinese is double-torture for someone who ISN’T particularly interested in the culture. Ultimately, that’s why it won’t be the lingua franca, I would suspect. It’s so intertwined with culture that it will drain your motivation fast if the culture doesn’t interest you. Businessmen and their ilk, ultimately, are not going to care enough to spend years learning a language that’s only associated with a culture they don’t really like or understand.

    English had the benefit of having been spread by force, so I suppose Chinese could win if it is spread that way. At some point, if China has colonies all over the globe speaking Chinese, then it learning it will become a necessity. But I don’t think that will happen, and barring that, I think there will be a growing interest in learning Chinese, and more people will be successful at it as the resources get better, but it’s not poised to take over from English until it can find a way to get a lot more 国际化.

  27. Mat Bettinson says:

    @The World of Chinese re: “I don’t think the language being “hard” will hold anyone back.”

    I’m now studying third year Chinese at university. While I’m hardly a typical student since I’m almost 40 years old and gave up my career to do this, I’m afraid I have to disagree when it comes to being dissuaded by the difficulty in the language. I actually see this happen constantly. Every new semester, more and more students have dropped out from continuing with Chinese.

    Australia’s detailed statistics on the subject paint a very break picture of high attrition rates of Chinese. Discussions of how *hard* the language is, how hard the study regime is, absolutely dominates the discussions students have about the subject. I’m even personally aware of situations where students would like to continue study but they’re doing it as part of a degree in another area and the study commitment is impacting on the grades of their other subjects.

    Worse, possibly, is the fact that even someone coming out of a university having majored in Chinese will probably have a really crappy grasp of it. This isn’t quite the disaster it might seem. This semester I’m taking a subject called Modern Chinese Literature. It’s all in Chinese, it’s spectacularly difficult (we started reading Lu Xun…) but the subject seems popular and students seem to be getting by. I find that encouraging I think.

    In terms of spoken ability one of the problems with Chinese is it’s difficult to feel encouraged. Even students that have put a vast amount of effort in will often feel like they don’t know anything at all, they still struggle to be understood, they are still bombarded by vocabulary which is still not anything as well documented in dictionaries and so on. I think this must surely resonate with the sinoglots here.

    I’m afraid I must also disagree that the wider strength of English is due to being ‘spread by force’. One of the huge strengths in English is that there’s a massive body of accessible entertainment which helps people into a rich world of popular culture in which language is so closely intertwined. Who here has not met someone who acquired a substantial part of their English skills by watching US TVs or listening to famous English songs?

    This is pretty hard with Chinese. I can’t even stream Youku and Tudou from here. Most Chinese entertainment is, if we’re honest, probably not of a world class standard. It’s this double whammy of difficulty and less accessible popular culture which I think is the barrier to wider acceptance in terms of people learning Chinese. I’d also add that there’s a total failure on the part of educational institutions to recognise the necessary commitment in teaching hours that are required – some of this is political in nature.

    Institutions can also be their own worst enemies. This year my text book is an utterly horrific book rammed with blatant propaganda, entirely focusing on a Party View of the glorious Chinese history. Relevance to 20-something Australian students? Very very low. Now everyone has to know and be able to hand write the names of thousand year gone historical figures and ancient Chinese cities and yet, as I learned today, are incapable of recognising words related to expression of surprise or a range of common classifier words.

    This isn’t universal, American universities are notable for being much better in this regard. They’ve authored the best text books in the world, combining culture and relevance along with modern teaching techniques and of course actually had people with a reasonable level of English work on the teaching material too.

    Anyway, the idea of Chinese as a lingua franca strikes me fairly absurd on many levels but I recall Julen who raised a a good point awhile back. Chinese has this unfortunate tendency to invent entirely new words for clearly imported things like scientific terms. That alone is pretty much the antithesis of a language used for trade and relations.

    Even on a much more modest scale, I think we’re in danger of just not having enough people, scholars, businessmen etc, that have enough of a grasp on Mandarin to really promote a necessarily level of understanding. The saving grace is of course Chinese immigration.

  28. cephaloless says:

    Any thoughts to languages merging? I’m far from a linguist but as non-romantic as english is, there seems to be a lot of latin, greek, etc. And at least in american english, there’s a lot of “foreign” vocabulary in common use probably because of the variety and numbers of immigrants. Perhaps this shouldn’t be considered a merging but it could be a future trend. The question would be if there’s a critical mass of speakers/usage when a common tongue doesn’t get replaced but instead is augmented beyond recognition (like middle english?).

    About the ease of learning english or chinese, everybody talks about difficulties in correct pronunciation and complex writing systems but what about commonly used loan words (plenty of those in both languages, and chinese dialects should probably also be considered a source of loan words for putonghua). I think the preponderance of exceptions to otherwise possibly simple rules for a language is also a huge factor in the ease of learning a language. I don’t know which language (english or mandarin chinese) has more exceptions to language rules but I’m just thinking graduates of classroom language training will probably get a “say what?” when you go to the local supermarket. Yeah, a language that absorbs another language like I suggested probably has more exceptions than anyone can count but everybody will probably just live with localized butchering of the language anyway :-)

  29. Awesome comments, guys. I don’t even know where to begin, so I think I won’t.

    I do want to point out that I wasn’t saying the BBC’s cancellation was indicative of Mandarin’s downfall. Just that, if they saw fit to remove it during a budget crisis instead of languages with far fewer speakers, it could be taken as one more person (organisation) on board with the idea that it won’t ever be a superlanguage. Also, while it was a lingua franca as Classical Chinese, I was more referring to the dream of MSM becoming the new English.

    As for the ease of learning, keep in mind that Mandarin spoken with a strange foreign accent can often elicit laughter from native speakers while I can’t once remember seeing people laugh at the accent of a non-native English speaker attempting to communicate. English speakers just seem more willing to accept unorthodox manners of speaking than Mandarin speakers, in my experience.

  30. Robert Delfs says:

    @Kellen “… Mandarin spoken with a strange foreign accent can often elicit laughter from native speakers while I can’t once remember seeing people laugh at the accent of a non-native English speaker attempting to communicate.”

    It may be before your time, but in the 1960s José Jiménez was a popular fictional comic character created by the comedian Bill Dana. The character was a regular on the Steve Allen show and the Ed Sullivan show. Dana, who is of Hungarian-Jewish ancestry and did not speak Spanish, also produced several comedy record albums using the character. His signature opening line, spoken with a thick Spanish accent, was “My name…José Jiménez”.

    Dana retired the character in 1970, following protests by Hispanic groups, and was later given an award by the National Hispanic Media Coalition for doing so.

    One of Dana’s shticks was a series of gags about Jiménez as an astronaut, which became popular among the real astronauts and led to Dana being made an honorary Mercury astronaut. In one scene in the 1983 Philip Kaufman film, The Right Stuff, based on the novel by Thomas Wolf, the Alan Shepherd character uses the “My name…José Jiménez” jokeline while bantering on the radio using a fake Spanish accent until he is called on it by an Hispanic medical technician.

    As a matter of fact, I’ve heard Americans making fun of non-native speakers of English because of their funny accents on numerous occasions, but I thought this story might stand out a bit, in that as a professional comedian, Dana made his living for several years as a making fun of the way Hispanics speak English, with a routine which became deeply embedded in US popular culture in the 1960s and beyond.

    A very recent example, of course, would be Rush Limbaugh’s mocking the sounds of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s speech (though Hu was of course not trying to speak English) during President Hu’s joint press conference with US President Barack Obama, during Hu’s visit to the United States in January this year. Limbaugh’s was widely rebroadcast and also satirized on The Daily Show and the Stephen Colbert show. You can watch it on Youtube here:

  31. , keep in mind that Mandarin spoken with a strange foreign accent can often elicit laughter from native speakers… English speakers just seem more willing to accept unorthodox manners of speaking than Mandarin speakers, in my experience.

    Very true. But to be fair, Chinese people like laughing at any unorthodox/accented Mandarin or other Chinese dialect. From my experience, 80% of all comedy in TV/Movies is related to making fun of people’s accents.

  32. Mat Bettinson’s comment (xxvii) expresses my mind completely and I second the comment.

  33. Mat Bettinson says:

    I would ba the Chinese willingness to laugh at unusual accents and bai it into same basket as how freely they’re able to laugh at someone’s weight or to criticise perceived immoral behaviour. That’s not to say it’s not striking, there’s some great examples of TV presenters being pretty mean about someone’s accent.

    To be fair China also has some real doozy accents. I’ve a private tutor from Yunan who pronounces zh [tʂ] as z [ts] which takes some getting used to… What I think is awesome is everyone in China thinks their accent is standard. We should be grateful of their crazy accents, that’s why everything is subtitled in hanzi :)

    Anyway, this sort of bolshy humour/criticism is a strong theme in Chinese history, fresh in my mind through having recently read Lu Xun’s series of short stories lampooning Chinese cultural deficit of empathy and a mean streak (which he went so far as to equate to eating of human flesh). In the end it’s tribalism isn’t it? It’s criticism of the non-standard in order to reinforce ones own sense of belonging to a group. The human flesh search engine is a disturbingly extreme modern example, maybe Lu Xun would have found it ironic.

    I don’t claim to be any sort of expert here but I think if you’re interested in Chinese culture then one does have to find a way to explain some of darker elements. I would speculate that the uniformity of Chinese ethnicity means they’ve not really had to confront the issues of racism and backlashes which catagorise the present day Western-style cautious approach to diversity.

  34. Kellen says:

    Gotta disagree with the part about uniformity of the ethnicity, Matt. It’s hardly uniform, even among the 汉. Han nationalism is a fairly recent thing in the area’s history. There’s certainly plenty of racism happening. Further I’d suggest the Western-style cautious approach is more like an American-style cautious approach. I find a much greater degree of political incorrectness among Britons than Americans.

  35. Sima says:

    I think Kellen has a good point about the Brits here. We wouldn’t have to go back nearly as far as Robert’s 60s comedy character – similar characters were popular right through the 70s and into the 80s. Accent has been very important in terms of belong (or not), whether we’re talking about nation or region.

    The use of Indian call centres to handle customer enquiries didn’t go down very well with British customers at all. I trained call-centre staff in India in 2001 and the comments they heard (never mind those I heard) about their English were pretty shocking.

    I did post a little while back about being imitated, but by and large I find Chinese speakers relatively tolerant of foreign accents.

  36. Chris Waugh says:

    Gotta second @Kellen’s disagreement about ethnicity. Firstly, it’s a fairly modern concept. Secondly, there’s been plenty of what we could term ethnic conflict through Chinese history. One example that springs to mind would be the Muslim rebellion that started in Gansu in 1862. Another would be Han opposition to Manchu rule as ‘foreign invaders’ starting with Zheng Chenggong and coming to a head in the late 19th century as the Qing Dynasty was collapsing. Perhaps more importantly, although the Han make up over 90% of the population, the term Han covers so much linguistic, cultural and even genetic diversity as to make it almost meaningless – and to shatter any idea of ethnic uniformity.

    I would agree that issues of racism and its backlashes haven’t been confronted, but there is plenty of racism out here. Also, and a factor that is always mentioned in such discussions, there is no shortage of prejudice based on provincial origins. Henanren are all criminals, Heilongjiangren gangsters, Tianjinren petty, etc. And there is plenty of discussion of that provincial prejudice and stereotyping. So much for ‘uniformity’.

    As for laughing at accents, I find it tends to be more gentle, good-natured humour fueled in large part by curiosity at China’s linguistic diversity, and not at all related to criticism of immorality, Lu Xun’s endless shining of spotlights into the darker corners of Chinese society, or human flesh searches.

    @Mat, I find the statement “What I think is awesome is everyone in China thinks their accent is standard” very strange. I have to think very hard to think of an example of a Chinese person believing their non-standard accent to be standard. One young woman from Dongbei comes to mind. One. And she’d only moved to Beijing a month or two previous to me meeting her. I suppose some of Beijing’s taxi drivers can talk about their colleagues from the outer suburbs as if the inner city accent is standard. Otherwise, every discussion I’ve ever had with Chinese people about accents and dialects, they’ve approached the discussion with the implicit understanding that their hometown accent and/or dialect is not standard. In fact, my first Chinese teachers went out of their way to teach me standard Putonghua with, if anything, a slight Beijing burr, because although they thought the Beijing accent was standard (a common mistake, to be fair to them), they knew their Changsha accent was not standard.

    As for @Mat’s comment xxvii that @thenakedlistener likes so much, I have no patience for discussion of Chinese being “hard”. It is no harder than any other language to learn, and to pretend that it is, apart from being the making of excuses, is to pretend that the Chinese are a collective of one billion supertalented linguists. Anybody who has taught a foreign language to Chinese students can tell you that is not true. Linguistic talent is just as evenly distributed among the Chinese as it is among any other population. Sure, us native English speakers don’t get the discounts we do learning Romance or Germanic languages – but on the other hand we don’t have to deal with the faux amis we do with the more closely related languages. And sure, Chinese has it’s hard parts (characters and tones being the usual complaints), but then so do French, German and Russian. Successfully learning Chinese is a simple matter of putting in the time and effort. Remove the word ‘Chinese’ from that sentence and replace it with the name of any other language – hell, any other skill – and the sentence remains equally true. Although I can accept it takes longer to learn to read and write Chinese than other languages, generally the amounts of time and effort required and the degree of skill developed are going to vary from person to person.

    And besides, my university French, German and Russian classes had pretty high drop-out rates, as in class sizes halving from year to year. Come to think of it, my high school French and German classes had such high drop-out rates we wound up having to study by correspondance. One factor that isn’t being mentioned is the resistance of the Anglo countries (even those like Canada, New Zealand and Ireland that are officially bi- or trilingual) to learning a second language.

    To try and drag the discussion back to ‘Mandarin as lingua franca’, although current circumstances keep that in the unlikely basket, if China’s economic and political clout continue to rise and us second language learners drop our bad attitudes, that will become increasingly likely. I’m inclined to believe that with its greater geographical spread and dominance of science and technology, English will become the new Latin. However, I can certainly see Mandarin taking an increasing role in, say, commerce in East Asia. After all, two of the three largest groups of foreigners in China are Koreans and Japanese. South Korea and Japan are two of the regional economic powerhouses.

  37. Chris Waugh says:

    @Sima: “by and large I find Chinese speakers relatively tolerant of foreign accents.”

    Well, accents in general, considering the incredible variety of non-foreign accents they have to deal with.

  38. [Apologies. This comment was picked up by the spam filter and I’ve only just found it. Sima]
    @Chris Waugh (comment xxxvi) re: @Mat Bettinson comment xxvii:

    1. Re @Mat’s comment that everyone in China thinks their own accent is standard. On this score, I have to say I’m siding with Mat. The Chinese mind is a mind of adjusted doublethink – whilst they factually know their own accent isn’t ‘standard’, they’ll also think theirs HAS to be closer to the standard in a sea of accents of others that are not standard. Funny thing is that people who spent their formative years before WW2 generally don’t think like this. Those after, they tend to think like that.

    2. How could you say Chinese is no harder to learn than any other language? It IS harder. As a lawyer, I’m happy to meet your point halfway (because your general idea is still true): if Chinese isn’t absolutely harder to learn than others, then at least it’s relatively harder at least in the context of learners who grew up with an alphabet language.

    2. >Successfully learning Chinese is a simple matter of putting in the time and effort.Although I can accept it takes longer to learn to read and write Chinese than other languages, ……generally the amounts of time and effort required and the degree of skill developed are going to vary from person to person.<
    Captain Obvious again. Your mileage may vary applies basically to everything. The ability to pull in the chicks is going to vary from person to person. My motorbiking abilities varies with yours. My motorbiking abilities with with myself also varies from time to time, e.g. with the number of chicks in attendance.

    5. Language learning resistance among anglophones – true. Good point.

    Generally (unrelated to Chris W's comment), the idea that Chinese/Mandarin could be considered to be a potential lingua franca is pretty absurd to me (as it also does to Mat B). I mean, Chinese might go on the rise by degrees and turns with Chinese economic fortunes, regionally or worldwide. But taking that typical academic take-things-to-their-logical-conclusion line of thinking just doesn't gel with the reality in the commercial world that I work in. I appreciate that some of you are teachers and/or linguists by training or by professional (or even by inclination) – that's fine and I appreciate the ideas that come from that line of life. But in the real world (at least the one I'm in), it just doesn't operate.

    Thank you for allowing my twopence worth. I've learnt a lot from all of the above comments.

  39. @Kellen (comment xxxiv): If you ever grew up in a society where the words “There’s a crack in the Union Jack” ringing in your ears, watched The Black Adder, watched The Goodies, listened to BBC Radio 1-4 + Radio Caroline + Tony Blackburn’s inane on-air chitchat, or watched the insanity of The Everett Show or the ultra-short-lived Over The Top with Chris Tarrant – then you appreciate why there’s more political incorrectness among the Brits.

  40. Mat Bettinson says:

    “What I think is awesome is everyone in China thinks their accent is standard” – That’s meant to be an amusing observation, it’s not generally true. I’ve seen some awesome arguments on ‘standard’ though.

    @Chris, regarding ‘hard’ I’m not sure why this has drawn so much ire – I think you may be misunderstanding my intention. It’s not about making excuses, I think it’s about understanding which can help improve the situation. I also wonder if you realise that by saying something is hard, we’re comparing it to what else they might be studying because that’s how students look at it.

    So if I must defend what I said: There’s two issues about Chinese being hard. Firstly it just is. We have detailed statistics on what it’s like to get to a certain standard of language and yes, unsurprisingly, that includes the written language.Chinese is near the top of the list along with Korean and Japanese and that’s for first language acquisition.

    Secondly, difficulty is relative to the language spoken natively and this is the double whammy as far as Chinese goes. Here’s where your straw man argument about Chinese being super linguists comes in presumably. That’s a false premise in the first place since it’s their first language. We’re talking about Europeans learning Chinese which is the point which is difficult and not all of this is actually structure of language related, it’s cultural.

    I never understand the motivation behind saying Chinese isn’t hard unless you think it’s defeatist? When one is attempting to get departments to sign off on extra hours of tuition versus another subject which are so desperately needed, “it’s not hard” doesn’t help, particularly when your empirical data says otherwise.

    I am very much interested in what motivates young people to drop out of languages. The drop out rate for Chinese (and other Asian languages) is markedly higher than European languages, again by statistics. While drop out rates are high, there’s still plenty of people making the effort for their own reasons.

    @Kellen – Actually it occurred to me talking about homogeneous race wasn’t really clear. Obviously there’s a whole bunch of minzus, that’s not really what I was getting at. Anyway, my point was that if you contrast a typical Chinese view of their place in society it may not be tempered by the same (very) recent collective and political experiences as the West has when it comes to racism. Although of course you’ll find plenty of extremes in both societies anyway. I added speculate for good reason :)

    The British are famously intolerant of accents, but then it’s not limited to foreign accents – they’ll rip into their own too. I think it’s just been declared national fair game. Is there a Brit who can’t do a good scouser accent while talking of something being stolen? :)

    I worked for a firm that had engaged in research on it to inform the choice of customer service locations. One of the interesting things is that Brits apparently really don’t like aussie accents. I lived there for 15 years and got pretty sick of the neverending stream of stereotypes (they really think you haven’t heard the Fosters and shrimp barbie gags before?) but you don’t often face to face know people don’t like your accent.

  41. re Mat Bettinson (comment xxxix): Well put on all points, well put. Your amusing observation is probably more serious than you originally imagine and more generally true than you want. At least I realise you didn’t mean it literally but relatively speaking.

    The above comments talk of high dropout rates on Chinese-language courses, so I can assume these are post-secondary courses and students have the option of dropping out. We can at least be grateful that dropout rates are available. Here in Hong Kong, Chinese classes are compulsory in all elementary and secondary schools, as are English and Maths classes. What can we say about that? What, then, when dropout rates are non-existent because of policy? I’ve heard lots of kids (Chinese and non-Chinese alike) complaining how hard Chinese is to learn in the general scheme of all their other studies. The Chinese do badly (in the absolute sense) on their Chinese, and the Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalese, Filipinos, Eurasians, etc, do much, much worse – then the education establishment tell them Chinese “just isn’t as hard as you imagine: just look at how well the local Chinese do” (I quote from memory of a senior government official with an education portfolio on a TV news programme). This really affirms Mat B’s comment that Chinese being super linguists is a false premise (comment xxxiv, 4th para).

  42. Guo Du says:

    Being from HK, I was born and raised illiterate like everyone else. I later on learnt English in Canada, and did not start to study my mother tongue in depth before I turned 50. I now write the same stories in Chinese and English (not translation of each other). My experience agree with your comment that one language is no more or less difficult than the other. I believe an alphabetical language has an advantage in early learning, but the superfluous and complex grammar of English is less rational (or more irrational) than the linguistic structure of Chinese. Nonetheless, my guess is that Chinese will never replace English as lingua franca. English already is; there is no reason to undo this phenomenal and historic project because of a shift in the economic or political balance. Most educated Chinese are pragmatic enough to recognise this. To strive to become bilingual has many benefits for China anyway. Otherwise, the world will have to switch to a new lingua franca once every couple of centuries. We have already more than enough things to waste time and energy on.

    I (and many of my friends) were BBC fans. Unfortunately, most of us have found that BBC had “lost it” long ago. Either we had woken up, or the BBC had fallen down. It still produces excellent science programmes but the world famous BBC News has been in the same category as CNN and FOX for some time, to us anyway. It would no doubt defend and rationalise it’s journalistic impartiality, but the rest of the world is more capable of thinking and forming their own view of global reality than they think. Evolution you know.

    Hong Kong is a notable exception: We were raised dumb, and proud of it. But hey, we have great speculative instincts, and love market derivatives. We speak Chinese better than most foreigners, and English better than hundreds of millions of mainland farmers. We also don’t evolve, still sing the same songs to commemorate June 4th 1989, while the entire country has moved on to a different dimension. We are BBC’s ideal kind of audience. Of course it must maintain its Cantonese programme; there aren’t many like us left on this planet.

  43. Chris Waugh says:

    @Mat, I don’t really have time for this, so I’ll try to keep it quick:

    Define ‘hard’. Seriously. Or perhaps explain what it is that makes Chinese so hard. Because it seems to me that a lot of what you’re talking about is the time required. Given the large number of Chinese people of a wide variety of intelligences and linguistic abilities I’ve met who’ve managed to learn to speak Putonghua and read and write Chinese, and the simple fact that many simple tasks require time in which to be accomplished, I just can’t see a connection between the time required and the hardness of the task.

    If you sense ire in my comments, it is because I have heard far too many people moan about how they’ve never learned Chinese because it’s just too hard when the simple fact is they never put in the slightest effort. I’ve also heard it said of many languages “This is the most difficult language to learn”. English, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese… And they’ve always got their reasons (almost always spurious) to allege that their pet language is somehow more difficult than all others. And yet plenty of people manage to learn those languages.

    @thenakedlistener: I’m inclined to take student complaints with a hefty grain of salt until I’ve had a chance to figure out the wider context. I say this because I’ve heard far too many student complaints that really mean “I’ve got a bad attitude, but I won’t take responsibility for it, so I’m going to shift the blame elsewhere.” Also, somebody else has mentioned bad methodology and poor-quality teaching materials as one problem, for example. There could be many reasons why Hong Kong students complain about Chinese being hard, and it may well be that precious few of those reasons have anything to do with any intrinsic quality of hardness in the Chinese language.

  44. @Guo Du (comment xli) re BBC: More a case of having woken up, I reckon. The BBC never had ‘it’ to begin with, at least not since the late 1970s. Certainly losing whatever little remains of its ‘it’ ever since Al Jazeera nicked all of the BBC’s better journalists anyway. And certainly since France 24 scrounging whatever else remaining from the BBC and ITN. Yes, I have to say you’re pretty observant that Hongkongers are the Beeb’s ideal kind of audience.

    I’m fully bilingual in spoken English and Chinese, so I can’t vouch for the linguistic aspect of written Chinese, but I have to say the inner linguistic technology of spoken Chinese is definitely less than English. I can’t pronounce an unknown written Chinese word, whereas I can with English, French, German, Greek, Russian, etc. There are no true tenses in Chinese, whereas there are in English – which is immensely helpful (at least to me personally) especially in detailed work. English grammar is hardly irrational: it a quality that allows finetuning and I reckon this aspect sort of escapes quite the some of us here.

  45. @Chris Waugh: Yes, I do sense your sense of ire. But you’re just as giving excuses about how Chinese is less hard than any other language. Of course there are many factors/reasons, like the ones you mentioned. Nobody here is saying they don’t impact on the learning of it. No, I’m serious. Chinese might not be hard for you, but it’s pretty hard for most people, and we can’t apologise it on the inner linguistic technology of that language being better or worse than some other language. Yes, if you sense ire in my comments, it’s because I too have heard far too many apologetics about Chinese being no more and no less hard than this-or-that language. Plenty of people have learnt Chinese, but plenty more find it too hard. Just like Arabic. So there.

  46. Robert Delfs says:


    With all due respect, it is a different (and far easier) thing for speakers of other Chinese dialects/Sinitic tongues to learn to speak putonghua and/or read Chinese than it is for people who are native speakers of unrelated languages, such as English, Russian or Navajo; it is different (an easier) thing to learn a language as a chil. It is a different (and far easier) thing for a native speaker of an unrelated language to learn Chinese (or any foreign language) as a child or even a teenager than as an adult. And it is a different (and far easier) thing for a non-native speaker to learn a “national” language like putonghua from inside the society and culture where it spoken, where one is (to some degree) intensely exposed (or even immersed) to the language in school, social and professional contexts, in the media, public signage, etc. than it is to learn the language in a classroom.

    Most people would agree that Malay/bahasa Indonesian is a far easier language to learn than Mandarin Chinese OR Japanese. That is no doubt partly because Malay, like Swahili, came into being as a lingua franca and trading language; in a (metaphorical) sense, we could say both languages were designed to be relatively easy for foreigners to learn. It is, which is not to say that learning to speak and use Malay at a high level of competence is a trivial matter.

    What is indisputable, however, is that Balinese, Javanese, Moluccans, Torajans, and other Indonesians whose true native tongues (the language they learn to speak from their parents and siblings) are at least as different from Malay/Bahasa Indonesian as putonghua from any of Chinese dialect spoke along or south of the Yangtze River, but who are widely exposed to Malay/Bahasa Indonesian from childhood on and required to use it in school, are much more successful at learning to speak it well than Europeans or North Asians who have only studied the language in classrooms and/or who first encounter the language in adulthood.

    Having spent a fair proportion of my life studying (putonghua)/Chinese and Japanese, and using both in my professional life, I’m not “moaning” about the difficulty of either, nor do I consider Chinese to be the most difficult language to learn to speak and understand. Chinese grammar, as most people who frequent this site know well, is among the simplest and easiest to master of any language in the world. The challenge of acquiring a command of spoken Chinese (including aural recognition) is the restricted and homophone-rich phonetic system. For a native English speaker, it’s far easier to remember the Japanese word for purple (murasaki) than 紫色/zǐsè. Nonetheless, in my experience, Japanese is far more difficult to learn to speak competently than Chinese, despite the relative ease of acquiring aural/spoken vocabulary.

    But let’s be serious. Learning Chinese characters to the level needed to read, say, a newspaper article or a short essay with any ease is a serious challenge for anyone learning Chinese (or Japanese for that matter) who did not grow up using 汉字, compared to the difficulty of acquiring reading ability of any acquired second language using a systematic phonetic transcription system, and particularly languages using the system one already knows best.

    But I don’t understand what you mean when you mention “Hong Kong students complaining about Chinese being hard”. Do you mean Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong natives learning to speak Mandarin, or expatriate Westerners learning to speak/read Mandarin or Cantonese, or what?

    I can’t think of any Cantonese=speaking Hongkong locals of my acquaintance who have studied Mandarin (which would be almost anyone under the age of 40) complain seriously about it being particularly “hard”. If anything, I would say that the rate at which native speakers of Cantonese in Hong Kong have acquired competent Mandarin over the past couple of decades is extremely impressive. Or are we talking about Hong Kong people someplace else, such as Vancouver?

  47. I reckon you lot need to stop apologising about Chinese and face the fact that Chinese is a difficult language to learn. I’m Chinese myself and if I say Chinese is a difficult language to learn, some of you need to reassess your thinking about this language. This blog is supposed to be about language in China, eclectically, but so far, all I see is mostly establishmentarianism.

  48. Chris Waugh says:

    @Robert, it seems to me a few things have gotten mixed up in the comment thread, and as I said in my previous comment, I really don’t have time for this….

    My comments re: Hong Kong students were aimed at @thenakedlistener’s comments on Hong Kong school students of a variety of ethnic backgrounds complaining about how hard Chinese is, not at anything you wrote.

    As for the rest, I really don’t have time, so let me focus on a couple of things:

    Sure, context is important. But context is not everything.

    “For a native English speaker, it’s far easier to remember the Japanese word for purple (murasaki) than 紫色/zǐsè.”

    Why? I seriously do not understand how 紫色/zǐsè is somehow more difficult to remember than murasaki.

    Wouldn’t Swahili and Bahasa Melayu/Indonesia be better compared with Esperanto? Does spoken Putonghua perhaps fall halfway between natural languages like Wu or Beijinghua and aritificial and/or trade languages ‘designed’ to be simple?

    Otherwise, I’m struggling to see how I disagree with you, although I can see how some things have become lost or confused in the discussion.

    But I must bow out for the foreseeable future, I have work that needs to be done (although I do appreciate the break your comment brought, thank you).

  49. Kellen says:

    Unfortunately I don’t have time just now to go through all the comments, which is really too bad because it looks like some great stuff.

    I do have just one thing though. Mandarin, as a whole, is no more difficult or complex than English or any other language. Comments like “I’m Chinese and if I say Mandarin is hard then you suckers just gotta deal with it as truth” don’t do anyone any good. There’s no genetic predisposition to learning Mandarin for Chinese people any more than white folk are pre-programmed to learn German or Dutch. It’s rather absurd to say so, and in fact I feel this position which I’ve just stated really needs no defence.

    I may have omitted from the lingua franca argument an important detail of my own position, which is that Mandarin is more difficult than English, but only to the degree which is required for basic communication. It takes more time to learn enough Mandarin to write a love note to your high school crush than it would to do the same in English. Once past that, things start to even out. Writing JL Borges in either language would take a massive amount of learning for both, and, I believe, and ultimately equal amount of learning.

    The ethnicity argument gets us nowhere, and it’s already received far more screen space than it deserves.

  50. > Comments like “I’m Chinese and if I say Mandarin is hard
    > then you suckers just gotta deal with it as truth” don’t do
    > anyone any

    That’s not what I said, and it’s not what I mean. And, true, no one is genetically predisposed to learning any language. But I’m saying “reassess,” not ‘gotta deal with it as truth.’ Stop homing in on me and my alleged ethnicity argument – because I’m not saying that.

    With all due respect to all commenters here, it hasn’t been too hard for me to spot that quite the some of us are heavy to the Chinese language and by dint of long association with it have come to regard Chinese as easier or nicer or somesuch. We’re all fallen on this to some extent, in law, physics, sociology, etc. But harping on about how Chinese is easier, harder, nicer, worse, etc because of various linguistic factors while discounting how the average person finds Chinese is equally doing a disservice.

  51. Robert Delfs says:

    Chris, hope you get your work done. I now understand what you said re: Hong Kong students. No reply required or expected.

    But as far as for purple-prosed 平安時代 (Heian-jidai) female novelists go, all I can do is ask you to take my word for it that I (and every native English-speaker I know who has studied both Chinese and Japanese at least semi-seriously) all agrees it is easier to acquire Japanese vocabulary than Chinese.

    Obviously, this comoparison applies only to specifically kun-yomi words from the “native Japanese” lexicon as opposed to on-yomi words derived from Tang dynasty Chinese). Anyone who knows the modern Chinese pronounciation of a character or character compound can usually guess the Japanese on-yomi pronunciation, particularly if they have experience with dialects such as Cantonese which preserve more of the tonal structure (in particular the so-called “entering” tone (入声) with its final hard glottal stop consonant) used in Tang dynasty Chinese.

    It is not surprising that native speakers of phonetically rich languages with many unique polysyllabic words would find large-scale acquisition of new vocabulary with few or no cognates to one’s native tongue much easier if the target language also featured many words which are similarly polysyllabic and phonetically unique.

    The relatively distinctiveness of polysyllabic words in languages like Japanese, English or French (compared to Chinese) also reduces the importance of context in understanding pieces of a conversation or extended utterance, a particular problem for intermedidate students of Chinese, who frequently complain that it is difficult to reorient after “losing the thread” of a Chinese utterance or conversation.

    Words like murasaki (purple), muzukashii (difficult), or bakkari (only) stand out in the flow of speech in Japanese in ways that their monosyllabic counterparts in Chinese (zǐ,nán,zhǐ) do not, nor even multisyllabic Mandarin expansion terms (such as zǐsè, bùróngyì,wéiyīde), which increasingly dominate Mandarin precisely in order to reduce semantic ambiguity, an evolutionary change from the relatively pure monosyllatic languages of medieval and early China.

    Inflection markers for verbs and adjectives/stative verb/adverb equivalents in Japanese, as well as the widely used quotative markers, also help listeners to follow the speakers train or thought and/or re-orient after a passage that was not understood.

  52. Kellen says:

    Not sure I buy that the Japanese terms stand out any better than the Mandarin. Stress and cadence do a great deal of good in helping the listener focus on the important words. and if every word is standing out, arent they all then not? Or perhaps im missing what you mean by stand out.

    correct me if im wrong, but wouldnt someone with a great deal of experience with a great many languages be much better at objectively stating which languages posed greater difficulty? Eotional attachment to a language is one thing, but I think for the most part people here tend to have experience with multiple languages and often they do quiite well in terms of objectivity. Or, by your reasoning, am I better equipped to make a valuable statement about Portuguese, with which I have little experience and far less attachment, than I am about Mandarin or Arabic, with which I have years of experience? It all seems quite counterintuitive.

  53. @Kellen (comment li): Well, I’m very sorry for having offended your sensibilities then. I too have experience with multiple languages, though not from a linguistic point of view. I never said YOUR view(s) haven’t been objective – just that I’m offering a different perspective in my own small way. So now of course you’re insinuating that I’m not objective or being subjective and emotional and tired – based on what? It all seems like a slap in the face for offering another take on things. Those here who are Chinese language lovers are bound to side with the idea that Chinese is as easy/hard as any other language, regardless of how the man in the street is going to think – as evident in some comments throughout your blog. I’m just a Chinese speaker, it’s my native language along with English. I don’t particularly hate it or like it – I just speak it. On a very general level, in fact I myself concur with most of you yourselves in that Chinese is a reasonably learnable language. But I also step back a bit and consider the practical aspect of learning Chinese for the general run of people. That’s is all. That’s ALL I’m trying to do – and people here think I’m trashing Chinese. If my comments don’t meet the expectations or standards of this blog, just delete them. I can take a hint, you know.

  54. Julen says:

    I don’t want to heat the debate at this point, but just note that Chinese is objectively more difficult at an advanced level than any other language in the World (even though it relatively easy at basic level). The 3 main reasons are:

    1- The writing system is unique for its complexity. Japanese is not quite there, as they only use 3,000 hanzi AND you get a lot of help from the phonetic scripts. This makes a BIG difference when you are into high level reading. I am well past the 3000 mark in Chinese, and to this day I still keep finding all the time characters that I have never even seen before (I know because I keep track in my Pleco).

    2- The phonetic system is extremely difficult. The tones are only part of it, the main reason is what Robert clearly explained above. Few distinct sounds and reliance on context makes it very difficult to follow even standard mandarin like the xinwenlianbo. If you are really good at tones, 紫色 may not be harder to memorize than murakami. But in a language where you get: 自私,姿色,自设,指涉,辞色,直射,etc., it is much more difficult to discern in fast speech without context.

    3- And above all: Chinese is the only language in the World that has an independent vocabulary system. At higher levels of language this obstacle is ENORMOUS, as it is the only language where you need to re-learn every single field of knowledge from zero. My post about this.

    Each of these 3 obstacles is enough to break communication, making it hard to practice and improve even in immersion. In complex grammar languages like Basque or Japanese, one still makes word-ending mistakes even at advanced level, but this doesn’t usually get in the way of understanding TV/conversations/books. Grammar is a big deal at basic/intermediate levels, but it is finite and eventually it ceases to be a major obstacle at advanced level.

  55. Robert Delfs says:


    I’m just sharing my own experience and the experience of other people I know who have studied and/or taught both languages. This is mainly just about the degree of monosyllabism versus polysyllabism and relative uniqueness of words (lack of homophones) in Mandarin Chinese — what some linguists refer to as the “phonological” collapse of Mandarin Chinese, and to a lesser extent the effect of the absence of grammatical inflections. Obviously, any speaker can put more or less effort into using stress and other cues to help the speaker focus on important words, and often do so when they realize they are speaking with people whose aural compreshension is impaired — this applies equally to all languages.

    There are only about 1,200 distinct syllables (including tonal variants) in Chinese, each representing multiple morphemes (DeFrancis 1984), as opposed to Vietnamese with 5,000 possible syllables, and also as distinguished from) languages which allow multisyllabic morphemes, including all Indo-European languages.

    When I say that a Japanese word like “murasaki” stands out more clearly than “zǐ” or “zǐsè”, what I mean that when someone with limited fluency in Chinese looses the thread of an utterance or conversation, it can be extremely difficult to re-orient because of the relative lack of distinctive, easily recognizable words.

    Japanese has a large number of highly distinctive kun-yomi (native Japanese) words which do not have common homonyms or near homonyms. When a non-fluent listener hears such a word that he/she has already learned (such as “murasaki”), it can can serve as a signpost to help the listener re-establish the topic and/or context of the conversation or utterance. (*Aha! The speaker is talking about something “purple”*) Finding more “signposts” like this can enable the listener to unravel the speakers train of speech and re-orient.

    In contrast, student of Chinese might typically find it very easy to confuse the bisyllabic compound 紫色 zǐsè (purple) with the a similar sounding expressions such as 姿色 zīsè (attractive) as well as a host of other compounds whose first character is pronounced zi (in various tones), such as 资讯 zīxùn (information) 资质 zīzhì (aptitude) 资料 zī liào. Because no single, unambiguous meaning “stands out”, the listener lacks a thread to follow to get back into the conversation.

    For a non-fluent listeners attempting to follow rapid conversational speech among native speakers (and particularly speakers whose pronunciation and use of tones may be non-standard), distinguishing the morpheme 紫 zǐ when it is used monosyllabically (for example in compounds(such as 紫菜 zǐcài (purple seaweed), 紫苏 zǐsū (basil), 紫竹 zǐzhú (black bamboo), and many more) from unrelated but similar-sounding bisyllabic compounds using other |zi| morphemes of whatever tone (e.g., 资财, 自诉,自主,资助,仔猪,锱铢,etc.) can be exceedingly difficult.

    Does this make any sense to you?

  56. Robert Delfs says:

    I think your comments (which mirror some of the points in the post I just did) do make the case that Chinese is a difficult language, but I don’t think you (or I) can really say that Chinese is “more difficult at an advanced level than any other language in the world”.

    Until we’ve seriously studied languages like Basque, Finnish, and Hungarian (I haven’t), I don’t think we can easily dismiss credible authorities who insist that they are harder to learn than Chinese.

    Moreover, having spent some time studying both Chinese and Japanese, I would still rank Japanese as far more difficult than Chinese, despite the helpful presence in Japanese of polysyllabic words and the fact that the list of characters for standard use in Japanese (常用漢字 jōyōkanji”) uses a relatively limited subset of only 2,136 characters. And I am not alone in that judgment.

    But your — and other people’s — mileage (and the relative ease or difficulty of learning certain languages as you or they perceive) of course may vary.

  57. Chris Waugh says:


    “1- The writing system is unique for its complexity.”

    Sure, but complexity has its own advantages. And I don’t see how coming across a new character or combination of characters is fundamentally any different from coming across a new English or French word – which I do all the time. I come across a new word or character and check it in the dictionary. Then I swear at the dictionary for not being up with the times and try finding it in an online dictionary. And I would argue that the sheer number of characters becomes much less daunting as one gets one’s head around the system used to construct the characters.

    “2- The phonetic system is extremely difficult.”

    So there’s a lot of homophones. It takes some getting used to, but it’s doable.

    “3- And above all: Chinese is the only language in the World that has an independent vocabulary system.”

    Really? I have a book on my shelf called 《汉语外来词》 (史有为著,北京:商务印书馆,2000 – although my copy is from the second print run of 2003).

    And I like having to learn so much from scratch – it frees me from the spectre of faux amis I remember haunting so many French classes.

    @Robert, I won’t speak for Kellen, but although I can see where you’re coming from, I’m not entirely convinced. I’ve got about 2 minutes left of my lunch break, and likely no time to look further into the points you’re making until at least the weekend, so I’ll get back to that later.

    And because you mentioned Finnish: I remember when I was studying Russian whenever any of us moaned about the 6 cases to learn, somebody would mutter something vaguely threatening along the lines of, “Come back to me when you’ve tried learning Finnish”.

  58. Julen says:

    @Robert – I know you are not alone in that judgement. And I want to avoid here the discussion Chinese vs. Japanese — my argument is not about “most difficult language” in the absolute, this makes little sense. My point is more clearly expressed in the following mathematical terms:

    For any foreign student of Chinese and language X, there exists one point in the progress of the studies where the Chinese becomes more difficult than X.

    In other words, the progress curve of Chinese has no plateau as other languages have, because of its independent system of words, so you eventually reach a point where it becomes more difficult to achieve progress than in any other language. Of course, it is very possible that most students never actually reach that point at all, so for those people “X” language would still be more difficult than Chinese.

    I have studied Basque (unified) and I acquired as a kid spoken Biscayne dialect (VERY different from the standard). Obviously I have not studied all the languages in the World — Newton didn’t watch all the apples in the World. And yet you can infer plausible theories from the knowledge of some data points.

  59. Sima says:

    I’m very interested by the comparison you make between Chinese and Japanese.

    For a native English speaker, it’s far easier to remember the Japanese word for purple (murasaki) than 紫色/zǐsè.

    I don’t speak Japanese, I’m afraid, but I do come into contact with Japanese speakers on a daily basis. Your comment, which I appreciate you’ve expanded on a little in a later comment, strikes me as both a very “big” claim and quite plausible. Beyond your later comments about picking words out in conversation, why do you feel that it’s harder to remember Chinese words generally? Does the (often?) greater number of syllables in Japanese help rather than hinder?

    I think you’ve described beautifully the difficulty and importance of picking up the thread of a conversation. I’ve often wondered whether signal processing, or some related field, might be able to illuminate this problem.

    If this really is significantly more difficult in Chinese than in other languages, might we be able to find evidence to support this even (or especially) amongst native speakers?

    I find that a native speaker is able to listen to a story being told 评书 on the car radio at a much lower level than I am, though this is ought to be true in any language to some extent. But if what you’re saying is the case, then surely even a native Chinese speaker’s tolerance for interference from background noise should be lower than in other languages. Or, perhaps, the time required to “tune in” to a story which has already begun, or been interrupted, might be typically longer.

    Do native Chinese speakers develop a keener ear in some way? Do they somehow learn to make contextual assumptions more quickly and accurately than others? Do they too struggle to pick up the thread more often than native speakers do in other languages? Are different, perhaps more complex, coping strategies used when someone is being brought up to speed with a discussion that has started with out them?

    Can anyone point us to studies which have attempted to look at such things or even suggest how we might try to compare two languages in this regard?

  60. Julen says:


    1- Of course in English or other languages I also come across unknown words. But in Chinese I come across unknown characters AND unknown words. Of course you can use a dictionary and you will eventually find the answer (nobody is saying Chinese is undecipherable) but objectively this is an added level of difficulty.

    2- The phonetic system is extremely difficult. “It takes some getting used to, but it’s doable.”. Of course it is doable, it is just more difficult. That’s all we are trying to prove here.

    3- And above all: Chinese is the only language in the World that has an independent vocabulary system. “Really? I have a book on my shelf called 《汉语外来词》 (史有为著,北京:商务印书馆)”

    Of course “independent vocabulary system” doesn’t mean complete absence of foreign loans. There are indeed a lot of them. In fact, there are many more than your book recognizes, as many loans into old/middle Chinese surely came from now extinct languages difficult to track. Every language has loans.

    What I mean by “independent vocabulary system” is that Chinese does not take its words from the mainstream World vocabulary, particularly modern words created in the last 200 years or so, which are the core of specialized vocabularies in almost every field of knowledge. This is what I mean by my point 3, more clearly explained here.

  61. Julen says:

    Oops, that was meant to be @Chris, not @myself ..

  62. Sima says:

    I really should have got back to you on the Bloody Helicopters thread about this. I really enjoyed all three of your posts about the difficulty of learning Chinese.

    I think the really interesting territory is where you headed on your third post. You’d suggested that Chinese is unique in maintaining it’s own vocabulary system for international or imported concepts. If this is really the case, surely it is the simple answer to the lingua franca question.

  63. pc says:

    So as opposed to writing up my term paper, I’ve been following this thread hoping people might pop up some interesting citations. However, it seems that I might be the first one to put those up.

    @Julen (lx)
    Li, X., and Jeng, F.-C. Noise tolerance in human frequency-following responses to voice pitch. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 129, 1 (January 2011), 21–26.
    Answers your question: Native Chinese speakers can recognize approximately 60% of tones at a signal to noise ratio of -10dB. English speakers, on the other hand. My hypothesis for my research is that CFL students are not taught the skills to listen the way a native speaker does (See Nick Ellis‘ work for why this needs to be explicit rather than implicit) and thus we are at a distinct disadvantage when trying to learn “real Chinese,” insofar as Chinese learned in the classroom isn’t in a “real context.”

    Also check out Fu, Q.-J., Zeng, F.-G., Shannon, R. V., and Soli, S. D. Importance of tonal envelope cues in chinese speech recognition. Journal of Acoustical Society of America 104, 1 (July 1998), 505–510. for why some tones are harder to recognize than others (don’t worry, native Chinese have trouble too, haha).

    Another good way of testing your acoustic mastery of Chinese is if you get distracted by other people talking. The closer to native fluency you are the more likely it is for background noise with linguistic content to influence your ability to understand target utterances (Van Engen, K. J., and Bradlow, A. R. Sentence recognition in native- and foreign-language multi- talker background noise. Journal of Acoustical Society of America 121, 1 (January 2007), 519–526.).

    Just for completeness, Wang, Y., Jongman, A., and Sereno, J. A. Acoustic and perceptual evaulation of mandarin tone productions before and after perceptual training. Journal of Acoustical Society of America 113, 2 (February 2003), 1033–1043., show that there is still hope! English speakers can be trained to recognize changes in F0. Hurrah!

    One other thing that I’d like to point out is that, yes, for English speakers, Chinese is a uniquely difficult language – at least depending on which theories of explicit language acquisition you ascribe to. I would suggest looking at Chaochi Yang’s Master’s thesis for an (obviously) much more thorough examination of the literature surrounding this topic. (Yang, C.-C. The dominant listening strategy of low-proficiency level learners of mandarin chinese: Bottom-up processing or top-down processing. Master of arts, Brigham Young University, April 2006.)

    Again, all of this is coming an acoustic standpoint, so I can’t backup any claims regarding the syntactic or lexico-semantic aspects of Chinese versus another language. Hopefully some of these are interesting for people! 😀

  64. Robert Delfs says:

    @pc, julen,

    Thanks for posting this interesting list of papers. Regarding the first two, are the authors isolating the fundamental frequency or pitch (i.e., F0), or are they also looking at other Chinese “tone” markers (duration, relative stress, etc.)?

    This question gets into the interesting debate over how Chinese speakers manage to understand whispered Chinese over a telephone (which eliminates F0 and reduces formants (resonant frequencies) and amplitude cues with comprehension levels surprisingly close to normal (voiced) speech, a topic which I recall has been previously raised on sinoglot.com. ThE topic is also relevant to the design and manufacture of cochlear implants. (In addition to hearing impairment itself, cochlear implants further restrict F0 cues, particularly when the listener is in the presence of multiple speakers and/or background noises in the same frequency range as the speakers F0 modulation range.)

    One view is that in addition to F0, duration (temporal envelope) and stress features are important cues for tonal recognition, making it possible for native speakers to understand whispered speech (which has no F0) with a high level of accuracy. (In standard Mandarin, Tone 3 is longest in duration, followed by Tone 1, then Tone 2, with Tone 4 and the neutral tone both being very short, but with Tone 4 receiving additional stress.)

    Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that students whose experience with Chinese is limited to classroom settings in Europe, North America or Australia often pronounce Chinese with what may be a technically (and even even exaggeratedly) correct tonal pitch (F0), but their speech production is still clearly flawed (and may be difficult for native speakers to understand) because the duration of individual syllables is wrong. This may have changed, but when I was studying Chinese, instructors and texts never focused (or even mentioned) syllabic duration. Getting this right was something students had to figure out on their own, usually by attempting to mimic language production of native speakers after commencing more advanced study in China.

    I won’t have access to any of these papers where I am — if you happen to have *pdf files for any of the papers, includig C. C. Yang’s master’s thesis, I’d be very interested in copies.

  65. pc says:


    I put a chuck of my library online here so anyone can poke around. Most of what I posted about should be filed under “Acoustics.” Yang’s thesis is under Language Learning. They’re sorted alphabetically.

    Also, in regards to whispered speech, I Liu 2004 (under Acoustics) should have something. It wasn’t directly related to my research this semester so I didn’t really read it.

    Sparkey Systems published a research paper on exactly your question about cochlear implants, but I can’t remember the citation.

  66. Sima says:

    Many thanks for making those available.

  67. Robert Delfs says:

    Yes, pc, thanks very much for making these available.

    Incidentally, the piece by Siyun Liu and Arthur Samuel, “Perception of Mandarin Lexical Tones when F0 Information is neutralized” is one of the best discussions of the “whispered Mandarin” I’ve seen anywhere. There is also a very useful graph showing general fundamental frequency (F0) contours for the four Mandarin tones AND relative duration, adapted from Y. Xu “Contextual tonal variations in Mandarin” in Journal of Phonetics 25:61–3 (1997). Interestingly, the duration of tone 4 vowels is typically about 60% of Tone 3, which has the longest temporal envelope, but the durations for Tone 1 and Tone 2 are almost identical.

    Also interesting are combined graphs of F0 tone contours for 20 male and 20 female Mandarin speakers, which show that for female speakers the F0 contour breaks sharply in the middle, due to a loss of normal voicing, while for male speakers there is no break when uttering a Tone 3 vowel and the range of fundamental frequency variation for all tones is much less.

  68. […] everyone in between — actively participating in conversations that might be sociolinguistic (Mandarin as future lingua franca) or esoteric, insider stuff (second round character simplifications) or random translation issues […]

  69. Flops says:

    I am an international English teacher. I was teaching English in Thailand and am now doing the same in Saudi Arabia. Anyway, the Chinese language will never be global no matter how powerful China’s economy gets. The Chinese language is not even making serious inroads in Thailand, which is geographically close to China. India, with over a billion people, has no interest in the Chinese language.
    The people of the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea generally don’t like China, so their desire to learn the language is minimal. So for political reasons alone, the Chinese language is too unpopular and doomed to fail as a candidate for the world’s next global language.

    • Kellen Parker says:

      Point taken, though I can say having lived in Korea that Mandarin as a second language is incredibly widespread. Economic opportunities trump any personal dislike people have. I also know many Japanese people who’ve learned Chinese for similar reasons, many of whom now reside in Chinese speaking countries. The same goes for all my University classmates in all my Arabic classes, many of whom truly disliked the Middle East but saw the language as a way to make more money in the future. That or as a tool to convert the heathens.

  70. Flops says:

    Another reason why the Chinese language will never be global is that everyone
    around the world — even if they can’t speak or understand English — knows how to recognize and pronounce: ‘KFC’ pr ‘Burger King” or ‘Pizza Hut, “Honda,’ etc. Nobody outside of China can recognize even one Chinese character.

    • Kellen Parker says:

      Ha. I’m not arguing with you. But your comment reminds me of all the times I’ve heard someone speak an “English” word (like Burger King etc) and I had no idea what they were talking about.

      Lots of well known brand names are localised anyway. You live in SA so you’ll recognise “beebsee ببسي” for Pepsi. Granted that’s close, but other languages don’t always too so well, like pronouncing Pepsi as Bye-sure, thanks to limited sounds in that language.

  71. Flops says:

    True, but at least they recognize English phonemes.
    I remember in Thailand how 95% of my students could not speak or understand even basic English, but they all knew ‘Big C’ supermarhet and for once pronounced something in English correctly.

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