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.