English or Mandarin as the World Language?

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Over at Lingua Franca, fellow Language Log author Geoffrey Pullum has an excellent article entitled "There Was No Committee".

Here's a key paragraph:

Some people talk as if Mandarin Chinese was gaining on English. It is not, and it never will. A Tamil-speaking computer scientist explaining an algorithm to a Hungarian scientist at a Japanese-organized scientific meeting in Thailand calls on English, not Chinese. Nowhere in the world do we find significant numbers of non-Chinese speakers choosing Mandarin as the medium for bridging language gaps. There are no signs of that changing.

As to why Mandarin is very unlikely ever to displace English as the world language, it's the writing system, my friends.

"Chineasy? Not"

Now, if ever a true digraphia were to develop in China, Mandarin might have a fighting chance.

"Character amnesia and the emergence of digraphia" (see also here and here).

But I doubt that will ever happen.  It seems that most Chinese people would sooner learn English than use Romanization to write Mandarin.

[Hat tip John Rohsenow]


  1. John F said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 9:19 am

    Would the tonal aspect of Mandarin also be a hindrance?

  2. Lane said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 9:28 am

    Geoff writes that "Nowhere in the world do we find significant numbers of non-Chinese speakers choosing Mandarin as the medium for bridging language gaps." Am I wrong in guessing that Mandarin is a lingua franca (a) among non-Mandarin Sinitic speakers who also do not speak the same Sinitic language, and (b) among non-Sinitic speakers in China who don't share a first language? What does a Uighur speak to a Miao-Yao speaker on the fewish occasions when they interact?

    Does Mandarin have any lingua-franca role in east Asia outside China at all?

  3. Matt_M said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 10:05 am

    @John F:

    Just anecdotal evidence, but my experience as an English teacher living in Thailand and trying to learn Thai is that:

    a) tones are definitely very difficult;
    b) the English language's "brutally complex consonant clusters" (as Geoff Pullum describes them) are even more of a problem for people whose native languages don't have them.

    In the case of English, I think speakers of languages like Thai are dealt a double whammy: not only are they faced with words that inflect for several unfamiliar grammatical distinctions (past/present, singular/plural, verb agreement), but those distinctions are coded in suffixes (-t, -d, -s, -z) that are hard for Thais to distinguish in syllable-final position. Not only that, but they often result in consonant clusters that are very difficult for Thais to pronounce or even perceive reliably. It's no wonder that most Thais who don't have a fairly advanced level of English just drop the suffixes altogether much of the time.

  4. John F said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 10:07 am

    Thanks, Matt_M.

  5. Bernard Farrell said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 10:12 am

    I learned some Mandarin over the last 15 years. Mostly to have a speaking knowledge on our adoption trips to China. The results often made chinese folks laugh a lot, but it helped.

    Learning this language was not easy. The 4 tones in Mandarin are a constant challenge. For an English speaker the simplicity of the language is attractive, but not knowing 1,000+ words (or whatever is needed for some degree of fluency) meant that picking up word meaning from context was challenging. And in this time I never learned more than a dozen characters.

    All this is a long way of saying I agree with the premise. English is used extensively in computing which has become a backbone of commerce and so many other things. I can't see a change to any alternate in the near future.

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 10:16 am

    I doubt Mandarin would be doing any better in this particular regard even absent the particular challenges posed by its associated writing system. Hindi may or may not have more L1 speakers than English, but if it doesn't it's close. But it is not in contention for World Language status and has not even managed to displace English as a lingua franca within its home country (because, e.g., L1 Tamil-speakers would rather use English than Hindi as their L2 and have historically been willing to take to the streets in defense of that preference – although if India had as undemocratic a government as mainland China language policy might be different). Hindi has a perfectly cromulent writing system and no tone-like challenges, but unlike Mandarin is not even a vogue language for U.S. public schools in affluent communities to be experimenting with.

  7. Stephan Stiller said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 10:50 am

    To state the obvious: The Chinese writing system will not easily be given up by the Chinese because Classical Chinese can't do without it, and the (written-only) Classical Chinese language was the vehicle of much culture until the beginning of the 20th century.
    That said, keeping older culture accessible via translation (Classical Chinese is already made accessible to Chinese people via translation into modern Mandarin) is possible. Also, recent culture is what's practically relevant and interesting to most people anyways (even though the State may refuse to acknowledge that), so I don't see principled obstacles to changing the writing system. Cultural conservatism rarely does any good.

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 10:59 am

    English hegemony in this regard has fairly recently displaced a period when the world seemed to be converging on an English-French duopoly. Perhaps it was inevitable that that would not be a stable equilibrium, or perhaps history could have played out differently. I suppose given the various historical trends that made English have the wind at its back this might have required a critical mass of people/institutions worried about English hegemony to all self-consciously throw their weight behind promoting French as the only plausible alternative around which such opposition could coalesce, even if it would not in a vacuum have been their ideal alternative. Maybe that was too much to ask. In hindsight, the point somewhere in the middle of the 20th century when French fell behind Spanish as the most popular L2 in American high schools may have been a more significant development than was realized at the time.

  9. Ellen K. said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 11:11 am

    I get the impression, from what I've read, that for those truly wanting to learn Chinese or another tonal language, tones are not as big a barrier as one might expect.

    Also, I think for a lingua franca (whether a world language or more narrowly), it's definitely an advantage to have a writing system that uses the same characters (letters, etc) as one's own language. I can read French (sometimes) without having studied it because it shares the same letters as English (with, yes, a few extra markings at times). And while there are other factors in me learning as much French as I have, without that shared writing system I would have NO ability to read French. If only people who have studied the language can read it, it doesn't make a good lingua franca, it seems to me.

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 11:35 am

    I don't want to understate the obstacles posed by the Chinese writing system, which is a much larger barrier than e.g. someone whose L1 is Latin-scripted mastering an L2 written in the Cyrillic or Greek alphabets or (I assume with less first-hand knowledge) Devanagari or Hangul or, um, Tengwar. My point is only that Mandarin would face so many other practical obstacles to global lingua franca status that removing that particular (not insubstantial) obstacle would not make any difference in the end if global lingua franca status were your goal. The fact that English happens to be written in the largest-market share script is so mixed up with the other historical factors that have helped it rise to dominance it is hard to know how much incremental benefit it gets from that. Of course, most of the rivals it surpassed along the way (Latin, German, French, etc., and of course the lexicons of many languages around the globe contain a scattering of reminders that Portuguese was the first Latin-scripted language to have a truly worldwide reach even if it could not hold on to that initial advantage) had the same script, so that was not where English's comparative advantage lay as against those particular rivals.

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 11:49 am

    FWIW, anyone with any interest in this sort of thing who has not read Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word really should, since it focuses on the question of what contingent historical/social/cultural/political factors have led particular languages to rise (in the sense of spreading outside their initial speech community whether as a trade lingua franca, a language of imperial administration, or something else) and then fall again, which is a topic typically not addressed in any depth by linguistics scholars who are committed to the notions that all languages, whether "successful" or not in terms of number of speakers or geographical reach, have equal dignity and are of equal scholarly interest. Which is not to say that that egalitarian perspective is wrong on its own terms, it's just that it can make it difficult to think about different sorts of phenomena that are also of interest.

  12. KeithB said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

    I was in Russia and the customer mentioned that when a spanish visitor came they had to use english to converse. Given the quality of my host's english, that must have been something to hear. (Of course, his english was infinitely better than my russian!)

    I am also reminded of the I Love Lucy episode when she was arrested for counterfeiting in France. It went like this:

    (I finally had to diagram it, I could think of no easy way of putting that chain in a sentance!)

  13. Mustafaster said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 12:18 pm

    I honestly can't see Chinese replacing English, now. It's not so much a question of the lack of an alphabetic writing system or tonality, all problems of that kind can be overcome with effort. Mandarin isn't intrinsically more difficult to learn because of this.
    English is an absolute nightmare language to learn, massive vocabulary, crazy spelling system, consonant clusters everywhere, and don't get me started on phrasal verbs… but all the world seems more than happy to put the necessary effort in.
    It's more about the moment when English became dominant. That dominance coincided with globalism and the rise of digital technology and it's meant that the first truly world language is English. I can't see this position changing now, there is simply too much to be gained by non-English speakers from learning English, and relatively little by learning Mandarin. English opens a world to you, Mandarin only parts of China.

  14. GeorgeW said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

    J. W. Brewer: I second your recommendation of "Empires of the World." It is very pertinent to this discussion.

    Ostler goes through a number of comparable factors with Egyptian and Chinese and says, "These are both tales of solid growth and heroic maintenance, rather than massive spread."

    Historically, both had large, dense populations resistant to foreign invasion and influence. Both were self sufficient in resources. Both had insular views of the world. Maybe, the factors are changing today with globalization, but maybe it is also to late for Chinese to establish itself as a world language.

  15. errorr said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

    I remember trying to converse with a museum attendant at The Louvre. We fumbled around trying Spanish for a few minutes before he popped up and in a perfect RP accent says "Your American!" I think he thought my poor Spanish was bad French which he had a limited ability in.

  16. AnthonyTeacher said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

    While they are enjoyed the world over, the cultural exports of China – especially in terms of media – do not come close to that of English speaking countries like the US, UK, etc. This is also clearly related to the prominence of English.

    China also isn't a haven for immigrants, or really seen as having model governments, ethics, manners, or infrastructure. I'm sure these perceptions also contribute to the fact that Mandarin will never be a lingua franca. I feel like the push to learn Mandarin that is now taking places (eg with young learners) is ridiculous if it's only being done on the weak premise that Mandarin will be globally important.

  17. David Morris said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 6:04 pm

    As an ESL teacher with many Chinese and Thai students, I notice them struggling with consonant clusters a lot, for reasons that other commenters have mentioned. (One student said he ate 'porn' (viz prawns) with his rice.) (I also notice it with Koreans – my wife and her friends.)
    Quite apart from many lexical words with consonant clusters (one that almost every student says every day is 'friend'), some of the most important parts of English (plural and possessive nouns and present simple 3sg verbs, and most past simple and past participle verbs) have consonant clusters. /t/ and /d/ are slightly less of a problem and /z/ and /s/ are more of a problem.
    The two main strategies for avoiding consonant clusters are to reduce them, or to insert a epenthetic vowel, usually /ə/. When the focus is on pronunciation, I insist on 'correct' pronunciation, but in general talking activities I often let things slide. My mantra is 'Be clear; make sense'. (Of course one way to be clear is to use standard pronunciation.) The other day I gave them hints on how to reduce clusters. Several students were struggling with 'months'. I demonstrated 'munts' and 'muns', and I said 'People will understand you if you say 'I have lived in Australia for six muns". But 'six month' is clear as well, and in that sentence even 'six munt' would be comprehensible. On the other hand, sometimes students say 'one years'.
    Sometimes I suspect that plural and possessive noun 's' will drop out of international de facto English, especially after numbers and quantifiers.

  18. the other Mark P said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 7:57 pm

    A lot of people learning "English" never need to speak it at all. They need to be able to read it for technical reasons, to get around in foreign countries where it is usually the second language now, and it often helps that they understand it and can write it. But in a scientific paper, or on the internet, or reading instructions, no-one hears your accent.

    Also when a person with poor English encounters a new word, they can look it up in a dictionary very quickly. Again, with no need to remotely know how it is pronounced. Ideographs that lack a simple alphabetical order are a major issue to low level users.

    I've done internet searches using Russian, despite knowing only a few words of the language and with the different alphabet. I can look up translations quickly in a dictionary. I wouldn't know how to even start doing that in Mandarin.

    In the modern world ideographic systems mean you have to learn 1) how to speak them, unrelated to 2) how to read them, and 3) how to input them into computers etc.

    Google is quite forgiving of misspelling in English — how does it cope with slightly incorrect ideographs?

  19. Richard W said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 8:49 pm

    Thanks to J. W. Brewer and GeorgeW for the reference to "Empires of the Word." (I find that it's "Word," not "World," though, as GeorgeW wrote). It looks very interesting.

    I see* that Ostler "argues [that] English will not only be displaced as the world's language in the not-distant future, it will be the last lingua franca, not replaced by another."

    * Amazon webpage on Ostler's "The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel"

  20. Michael Watts said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 8:58 pm

    > I can look up [Russian] translations quickly in a dictionary. I wouldn't know how to even start doing that in Mandarin.

    Actually, the magic of technology has made this a quick and easy process:

    1. Get a touchscreen dictionary app.

    2. Draw the character on the screen.

    This isn't especially more burdensome, in terms of time, than looking up a word in a paper dictionary. But the Chinese script poses an enormous barrier to remembering words you've encountered before.

    > In the modern world ideographic systems mean you have to learn 1) how to speak them, unrelated to 2) how to read them, and 3) how to input them into computers etc

    Not true; if you know (1) and (2) then (3) has already been achieved. You use your knowledge of (1) to provide input, and your knowledge of (2) to select the character you want. (You can use shortcuts; if I want to produce 不好意思 I'll put in "bhys" and select it directly, but nothing's stopping you from putting in "bu" (不), "hao" (好), "yi" (意), "si" (思).) Pinyin input systems all come with various pronunciation-collapsing options for native speakers who don't make certain distinctions, so no matter how you learned to pronounce something it will show up when you go to look for it (assuming you've set the options).

    In the modern day, all of the difficulty associated with the Chinese script is coming from your point (2), learning to read it.

  21. Ellen K. said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 11:16 pm

    the other Mark P: Also when a person with poor English encounters a new word, they can look it up in a dictionary very quickly. Again, with no need to remotely know how it is pronounced. Ideographs that lack a simple alphabetical order are a major issue to low level users.

    With computers, the lack of a simple alphabetical order isn't always an issue for looking up the meaning of a word in Chinese. Cut and paste into a dictionary or translation software. The lack of word breaks comes into play though.

  22. AJD said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 12:33 am

    There's an interesting… not exactly a misnegation, but something along those lines… in the comments to Geoff's piece. A commenter writes:

    "It is not an either or choice between global access and extinction of local languages."

    But what the commenter seems to mean to be denying here isn't disjunction; it's actually entailment. The intended meaning seems to be "Global access [i.e., learning English] doesn't require the extinction of local languages," not "You don't have to choose between English fluency and the extinction of local languages."

  23. Ray Dillinger said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 12:34 am

    I remember a Chinese scholar who spoke at my college once; the thrust of his speech was that Chinese character writing is a crippling disadvantage to the Chinese language and ought to be abandoned.

    He had (and probably still has) a valid point, but I still think he's giving short shrift to another problem, which is that there are actually a bunch of different mutually unintelligible languages that have historically attempted to saddle themselves with that writing system.

    The Chinese government is trying to standardize on Mandarin, but the fact is that 'Chinese' isn't really a language anyone can learn – you have to know what *part* of China you're interested in communicating with, and what you learn isn't easily going to be applicable anywhere else.

  24. Ray Dillinger said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 12:48 am

    Now that I think about it….

    It is very strange historically speaking for a mostly-ideographic writing system to last as long as the Chinese characters have lasted, without being overtaken at some juncture of crisis or history by word-equals-sound rebus writing, and subsequent collapse into a syllabic or alphabetic writing system.

    How reasonable is it to suppose that one of the things that has preserved it against this fate may be the multiplicity of different-sounding words that the same set of characters are used to encode?

    If the word that corresponds to a given character is pronounced differently in different sinitic languages, then there is nothing consistent for it to 'mean' as a pronunciation guide or rebus carrier, and thus maybe rebus-writing and conversion to a syllabary or alphabet is inhibited because of a lack of consistency.

    It would be ironic if the Mandarin-only efforts of the current Chinese government succeed and the effect of it is to enable or accelerate the collapse of the ideographic writing system into a syllabary.

  25. Darkwhite said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 3:30 am

    Pullum is missing the fact that, when English came to be a world language, it was not at all because English was gaining on other languages. It was a direct consequence of the US becoming the world's leading military and economic power – the exact same reasons which had paved the way for the dominance of Russian, French, German, Latin and Greek previously, in various parts of Europe.

    In the early 1900s, English overcame the exact sort of obstacles to become a world language, as people today imagine will cement its position going forward.

    It is not at all ridiculous to imagine China's leading role in South-East Asia, and Asia's ever growing importance in the global economy, propelling Chinese to a very similar status as English today enjoys.

  26. V said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 3:39 am

    "It would be ironic if the Mandarin-only efforts of the current Chinese government succeed and the effect of it is to enable or accelerate the collapse of the ideographic writing system into a syllabary."

    Ive often wondered about this myself also, what is the opinion of the Sinologists here?

  27. Derek said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 4:16 am

    @Darkwhite: I think it's a bit more complicated than that. The rise of the US certainly played a significant factor, but it was preceded by the British Empire, which was also a dominant power, and spread the language to many different corners of the world. This meant that when the US came to the forefront, English already had not only a large population of native speakers, but also a geographically diverse set of speakers.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 5:45 am

    @Michael Watts

    "Actually, the magic of technology has made this a quick and easy process:

    1. Get a touchscreen dictionary app.

    2. Draw the character on the screen."

    It's not that "easy" and it's not that "quick". Even people who know Chinese well are not always able to "draw" the characters correctly (i.e., with the required stroke order, shape, and proportions) on a touchscreen. I've seen many a frustrated user flailing away at their touchscreen trying to get the right character to pop up. For someone who doesn't know Chinese at all to get the right characters to appear on a touchscreen would be next to miraculous in many cases.

    @Ellen K.

    Cut and paste for individual characters is very time consuming, but you certainly are right about the difficulty (well, virtual impossibility) of establishing word breaks for people who don't know any Chinese.

  29. Darkwhite said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 6:17 am

    Derek: Everything is more complicated than what can be summarized and argued in three paragraphs. Spanish and Portuguese combined – considered mutually intelligible – have twice as many native speakers as English, yet remains largely irrelevant to the rest of the globe. The key difference seems to be cultural, economic and military significance – both in this case, and to explain the constant swings in language popularity throughout history.

    It is also worth noting that, however difficult the Chinese script might be, it has successfully spread to Japan (Kanji; still in use), Vietnam (supplanted by roman script by French imperialists) and Korea (eventually replaced by Hangul, though still in some use in the form of Hanja).

    Why the Chinese script should prevent the spread of the language, when historically it has been eagerly adopted by all of China's neighbors, seems puzzling to me.

  30. flow said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 8:03 am

    i'd like to chime in with the remark that even though computing has managed to make Chinese much more accessible, there's yet an appreciable difference between the relative ease of Chinese vs English (and other alphabetic) language processing. to illustrate, i've scanned the title page of a Kyoto, Japan, 1922 physics text book which came to my attention yesterday on account of a variant way to write 學/学 that uses 文 instead of 爻. skimming over the page today, i realized there are no less than *five* (according to how you count) variants of 學 *on this single page*, none of them exactly equal to either 學 or 学.

    now, in this particular case, these variants are easily ignored or appreciated by the fluent reader, but should not pose any difficulty. however, let me remark that

    (1) in theory, swapping 文 for 爻 in 學 could conceivably make up an entirely new character—in this regard, characters are no different from, say, 'lightening' vs 'lightning'.

    (2) given (1), you might want to search the Internet (yay!) for

    x = 學 – 爻 + 文

    but how'd you do that?

    it may be an accident of the history of digital technology, or it may be an inherent characteristic of the Chinese way of writing that makes this operation considerably more difficult than looking up an English spelling variant.

    that said, i feel it fair to point out that i haven't touched upon the problem of accented and 'marginal' Latin letters such as Ƕ, ᵹ, Ꝼ which, while now rarely used, do make Latin input considerably more difficult—but those are fringe cases, while with Chinese characters, it's much more common.

  31. flow said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 8:04 am

    *Update* i've uploaded that page to http://imgur.com/aslSzNh for your enjoyment.

  32. Victor Mair said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 9:45 am


    "Why the Chinese script should prevent the spread of the language, when historically it has been eagerly adopted by all of China's neighbors, seems puzzling to me."

    Chinese scholars themselves, such as Zheng Qiao in the Song Dynasty, have asked the same question.

    I would not say "eagerly adopted by all of China's neighbors", since the Mongols and Manchus and Uyghurs and Tibetans all used alphabetical scripts, while those who did adopt it for awhile did so under cultural and / or political influence.

    There have indeed been Siniform scripts among peoples whose lands are contiguous with those of the Chinese, e.g., Tanguts and Khitans, but most of them disappeared within a century or so. And, as you yourself have pointed out, the ones in Vietnam and Korea are disappearing as well, while the use of kanji in Japan is gradually being reduced.

  33. Ned Danison said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 10:20 am

    Let's not forget the cool factor for Americans (and other Westerners, I'd guess) in learning Chinese. Fellow Americans: "You speak Chinese, wow, you're smart". Chinese to American speaker of Chinese: "很厉害!" Makes it all worth it.

  34. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 11:37 am

    How popular is either Mandarin or Classic/Literary Chinese as an L2 or L3 for school/university students at present in Japan/Korea/Vietnam, both in absolute terms and as compared to English? Those are the "natural" places for it to be doing well (given historical/cultural/etc. affinities and influences), so that level of current success/failure should give some indication of prospects farther afield.

  35. Victor Mair said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 11:37 am

    @Ned Danison

    That might be a sufficient inducement for those who are desperately in need of an ego boost, but for those are not the drudgery is likely to outweigh the benefits.

  36. Edward J. Cunningham said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 4:49 pm

    I don't know where I read this on the internet, but I heard about certain Chinese expatriates who whenever they wrote to their old Chinese friends who were also expatriates or at least equally well-educated, they would write to them in English. They didn't do this to be "cool", or because they disliked their culture or government—it was just too hard for them to remember the hanzi or Chinese characters needed to write in their native tongue.

    if a writing system is so difficult that people need to use another language to write, then the writing system needs to be changed.

    That being said, I do have a question about my own native language, English. Is there an objective way to measure how difficult it is for speakers of other languages to learn it? Is there an objective way to measure the strengths and weaknesses of English compared to other languages?

  37. Matt said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

    Flow, thanks for that. It's hard to decide which description would be more daunting — "this page shows 5 different ways to write 學" or "this page really shows only 2 different ways to write 學, but one of those ways is itself abbreviated in many different ways (all of which you really ought to learn)".

    (There's actually a whole other semi-legit way to write that character — the top basically becomes the top of 與 — which apparently arose because the cursive versions of the relevant part look identical, as can be verified by comparing "grass script" versions of 與 and 學. So technically, contra my first paragraph, the abbreviated characters on your scan are indeterminate, and could "be" any number of different glyphs… And it only gets worse from there.)

  38. Victor Mair said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 5:10 pm

    @Edward J. Cunningham

    I have many Chinese friends and colleagues who prefer to write to each other in English because they say it is easier than doing so in Chinese. Some of them also say that it is easier for them to express themselves with greater precision, particularly when it comes to science, technology, law, and so forth.

  39. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 6:17 pm

    One possible indication of how far Mandarin is from World-Language status is the extent to which native speakers do or do not expect "outsiders" (i.e. anyone neither ethnic Chinese nor an ethnic minority personally living within the PRC) to understand it. The current issue of the New Yorker has the sad story of a Chinese-American who ended up in federal prison and who made the mistake – while his house was being searched by a team of FBI agents — of talking to his son on the telephone on the assumption that none of the (presumably not East-Asian-ancestry by appearance) FBI agents in the room could understand Mandarin. (He was telling the son something like "when the government interviews you, be sure to tell them you can't remember anything about X," which was a rather imprudent thing to say with an FBI agent within earshot, and the Mandarin-speaking agent snatched the phone out of his hand and gave him a lecture about obstruction of justice.)

  40. Victor Mair said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 6:49 pm

    @J. W. Brewer

    That is a very good point, and you are so right in making it.

    I could tell you countless stories about Chinese saying the most inappropriate things in the presence of "foreigners" because they never dreamed that the foreigners would understand what they were saying: the equivalent of "spring chicken", "foreign devil", "big nose", "cheapskate" "skinflint", and so on.

    In contrast, when I travel around the world, I find Hungarians expecting Japanese to speak English, Thais expecting Pakistanis to speak English, Swedes expecting Czechs to speak English, and so forth.

  41. Stephen said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 8:08 am

    @Edward J. Cunningham @Victor Mair @J.W. Brewer

    1. I have a German friend who has lived in the UK for over 20 and whose English is good (but by no means totally idiomatic and clearly accented).

    She told me that when writing (e.g. email) to people in Germany she always uses English, apart from a few people whose English is not good enough, and that she then very reluctantly uses German. She said that she thinks in English now and so she to mentally translate every thing before she writes it down.

    So part of the reason for someone's choice may just be a lack of practise. Of course with a more complex writing system (and one less like the everyday one) someone may become 'rusty' more quickly.

    2. We know someone who grew up in London speaking English but who has a Welsh-speaking Welsh mother and learned Welsh as a child. As a family they speak English as the father does not speak any Welsh.

    On holiday in Welsh-speaking parts of Wales, quite a number of times that have been in places like shops where the staff are speaking English for the benefit of the (mainly tourist) customers, and the staff have made derogatory comments about the customers in Welsh, on the assumption that they will not be understood.

    Sometimes, just before leaving the mother & daughter would switch in to Welsh to say goodbye & wish the staff a pleasant time.

    3. We recently watched the TV dramatisations of some of the, Swedish, Arne Dahl novels:

    Throughout, all of the Swedish police talk Swedish to each other but when receiving or making a phone call overseas they seamlessly switch into English. In the last story one of them has to go to Italy to follow up on a lead and a chap is chosen as he speaks some Italian. In Italy he is struggling and his Italian counterpart suggests that they switch to English. The Swedish policeman then moves on to Germany where everyone just takes it for granted that they will use English.

  42. zaoliyik said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 8:24 am

    You can find people in malaysia use Mandarin as linga franca, 5 million strong, malaysia is definetely not part of malaysia right?

  43. zaoliyik said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 8:39 am

    Mandarin is so strong in Malaysia that a whole new Mandain dialect arise in Malaysia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malaysian_Mandarin

    Only places that Mandarin truly reside can give rise to a whole new Mandarin dialect, and Malaysia is OUTSIDE China! bunch of people learn Standard Mandarin ( ) in Hong Kong, but there will never be a Hong Kong Mandarin dialect in Hong Kong.

    * Others places where new (arise in modern time) Mandarin dialects arise are all in China's proper: Nanning in Guangxi province, where they have "nanpu"南普(南宁普通话), Hefei in Anhui province, and Taipei in Republic of China.

  44. zaoliyik said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 8:57 am

    Nanning's Mandarin https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/南宁普通话


  45. tsts said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 11:29 am

    "Some people talk as if Mandarin Chinese was gaining on English. It is not, and it never will."

    I think this is where Pullum overstates his claim. Yes, Mandarin is not visibly gaining as a global language of communications now. But that does not mean in never will. But if it happens, it will take time.

    So, some wild guesses for 50 years into the future. (1) Mandarin will largely get rid of the character writing system, either officially or at least de facto. I think there is at least a 50% chance of this happening. Characters will still be present in many contexts but will not be used much in everyday situations. (2) A significant fraction of the scientific literature in many fields will be in Chinese. Maybe 15-20%. Not because Hungarians will publish in Chinese, but because most Chinese researchers will. At the same time, more and more articles by Chinese researchers will appear in English, and this will at first hide the existence of an increasing body of Chinese language literature. But Chinese will slowly establish itself as a second language of science, similar to French or German 50-100 years ago.

    What happens then is hard to tell. In order for a language to become lingua franca between non-native speakers, you need a large base of non-native speakers. But once you get rid of the characters there is not real reason why Chinese could not become a widely known language – I don't think the tones are such as big deal. I think it will become a fairly widely understood language, probably at first mainly regionally in Asia — some number of Koreans, Thais, non-Chinese Malaysian I have met already speak it.

    Anyway, what will happen in 100 to 150 years is anyone's guess. But never say never. There is also the possibility that technological progress in the next decades will completely change our way of thinking about foreign languages and language learning, and that the whole issue becomes meaningless.

  46. Dave Cragin said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 9:48 pm

    My sense is that the difficulty of learning spoken Mandarin isn’t enough to prevent it from becoming a world language. Yes, the tones and the many homophones make it challenging.

    However, many aspects of Mandarin make it “easy” and logical. It has no verb conjugation and no declension of nouns, pronouns, and adjectives. Numbers, days-of-the-week, and months are simple and logical. E.g., Thirty two is 3 10 2. Monday is simply Week 1 and January is simply Month 1.

    It’s also an efficient language that tends to eliminate “unneeded” words. E.g., "The weather is very nice.” in Mandarin is simply “Weather very nice.”

    As noted above, I think that it’s the writing system that inhibits the spread of Mandarin as a world language.

    Similarly, the writing system also inhibits the use of Mandarin as a language of science. Scientists want others to read their work and cite it. Chinese who publish in Chinese are likely to be read only by Chinese speakers. For characters to go away, there would need to be workable replacement and a desire by native speakers to use the replacement. Do either exist?

    I don't hear any of my Chinese friends saying “we need to replace our writing system.” To me, it’s akin to English spelling. Most English speakers likely agree that it would be better if English had spelling that reflects the current spoken language. This would increase literacy. However, what are chances this will happen during the next 50 years? I think close to zero.

  47. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 5:10 am

    @Dave Cragin:

    "I don't hear any of my Chinese friends saying 'we need to replace our writing system.'”

    Well, you may not hear any of your Chinese friends saying "we need to replace our writing system", but I certainly have had and still do have many Chinese friends and colleagues who feel an urgent need for radical improvements in the Chinese writing system. For the last century and more, there have been thousands of progressive advocates of script reform in China. If you're interested in this subject, see the works of John DeFrancis:


    For some of the earliest proposals for Chinese script reform, see my chapter on "Advocates of Script Reform" in Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 2: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano., pp. 302ff.

    For East Asian script reform more generally, see the works of William C. Hannas.

  48. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 5:29 am


    I actually find your "wild guesses" to be quite stimulating. Most intriguing of all is your speculation that, within 50 years, there is a 50% chance "Mandarin will largely get rid of the character writing system, either officially or at least de facto." Nearly half a century ago, I myself said that — because of the pressures of modernization — either Chinese would adopt romanization (as part of a digraphia) or English would increasingly become the language of communication, especially for science and technology and for international purposes. Whether one considers this an unfortunate trend or not, the trajectory we've been witnessing for the last few decades — with the tempo increasing the longer the Chinese people are actively engaged with the world on many levels — is the rapid growth of English in many realms of language use in China.

  49. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 7:10 am

    Of course, the future of Sinitic languages depends mainly on the continued political, social, and economic stability of the PRC.

  50. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 9:17 am

    1901 character dictionary

    The following article compares the Chéngzhōng méngxué táng zì kè túshuō 澄衷蒙学堂字课图说 with the phenomenally popular contemporary Xīnhuá zìdiǎn 新華字典 by focusing on 13 characters:


    For an introduction to the dictionary and its authors, see:


    Apparently Hu Shi and his peers learned their characters from this dictionary, and the aboluowang article contends that, if one really wants to rescue the Chinese characters from ultimate oblivion, students need to be taught from dictionaries like the 1901 one introduced here.

  51. julie lee said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 11:01 am

    @Victor Mair, @ Dave Cragin:

    Victor Mair says: "Of course, the future of Sinitic languages depends mainly on the continued political, social, and economic stability of the PRC."

    Dave Cragin says: "My sense is that the difficulty of learning spoken Mandarin isn’t enough to prevent it from becoming a world language."

    I agree. If Chinese characters are romanized with Pinyin, I don't see why Chinese can't become a world language. Pinyin makes Chinese much easier to learn. I was surprised how easy it was to teach an American 7-year-old learn and memorize Mandarin texts in the correct tones. I taught them as singing notes. I expected much more difficulty. He also took piano lessons and wasn't especially musical. I taught an adult Caucasian-American woman the four Mandarin tones, and she was coming along nicely when we parted. As I see it, it all depends on how much time you spend on a language. I have Chinese friends who had a heck of a time learning English as an adult, and after some years of diligent effort, achieved astonishing mastery of it. The one who achieved the greatest mastery had also spent the greatest amount of time and effort on it, and was the most motivated.

  52. julie lee said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 11:30 am

    @Dave Cragin says:
    "I don't hear any of my Chinese friends saying 'we need to replace our writing system.'”

    Same here. My Chinese friends who had a Chinese education K-12 through college amazed me with with the speed with which they wrote cursive Chinese in college. Almost all the characters were abbreviated (abbreviations were used centuries before Mao, and many are standard abbreviations). Later I had the good fortune to work in an American university where there were books in the library showing texts in cursive Ancient Demotic Egyptian and in Ancient Phoenician. The cursive Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Phoenician of more than 2000 years ago looked as if they were written with quills at great speed, just like a lot of written cursive English or cursive Chinese. So people can always devise ways of writing a language very fast. My classmates at a Chinese university (Taiwan University) would take down notes in Chinese literature and philosophy courses in cursive Chinese rapidly as if they were writing shorthand. We had no textbooks at that time when we were all refugees, and our exams were all based on detailed classroom lectures recorded in this manner by all the students. But again, it is a matter of time spent in learning. My classmates came mostly from the privileged classes and had had about 10 years of school education before they attended college (some less because of war). The poorer child would not have been able to go to school for ten years. Learning how to write very fast in Pinyin romanization of course takes very little time.

  53. Jimbino said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 12:24 pm

    "Some people talk as if Mandarin Chinese was gaining on English. It is not, and it never will."

    The proper comment to "Some people talk as if Mandarin Chinese was gaining on English" can't be "It is not…."

    Some people talk as if Mandarin Chinese were gaining on English. It is not, and it never will" would be correct. "As if" is the sign that a verb in the subjunctive mood will follow.

    If English keeps demonstrably disintegrating on the pages of Language Log and elsewhere, Mandarin will not only gain, but conquer.

  54. Levantine said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 1:21 pm

    Jimbino, I think Pullum knows better than most how to use the subjunctive. He was writing idiomatically, and many readers (myself included) neither noticed nor cared that he used "was" in that sentence.

    In fact, the traditional rules would demand that you write "If English keep demonstrably disintegrating", so perhaps you should reinforce your own glass house before throwing stones.

  55. Jimbino said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 1:52 pm

    The problem, Levantine, is that folks who follow the descriptivist suggestion that they learn their English by googling will find Pullum's bad grammar and think it's ok to use it. Your traditional " rule" is bogus.

  56. Matt_M said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 2:12 pm

    "If English keeps demonstrably disintegrating on the pages of Language Log and elsewhere, Mandarin will not only gain, but conquer."

    Jimbino, I think you've just demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that you are completely nuts.

    It's also worth mentioning that your own comment would require revision by a careful editor if you were submitting it for publication. You use the word "comment" in an extremely loose sense; you write "comment to" rather than "comment on" (an unidiomatic usage that as far as I know is not recognised by any English dictionary); your punctuation is atrocious (what happened to the opening quotation mark at the beginning of your third paragraph?); and your decision to use the definite rather than indefinite article in "'As if' is the sign…" is very strange. Are you a native speaker of English?

  57. Jimbino said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 3:21 pm


    Is your "tu quoque" comment encouraged on Language Log? Let me reorganize the "comment" phrase so that you might understand:

    "A comment proper to…" is standard usage in American English. while "a comment proper on…" is not.

    Yes, I am a native Guarani speaker, fluent in several other languages. You probably speak only English, and poorly, which explains why you don't understand the difficulty in using quotation-marks with the International Keyboard of the PC or Mac.

  58. Levantine said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 3:22 pm

    No, Jimbino, it is how the subjunctive was once "properly" used:



    Granted, no-one has idiomatically used the subjunctive in this way for a very long time, but that in itself should tell you something about the absurdity of your own prescriptivism. It's interesting to note how much you echo the late-nineteenth-century commentator in the first of the links I've provided (the following is a block quotation):

    In practical use the Subjunctive is gradually declining, because so many of the old distinctive inflexions are lost that the few remaining are frequently not understood, or are confounded with the indicative. . . . But a right use of the subjunctive is certainly an elegance of diction, though it may sometimes sound almost pedantic. Thus to say "I would not go if I were you," or "Tommy shall come if he keep well," or "whether it be rainy or fine is no matter," are all better English than the modern careless habit which would say "if I was you," "if he keeps well," "whether it is rainy," etc.

  59. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 4:41 pm

    GKP’s obvious response: "As if I care."

  60. Paul Kay said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 5:54 pm

    Jimbino, you're wrong about half a dozen ways, all but one of which Levantine and Matt_M have pointed out. The remaining way in which you are misinformed is that were in "as if Mandarin Chinese were gaining on English" is not the subjunctive form of be. The subjunctive form of the verb be is be. The subjunctive from of every English verb is what the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls the plain form. It's the form that comes after to in the (marked) infinitive. For example, for those who use the subjunctive — not everyone does — we say "I insist that he arrive (not arrives) on time; The boss requires that the last one leaving turn out (not turns out) the lights; It is essential that she be (not were) in attendance at every meeting." The were form that often follows if, whether or not preceded by as, is called an irrealis form. It is also occasionally called a subjunctive form, but that is an error, albeit an error sometimes made by people who should know better. Finally, "as if Mandarin Chinese was gaining on English" is absolutely standard; the irrealis form is standard, too, but not required. Take a look at what an expert on the subjunctive, which I'm not, has to say here.

  61. Eidolon said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 6:16 pm

    Pullum gave several reasons for the triumph of English over other standard languages, and I tend to side with him in the belief that none of these reasons have to do with the language itself, but rather with political and historical dynamics – specifically the disproportionate role the West, and the English speaking West especially, has played in world affairs in the last few centuries. Mandarin, even were it to feature an alphabetic writing system, is in no position to contest that.

    As to whether the Chinese writing system has negatively affected the spread of Sinitic languages, I think a distinction first has to be made between adopting a language and adopting an orthographic system. Japan, Korea, and Vietnam adopted China's orthographic system; they did not adopt a Sinitic language. On the other hand, Malaysian Chinese are adopting a dialect of Standard Mandarin in spite of the writing system, not because of it. These are two separate historical processes, guided by different motivations. For Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, the motivation was initially the elite's desire to access the vast cultural repertoire written in literary Chinese and their association of such literacy with elite status and political recognition. It was not because they wanted to speak a Chinese language. For Malaysian Chinese, on the other hand, speaking Mandarin is of utmost importance because of the advantage it confers in accessing the Chinese market and Chinese business opportunities.

    Having made this distinction, I have to say that it largely fits Pullum's principle that history and politics is what decides language spread, not ease of use. Japan, Korea, and Vietnam took up the Chinese orthographic system not because it was the easiest way to write their language, but because it was prestigious and provided access to a vast cultural repertoire. Malaysian Chinese took up the Mandarin language not because it had a standardized pinyin form, but because it conferred important advantages in business and education. The same applies to English. People aren't learning English because it has a relatively simple alphabetic script, but because it is internationally prestigious and economically important, both in its spoken and in its written form.

  62. Edward J. Cunningham said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 9:13 pm

    If English has a weakness, it's not in the abuse of subjunctive but rather homynyms. I've actually seen books published which consistently use "could of" instead of "could've". This wasn't a mistake that got past the editor—the author genuinely thought that "could of" was correct English. I don't make that mistake, but in spite of myself I find that I will type "your" instead of "you're" sometimes. Keeping that in mind, I decided not to correct the same mistakes written in this comment thread by others.

  63. Dave Cragin said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 9:38 pm

    Hi Victor, Thanks – I looked at J DeFrancis’s 2006 article The Prospects for Chinese Writing Reform http://www.pinyin.info/readings/defrancis/chinese_writing_reform.html

    He notes: “At present we can say that there are three groups of intellectuals addressing the issue of writing reform: (1) a relatively small but all-powerful group of intellectuals opposed to reform who control the government, (2) an undoubtedly large majority of intellectuals who (together with ordinary people as a whole) likewise oppose the reform, and (3) an indeterminate number of reformers who, though largely silenced, still, as we shall see, favor the reform. “

    My friends would fit his #2 category – except that changing the character system isn't something they actively consider. As a learner, I would much rather use Pinyin or another writing system. It just doesn't seem like there is the ground swell necessary to make this happen in China.

    I wonder if technology will decrease or increase the likelihood of characters disappearing. Technology certainly has eliminated some of the drudgery of using characters and my general sense is this helps preserve them. Any perspectives on this?

  64. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 11:06 pm

    @David Cragin

    See the books by William C. Hannas (Asia's Orthographic Dilemma and The Writing on the Wall) and the observations of David Moser about Chinese language learning here:

    "The future of Chinese language learning is now"

    Also read all the many Language Log posts having to do with character amnesia.


  65. Lane said,

    May 6, 2014 @ 4:35 am

    Nobody answered my question, so I'm going to stubbornly repeat it, because I know some of you will have experience or more detailed knowledge: Does Mandarin have no significant lingua-franca role in Asia at all?

    I'm going to be debating Nick Ostler on the future of English as a lingua franca at a conference in Dublin next month. He believes computer-aided translation/interpretation will triumph so that no future lingua franca will be needed. I believe that before that happens, English will have such an unassailable position that it will probably not be dislodged in our lifetimes. (Neither of us thinks Mandarin is going to do it, needless to say.)

    We laid out our initial positions informally here:



  66. GeorgeW said,

    May 6, 2014 @ 4:50 am

    Edward J. Cunningham: I agree that the large number of homophones may be the most difficult aspect of English. Even spell checkers, as well as editors, have problems with multiple homophones such as (for some speakers): mettle, meddle, medal and metal, or right, rite, wright and write.

    A related difficulty is the deep orthography in which the spelling cannot be accurately predicted by the sounds, or the sounds predicted by the written form.

  67. Edward J. Cunningham said,

    May 6, 2014 @ 9:28 am

    Native speakers who learn their language growing up naturally think their language is easier than all others. Is there an objective way to measure how difficult it is for non-English speakers to learn English?

  68. GeorgeW said,

    May 6, 2014 @ 9:54 am

    "Is there an objective way to measure how difficult it is for non-English speakers to learn English?"

    I would think there would be a general rule as to how distant the language is from English with fewer common grammatical features and cognates.

  69. Eidolon said,

    May 6, 2014 @ 4:15 pm

    Lane: Mandarin *is* the lingua franca of what is, at times, called 'Greater China': the PRC, the ROC/Taiwan, Singapore, and among Chinese communities in Malaysia. The various natively spoken Sinitic languages, especially in the southern regions of China, are not mutually intelligible, and minorities in China who do not speak Sinitic languages also use Mandarin as a lingua franca these days.

    However, it is *not* the lingua franca of East Asia outside of the immediate cultural sphere of Chinese civilization, even among the traditionally honorary members of that cultural sphere ie Korea and Vietnam. The spread of Chinese orthography, despite its difficulty, is further than the Sinitic languages themselves.

  70. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2014 @ 5:34 pm


    The striking thing about Chinese languages in Southeast Asia is that they are spoken essentially only among persons of Chinese ancestry, which is quite unlike the role of English in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the world, where it is spoken by persons from many different ethnic backgrounds. Furthermore, although Lee Kuan Yew has made a push for the expansion of Mandarin *among Chinese* in Singapore (though he can barely speak, read, and write it himself), Sinitic languages spoken in Southeast Asia tend to be along long established regional lines: Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, Chaozhou / Chiuchow / Teochew, etc.

  71. julie lee said,

    May 6, 2014 @ 7:14 pm

    I'd like to clarify my view:
    I believe Pinyin makes it possible for Chinese to become a world language. Chinese is much easier to learn with Pinyin romanization. I don't think Chinese can ever become a world language with the character-script. The character-script can be written very fast in cursive, using abbreviated forms (of the characters), but even so, the character-script in cursive is much harder to learn than a Pinyin (romanization) script. Moreover, a Pinyin script has many advantages, aside from speed of learning and writing. A Pinyin script is alphabetic and has many advantages such as in filing. I've found it almost impossible to find Chinese books in Chinese bookshops because the books are not filed alphabetically, since the character-script is not alphabetic. One has to depend on the memory of the salesperson to locate a book.
    However, I don't think Chinese will become a world language even with Pinyin unless China has continued political, social, and economic stability.

  72. Matt_M said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 6:02 am


    I think that a tu quoque reply is entirely apt in response to an irrelevant and insolent comment. When a comment is devoid of logos, one may as well reply by addressing the author's ethos.

    Anyway, I'm not sure that blaming your keyboard for your punctuation slips is a valid excuse, since your following comments still contain punctuation errors. And your defense of "a proper comment to" is flawed on two counts. Firstly, when followed by "to," the word "proper" does not have your intended meaning of "correct, appropriate", but rather of "belonging or relating exclusively or distinctively to; particular to." Secondly, prenominal adjectives do not normally govern prepositional phrases. Compare "a boy frightened of dogs," which is grammatical, with "a frightened boy of dogs," which is not.

    Look, I would never normally criticize a comment for slips of the keyboard or grammatical errors; my nit-picking was a response to your setting yourself up as an authority on English usage. I think it's great that you've learnt to speak a foreign language as fluently and idiomatically as you do. But that accomplishment doesn't license you to rudely criticise those who don't follow the bogus grammar "rules" you endorse. The use of the plain past tense form of "be" in counterfactuals instead of the marked irrealis form "were" has been a common (if minority) variant in standard English for almost as long as a standard form of English has existed. Your baseless assertion that its use is "bad English" is simply mistaken.

  73. Dave Cragin said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 9:54 pm

    For a fun look at grammar errors, see: 12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes.

    The linguist Jonathan McWhorter has pointed out that when people learn his profession, many say "Did I say that right?" He says "I understood you." He notes that linguists generally aren't grammar nazis because they know the history of language and how it changes. "Correct" grammar changes over time.

    For example, until the 1960s, it was grammatically correct to say "I was born at Philadelphia." Now, Americans say "I was born in Philadelphia." Similarly, he points out no uses the grammatically correct phrase – "I'm correct, amn't I?" – We say "I'm correct, aren't I?" It's perfectly understandable bad grammar.

    McWhorter's series "Myths, lies, and half-truths of language usage" has a good discussion on the supposed decay of the English language. Personally, I'm very glad that English has decayed so much that we no longer have the grammatical gender of Old English.

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