kitchen table math, the sequel: "There was no committee"

Monday, June 8, 2015

"There was no committee"

Here in my district (woe is me), we seem to have dodged the Chinese language instruction bullet.

I don't know why.

Maybe our central administrators, neither of whom is particularly interested in academics (the super cares about fields; the curriculum director is "passionate" about technology) decided the ruckus that would ensue when they swapped out French for Rosetta-Stone Chinese wasn't worth the trouble.

Or maybe they just haven't gotten around to it yet.

In any event, I've just come across a terrific article on English v. Chinese as lingua franca:
English is becoming a global lingua franca not just for trade, industry, aviation, research, and entertainment, but also for higher education. We scarcely needed the conclusions of a new research report by the department of education at the University of Oxford in collaboration with the British Council, released Wednesday, to tell us that.

Ph.D. students in countries like Finland or the Netherlands have (at least in my field) long been writing their dissertations in English rather than in Finnish or Dutch. But at undergraduate as well as graduate and professional levels, more and more non-English-speaking countries are making the decision to use what they are calling English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI).

Nothing about the dialect of the southern region of the island of Great Britain makes it especially suited to a global role. In fact, choosing English, with its maddeningly stupid spelling quirks (Finnish has none), and its nearly 200 irregular verbs (Swahili has none), and its phonology replete with brutally complex consonant clusters (Hawaiian has none), looks like a choice made by a committee of idiots.

But it was not. Accidents of history conspired to determine the present status of English.

Which language was spoken by the people who managed to gain lasting political control in North America and Australasia, and had temporary political dominance in all of southern Asia and most of eastern, western, and southern Africa?

Which language is spoken in the one place on earth where blockbuster movies for worldwide release are made on budgets running into the hundreds of millions of dollars?

Which is the main language used by the closest to approach Radio Earth, namely the BBC World Service?

Which is the only language used officially for government purposes in more than 60 countries?

Which has been chosen as the norm for all air-traffic control conversations?

A long succession of such accidents has put English so far in the race for dominance in global communication that it can hardly even be called a race now.

Some people talk as if Mandarin Chinese was gaining on English. It is not, and it never will. A Tamil-speaking computer scientist explaining an algorithm to a Hungarian scientist at a Japanese-organized scientific meeting in Thailand calls on English, not Chinese. Nowhere in the world do we find significant numbers of non-Chinese speakers choosing Mandarin as the medium for bridging language gaps. There are no signs of that changing.

The burgeoning of English is pushing ever-larger numbers of small minority languages into extinction, and many linguists lament that. There are two sides to the issue, though. It saddens us linguists that so many grammatically fascinating and diverse languages in so many language families should be dying out, yet who are we to tell an African father, proud of raising his children to speak a multinational lingua franca like Swahili or English, rather than the local dialect of his traditional village, that he is wrong?


Personally, I would never have proposed making English a global language for education or anything else, and I think my life has been rendered poorer by the fact that because I speak English natively I have never been forced by circumstances to develop real fluency in a foreign language. But nobody placed me on the committee to decide on the global language for education. There was no committee.
And here is Victor Mair, writing at Language Log:
As to why Mandarin is very unlikely ever to displace English as the world language, it's the writing system, my friends.

"Chineasy? Not" "Chinese characters are not easy, neither for Chinese nor for non-Chinese. Chinese characters are hard."]

Now, if ever a true digraphia were to develop in China, Mandarin might have a fighting chance.

"Character amnesia and the emergence of digraphia" (see also here and here).

But I doubt that will ever happen. It seems that most Chinese people would sooner learn English than use Romanization to write Mandarin.
Actually, I've heard exactly the opposite.

A year ago, I talked to a high school graduate who had just spent a year in China.

He told me smartphones are causing the Chinese to switch to the Romanization system the phones use. Just because it's there, on the phone, and they use it all the time.

Is that true?

Does anyone know?



Auntie Ann said...

Another strength of English is it's fearless absorption of any word from any language if it's useful.

Froggiemama said...

Chinese can never switch to a Romaminzation system completely because there are many words that are only disambiguated by their characters - these are words with the same sound and same tone. In everyday speech, they are disambiguated by context, which is what cellphone users are likely doing, but to gain the full precision of the language, characters are required.

I agree that Chinese will never be a lingua franca, but there are reasons to learn a foreign language besides that. Chinese is a beautiful, complex language with an extensive literature that is particularly difficult to translate to English. Much of Chinese culture is intertwined with the language and the characters, I think more so than other cultures (except maybe Arabic, which I have been told is even more difficult to learn than Chinese). Given that China is likely to be a major player in the world, I think it is useful that at least some number of people learn enough Chinese to more fully understand the culture. And if you intend to travel to China or do business there, it really is useful to know Chinese. It is very hard to find English speakers in China outside of places like Beijing and Shanghai, and that isn't likely to change. The Chinese are as bad as Americans about learning languages. Language instruction in the schools is terrible.

I don't think Chinese will ever replace Spanish or French as the foreign language of choice in our schools, and nor should it. But in my district, the third choice is Italian, and personally I think Chinese would be far far more useful.

Anonymous said...

One of the challenges of switching Chinese/Mandarin to a pinyin-ish Romanization is illustrated by the poem "Lion Eating Poet in the Stone Den." I'm sure that one can come up with an alphabetical way to represent Mandarin Chinese unambiguously (and maybe it already exists ...), but the commonly used scheme does not seem to be it.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

"... Arabic, which I have been told is even more difficult to learn than Chinese."

One ranking of language difficulty (for native English speakers) is here:

Another is this:

Arabic is up there with Chinese in both lists ...

-Mark Roulo

Glen said...

There have been multiple Chinese characters sharing the same pronunciation for centuries, while the illiterate majority easily used words written with those characters in their daily speech without any need for subtitles. Mandarin can be written just fine phonetically, like every other spoken, natural language.

The biggest impediment to conversion of Chinese writing to romanization is not homophones but the way the writing system is used. The English writing system was created to represent spoken English, but Chinese writing was originally created as a visual language, like Egyptian hieroglyphics or international road signs, meant to convey information without speech. As it evolved, it gathered more and more symbols and gained the ability to convey any message that could be spoken, but it never got as close to spoken Chinese as written English is to spoken English.

In the West, the difference between written language and spoken language is much smaller than it is in China. Imagine if the Roman Empire had never ended, no written French had ever emerged, and for the past 2000 years the French had been speaking French, writing in Latin, reading the Latin with purely French pronunciation, and calling this Latin read with French pronunciation "written French." Written French would then have the same pronunciation as spoken French but different (but similar) vocabulary and different grammar. If you were a native French speaker, you would not understand written French when it was read aloud unless you were literate, because of the great distance between spoken French and written French.

That's how it is for Chinese speakers reading Chinese if they aren't Mandarin speakers and sometimes even if they are Mandarin speakers. For centuries, the central powers have extended one set of mostly non-phonetic symbols over an empire of many languages to be the writing system for all (Sinitic) languages (not for non-Han minorities). Now how would you make THAT phonetic? It's like making international road signs phonetic.

The answer for some in China who apparently still have this long-term goal is to take a few generations to get everyone speaking Mandarin natively (either 1st or 2nd language), then switch from language-independent characters to phonetic Mandarin. I guess time will tell, but there are enough ways that Mandarin speakers exploit the information density of the written characters to make getting rid of them very unpopular.

For now, lots of educated people over 40 prefer English to Pinyin. My wife and her Chinese family and friends in Asia often text each other in English. Those who haven't lived in China for a few years all know English better than they know Pinyin (if they know Pinyin at all) and often have no Chinese input system on their phones.

The young 'uns ALL know Pinyin now, but it goes beyond that. Since they are used to quickly picking out the characters they want from a menu brought up by clues (spelling, context, other), why not extend your character repertoire to include characters for quickly expressing questions, answers, feelings, reactions, etc? Hence emoji (Japanese for emotion-characters) and "stickers" (like animated emoji) exploded in Asia. They are essentially a continuation of the evolution of non-phonetic, language-independent Chinese characters.

Also, the use of electronic input systems instead of pens and pencils causes people (native and non-native) to forget how to write many of those characters by hand--something I haven't seen in English. I wonder what electronic-only literacy leads to.

Catherine Johnson said...

Fantastic thread--- but I think I'm too drained from the day's events to follow.

I'm going to re-read tomorrow---- thank you!

Anonymous said...

Glen points out an important myth about the "Chinese language." In terms comparable to European languages, hundreds of languages are spoken in China, not just one. Even within the "Chinese language," what they call a "dialect" can be as different from another "dialect" as European languages are from each other - they're mutually unintelligible, and among the eight major groupings there are hundreds of dialects. Even the claims of the PRC government that the majority speak the Mandarin dialect are imprecise; Mandarin is a foreign language for most Chinese. It was only in the middle of the 20th century that there was even an attempt to spread a single intelligible language throughout China. Today, only about 7% of the Chinese population speak Mandarin fluently. I think people imagine that you can learn Mandarin and gain the ability to communicate with a billion Chinese, but that just isn't the case.