When I get into cocktail-party conversation about language and politics, someone inevitably says “and of course there’s the rise of China.” It seems like any conversation these days has to work in the rise-of-China angle. Technology is changing society? Well, it’s the flood of cheap tech from China. Worried about your job? It’s the rise of China. Terrified of nuclear Iran? If only that rising China would stop resisting sanctions. What’s for lunch? Well, we’d all better develop a taste for Chinese food.
I was reminded of this walking down New York’s Park Avenue last night, when I saw a pre-school offering immersion courses in French, Italian, Spanish and Chinese. For years now, we’ve been seeing stories like this: Manhattan parents, always eager to steal some advantage for their children, are hiring Mandarin-speaking nannies, so their children can learn what some see as the language of the future.
But while China’s rise is real, Chinese is in no way rising at the same rate. Yes, Mandarin Chinese is the world’s most commonly spoken language, if you simply count the number of speakers. But the rub is that they’re almost all in China. Yes, we’ve also read that Mandarin is advancing in Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas Chinese communities (which have traditionally spoken one of China’s other languages, such as Cantonese). And China is trying to expand the use of the language through the expansion of its overseas Confucius Institutes. But English remains the world’s most important language. America’s superpower status has made it everyone’s favourite second language. This is where its power lies. A Japanese businessman does deals in Sweden in English. A German airline pilot landing in Milan speaks English to the tower. English is also the language of writing intended for an international audience, whether scientific, commercial or literary.