Chinese language barriers fall

With the rise of China’s global power comes parallel increases in influence, with a new Australian book forecasting that Chinese has the potential to become a more prominent global language.

With more than 100 million people outside China estimated to be studying the language, a new book by Flinders University academic Dr Jeffrey Gil looks at the expansion of Mandarin and other varieties of Chinese as part of the 21st century 汉语热 (hànyǔ rè) or ‘Chinese fever’.

By investigating the language’s use and status, as well as people’s perceptions and beliefs about it, The Rise of Chinese as a Global Language: Prospects and Obstacles (Palgrave Macmillan) DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-76171-4_1 analyses the implications of its large-scale acquisition and adoption for a range of reasons by individuals, governments and organisations.

“The main factors which support Chinese becoming a global language are China’s geopolitical importance, the large number of Chinese speakers around the world, and China’s economic power and influence in the world. These are the main reasons why so many people in the world today are learning Chinese,” says Flinders University linguistics expert Dr Gil, who has also taught at universities in China.

While its writing system is challenging to learn and use, the main impediment to it becoming a global language is that Chinese lacks an association with popular culture, science and technology, education and research, he says.

“However, while English will continue to be the main global language, we are seeing evidence of Chinese being used alongside English in more situations.

“Many airports around the world now have Chinese signage and Chinese is much more visible in the commercial and business districts of cities than it was just a few years ago. This co-existence of English and Chinese as global languages is likely to increase in the medium-term.

“At the same time, Chinese is unlikely to become the sole global language in the short-to-medium term considering the gap between the use and status of Chinese and English at present,” he says, adding any long-term replacement of English with Chinese as a global language would stem from “China either becoming a superpower or a threat”.

The book uses a conceptual framework of language comprehensive competitiveness, which sets out the resources that can be accessed through a language and the benefits it can bring to people who speak it.

The components of language comprehensive competitiveness are:

  • Policy competitiveness
  • Cultural competitiveness
  • Economic competitiveness
  • Population competitiveness
  • Script competitiveness
  • Scientific/technological competitiveness
  • Educational competitiveness
  • Geostrategic competitiveness

Drawing upon existing data from various sources as well as original data from Chinese language learners, Chinese language teachers and Chinese scholars, Dr Gil show how Chinese stacks up on each of these measures and compares this to English – the current global language.

As well as English, the world’s leading languages include Chinese, Arabic, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Malay, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swahili and Turkish – most with at least 100 million users around the world.

No other language has ever achieved the status of English, and it appears well-entrenched as a global language, however the book contends the use and status of Chinese on a global level has not generally received adequate attention from applied linguists.

Dr Gil says the book will interest linguistics experts as well as students and scholars with an interest in English as a global language, Chinese as a second/foreign language, and language education policymakers.

Jeffrey Gil is a Senior Lecturer in ESOL/TESOL at Flinders University, Australia. He has published widely on applied linguistics topics and is the author of Soft Power and the Worldwide Promotion of Chinese Language Learning: The Confucius Institute Project (2017).

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