Saturday, August 23, 2014

Why Chinese Will Never be the Global Language

Having studied languages and linguistics formally and by myself, there are two things that really grind my gears.

1. Asking how many languages I speak.

2. Telling me the massive importance of learning Chinese.

This is something me and my academic brethren have been suffering for decades now. You can easily find news reports claiming Chinese as the next global lingua franca since the 90s. Outlets have been the touting the idea that Chinese is the next 'it language' and it's time to dispel that idea.

Firstly, Chinese is not a language in the way most people think of it. Chinese is a chaotic system of dialects so far apart they can't understand each other (think German and English) that share a writing system. When people say Chinese, they usually mean to say Mandarin, the dialect centered around Beijing.

Let's revise, so you think Mandarin is going to be the next global language.

It's not.

Mandarin is indeed an important language, as is any that has about one-billion speakers. There is value in learning it, both financial and aesthetic. But when you look at it with your skeptic lenses, you see how wildly impractical the idea is.

Any lingua franca requires a few things to function. The first is being able to pronounce it.
Mandarin is a tonal language.You can say a syllable five different ways to produce five different tones.

Nope. NO right there.

There is no way that people, who aren't raised with tones are going to be able to use it in their speech. Some can. Some torture themselves regularly to attain the knowledge, but for the layperson, just nope.

To function a trade language also needs to be effective. While you could write an entire book on why English doesn't quite fit that bill, I'll argue that Chinese does much less.

That crazy writing system.


"I'm not Chinese."

That's a fairly simple sentence, but notice that require six different symbols to write down. To be a functioning member of society, estimates say you should know 2,000-2,500 symbols.

Again Nope. People simply aren't going to commit to that. 

Did I mention that not knowing a single symbol means that you could totally mismanage and misunderstand the whole sentence.

In addition English is spoken natively or official on every continent, a position no other language can really boast. This makes it the most available language ever
To give you an idea, Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese often spend some time in the Philippines with the explicit purpose of improving their English. The same goes for a number of EU countries for the UK and Ireland.

Where English is an official language

One could also consider the Internet itself where two most popular languages are English and Chinese with relatively close numbers. However, when you look at IP address the Chinese Internet is almost exclusively used by China and Chinese ex-patriots. Conversely, English websites have massive clusters in native countries, but also huge usage in the rest of the world.

Let's get serious now.

Everything I've said up to this point has been purely pragmatic, so let's talk about what really matters: MONEY.

The rest of the world spends millions of dollars in teaching their youth English as a second language. English education is its own industry worth more money than the economy of small nations.

Even Asian countries who used Chinese as their trade tongue centuries ago are more likely to use English. If a Thai and Korean business man sit down to talk turkey, you can bet their tongue of choice is going to come from Britain.
Using English among non-native countries is getting more and more common. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) use English despite only one two member countries having native speakers (the Philippines and Singapore).

I've worked for two years as an English teacher in Thailand, then South Korea. I get paid too well and get free airfare with the simple qualification of being a native speaker with a BA. This sort of privilege is offered to no other native speakers on the planet. The geo-political world would have to shift dramatically before Chinese people will get paid to go abroad just to talk.
There are entire organizations, sponsored by governments just to get English teachers in their country. Japan has JET, South Korea has EPIK.

In contrast, the expenditure on Chinese language acquisition in fairly minimal. One country that spends the most on Chinese language education is South Korea. However, SK's spending on Chinese is absurdly dwarfed by their spending on English.

I'm not saying that Chines isn't important. It is. But you can safely ignoredevery hyped story you've heard of Chinese overtaking English, linguistically anyways.

Here how countries speak English today

Good luck finding such a map for Chinese

Some More To Read

Who Speaking English and How
English Ranking by Continent
English Education in Korea
Koreans trying to de-emphasize English

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Globalization: The Past Hides Abroad

In my junior year of high school (2006), my Latin teacher/mentor and I started a tradition of going twice a month to a restaurant called Benningan's. It was a middle-range place with tacky decor and was totally interchangeable with every Irish themed  family restaurant at the time. Two years after we began the tradition, the chain filed for bankruptcy, we picked a new burger spot and I thought nothing of the chain for six years. That is until I moved to South Korea.

I did a double-take and realized that a brand I thought had long ago fallen away, had actually just moved locations. Then I started to realize how often this happens.
Swensen's ice cream is wildly popular in Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, but almost doesn't exist in it's native US. Haagen-Dazs has mega-restaurant across the Pacific. And while Baskin-Robbins isn't exactly threatened in the states, its American presence is totally overshadowed by that in South Korea and Japan.
So a funny thing happens. Brands from North America and Europe often expand to an overseas market, most often in Asia. If they continue to prosper, things stay the same, but if they flounder on their native soil, they usually remain immune abroad. Moreover, they go into time-stasis, where they stay unchanged compared to their native homes.

If you've traveled a bit, it may come off as old news that things like Baskin-Robbins, Swensen's Ice Cream, Bennigan's, Haagen-Dazs, Outback Steakhouse, and Cold Stone Creamery are all vastly more popular abroad than in their native America. But the story of preservation by travel is just as old as travel.

Like so many things, I'll use language as an example.

When Britain came to settle the US, they brought with them their accents and flourished in the New World. Back across the pond, dialects within Britain started to change and over centuries became what they are today. At the same time, the New England dialect stayed the same and preserved something that was lost across the Atlantic.

In Asia, the calligraphic symbols used in Chinese (hanzi, kanji, hanja) 

Before it migrated to bad tattoos
were brought to Korea and Japan centuries ago. While the Korean and Japanese forms of writing these have stayed the same, mainland China has had significant writing reforms to increase literacy.

The same two symbols
Left: Hong Kong, Japan, Korea
Right: Mainland China

Colonial languages have a tendency as well to retain more historical words, while the language will change in the 'homeland.' For example Nigerian English often uses words from the colonial period that are no longer in use today.

This sort of borrowing then time freezing is especially common with pop-culture. Walking around a major city in South Korea or watching K-pop videos, there's a distinct hip-hop influence. What's more interesting is that it's a distinctly 80s and 90s influence. 
Hip-hop in America has changed significantly since the 90s, but the old style in kept alive and strong in the land of Kimchi and Samsung.

I get to see this on TV anytime I use the stationary bike
This has also happened with things as grand as religions. Buddhism is hugely popular in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia), but not so much in its native India.

There's a certain lack along the subcontinent

So if you really want to preserve something, perhaps the best thing to do is send it abroad.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Geek Culture Preserving the English Lexicon

Imperium, shire, talisman, steward, wraith, tunic, codex, automaton, chalice.

You might not know these words at first glance, but some probably come off familiar to the average native English speaker. They're unusual words, no doubt but they all share a common thread alongside their rarity.


Languages pick up and toss out words much faster than most people would believe. Think of the last time you heard cooper, aghast, or burgeon in anything modern. Most often it's jargon and the outdated that meets the lexical chopping block first.
So as our society becomes less superstitious words like wraith, lych, and necromancy start to go the same way as cooper, flecher, yeoman, scrivener and dozens of other jobs long-gone. How often do the resurrected dead or an arrow-maker come into conversation? As it would seem, magic trumps the mundane, because our more fantastical words have been holding steadfast, while others get evicted from the OED and Webster's. As things like cloven, bulwark, vassal, and wroth depart from conversation the next centuries, our more nerdy words seem more likely to stick around.

Fantasy and SF have always had a devout, and until recently esoteric following, but the last two decades have shown massive spill over into mainstream media. Zombie is an every day word now. Shire and wraith were popularize in the USA by Tolkein's Lord of the Rings and recycled in modern fantasy since.
I encourage anyone interested to use Google's word tracker. Here's zombie.

As TV and movies continue the trend of becoming more and more fantastical, authors and screenwriters are more likely to grab more lexical nuggets from the brink. And something else to consider is their growing currency in more popular media. With TV shows like Hemlock Grove, Supernatural, Game of Thrones, Grimm, and two dozen other vampire/werewolf things, strange words like lychathropy and golem avoid oblivion.

In a few centuries years our grandchildren may not know what a 'sallow and craven dilettante' is, but I'll hazard a guess that they could probably recognize a wraith, vampire, werewolf, and zombie.