Language is a tool. People learn language to expand their scope of knowledge, to do business, understand other peoples and cultures, or just to talk to their friends and family. Successful learners of foreign languages all have two things in common – a strong impetus and an environment in which they can use their acquired language skills.
The Chinese language is a key foundation for many East Asian languages and dialects as well as a source of cultural identity for not only the Chinese people, but Japanese, Koreans and even Vietnamese through their adoption of Chinese characters. This has created a synergy between various Asian cultures.
China’s economic miracle and the economic drive it has created has made it necessary and even attractive for people to learn the Chinese language, and where there is demand there will ultimately be supply. Educational institutions around the world, including universities, high schools and even primary schools, have started offering courses in Mandarin, while China itself has been working to promote cultural and linguistic programs through the Confucius Institutes and other partnership programs.
While progress has been made in this area, there are still barriers to the further promotion and presence of place of the Chinese language in many countries around the world, especially developed nations.
Why we study language
In today’s global village, despite advances in artificial intelligence and communication technologies, a mastery of language is required to truly engage with and be effective in the larger global community. In Europe, India and many African countries, where multiple languages abound, this has been a fact of life for people for centuries. Languages like Latin, French and later English, served as common tongues throughout various periods in history due to imperial and colonial expansion, while languages like Classical Chinese and Sanskrit served as official languages to facilitate communication across time and geographies.
Despite the varied linguistic traditions and needs of various peoples and nations around the world, the ultimate reason that humans study a language other than there native tongue is singular: communication. The content of that communication could be diplomatic, economic, philosophical, religious or anything in between. It could also be spoken or written.
In the past, systems of education throughout the world used a common language to pass on knowledge of the past to later generations. In Europe, Latin was taught to provide young people with a knowledge of the classics that formed the foundation for philosophical and social values that originated in ancient Rome and Greece; today this has become less common. Similarly, Classical Chinese, used nearly exclusively in its written form for many centuries, served a similar purpose as Latin, but it also ensured that information could be shared across China’s massive territory and be understood by people in regions that spoke entirely unintelligible dialects of spoken Chinese. In more recent times, China has worked to unify its spoken and written language to further unite the country.
Today, language education and the motivations for young people to learn a foreign language has changed. Less of a tool to pass on the wisdom of the past, many now learn foreign languages for work or broader cultural understanding, but very often learners simply treat it like just another course. This is particularly true in the linguistically monotone United States, where for the most part there is little opportunity or need to use a foreign language, and in China, where most students of English learn by wrote and have littler practical use for the language beyond course requirements.
Chinese as a global language
While “China” maybe quickly becoming a household word and a focus for much of the world with more and more people from around the world learning Chinese to live and work there, the Chinese language faces a number of barriers in terms of becoming a global language. These include the presence of tones, which most of the world’s major languages lack, and the use of non-phonetic Chinese characters.
The fact that Chinese is becoming increasingly popular in universities, secondary schools, and even primary education around the world is a credit to China’s growing influence. The wild differences in Chinese compared with other languages makes the initial investment by students greater than many other languages. Of the four categories of languages outlined by the Foreign Service Institute of the US State Department, Category IV contains only five of the 70 languages taught by the Institute. These are considered “super-hard languages” for English speakers and include Arabic, Chinese-Cantonese, Chinese-Mandarin, Japanese and Korean. While this is only one measure of the difficulty of Chinese, it is one that highlights the dramatic differences between Chinese and other world languages, which is a barrier to it becoming spoken by a wider global population outside of China.
One advantage Chinese does have is its status as an official language in the United Nations and its practical use by many governments and communities that contain a substantial Chinese-speaking population. The presence of an increasing number of Chinese immigrants in various countries around the world will bring with them their language, and in a world where there is an increased awareness of the need for cultural diversity and respect of cultural traditions, it is possible that those communities will provide increased context and drive the need for Chinese language learning.
Chinese education and learning around the world
The teaching and learning of Mandarin Chinese has grown considerably in recent years and remains in high demand despite the decline in travel to and from China due to Covid-19 restrictions. The main reason for this is China’s continued influence in both economics and politics, which will continue to attract students to learn the language.
By 2021, over 70 countries around the world had added Mandarin Chinese to their national curriculum with over 4,000 universities offering programs in the language and an estimated 25 million people around the world learning Chinese as a second language. Growth was especially strong pre-pandemic with programs like the One Million Strong initiative that had been initiated by Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, which worked to increase the number of Mandarin learners in the United States, which is currently estimated to have more than 250,000 people learning the language. Other programs that support language and cultural education include those initiated by the Chinese government like Confucius Institutes and other programs.
While the number of people learning Chinese as a foreign language is growing around the world, it is growing especially quickly in Southeast Asia and developing countries. This is not surprising due to the geographic proximity of Southeast Asia with China, existing Chinese diaspora communities in these countries as well as China’s accession to RCEP and other trade agreements that fuel trade and economic exchanges. Another source of Chinese learners also include students from developing countries in Central Asia and Africa, many of which come to China for higher education and career development. Many also choose to live and work in China.
While it is unlikely that Mandarin Chinese will replace English as the lingua franca of academics, politics and trade any time soon, the demand for Chinese language education as well as the scope and scale of its use is on the rise.
Considering the existing interest and investment in Chinese language education in many countries around the world, it is very possible that as China continues to open up as the world emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, programs in and demand for programs in Mandarin Chinese around the world will increase.
Beyond practical applications in academics and business, hope that increased interest in and exposure to the Chinese language will serve to make Chinese culture and history more accessible, empowering more people around the world to explore for themselves this ancient and fascinating civilization.