Yes, learning characters and mastering tones is a major challenge. That said, it’s far too early to discount the future potential of Mandarin. Let’s explore three reasons why Mandarin may never overtake English, along with three reasons why Mandarin could surprise us to become the lingua franca of the 22nd century.

First we must ask ourselves: what constitutes “speaking” a language? Can we claim Lithuanian proficiency if we banter with a taxi driver in Vilnius? Is negotiating the purchase of a cow in Nairobi sufficient for us to say we’re speakers of Swahili? And is it enough if we crack a joke in Urdu and get a laugh? It’s more complex than that.

The term “mother tongue” derives from our most basic human connection, mother and child. In The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson tells the splendid tale of how English was the underdog of all language underdogs but overcame its humble Germanic origins to outlast Latin, Gaelic, French and other powerful champions of the past. Given its meteoric ascension, we would be foolhardy indeed to assume English will dominate the language landscape forever and a day. So without further ado, let’s have a look at three reasons…

Why Mandarin is unlikely to overtake English

1. More people worldwide are studying English than Chinese

A recent Reuters article comparing US & China exchange student enrollment reveals that the number of US students studying in China (2012-13) decreased by 3.2% to 14,413, while the number of Chinese students studying in the US (2013-14) jumped 16.5% to more than 274,000. While exchange students are only one small piece of a larger puzzle, most of the data online suggests that the unstoppable “let’s all study Chinese” trend of five years ago has cooled a bit, at least for the short term.

2. Learning Mandarin is still widely perceived as too difficult

In our book China Simplified: Language Empowerment we affectionately refer to Mandarin as the easiest (and hardest) language in the world:

Imagine a galaxy far, far away, where everyone uses much simpler grammar, nobody bothers with singular and plural, masculine and feminine forms don’t exist, past/present/future variations are a piece of cake, and there are no complex verb conjugations. Sound too good to be true?

It’s easy to get started using the Romanized version called pīnyīn 拼音 (lit. “spelled sound”) which gives a direct phonetic shortcut to any character. The hard part, mastering tones (Mandarin has four, Shanghainese has eight, Cantonese has nine) and memorizing the character set (3,500 commonly used) in order to become fully proficient, is daunting indeed. After a quick ROI assessment, many potential students decline to take the plunge.

China Simplified: Chinese language mistake

3. Many native speakers, fewer second language speakers

Mandarin still has a steep path to climb towards worldwide acceptance. Less than 20% of its one billion plus speakers are second language speakers. Compare that with the current dominance of English, in which, according to author and speaker Fredrik Hären, we could select any two random people speaking English right now on the planet and there’s only a 4% chance that both are native English speakers.

Moreover, despite all the effervescent glee in the business press, the “Asian Century” is far from guaranteed. Japan appeared destined for dominance in the 1980s, only to fall back into the pack when limits to its economic model emerged. China has impressed everyone with its achievements over the past 35 years, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. The next 35 years are much more uncertain.

China Simplified: World's top languages

After listing the reasons why he considers English the easier language, Jorge Araya in his Harvard Crimson post sums up the second language dilemma by stating:

It seems that much of the resources currently dedicated to teaching Mandarin as a foreign language are simply wasted. Seen from a purely objective economic viewpoint, it is far more efficient to have a native Mandarin speaker learn English than vice-versa, or for someone who speaks neither language to learn the latter. Less overall effort is required, and correspondingly energy can then be redirected to more productive activities. The end result is the same, as long as both parties are able to communicate.

Surely all the native English speakers out there are on board with that assessment. Nonetheless, Mandarin’s days as an underperforming second language may soon be over. Here are three reasons…

Why Mandarin may surprise us to become
the lingua franca of the 22nd century

1. Modern tools are making Mandarin easier to learn

Dr. Victor Mair in his Language Log discusses how modern digital tools are revolutionizing the study and usage of Chinese. For example, why should we practice writing thousands of characters over and over again when on our devices will handle that drudgery for us? Our time can thus be spent in more productive areas, such as real world speaking practice and increasing our vocabularies.

Powerful new technology is combining multiple professional dictionaries into one speedy app (Pleco), facilitating production of a plethora of modular lessons (ChinesePod and Popup Chinese podcasts), and organizing and leveling all the grammar patterns you ever need to learn (the AllSet Learning Chinese Grammar Wiki). All this offers Mandarin students an accelerated pathway to optimized language learning success. John Pasden, AllSet’s Founder and CEO, explains it this way:

It has always felt like it’s way more work to learn Chinese as opposed to other foreign languages. Even respected scholars call learning Chinese “damn hard.” Fortunately, technology is helping to close the gap, but it can’t make Chinese itself “easy.” Learning a language is always going to take plenty of time and effort. Chinese characters are always going to mean a little more work, but thanks to technology, it’s becoming manageable.

The biggest problem is many students have yet to fully leverage these tools in their learning process and are still doing things “the hard way.”

2. China is destined to reclaim a prominent role in the world

The strongest argument for the growth of Chinese language is pure economics. In the decades ahead, China will surpass the United States to become the world’s largest economy and speaking Mandarin offers a quick ticket to capitalize on that megatrend. It’s hard to argue with reality – we live in a material world and people do tend to follow the cash. As a country goes, so goes its language. The long term China opportunity for upcoming generations is alive and well.

What’s more, English could be following the path of vulgar Latin, which left a modern legacy of nearly fifty thriving Romance Languages including Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan and Romanian, yet by the 16th century Latin had diminished in mainstream usage beyond the Catholic church and the hallowed halls of European lawmakers. Across the 170 countries in which English is now considered an official language, members of our English-speaking diaspora are perfectly happy using mutually unintelligible vernaculars with no compulsion whatsoever to mirror the Queen’s English. The language now belongs to everyone. Meanwhile, China to race full steam ahead towards a standard Mandarin.

3. You don’t have to relocate to China; Chinese are coming to you

Even if you have no plans to live in China, a decent Mandarin ability offers significant advantages when interacting and collaborating with the ever increasing numbers of Chinese traveling and relocating overseas. Despite the ubiquity of “made in China” products, Chinese companies and their soon-to-be-household brands will need to hire vast numbers of foreign nationals to staff their overseas offices. Again, some Mandarin skills can’t hurt there.

China Simplified: Nelson Mandela quote

Becoming highly proficient in Mandarin isn’t easy. But who cares? We don’t avoid learning to bike just because we might never win the X-Games. And we can start enjoying cooking classes on day one, without stressing over whether we’ll ever become Michelin 3-star chefs. And if over a BILLION people already speak it, how hard can it be?

We’re wondering how much longer it will take China to figure out the math. Start with a billion adult native speakers. Buy them smartphones. Give them high-speed internet. And in return, they each teach one foreigner to speak basic Mandarin. Instant lingua franca! Short of that kind of miracle, English appears poised to remain the front runner of the 21st century.

What about the 22nd century and beyond? Your guess is as good as ours, though wem anticipate a thriving world of amazing ideas being expressed in both broken English and broken Chinese.

China Simplified: Language Empowerment

China-savvy producer Stewart Lee Beck and language professional Katie Lu take you on an entertaining journey to the heart of the Chinese language to deepen your understanding of China and its people.

  • Jump start your Mandarin studies
  • Gain valuable insights into the language
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  • 1. “More people worldwide are studying English than Chinese”

    A simple mis-statement. It doesn’t count people in China as studying Chinese. Sorta dopey way to start out.

    2. “we could select any two random people speaking English right now on the planet and there’s only a 4% chance that both are native English speakers.”

    For this to be true four-fifths of “people speaking English right now” would have to be non-English speaking by mother tongue. One fifth of one fifth gives them their random four percent. First, this is contradicted by the numbers given in the article, and second, it assumes that non-native English speakers spend all their random time speaking English. On other words it’s a totally bogus pseudofact.

    3.) The three pro-Chinese-language paragraphs immediately above the Mandela graphic, however, seem to me accurate and reasonably judged.

    The technology really is new and different, China is picking up the pieces where they left off when the missionaries arrived four hundred years ago, and a couple of generations from now — much sooner if the Republicans have their way, China will be as advanced as Europe and America.

    -dlj.

  • Thank you for your comment, David. Allow us to clarify the basis of our statements.

    More people worldwide are studying English than Chinese.
    At first this sounds impossible, but we rechecked the facts as reported. Several Chinese language articles confirm that there are 300M+ school age students (小学,中学,大学) in China currently studying BOTH Chinese and English as compulsory subjects (note that we did not comment on their relative abilities in either language). Online discussions note the popularity of English among the youth (presumably due to its value as the worldwide online lingua franca) and wonder if the government might some day discourage its use by lowering its proportionate weight against Math and Chinese literacy in future national college entrance exams. Combine this with the fact that Chinese is not yet a compulsory subject in most of the world, whereas English quite often is, and the current numbers definitively tip in favor of English.

    We could select any two random people speaking English right now on the planet and there’s only a 4% chance that both are native English speakers.
    We also had a hard time getting our heads around this quote from Fredrik Hären. Based on the estimate of 2B worldwide English speakers (noted above in the graphic), which apparently Mr. Hären and many others (including us) apply as a more accurate reflection of worldwide English usage (Ethnologue prefers a more strict definition of language usage), and with under 400M native speakers out there, the 4% number comes within the realm of possibility. Note also that the claim refers to two people “speaking English right now” and does not attempt a statement on how anyone spends their random time in terms of language practice vis-a-vis other activities.

    Your comment illustrates to us that perhaps we over-simplified the supporting material of the post in the interest of making it a short read. Anyway, thanks again for challenging us and keeping us on our game!

  • Randy

    Hey fucking stew. In my opinion, learning English is miles better and easier compared to learning Chinese. Indeed English has a lot of rules or tenses but that doesn’t mean English is harder than Chinese. Try to scrutinize deeper what I just said. English grammar is really easy if you totes focus on the subject. Besides, the pronunciation is also freaking easy compared to Chinese which has different pronunciations and each pronunciation has a different meaning. It’s really easy to write and read in English because English utilizes alphabet. I can devour an English novel without any difficulties. Chinese has a lot pronunciations and Chinese learners have to memorize at least 2000 kanji in order to understand an article in a newspaper. It’s quite difficult for people who has been learning a language that uses alphabet to memorize 2000 characters of kanji. Believe me the writing system is much harder because if you don’t memorize a character of kanji you can’t just surmise it and the most important thing is you can’t even understand it. If you don’t understand an English word you can look up into a dictionary easily or you can just guess the meaning. The worst part or the most excruciating part of learning Chinese is you have to draw a kanji character which you can’t read or don’t understand. It really takes a long time to learn Chinese. By the way most of people around the world speak English because it’s really easy and they don’t give a fuck about grammar and the speed of speaking. As long as people can understand your English then it’s done/ Bob’s your uncle.

  • Greetings Randy. I would certainly agree that, to most westerners, learning English is way easier than learning Chinese. But English is still far from easy — ask anyone learning it as a second or third language, especially Asians. It just seems easy because we were immersed from a young age. Here’s a fun piece for English complexities: https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/English_hard_2learn.html

    The main points about Mandarin we wanted to get across in our article are: (1) getting started learning Chinese using phonetics/Pinyin is easier than most people think; and (2) modern digital tools are making the hard part, learning characters, much less painful than it used to be. I can attest to that, having studied the language for well over a decade.

    I consider myself lucky to be a native English speaker in an English lingua franca world. That said, there are plenty of people like me learning Chinese because we enjoy the challenge and what it reveals about the people and culture.

  • Here’s an interesting new infographic on “The World’s Most Spoken Languages And Where They Are Spoken”
    http://www.iflscience.com/environment/worlds-most-spoken-languages-and-where-they-are-spoken
    http://i.imgur.com/VNJDpTR.jpg

  • ChinaSimplified

    “Approve”

  • Seri Park

    This is total BS. Chinese is perceived as difficult by a subset of the World’s population. For the majority of people in Asia, English is perceived to be EXTREMELY difficult. Mandarin has already been taking over as the trade language in Asia.

    I think Mandarin is already becoming a world language. It is actually fairly easy to learn. As a trade language, it is a simplified Chinese language, like Swahili.

  • Chris

    Dear Seri, I am an international teacher by trade. I used to teach English in Thailand and Burma (1996 – 2009). There was little interest in learning Mandarin
    by the vast majority of Thais. Out of the 120 international schools in Thailand, all but a few had English as part of the curriculum. Even Chinese-Thais had no interest in learning Mandarin. And as for your claim that Mandarin is a trade language in Asia, I say that is pure nonsense. I would also add that every kid in Thailand knows the ‘ABC’ song. Every kid can read ‘Burger King’ or ‘KFC’ or ‘Dairy Queen’ etc. — and these franchises are all over S.E. Asia. In other words, English is not that difficult for most S.E. Asians. Finally, China has a severe image problem. The Chinese government and its policies have alienated countries like India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea. These nations have no interest in learning the language of their enemy. The Muslim countries of Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia are hostile to China because it is an officially atheist nation. This, too, has reduced interest in learning Mandarin in those Muslim nations because Mandarin is seen as the language of atheists. In addition, Chinese culture is considered uncool compared to Western culture. Chinese music and movies are not popular outside of China. Finally, Chinese tourists are infamously rude and unfriendly. This also is a definite disincentive to learning Mandarin for everybody. As for the West, well, the United States has its hands full learning Spanish. Who has time for Mandarin? Canada is a bilingual nation. Anglo-Canadians’ first priority is learning French. French-Canadians are even busier learning English. Europeans are mostly learning English as a bridge language. Mexico, Central America and much of South America have extremely weak education systems. If, by miracle, the people there learn a second language, usually that language is English. Seri, Mandarin is going nowhere. Thus, your statement that Mandarin is “already becoming a world language” is sheer fantasy. Indeed, the only hope for Mandarin becoming a global language is if Russia and America go to war. Even then , I doubt Mandarin will become a global language.

  • Interesting comments, Seri and Chris. Your remarks show that language and culture are extremely subjective. An East Asian may think Chinese isn’t hard to learn, while a European may think that English isn’t a hard second language at all. It’s all a matter of our personal background and experiences.

    Will Mandarin become one of the world’s primary languages? It already is.
    Will Mandarin become THE main language, like English is now? it doesn’t appear so.
    But honestly, it’s impossible to say what will happen one hundred years from now :~)