Mandarin as lingua franca?

With the growing power of China, will Mandarin (Putonghua (i.e. national language)) replace English as the language used across the world?

Whenever people in a nation desire to communicate with people another nation, a language that both parties understand needs to be found. Historically, the language of the nation that had the largest economy or greatest military power was used.

As the means of communication and travel evolved, the process used to select the language changed. Originally, the distance of communication was relatively limited. As the means of transportation increased in speed and reach; from horse, to ship, to plane and finally to electronic, the distance and the number of countries covered increased.

latin-as-lingua-francaLatin was the lingua franca during the Roman Empire and subsequent centuries. Source: Wikipedia

What was a regional requirement became an international need. If we travel back in time, common communication languages were based on regional powers. All this changed in the 17th century with the establishment of colonial empires.

The first universal language, commonly called lingua franca was French. It was replaced with English in the late 19th or early 20th century because of the substantial colonial empire and the economic might of England, compounded with the economic power of the USA.

Chinese language was the lingua franca within its sphere of influence (Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Mongolia) until the late 19th century. With the weakening of China due to foreign presence, English displaced Chinese.

Now that China is on the ascendance again, with its economy being the second largest, probably overtaking the USA in the coming decade, it is probable that some countries will feel the need to interact with China in Mandarin in order to ingratiate themselves towards China.

In international bodies, English and French are the most common languages used, with Mandarin rarely recognized as an official language.

The key point that changed in the historical dynamic used to determine which language will be used as the international lingua franca is electronic communication. This has forced parties to rely on the power of the word, compared to a face-to-face interaction. In an environment where time is money, compounded by high pressure to rapidly respond to questions or situations, it is important that the language retained be clear. This implies that the language has a low level of contextual relationship to be understood clearly (i.e. that the words can be taken at face value); in addition to being relatively easy to learn. And this is where the Chinese language stumbles, as the words (or characters in this case) used are not precise in their meaning, particularly if any legal recourse is pursued. In addition, learning Mandarin is time consuming as it is complex.

The following graph illustrates the extent to which English is currently spoken around the world by non-native speakers, compared to Mandarin. This numerical advantage of English is substantial and almost impossible for Mandarin to surpass.

non-native-speakersRelative importance of native speakers to non-native speakers. Source: Transpacific Project

Therefore, it is probable that the English language will remain for the foreseeable future, the lingua franca of the world, as the most commonly used international language when people interface across boundaries.


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