Zehner: Not the Next Big Language

Mandarin is not the next lingua franca.

by Callum Zehner | 9/28/17 12:15am

If you were to ask a Dartmouth student studying Mandarin why they were devoting their time to learning the language, they might cite its potential utility in the near future. With a population of around 1.3 billion people and an economy that, depending on who you ask, either is about to or already has surpassed that of the United States, China is irrefutably a major player on the international stage. So, the Mandarin-learning Dartmouth student would be right to say that Mandarin will become more useful. However, its overall use will remain limited, and it is unlikely to ascend to become the next global lingua franca — or “bridge language.”

I am a Mandarin student at Dartmouth and don’t mean to deride it out-of-hand. Mandarin benefits from a very intuitive and straightforward grammar system and is not riddled with the grammatical exceptions and inconsistencies that affect English. It is also evidently a growing language — all one needs to do is look at the signs in a large international airport or at the number of American students now learning Mandarin, to see the pace of its growth. However, the language suffers from certain setbacks both in its nature and in its scope, and these will affect its ability to become the global language of the future.

The first problem facing Mandarin is a very simple one: The world already has a lingua franca. For the first time in history, the entire human population has a single overarching go-to language for international and cross-cultural communication: English. English is firmly entrenched, due in large part to Britain’s colonial endeavors and America’s cultural infiltration. English has a number of important features that keep it at its place as the world’s language of exchange. It is spread out, with many sovereign states over six continents using it as their official or primary language, thereby hyperbolizing its clout on the international stage; Mandarin, on the other hand, is only an official language in three states, two of which — the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China — dispute each other’s existence. (The third, Singapore, also uses English and other tongues as its official languages.) English also shares many features with other widely-spoken languages, such as Spanish, French and Portuguese. Thus, Mandarin’s lack of transcontinental expansion gives it an inherent disadvantage, though Mandarin is also crippled by its own internal complications.

Additionally, Mandarin is a difficult language to learn. It is a tonal language, meaning words with the same sets of syllables can mean vastly different things when pitch is slightly altered. This is not a particularly unusual linguistic feature — at least 1.5 billion people speak tonal languages. However, for those whose mother tongue is a non-tonal language, the ability to both perceive and communicate the variations in pitch can be difficult. This is an issue when variations in pitch can change the meaning of a word from, say, “mother” to “scold” to “horse,” as is the case for the syllable “ma” in Mandarin. It is much easier to go the opposite direction, to learn a non-tonal language from the position of a tonal-language speaker; this sets up a situation where anglophones will be discouraged from learning Mandarin, and Chinese speakers will find themselves effectively obliged to learn English.

The Chinese writing system utilizes a system of characters, wherein each character has its own unique meaning, increasing the difficulty for one learning the language. The majority of the world’s languages use an alphabetic system, meaning that, for a vast swathe of the population, Mandarin will have a steep learning curve. While Chinese characters are composed of radicals that act as a form of road map to guide the reader to the character’s meaning and rough pronunciation, the character system, even in simplified form, is inefficient compared to an alphabetic system. The added complexity limits Mandarin’s potential to become the world’s “second-language,” since fewer people will be able or willing to learn it.

Mandarin has not been a strong player in international and cross-cultural communication in recent history. It will, I am sure, grow in influence as it follows China’s upward trajectory. However, in the foreseeable future, there is no clear track for Mandarin to be the dominant language of exchange. It is too limited in locale and difficult to learn. Still, English-speakers must not hang up their hats and call it a day — learning a foreign language is vital and a crucial first step in confronting the ease of being an English speaker, whether that language should be Mandarin is a separate matter.