Friday, September 08, 2006

English vs Chinese

In year 2004, I was sent by my employer to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. After I got my job done, I took one day off to join the Mekong River Delta tour. The tour guide was a gentleman named Pham. He told me that during colonial era, Vietnamese learned French. When the Communists took power, they learned Russian. In the past few years, however, more and more Vietnamese learn English.

Since China engaged in economic reform more than two decades ago, its GDP grows by nearly 10% every year, and is now a major economic power. Pundits predict that it will replace United States as the largest economy sometime around 2025.

The rise of China brings along the interest in learning the language of the Middle Kingdom, long considered the most difficult to master among Westerners. It is believed that proficiency of Chinese will give us advantage when doing business in China.

In my country, Malaysia, where about a quarter of the population is ethnic Chinese, conservative Chinese educationists welcome the rise of China. These people, who billed themselves as ‘Chinese education fighters’, has long lamented that younger generation did not have good command of their mother tongue. In reality, most Chinese Malaysians speak, read and write Chinese, but the educationists are less than impressed. Now, with the rise of China, they hope that younger generation will finally take initiative to master the language. One of them boldly predicted that by 2020, Chinese would be ‘on par’ with English as the most important languages of the world.

On par with English? I am afraid he will be disappointed.

There is no doubt Chinese is becoming more widely spoken, but the same goes for English. People in former French Indo-China now learn English as their second language. I haven’t been to Eastern Europe, but I believe the people of these former Communist states are also dropping Russian in favor of English. Even the residents of Beijing are busy learning to speak English as a preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympiad!

We are now living in a globalized world. We need a lingua franca in order to communicate with people from all over the world. English fulfills the need.

The writing system of Chinese is its Achilles’ heel. It is difficult to learn, and typing characters on QWERTY keyboard is a hassle. Over the decades, a Romanization standard, known as Hanyu Pingyin has been developed. Under Hanyu Pingyin, Peking became Beijing and Canton became Guangzhou. But make no mistake – Hanyu Pingyin cannot replace Chinese characters. Many foreigners learn to speak Mandarin based on Hanyu Pingyin, but they can’t read or write characters. Mandarin is becoming more widely spoken, but the use of ‘written Chinese’ probably will still be limited to China, Taiwan and Chinese society elsewhere.

A lot of people are also unaware of the other rising giant – India. British magazine, The Economist, described India as what China was 15 years ago. (The Economist, June 3rd – 9th 2006 issue) Today parents want their children to study Chinese in anticipation that one day they may work in Shanghai. Don’t be surprised if they end up in Bangalore.

As a Chinese Malaysian, I encourage my fellows to learn their mother tongue. But I also remind them, “Don’t be handicapped by your English.”


  1. maybe, but just as english is today, Latin was many years ago, in Britain and in Mainland Europe, people wanted their children to learn Latin as only the Rich and highly educated had a grasp of Latin. But today, hardly any schools teach Latin to students, it has simply perished. Similarly, English might also,soon.

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