Friday, July 2, 2010

The other world language

All around Asia there seems to be an irreversible expansion in the use of English. Even corners of the continent that resist Anglo-Saxon-dominated capitalism are not immune. North Korea’s national news agency, Naenara, regularly publishes articles in English in order to reach a wider audience. English is used for propaganda on the banners displayed at international sports matches in Pyongyang. However, we should be cautious about assuming that the growth of English is inevitable.

For one thing, the language gap between Asia’s influential, affluent elite and its urban and especially rural poor remains huge. Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, has middle-class areas where families use English more than any other language, but it has far more areas where children get very little schooling at all, let alone in English. While every child in Seoul studies English, there is a big contrast between some wealthy suburbs south of the river (Kangnam), where there is an English-language kindergarten on almost every street, and the older, poorer Kangbok districts to the north where it can be hard to find a shopkeeper or taxi-driver who understand even a few words of English. English-language skills are often cited to explain the rapid modernisation of India’s economy, but it must be remembered that perhaps no more than 4% of the population can use the language proficiently.

For another, as British linguist David Graddol points out, while English continues to grow as a second language, the proportion of the world’s population speaking it as a first language is actually falling. Hindi and Arabic speakers are increasing faster. Chinese has far more first-language speakers, and while population growth in China is slowing, the number of non-Chinese learning Mandarin is exploding.

It has been estimated that over 30 million people are currently studying Chinese. South Koreans are especially enthusiastic, aware that their country now does more trade with China than America. But Mandarin-learners are also growing in the UK, where there are now over 80 secondary schools teaching the language. At Hawkesdown House, a private school in an affluent part of London, four-year-olds are learn it. Some British parents even hire Mandarin-speaking nannies for their children. Still greater interest can be found in Australia and New Zealand, where courses for European languages and even Japanese struggle to compete. America is not known for its enthusiasm for foreign languages, but the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently considered allocating $1.3 billion for Chinese language and culture classes in public schools.

The strongest motivation for studying the language is economic, of course. The economies of China and several of its neighbours consistently outperform the EU and US. Recently the Asian Development Bank predicted that less than 1.25% of East Asians will be living below the poverty line by 2020. The world has never seen a manufacturing expansion like the one occurring in China now, and it seems everyone wants a piece of the action. Aware of the economic and also cultural advantages to be gained from global interest in their language, the Chinese government has set up Confucius Institutes around the world. The first opened in Seoul in 2004, and there are now nearly 300.

The number of Britons studying in China has grown since 2004 from 650 to 1400. Many have business or other professional qualifications and feel that adding Chinese language skills will give them an edge over competitors. Concerned about the possibility of foreign businessmen taking jobs from its own citizens, China’s Securities Regulatory Commission now requires high-ranking executives in the financial services sector to take a government test requiring a good standard of written and spoken Chinese.

While the expansion of China’s economy looks unstoppable, it is difficult to say whether current interest in its language will continue to expand. Over 200 million people are studying English in China, and it is likely that far more of them will become proficient in the language than the number of Americans and Britons who will become fluent in Chinese. The International Herald Tribune suggested that rather than pour dollars into learning Chinese, US high schools would do better to concentrate on improving maths skills, which are now below the standard of schools in China.