March 04, 2003
The Economist writes about the rise of English as the world's Lingua Franca. It is not clear to me that this rise is unstoppable. A century ago, I think, one would have bet that French had a lock as the language of culture and diplomacy, and that German had a lock as the language of science, technology, and scholarship. Perhaps Mandarin will be the world's lingua franca two centuries from now.
But probably not: probably it is English. The European Union's formation and expansion is giving English a powerful leg up. In the end, however, it may well turn out to be the fact that India's educated elite speaks English that will be truly decisive...
Posted by DeLong at March 4, 2003 02:14 PM
I think English dominance has become irreversible because of globalization. Dominant languages in the past were only dominant in some regions, and anyway they were international languages spoken only by a tiny elite.
While French was the lingua franca of international diplomacy, it was never that for mass culture.
(Bismarck did actually bet on English, btw.)
I think The Economist gets the right point when it says that English is becoming the dominant language IN EUROPE. As far as I understood, it doesn't comment anything about other parts of the world.
Just to add one more thing to the article: Brussels is not the best example of francophone place. It is a squizofrenic city with half of population speaking french and half speaking flemish. In special, most of them speaks english as a second/third language.
>>While French was the lingua franca of international diplomacy, it was never that for mass culture.<<
But elite culture? When I was a child, restaurant menus were in French. And how does _War and Peace_ open? With, "Eh bien, mon prince..."
...and Latin was the language of the Church...
"But elite culture? When I was a child, restaurant menus were in French. And how does _War and Peace_ open? With, "Eh bien, mon prince...""
Brad, don't forget that Tolstoy made all the French-speaking Russian characters in _War and Peace_ thoroughly detestable. Probably a lot of developing country elites now affect English in the same manner the Russians affected French in the early 19th century: as a status symbol. English will survive as the world's lingua franca only to the extent that it becomes the language of research and education and does not become the language of another empire a la the Romans. Sadly, that appears to be happening.
Well, yes, elite culture belonged to the French.
I guess, since only marginal primary languages are dying (no one doubts Mandarin will be around for the long haul, but Gaelic might not be), the issue is really which second-language will be dominant, and for now, that's English because the benefits of being able to (1) conduct business globally and (2) watch Friends are so compelling. This can change, of course, but the change would be costly.
If it did change, I would assume the change would look fairly similar to changes in technological standards like rail gauges or TCP/IP, shifts in the importance of cities (like Philadelphia vs NYC in the 1700s), and the like because of the commonality of network effects across all of these systems.
Still, maybe the rest of the world will take a look at Joe Millionaire and collectively decide that Mandarin is, in fact, what they want to speak.
I’ve never understood why the French even bother to fight this language war. In a strange confluence of factors, be it Queen Victoria’s reign or Walt Disney’s cartoons, the fact that English has established an irreversible beachhead in places like India and China is a demographic juggernaught that no commission or bureaucrat can ever hope to reverse. Granted, it gives us “Anglo-Saxons” a leg up in that we need spend no time learning a “vital” second language, but who ever said life was fair.
"But elite culture? When I was a child, restaurant menus were in French. And how does _War and Peace_ open? With, "Eh bien, mon prince..."
How many years ago was that? Those who hesitate to learn English are just hurting themselves. Life is not always fair and the #@&^% Brits have won this battle---and the rest of us should just get with the program. A single dominant language is the ideal, and there are more important things to worry about. It is absurd to waste further time on this matter.
Mandarin: 1) it's tonal 2) the writing system is ridiculous 3) it's made up of about 400 syllables, so it's rife with homonymns, which is why Chinese people spend half their lives clarifying to one another what characters they're referring to 4) it's got a small vocabulary which is relatively hard to expand, which is why modern Chinese books are always liberally sprinkled with English words 5) if a white guy (me for example) speaks Mandarin to some Chinese people, half the time they'll take it as an insult to their English ability and get all pissed off.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go read Rinfret.
p.s. Those who do not hesitate to cross the street in Asian countries are also hurting themselves. Please wish me luck on my surgery the day after tomorrow. It's been eight #@&^% years.
I second David's comments about Mandarin, it's a pain and dosn't adapt quickly to take in new words. Plus the situation in the PRC right now would make one think that english will continue to be the dominant language. They are english crazy over here. if in america it is a status symbol to have your kids be on the best soccer team, in China it is good to have your kids in the best english school.
This makes it possible for any loser with a BA, (i.e. me) to come to China and teach english. While not everyone in China will be able to speak english, in 10-20 years almost all of the elites will.
From The Economist: "When French was Europe's dominant language in the 18th century, French ideas were the intellectual currency of Europe. Voltaire was lionised at the Prussian court; Diderot was fêted by Russia's Catherine the Great. . ."
From Julian Hoppit: A Land of Liberty? England 1689-1727; Oxford UP (2000) p. 7: "Voltaire, in exile in London from 1726-9 (and who reckoned 'England the land of liberty'), thought she was the only nation 'on earth which has succeeded in controlling the power of kings by resisting them' and had established a 'wise system of government in which the prince . . has his hands tied for doing evil, in which aristocrats are great without arrogance and vassals, and in which people share in the government without confusion.'"
While Mandarin is difficult to read and write, it's critical to remember that English is no bed of roses. English is idiomatic with multiple expressions that mean the same things, and the verbs conjugate bizarrely.
That English is and will be dominant for the foreseeable future there can be little doubt. Practicality dictates as much. But societal and cultural norms can and do change, and the practicality of another language might one day rival or exceed that of English.
English may be surpassed one day. But only after the demise of the dollar, American based finance, the U.S. military, and enough technological innovation to make our current information systems obsolete.
Of course, if the aliens arrive tomorrow...
Me thinks you all overestimate the status of English and the underestimate the degree to which history can consign even the biggest things to the trash. It wasn't that long ago that French enjoyed the same sort of lock on international communication, and English only has a future so long as its speakers can stubbornly refuse to learn other languages without suffering any visible consequences. Stubbornness is an underestimated factor in language politics.
Chinese is hard to write, but it's not that hard to pronounce and the syntax is vastly simpler. For most of the world, the gap between their own language and Chinese is no greater than the gap between their own language and English, and English spelling can represent a barrier just as large as Chinese characters.
The real issue, though, is size, money and stubbornness. Japan is an example of stubbornness. English is poorly taught in Japan, and a great deal of intellectual life in Japan goes untranslated. Not being able to speak or read Japanese cuts you off from all this. Japan is probably at the peak of its powers now and still hasn't managed to change the linguistic situation globally, but if Chinese speakers prove equally stubborn (and my suspicion is that they will) then a China with a GDP per capita on par with Western Europe will have a lot of influence on the global linguistic situtation. Unlike Japan, China is happy to have outsiders learn the language and attend their universities, and English is no better taught there than in Japan.
The French are trying this dual approach of both wanting to have access to English and retaining a high status for their own language. They may yet succeed in pulling it off. Spanish has the potential to be just as important as English if Latin American GDP rises far enough. They form a large enough community that they can stubbornly stick to their own language if they want to, and if there isn't any economic reason to work in another tongue.
If you want a scenario for the death of English as the dominant international language, I would consider this: if economic development in China and Latin America reaches first world levels, while American international power stagnates, Americans may find themselves in a world where their language has a downgraded status and where large Spanish and Chinese speaking international communities have grown to important to ignore. Then it becomes necessay for Americans to learn other languages. If development took root in Africa and the Middle East too, French and Arabic would likely see raised status since both are deeply culturally entrenched and their speakers are very stubborn. In much of the world, even in places where English is already the dominant language of international communication, there are movements to restore value to local languages that can easily become reasons to devalue English if English is not perceived as strictly necessary.
It may not be necessary for a single language to win in such a situation, but the number of grand international languages is likely to remain small. Perhaps like pre-WWI Europe, where German, French and English had nearly equal statuses and might have retained them had it not been for two devastating wars.
"...and the practicality of another language might one day rival or exceed that of English."
The odds of this occurring are next to zero. Language, though, is intrinsically nebulous and therefore never static. Words are constantly being added and dropped---and current understandings rendered moot. The English speaking people of five hundred years into the future will likely look back at us as we do those living in Shakespeare’s time.
"It may not be necessary for a single language to win in such a situation"
Why are you wishing for bad things to happen? A single language should be the ultimate goal. After all, the Tower of Babel was a curse and not a blessing.
"The French are trying this dual approach of both wanting to have access to English and retaining a high status for their own language. They may yet succeed in pulling it off. Spanish has the potential to be just as important as English if Latin American GDP rises far enough. They form a large enough community that they can stubbornly stick to their own language if they want to, and if there isn't any economic reason to work in another tongue."
This argument is without merit. The rest of the world must become more like us. It really does not have a viable choice in the matter. Our dominant language is not the only thing we have going for us. America's political and economic institutions are also the best. The people outside the United States should humbly accept this fact of life. Am I something of an arrogant “Ugly American?” Nope, I’m just advocating the most realistic option for our friends throughout the world. Why reinvent the wheel?
Amen! (same word in most languages since it comes from Aramaic.)
David, history has a way of biting people in the ass. French speakers once felt exactly the way you do. It wasn't that long ago that French was synonymous with global culture and learning. They didn't see the alternatives rising up behind them, nor the shift in power that brought those alternatives to the fore until their power had already diminished. Why, after all, reinvent the wheel? Why should anyone have learned English instead of French in the 19th century?
History does not work for the United States alone. This isn't a complicated thing to understand.
"The rest of the world must become more like us. It really does not have a viable choice in the matter."
I suspect much of the world begs to differ.
I wasn't advocating a multi-lingual world per se, although I will if you really want me to make a case. I was just pointing out that things don't always go the way you expect and that other languages are not yet extinct. If you really believe American culture and language are so inherently superior that they have become eternal values capable of transcending history, I remind you of Proverbs 16:18.
From casual conversations with people who know lots of languages, mostly europeans, they have all said that they found english one of the simpliest. For one thing pronucition isn't that important, unlike mandarin, and the grammer isn't that difficult espiecially if you keep things simple. Are there any linguistic studies out there that look into the accesability of different languages?
Believe me you all would not be happy if mandarin became the worlds Lingua franca...
A long time back I knew a British academic in Japanese studies. One of his party pieces with Japanese visitors was to ask them to write down certain - infrequently used - Japanese characters. Most had difficulty in doing so whenever I saw him play this so he would write out the characters.
The relevance here is that most of the character set for Japanese is only a small sub-set of the extensive character set for the various Chinese languages. An instructive insight is that verging on all international reports I've seen of comparative literacy levels among national populations show illiteracy rates to be very low in Japan's population - typically 5% - yet a succession of studies in the UK report that between 20% and 25% of adults have literacy problems.
Alf, ni shuobushuo Hanyu? Wo shuo, bu shuo hen hao. Ni xuexi ma? Wo yao xuexi Hanyu, meiyou shijian. Wode zhongwende pengyou you hen duo shuo yingyu de maobing. Wo bu zhidao Hanyu nanyi shuo.
But then, I'm admittedly a bit out of practice - it's been a couple years. The trick is getting used to characters. The tones you get used to more or less on your own. Mandarin only has a handful of phonemes and only four tones, so that part's not too bad. What's harder is that not all Mandarin speakers have the same phonemes.
It's easier to get from one European language to another because the root system is similar and the cultural contexts tend to be the same. Words - even many core words - usually have near exact translations, so it's not so hard to reach some minimum level of competency. It's a lot harder to get to real fluency.
English syntax is harder than you might think. Compound tenses were always a bear for my students. There's nothing essentially simpler about European langauges or English, although I'll admit writing Chinese can be painfully difficult. Otherwise, it's a lot easier than Russian.
Bob, Japanese literacy statistics are... well, I hate to say this, but everyone in the reading education field knows this... Japanese literacy statistics are cooked.
Japanese has three writing systems. Two of them are fairly straight-forward syllabic schemes and pretty much everybody knows them. Large portions - like the majority - have difficulty using the third system, the one based on Chinese characters. Recognising the most common characters is normal, being able to write them much harder, mastering them stil worse.
That's why on Japanese TV they have little characters written next to big ones - they're pronunciation guides so that people know what it says.
The whole problem with literacy statistics is that what is being measured isn't uniform. Sometimes it isn't even comparable. 99% of Japanese probably have a minimal level of functional literacy. 95% of Brits or more can probably read at a comparable level.
DT - 'Am I something of an arrogant “Ugly American?'
I think the answer to that is pretty obvious. Don't forget, David, that all empires have assumed that their (temporary) dominance is due to a manifest destiny, created in recognition of their superior moral virtue. If your attitudes represent this superiority then please mark me down as an unregenerate degenerate. Oh, and Scott is right - pride goeth before a fall.
DT makes supporting the English reign argument not very fun at all. But, at the end of the day, it is about institutions, keyboards, and the fact we are still on the English system rather than the metric system.
My money's on Finnish for the 22nd century. Far simpler than Estonian. (Or Basque!)
"Eh bien, mon prince..."
Was spoken by an aristocrat to an aristocrat (a prince, no less). Not exactly popular culture.
In contrast, virtually EVERY high school graduate in Europe, Japan, and developed Asia learns English.
P.S. Umberto Eco makes the following observation on the use of French in War and Peace (I included the final few sentences, though off topic, since they contain a curious observation):
Consider Tolstoy's War And Peace. As many know, this novel -- written in Russian, of course -- begins with a long dialogue in French. I have no idea how many Russian readers in Tolstoy's day understood French; the aristocrats surely did because this French dialogue is meant, in fact, to depict the customs of aristocratic Russian society. Perhaps Tolstoy took it for granted that, in his day, those who did not know French were not even able to read Russian. Or else he wanted the non-French-speaking reader to understand that the aristocrats of the Napoleonic period were, in fact, so remote from Russian national life that they spoke in an incomprehensible fashion. Today if you re-read those pages, you will realize that it is not important to understand what those characters are saying, because they speak of trivial things. What is important is to understand that they are saying those things in French. A problem that has always fascinated me is this: How would you translate the first chapter of War And Peace into French? The reader reads a book in French and in it some of the characters are speaking French; nothing strange about that. If the translator adds a note to the dialogue saying en francais dans le text, it is of scant help: the effect is still lost. Perhaps, to achieve that effect, the aristocrats (in the French translation) should speak English. I am glad I did not write War And Peace and am not obliged to argue with my French translator.
English will be dominant as long as there can be a single "global" language. The big change will come within 20 years, when "universal translators" make learning another language irrelevant for the average speaker.
The market for these devices, built into cell phone, PDAs, or whatever the 2025 pocket computer equivalent is, will focus first on allowing non-English speakers to speak English. Early versions will be limited by processing and storage ability to focussing on single language translation, i.e. French to English and back, but not German. Cost and need will limit them to rich country markets where multi-lingualism is a major bonus. I would expect to see English-Spanish versions predominate in the US and Latin America, as US businesses try to reach foreign domestic Spanish speaking markets and Latin American businesses penetrate the American market more aggressively. English-French and English-German versions will predominate in Europe. Japanese-English in Japan, obviously, probably based on the non-character systems.
Why English-X first? Because English is the current dominant international language, and will only become moreso over the next 20 years. Also, as more users translate into English, they can speak to each other, increasing the utility of English. But, as processing and storage power continues to accelerate, the marginal cost of adding additional languages will fall, and the ability to re-process the output of one automatic translation into a third language will improve. It is unlikely that anyone will need a translator to speak 200 languages, but I would expect 4-6 standard languages, plus the user's native tongue - English, French, Mandarin, Spanish, Japanese, and Arabic or German or Russian or something else. If a Kurd wants to speak with a Pole, they can each translate into English (or whatever they prefer).
When I read War & Peace (in English translation), the opening dialog was in English with a few French words scattered in for effect. I did not realize until now the point of it. Eco makes a good point.
Counting responses to a DeLong post could become fodder for sociology grad students. The global warming post, Iraq posts, now a language post -- these things seem to crank up responses in a way that the dismal science simply cannot. Sorry, Brad.
It strikes me that the shift from one dominant language to another is not as simple as which national (or religious) culture is ascendent. It is also a question of what part of any culture assumes importance. Latin was the language of the church. Italian and then French didn't overwhelm Latin because Italy and France became more important than the church, but because humanism fostered a new respectability for things secular, including secular languages. Lots of other factors mattered too, of course. Why French rather than Dutch?.
Another shift has occured. The nation of shop-keepers has provided the successor language, because we now live in a world in which shop-keepers (like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford and Bill Gates) have far more influence than kings and philosophers. German was the language of science, but then all those brilliant Germans came here, learned English (those who didn't already know it) and helped turn the US into an even greater scientific powerhouse.
It's great fun to pretend we know whether the dominance of English is permanent, but we don't. Sure enough, having a computer and information technology with English imbedded (in the stuff and the culture) probably offers huge inertia. Can we measure that to know whether it is a greater inertia than French had in its day? Bet we can. There's dissertation subject for a linguistics grad student.
personally, i am picking spanish as the dominant language of the US in a couple of decades.
While it may become and stay the "global language", anyone who either has tried to teach English, and/or has learned another language, knows that English is exceedingly difficult and idiosyncratic, especially the spelling. Except for its mass of speakers, it doesn't logically make for a universal language. Of course, these weaknesses also make it ideal for poetry and literature.
Future computerized translators will lessen the need for for a global language anyway.
Regarding David Thomson's claim the world must become like the US--you mean in the homicide rates? or guzzling of oil and other resources? or distribution of healthcare? or growing gap between rich and poor? The US has a tremendous accomplishments, but don't be so willfully foolish as to think it can't learn anything from the rest of the world.
I think that the suggestions of Mandarin are really discounting the alphabet issue. The alphabet is, simply, one of the most effective tools humans have ever developed, and Mandarin doesn't use it. Most of the posts suggesting English's weaknesses have mentioned spelling, but how does that compare with 400 intricate characters? It might be nice if English spelling were "rationalized", but as I mentioned on D^2 a week ago, the current spellings give a lot of etymological clues that are, in fact, useful for comprehension.
Another issue is vocabulary & flexibility. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that English vocab is ~5 times that of any other language. And I think that daily, universal usage is ~2X that of otehr languages. Sure, on some level that's a barrier to universal learning, but you can get by with less. The point is that English is incredibly strong and flexible, with nuance and precision that are unparalleled.
As someone said, I hate to be on the same side of an argument with DT, so I'll argue with him, as well. Do you seriously believe that America's political institutions are unbeatable? I mean sure, I thought that in 8th grade, but now I'm all grown up, and I can accept that the Founders may not have gotten everything 100% correct the first time 'round. As long as a dozen empty, backwards states in the Upper Plains wield comparable electoral and legislative power to the dozen progressive, technologically advanced states that make this country a world leader, then our system is flawed at best.
Oh, and another point I want to amplify: French was never spoken by anyone outside the educated classes (and francophone nations, obviously), and the educated class 150 years ago was tiny compared to what it is today. Probably a greater percentage of, say, Bolivians speak English today than Americans spoke French in 1815. Obviously, that's a completely groundless guess, but I think it's illustrative of how things have changed.
Due to globalization and cultural imperialism, people who are barely literate in their native languages have _some_ English. Beyond "Parlee-voo Fransays", was that ever true of French (or previous universal tongues)?
And what about other languages?
I'm thinking of Spanish. Spanish will not dethrone English, not even in the US, but the combination of a whole continent that speaks it (save for Brazil and even there it's close enough you can manage)right next to the world's most important economy wherew it is now its second language is bound to have some international impact.
Ironic......as the rest of the world learns to speak English, here at home adequate skills in Spanish are becoming increasingly relevant; so much so that in some parts of the country employment opportunities are almost contingent on an applicant's ability to speak it.
My grandparents were from the region that is on the borders of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. For them, although they spoke Armenian, Turkish, and Arabic, the most important language capability was French. They, and my parents, insisted that I master French because they believed it would always be the language of international business and a general sign of refinement.
Maintenant, je ne parle jamais. Instead, I am compelled to learn Spanish.
English is already what the computers use. It's what the first generation of robots will use.
"The Economist writes about the rise of English as the world's Lingua Franca. It is not clear to me that this rise is unstoppable. A century ago, I think, one would have bet that French had a lock as the language of culture and diplomacy, and that German had a lock as the language of science, technology, and scholarship. Perhaps Mandarin will be the world's lingua franca two centuries from now."
Heck, 30 years from now, you'll speak into a microphone at the side of your mouth, and there will be instantaneous translation into any language, done by a computer the size of a wallet.
Even a decade from now, you'll be able to get a decent translation of an economics paper from Mandarin, French, or German, on the Internet.
Why, in a few years, we'll even be able to translate from British. ;-)
I have a lot more doubt about the Star Trek Universal Translator from unknown, non-human languages, in 2-3 centuries, however. :-)
"...and I can accept that the Founders may not have gotten everything 100% correct the first time 'round."
Other than writing slavery into the Constitution, I can't think of anything.
"As long as a dozen empty, backwards states in the Upper Plains wield comparable electoral and legislative power to the dozen progressive, technologically advanced states that make this country a world leader, then our system is flawed at best."
That's only relevant because we do NOT follow the Constitution, any longer. The federal government has virtually no power, under the Constitution. This can be seen by the fact that federal spending in peace time never exceeded approximately 3 percent of GDP (i.e., $300 billion per year, in today's terms) for the first ~130 years of our nation.
The Constitution works. But not when the federal government doesn't follow it. And the federal government will NEVER return to it, unless The People demand it.
I am of the opinion that english will become the dominant language. It would not suprise me if it were engineered a little bit so that it was more learnable by others and computers as well.
That being said, for those of us in the States to criticize others for not coming around without simultaneously criticizing our use of the metric system seems a little silly. People are reluctant to change if there is any short term pain, even if the long term gains are obvious.
Nobody's mentioned the fact that it's relatively easy to sort-of speak english. The basic grammar is relatively simple, and you can be understood. In heavily-inflected languages such as Russian, or even German, screwing up a bit can make you completely incomprehensible. That's what my inlaws think, anyway. :-)
Um... um, um, um. I don't quite know where to start. From the end, I guess.
Coach, it would surprise me immensely if English was inherently easier to learn. English spelling is... well, bizarre. And try explaining the progressive present to someone who's never seen one before. Dutch is pretty straight-forward, as is Spanish and Italian, although both have their weird features. Grammatical gender is a bit harder for native anglos, but it's not so harsh for folks who are used to it.
Mark Bahner, David Lloyd-Jones, Rich Phillips and Ethan: I have a specialised degree in machine translation and I am currently employed writing, maintaining and improving a commercial machine translation system. On behalf of my seriously beleaguered industry, I thank you for your enthusiasm and support for us even though we've been promising you that high quality machine translation and smart robots were just around the corner for over 50 years now. In appreciation, I'm going to let you in on a little secret: unless medical science discovers radical treatments for extending human life, you will not live to see effective fully mechanised translators.
JRoth, you overestimate the value of a phonetic alphabet as opposed to alternatives. After all, English isn't written very phonetically, and look at how far it has gone. One of the reasons Chinese writing persists is because it unifies all the variant Chineses into a single writing scheme and makes the literature of the distant past far more accessible. This is impossible in a phonetic system. Reasonably literate Chinese people can read Confucius in the original, well-educated anglos are hard pressed to read Shakespeare without help. Furthermore, Even though Japanese and Korean both have syllabic/alphabetic systems which are fully functional, Chinese characters persisted in Korean until after WWII and still persist in Japanese.
How do you count the number of words a language has? Many words mean radically different things in different contexts. If we count each word-meaning pair individually, languages usually have several million core words and it becomes quite difficult to assess accurately across languages. Counting the number of words in some dictionary, or doing a corpus count is not a good measure.
"Oh, and another point I want to amplify: French was never spoken by anyone outside the educated classes (and francophone nations, obviously), and the educated class 150 years ago was tiny compared to what it is today. Probably a greater percentage of, say, Bolivians speak English today than Americans spoke French in 1815. Obviously, that's a completely groundless guess, but I think it's illustrative of how things have changed."
I hate to be rotten but you are in fact basically wrong on every one of these points. French wasn't even spoken by everyone in France in 1815, but it was spoken to some degree by almost everyone in Europe and America who had a secondary education, as well as by vast numbers of people who had dealt with Napoleon's armies. Furthermore, French was one of the most widely spoken languages in the United States in 1815. It was the principle language of public life in most of Maine, all of Louisiana and large chunks of New York, New England and the Gulf Coast. There are still parts of the US where French is a widely spoken native language, although they are much smaller than they used to be.
Lastly, yes, French was more the language of the educated elite than the common folk, but do you really think it's different with English? I will bet that in every country in the world TOEFL scores correlate well with socio-economic status.
K Harris, discussion of economic topics here requires people to be circumspect, because they know if they say too much someone will check up on them. That is - I suspect - the principle reason for the distribution of posts here. Linguistics, however, does not elicit the same concern, so there is far more active speculation. Personally, I find it amusing to see what people think about language.
"Linguistic inertia" is exactly the kind of vague, unmeasurable concept that makes for a horrible PhD thesis. If you want to see case studies and extensive discussion of the social, political and economic dimensions of language change, there is no shortage of work to read.
"bu shuo hen hao" means "it is good not to speak." I believe you mean "shuo de bu hen hao."
Anyways, yeah, like you said, it's got simple grammar, kind of like baby talk. That's good and bad.
The language of the future - Spanglish
Crap, I always mess up that adverbial "de." The problem is that I can't find a Chinese class at night that isn't in Dutch, and I don't have the Dutch yet to go study Chinese. *sigh* I brought this on myself.
I know how you mean both good and bad. Chinese off-loads a lot work done by syntax in English onto the lexicon, so you end up having to learn a lot more vocabulary to compensate for the simple syntax. It's exactly the opposite in Inuktitut, where the vocabulary's not that large, but huge reams of work are done in morphology. Chinese hardly has morphology.
But this is getting off topic.
That's sort of my point - and more on topic - no matter what language you're talking about, the total level of sophistication is about the same. You're damned either way, unless you pick a language pretty close to your own.
"David, history has a way of biting people in the ass. French speakers once felt exactly the way you do. It wasn't that long ago that French was synonymous with global culture and learning. They didn't see the alternatives rising up behind them, nor the shift in power that brought those alternatives to the fore until their power had already diminished. Why, after all, reinvent the wheel? Why should anyone have learned English instead of French in the 19th century?"
Sigh, in the meantime the better educated Europeans are waking up to reality:
"Apparently the French are losing another battle. The European Union is increasingly becoming an English-speaking zone:
"The Union's public voice is increasingly anglophone. For a brief period earlier this year the spokesmen for all three major institutions in Brussels—the commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers—were British. Jonathan Faull, the commission's chief spokesman, will be replaced this month by Reijo Kemppinen, a Finn. But for French-speakers the change is a double-edged sword. The good news for them is that this high-profile job will no longer be held by a Briton; the bad news is that Mr Faull's French is rather better than Mr Kemppinen's....
A recent study by the EU's statistical arm showed that over 92% of secondary-school students in the EU's non-English-speaking countries are studying English, compared with 33% learning French and 13% studying German....
As one would imagine, this sort of English imperialism scares the French. The Economist story provides two specific reasons for French concern, one of which is completely logical and one that is absurd:
"the rise of English within EU institutions particularly alarms the French elite because for many years the Brussels bureaucracy has been a home-from-home, designed along French administrative lines, often dominated by high-powered French officials working in French. Moreover, the emergence of English as the EU's main language gives an advantage to native English-speaking Eurocrats. As Mr Dethomas notes: 'It's just much easier to excel in your own language.'"
"Mark Bahner, David Lloyd-Jones, Rich Phillips and Ethan: I have a specialised degree in machine translation and I am currently employed writing, maintaining and improving a commercial machine translation system. On behalf of my seriously beleaguered industry, I thank you for your enthusiasm and support for us even though we've been promising you that high quality machine translation and smart robots were just around the corner for over 50 years now. In appreciation, I'm going to let you in on a little secret: unless medical science discovers radical treatments for extending human life, you will not live to see effective fully mechanised translators."
The central reason why your efforts are doomed is because language is intrinsically nebulous. There will never be such a thing as a computer able to converse colloquially with a human being. Please note my previous post:
"Language, though, is intrinsically nebulous and therefore never static. Words are constantly being added and dropped---and current understandings rendered moot. The English speaking people of five hundred years into the future will likely look back at us as we do those living in Shakespeare’s time.
Posted by David Thomson at March 4, 2003 10:51 PM"
"Ironic......as the rest of the world learns to speak English, here at home adequate skills in Spanish are becoming increasingly relevant; so much so that in some parts of the country employment opportunities are almost contingent on an applicant's ability to speak it."
The phenomena you cite is only temporary. I live in Houston and deal with it on a rather consistent basis. Still, only the less educated Hispanics rely solely on their indigenous tongue. The second and third generations are rapidly climbing aboard the English train. So much so, that recently I’ve met a number of young Hispanics who have completely abandoned Spanish. To be blunt, one must speak English if they truly desire to earn a decent income. Like I said before---life isn't always fair. The Brits have won this war. Further resistance is futile.
DT: The central reason why your efforts are doomed is because language is intrinsically nebulous. There will never be such a thing as a computer able to converse colloquially with a human being.
Google says, going to German and back:
"The central reason, why your efforts are condemned, is, because language is actually foggy. Never such a thing gives to converse like a computer, which is able, with a human nature verbally."
And, English to French to German:
"The central reason, for which your efforts are condemned, is, because the language is intrinsèquement nebelig. It never a thing like a capable computer to give more converser familiarly with a human nature."
Of course, you insert the word "colloquially" to prevent this argument. But most who have to learn a foreign language for business would be quite content to speak (or have spoken for them) a rather stilted and formal version of that language if it took no effort. Understanding being, for such a user, far more important than art.
>>To be blunt, one must speak English if they truly desire to earn a decent income. Like I said before---life isn't always fair. The Brits have won this war. Further resistance is futile.<<
The image of David Thomson as a Borg is so apt that it took me a few minutes to stop laughing.
History is probably chuckling too. Latin was once the lingua franca of Europe, but Latin today lives on only in several bastardized forms (Spanish, Italian, French, whatnot). Similarly, there will be a day in which Aussies from Sidney, black Americans from L.A., whites from Boston, Indians from Bombay, and Brits from London will not be able to understand each other's spoken or written languages. I doubt that dictionaries and globalization will change this--there is today a radically underprivileged class which simply does not have access to jobs or to electronic means of communications regardless of what languages they speak. If this underprivileged class continues to expand, they can and will develop their own vernacular regardless of what Webster's says. If you want a lingua franca of permanent duration, you have to establish a world economy that is both stable and equitable. Best of luck.
Due to globalization and cultural imperialism, people who are barely literate in their native languages have _some_ English. Beyond "Parlee-voo Fransays", was that ever true of French (or previous universal tongues)?
The first part of this paragraph is somewhat questionable.
The second part overlooks the fact that in almost all non-industrial societies there's a major cleavage between the languages and cultures of the upper classes and the languages and cultures of everyone else. Eugen Weber provided the classic example, with his exploration of the inability of a large portion of the population of western and southern France to speak French; his work appears to have been overstated, but much remains. Similarly, the Russian empire was quite multilingual--on top of the famously Francophile aristocracy, the Russian language played an equally important role never mind how it overlay other languages; Polish, in the western fringes of the empire, and German, in the Baltic provinces, played similar roles. Ireland before the 1840s could be divided into a largely Irish-speaking peasantry and an English-speaking urban/landowning population. Et cetera.
As has been pointed out above, the French language did have very wide circulation throughout the United States of the early 19th century--arguably a much broader circulation than German, which had the benefit of much larger numbers of immigrants and nearly gained auxiliary status as an official language. And across Europe, French was the dominant language, to the point that upper classes in Flanders and Piedmont (before the French Revolution) were more likely to speak French than Dutch or Piedmontese.
"Of course, you insert the word "colloquially" to prevent this argument. But most who have to learn a foreign language for business would be quite content to speak (or have spoken for them) a rather stilted and formal version of that language if it took no effort. Understanding being, for such a user, far more important than art."
The Google examples you provided actually support my thesis. At best, these translations are mediocre in quality. I'm quite sure that you would not gladly tolerate such less than perfect results if they dealt with a surgical procedure on your brain. Also, I suspect that you are not holding your breadth waiting for a computer to write a poem or an essay.
The colloquial aspect is indeed the real kicker. This is the real test that must be passed with flying colors. A computer is helpless to handle the never ending changes in language. Human beings are thus likely to forevermore dominate this planet---and the robot HAL in the Ray Bradbury novel will remain a fictional character.
Scott-Wo hui shou yi dian dian hanyu, xianzai wo xuexi. Wo shou hanyu, zhonggouren ting bu dong, wo shou yingyu, tamen ting dong. Wo zai zhongguo you dou pengyou neng shou yingyu.
The real difficulty with mandarin is that you r pronuncition has to be exact to be understood. This makes it difficult for beginners. Also the fact that there are so many homophones can make it very confusing. I actually don't think the charecters are all that difficult. English is nice because it is relatively easy to understand someone with poor pronciation and grammer.
I read somewhere that one needs to study 200 hours before becoming fluent in Mandarin. I tried to find the stats for english online but couldn't find them. I think it is possible that some languages might be easier to learn than others, though this probably isn't the reason for english dominance.
I actually just met a chinese girl who studies in Holland (her classes are in english), I'm sure she'd be willing to help you out.
“I think it is possible that some languages might be easier to learn than others, though this probably isn't the reason for english dominance.”
English is the language of choice because the economic, political, and military institutions of those nations speaking this tongue dominate most of the planet. It’s really that simple. We would be conversing in Chinese had their elites not opted many centuries ago for reactionary and growth inhibiting polices. What will ultimately happen to Mandarin and other Chinese dialects? It’s too to save them. The Chinese must also chose to speak English if they have any realistic chance to become an economically viable nation. Living in the past is not helpful when dealing with today’s challenges.
Wo ye shuo yidian guoyu. An wode kan, fayin bushi yige tebye da wenti.
Not very much Chinese though, though. (Is "fayin" = "pronunciation")? The writing system is terrible from a practical point of view (but fun if you like that sort of thing). There's almost no overlapping vocabulary with Western languages. I don't agree about pronunciation though; in the early stages any new language is hard to pronounce. The French, I've been told, can't stand to listen to someone with a bad accent.
PS. Would anyone sign a business contract on the basis of a machine-translation?
Alf, actually, I saw a good study a few years ago that claimed that it wasn't perfect pronunciation so much as two things: you must not mess up the tones or vowel lengths. Chinese phonetics actually varies quite a lot without loosing comprehensibilty - consider how people pronounce "sì", "shì" and "xì" from Kunming north to Harbin - but if the tone shape and the relative lengths of syllables are too far off though, they really can't understand.
I also suspect - somewhat uncharitably - that many Chinese people are bit like an elderly American woman I know who claims that she can't understand black people. They don't encounter many foreigners who speak any Chinese at all, they don't try very hard to understand them when they do, and many people seem to believe that only Chinese people are smart enough to be able to speak Chinese properly. It used to be a common condition in many parts of the world but is clearly disappearing in the west.
Zizka, even anglos who speak good French can't stand to hear it really butchered, but the level of linguistic intolerance that people believe francophones have is far greater than they really do.
Of course, some kid on his first day of Chinese class is going to make a mess of the sounds. Same in French, or heck, even Spanish. It's still not as hard as learning to distinguish between "u", "uu", "oe" and "eu" in Dutch. And yes, I looked it up, it's "fayin."
Unless I'm mistaken, "fayin" refers to the sound of speech. The word that refers to the various tones is "shengdiao".
On the lingua franca question, in my limited experience at Qinghua, basic undergraduate textbooks are usually available in Mandarin. Advanced (graduate-level) texts in the hard sciences come in both Mandarin and English, and doctoral students in these fields are expected to have at least basic English literacy.
I've been told by somebody working in the Netherlands that the Dutch are very intolerant to deviation in the pronounciation of the language. So much so that they actually subtitle Dutch language television programming from the 50s.
Chinese is much more difficult than English for reading and writing (or any phonetic system, e.g. Korean, for that matter).
I'm a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese, who came to the US after six years of elementary school education. I'm still fluent in spoken Chinese, but I can barely read and can't write at all. Even my parents, who received their college degrees in China but have since moved to the U.S., have forgotten how to write many Chinese characters and have to use a dictionary at times. I don't think you would have a similar situation with English. A phonetically writing system is many times easier to learn AND to remember.
One problem with literacy level in China is that for many in the rural areas, even when they learn how to read and write, they would forget what they've learned in a year or two since they don't practice reading or writing on a regular basis.
See John DeFrancis's The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy for a detailed and fascinating discussion of the Chinese writing system and efforts to reform it throughout history.
I tend to feel that English will become overwhelmingly dominant unless globalization ius reversed.
A question to ask is: which languages are necessary, or even useful, for ambitious (big time) scientists, scholars, and businessmen? In China, for example, Mandarin is very useful for businessmen and in the South Cantonese can be too. But Hakka, Fukienese, and the other dialects really are only useful for someone committed to small local areas (IE, less-ambitious people). The same would be true for Dutch and the Scandinavian languages -- unless you've decided to live there (and be less ambitious), you don't need them. Spanish and Portuguese could be very helpful, because of the enormous scope and incomplete development od their worlds, but German and Italian seem borderline (again, involving a career-limiting local committment). Part of this is because so many people are learning English, of course.
Fot all the importance of oil, Arabic and Persian are still small niches.
In science it seems that you really need only English. My guess is that there might be some good stuff written in Russian and Japanese in specialized fields, mostly because of the insularity of these countries, but almost all the science in the world is put into English quickly.
In cultural studies and history the story is quite different. When I tried to read up on Breughel, for example, too much stuff was in Dutch (Flemish?) But in the world of today cultural studies isn't the straw that stirs the drink, to put it mildly.
Pronunciation of foreign languages is hard because it seems just plain wrong. For example, to a native American speaker either the French gargled R or the umlaut-u sound positively lewd, much less the two together. And in English you put the equivalent of the Chinese fourth tone at the end of the sentences, which you can't do in Chinese since tone belongs to the word rather than the sentence, so Chinese sentences can sound like they end in the middle rather than at the end.
Mikel is correct. Mandarin probably could not become a lingua franca as long as its written form were based on characters. An alphabetic system is superior for creating a high degree of literacy. I believe that the written form of Vietnamese changed from a character-based to an alphabet system some time in the 19th Century. The rise in literacy was dramatic.
first, it isn't terribly difficult to learn to read and write Chinese. nearly all characters are composed of several parts, some broadly hinting at meaning, others broadly hinting at sound. it's very true that in nearly every case, neither the meaning or the sound is indicated at all clearly. for instance, the "radical" of the basic word for machine is "wood," harking back to the days of hand looms and agricultural machinery. still, the so-called "radicals" and "phonetics" give enough handle to the memory to make learning new characters not as much of a strain as it's been portrayed.
a lot of the complaining seems to come from people who have only mastered a few hundred characters well. once you've gotten beyond this point, you see the patterns by yourself. the same components recur again and again, and you only have to learn to write them once. after a while, it gets difficult to leave a stroke out of a character, because you'll notice the balance of the whole is lost if you do (I admit this is much truer of the nonsimplified characters than the simplified characters).
forget de Francis. he lives in a fantasy world. characters are here to stay in Chinese, and if they burden the mind unduly, we've yet to see the handicap in Chinese intellectual attainments, ancient or modern.
and needless to say, the complaints that Mandarin has too small a vocabulary and too many homophones are crap. Mandarin does have a relatively small phonetic inventory, even when you count the four tones, but it compensates by compounding to a much larger extent than other Chinese "dialects." Mandarin is by no means a monosyllabic language. Some of the "dialects" compound less, but then they preserve more phonetic variety. (And watch what you call a "dialect" here! the Wu dialect family has well over a hundred million speakers.....)
i giggled a bit at the writer who said that any educated Chinese could read Confucius, though. better stress that "educated" fairly heavily. nearly all writing from the past is in so-called "Classical" Chinese, which uses many of the same characters as modern Chinese, but has a totally different grammar. i used to teach Classical to university students, nearly all from China looking for an easy credit, and can testify that they don't do much better with it at the beginning than the average American university freshman would do with Chaucer. their main advantage is that they can leverage their ability to learn characters quickly, but they're always getting confused by the differences between modern and ancient meanings.
there is one inheritance from Classical Chinese that makes true fluency in Mandarin difficult for outsiders. this is the great mass of proverbial phrases and historical references in condensed Classical phrases which are as evocative as the Bible and Shakespeare used to be for English speakers, but which have to be painfully looked up or paraphrased for beginners. take one example, "si mian Chu ge" -- literally, "songs of the state of Chu on all four sides." What the hell is that supposed to mean? Well, you're supposed to remember that when the Qin dynasty fell and Xiang Yu and Liu Bang were battling it out to see who would succeed it as Emperor, in the final years of the third century BC, Liu Bang's forces finally managed to surround Xiang Yu in his camp. At night, Xiang Yu heard the troops surrounding him on all sides singing the characteristic songs of the southern state of Chu, his own home area, and believed that his own people had turned on him as well. Thus the phrase has come to mean "finished, screwed, game's up, beset with insurmountable difficulties" - but with an extra veneer of historical reference that's impossible to convey in translation.
this makes Chinese a language that is tricky to learn unless you learn Chinese culture as well. it preserves what's inside it at the cost of making entry more difficult. it is stunning for a westerner on entering Chinese society to run up against the obsessive engagement with the past -- i don't mean mindless conservatism -- i mean rather a fascination that has family dinner tables dissolving into shouted arguments over the virtue of some tenth-rate historical figure who died two thousand or more years before, and not only a tolerance but an enthusiasm for historical epics that go on for thirty, forty, fifty hours.... if you don't believe me, visit your local Chinese video store. another illustration: the publishing houses equipped to print the first general history of China, the Historical Records of Sima Qian, finished almost exactly two thousand years ago now, can always count on a new printing to pad their bottom lines. it's a guaranteed sell, and i'm not talking about modern Mandarin translations either -- i mean the original Classical Chinese, definitely a tricky read. who on earth would rescue the fortunes of a publishing house in the West by reprinting Aristotle or Cicero, even translated?
as someone remarked when they had that anti-Confucius campaign in the Cultural Revolution a few decades back: can you imagine riots and public demonstrations in an anti-Plato campaign in the West? or even an anti-Marx campaign? even as a symbolic cover for contemporary political maneuvers? YAWN. i don't think the past is a drag on China, but it certainly dies a lot more slowly than it does here.
on the other hand, we in the West have a deep insincerity or triviality in engaging the past. one easy illustration: any Christian will tell you he believes the Bible to be the Word of God. how many Christians bother to learn how to read it in the original languages? in their rational lives, they know very well how unreliable translation is, but they can't be bothered to exert themselves even for what they profess is most sacred and important.
maybe in the end English will be the universal language because it's been dumbed down to such an extent that it can serve everyone's needs.
"first, it isn't terribly difficult to learn to read and write Chinese"
The Chinese government apparently thinks so. It adopted a system of simplified characters that largely eliminate the radicals. Children in China also begin to read by using the phonetic pinyin.
"forget de Francis. he lives in a fantasy world. characters are here to stay in Chinese system."
Maybe, maybe not. Vietnamese made a complete transition to a phonetic system. Korean largely did so as well. Japanese also uses a variety of scripts, including a phonetic one. Its not hard to imagine that slowly, over time the Chinese written language may evolve toward a phonetic system. If Chinese were to become a global (second) language, it would probably need to become phonetic.
"we've yet to see the handicap in Chinese intellectual attainments, ancient or modern."
The question is not one of attainment, but of widespread use. A system that requires longer periods and more intensive study to acquire, and more difficulty to maintain, will not lend itself to being adopted as a second langugage.
Literacy rates in China after the modernization program (simplified characters plus pinyin) rose from 30 to 85 percent.
"a lot of the complaining seems to come from people who have only mastered a few hundred characters well. once you've gotten beyond this point, you see the patterns by yourself. the same components recur again and again, and you only have to learn to write them once."
If you talk to Chinese expatriates who came to the U.S. for graduate school and stayed, you'll find that many of them have forgotten a signfication portion of the written vocabulary because of the lack of practice. Is the same true for other immigrant populations with their languages, say Hindi for Indians?
The amount of memory needed to remember the basic patterns in written Chinese you referred to is one or two degrees of magnitude larger. If one thinks of the parts that make up Chinese characters as letter of an alphabet, there might be several hundred letters in the Chinese alphabet.
"If you talk to Chinese expatriates who came to the U.S. for graduate school and stayed, you'll find that many of them have forgotten a signfication portion of the written vocabulary because of the lack of practice."
Yup, these folks had no choice but to learn English. Like I said before, life isn't always fair. Those damn Brits got something over on the rest of us. Alas, I don't think it behooves us to start a war with England.
"forget de Francis. he lives in a fantasy world. characters are here to stay in Chinese system."
And Shaq O'neal is terrified of me on a basketball court. May I sell you some swamp land in Florida?
"maybe in the end English will be the universal language because it's been dumbed down to such an extent that it can serve everyone's needs."
You actually have half a valid point! In some respects, a little egalitarianism never hurt anybody. English is something of a tacitly democratically formed language. Anybody can introduce a new word and see if others find it of value. The folks who put together dictionaries often “officially” honor a word long after the hoi polloi has been using it for years. Ain’t that some stuff to consider?