Did you know that the Chinese alphabet, by a conservative estimate, comprises of more than 6000 letters? And that students take several years to learn the alphabet, before they can claim to have a thorough knowledge of the language?
Did you know that there are several dialects of the Chinese language, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka and so on, and that each dialect has its own tonal variations and internal diversity?
But then again, did you know that there are more than 900 million speakers of the standard Mandarin dialect alone, which makes it the most widely spoken language in the world, far surpassing English?
Confused? Well, it’s natural. On the one hand, you just read that Chinese is the most commonly spoken language in the world. On the other hand, you came to know that Chinese is a very complicated language with several variations and intonations. So how is a language so widely spoken, in spite of appearing so forbidding? Well, that’s the conundrum that we are going to analyze!
The popularity and spread of a native language has always been a function of the economy of the country to which it belongs. Consider the British. They were the world rulers at one point of time in history and had an extremely strong economy - a fact that spawned the adage “the sun never sets on the English soil”. Along with their domination came the proliferation of their language, English. The language was projected as the language of the world, though the French begged to differ! Gradually it became the common denominator for the conduct of all trade and commerce, as Britain ruled all commercial activity at that time. Consequently, it became necessary for the common man also to adopt this language if he was to remain in the fray of daily activity. Of course, the concept of colonization undertaken by the British helped their cause of world domination to a significant extent: whether in terms of politics, trade, culture and, of course, language. The white man’s burden or civilizing the savages, was undertaken by the British to consolidate their single-minded obsession with imperialism. Even though British superiority has been reduced to only a weak shadow of its former strength, the British still continue to rule the world by the sheer dint of the popularity of their language: English. According to some, their language is the new weapon by which the Empire seeks, once again, to establish its strength and superiority. That’s pretty strange for a language that’s almost entirely derived from a blend of French, Latin, Greek and Scandinavian! Nonetheless, it’s true.
Now let’s take a look at the Chinese language. Its beginnings are obscure and it’s largely believed to be a descendant of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Philologists claim that ancient Chinese was without inflections and that lots of words were borrowed from Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese. Through a passage of time, however, the Chinese language came to be standardized and standard Mandarin became the chief language to be used in mainland China. Not only does the language have thousands of letters in its alphabet, each letter is also a picture (pictograph) that conveys its own generic message. It’s no wonder then that it takes students quite a few years to learn the rudiments of the language, let alone master it. The English alphabet, on the other hand, has just 26 letters and it doesn’t take too long for a student to gain a basic understanding of the same.
When one wonders if Chinese will eventually overtake English as the global language, one has to realize that Chinese is already the most widely spoken language in the world, but that is because of the vast population of China! Outside the Chinese mainland, one wonders how many people have a basic or working knowledge of Chinese, either by choice or by compulsion. English on the other hand, is spoken by roughly 350 million people across the world and is gaining popularity in terms of usage and adaptability, even in China! It’s a well-known fact that there is huge demand for English speaking professionals in China who can facilitate international business. There is also acute demand for English teachers who can make the Chinese students better equipped for modern-day business and life. So from emerging trends, it seems evident that Chinese is not poised to overtake English as a global language, at least anytime soon. Admittedly, the Chinese economy is strong enough to boost the cause and popularity of its language, just like the English did. But, it is possible that China’s resurgent economy is a result of its ability to adapt to others’ languages and way of work rather than the imposition of the Chinese language on other countries.
For the mass acceptance of a language, it needs to be simple enough to look approachable. It is plainly evident that English is a far simpler language to learn: grammatically, linguistically, phonetically, as well as in terms of usage and application. On the one hand, Chinese phonetics is extremely complicated. It has four “tones” and each word can be pronounced in four different ways to mean four different things. English phonetics, on the other hand is relatively simpler. It is a global language and has been adopted by different countries as the language of daily use. The accents in which the language is spoken may vary drastically across the globe, but anyone educated consistently in the English medium is usually able to decipher what is being said, whether it is in an Australian, American, or even an Indian accent.
Further, English earns tremendous brownie points for itself, by virtue of that one hallmark that ensures the universality and popularity of a language: FLEXIBILITY. The English language is an extremely dynamic one that keeps changing according to the tastes and preferences of the English speaking population of the world. Given its origins, where it borrowed freely from all languages of the world, modern day English too, has no qualms about borrowing words from all over the world. Any word that becomes popular or assumes cult significance in any country, inevitably finds its way to that ultimate tome of approval: The Oxford English Dictionary. Hence we find words in the English language that have been incorporated from French, German, Italian, Dutch, Hindi etc. without even the slightest of modifications. This dynamism of the English language is what keeps it alive and prolongs its appeal. When the perimeters of a language become too rigid, so as to forbid free lending and borrowing of words, it turns upon itself and achieves nothing but its own gradual extinction, as is the case with languages like Sanskrit, Pali, Hebrew, Latin and so on.
English remains relevant today in every sphere of human life and activity. Though the Chinese economy is strong enough to significantly boost the cause of the Chinese language, it seems unlikely that Chinese is going to displace English as the global language eventually. If that were to happen, it would entail an entire linguistic and cultural revolution, which does not seem feasible or practical. Interestingly, there is not much effort even from the Chinese to promote their language on an international platform. They are happy to be able to speak their own language, but when it comes to international business, it is they who choose to do business the way the world does - in English.
However, it cannot be denied that till date Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world. But that is because of the huge Chinese population, within and outside China. It seems quite improbable and far-fetched that the most widely spoke language in the world will also become the most popular.
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