The Global Phenomenon of Chinese Language Learning

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April 20 is UNESCO Chinese Language Day. This date was chosen to honour the legendary figure Cangjie, who invented Chinese characters. According to legend, deities and ghosts cried and the sky rained millet when he invented characters.

The more recent history of Chinese is less fantastical but no less impressive. The number of people learning Chinese as a foreign language has been increasing since the early 2000s, and there are now estimated to be 100 million people around the world currently doing so. This global enthusiasm for learning Chinese is known as Chinese Fever or 汉语热 (hànyǔ rè).

Why are so many people learning Chinese? Will this have any implications for English as a global language?

Learning a language like Chinese at Flinders can bring you benefits and give you access to resources. The more benefits and resources a language brings, the more desirable it is to learn. We can describe these benefits and resources by using the framework of language comprehensive competitiveness.

The components of language comprehensive competitiveness are policy competitiveness, cultural competitiveness, economic competitiveness, population competitiveness, script competitiveness, scientific/technological competitiveness, educational competitiveness and geostrategic competitiveness.

Policy competitiveness is about how governments and international organisations promote a language through their policies. Cultural competitiveness is about the cultural products and practices, like movies, TV programmes and internet content, which can be accessed through a language. Economic competitiveness is about the level of economic development and economic power of the country in which a language is spoken. Population competitiveness is about the number of speakers of a language and the number of second/foreign language learners. Script competitiveness is about whether a language has a written script and the purposes this script can be used for. Scientific/technological competitiveness refers to the utility of the language for accessing science and technology, while educational competitiveness is the utility of the language for education and research. Geostrategic competitiveness is about the extent of interests of the country where the language is spoken in the world and its influence in the world.

How does Chinese score in terms of competitiveness?

China’s rise means that the language comprehensive competitiveness of Chinese is increasing, and explains why so many people are trying to learn it. In particular, Chinese rates highly on geostrategic competitiveness because of China’s political importance; population competitiveness because of the large number of Chinese speakers in the world; and economic competitiveness because of China’s economic power and influence. It’s likely that these factors will encourage even more people to learn Chinese.

But it’s unlikely that Chinese will replace English as a global language in the near future. In contrast to Chinese, English rates highly on all components of language comprehensive competitiveness. This is because English is the language of the two most powerful countries of modern times, Britain and the USA. Britain was the dominant colonial power during the 17th and 18th centuries, and the originator of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The USA was the world’s leading economic, political, scientific and cultural power during the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century.

At present, Chinese does not have a strong association with popular culture, science and technology, education and research, and its writing system is more challenging to learn and use than the English alphabet. It will take time for Chinese to establish an association with popular culture, science and technology, education and research, and whether it does will depend in large part on China’s future development.

Chinese signage is becoming more and more common

Nevertheless, Chinese is already being used in more places for more purposes. Airports spanning the world from Sydney to Minsk now have Chinese language signage, as does the Great Ocean Road. Chinese language signs are also popping up in shopping districts like Adelaide’s own Rundle Mall.

While you might not hear deities and ghosts crying and see the sky raining millet this UNESCO Chinese Language Day, you probably will hear and see Chinese used around you.

And if you’d like to know more about the global use and status of Chinese, check out my recent book, The rise of Chinese as a global language: Prospects and obstacles, available in the Flinders Library.


Author: Jeffrey Gil

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