Chinas economic might has increased the popularity of its language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat May 14 14:42:19 UTC 2005

Fe World

Mandarin rides on economy

Chinas economic might has increased the popularity of its language

Pallavi Aiyar

  Let China sleep, for when she awakes, the world will tremble, said
Napoleon famously, and indeed as the sleeping giant rouses, tremors are
being felt throughout the world. From East to West, the seemingly
inexorable rise of the Middle Kingdom, is drawing other nations to it, as
a model for development, source and destination for investment and trading
partner. The fear and distrust with which many used to regard the Mainland
is increasingly being replaced by admiration, so that from Vietnam to
India, through to far away Brazil, China is now being seen as presenting
more of an opportunity than a threat. Growing apace with its rising
economic and diplomatic strength is Beijings cultural clout or soft power.
Soft power, a term coined by Harvard professor Joseph Nye, refers to a
countrys ability to influence others by the attractiveness of its ideas
and values. For decades it is a term that has primarily been associated
with the US, given the ability of Hollywood glamour and Mickey Mouse cute
to attract across borders and the importance of English as a global

However, as in the economic and political realms, the supremacy of US soft
power is gradually being challenged by the might of Chinese culture and
language. Across Asia, Chinas cultural power is on display, exported
through linguistic and gastronomic ties and consolidated through its
overseas communities. Chinese tourism is burgeoning and it is visitors
from the Mainland, rather than Japan that now constitute the dominant
tourist group in Southeast Asia. Chinese cinema, art and traditional
medicine are all booming globally. The escalating popularity of Mandarin
Chinese is a case in point. Chinese is already the most spoken language in
the world, with three times as many native speakers as English. Far from
being geographically restricted to Chinas immediate neighbourhood, its
spread across the globe is being ensured by the Chinese diapora. Thus for
example, Chinese is now the third most spoken language in Canada,
following English and French. It is widely predicted that within a decade
or so Mandarin will have overtaken English as the most used language on
the Internet.

According to the National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign
Language (NOCFL) in Beijing, there are approximately 30 million people
learning Chinese around the world and it is the Mainlands stated purpose
to ensure that this number grows to 100 million by 2007. Currently, more
than 2,300 universities in nearly 100 countries offer courses in Chinese
and thousands are flocking to Chinas shores in the hope of mastering the
language. There are now more foreign students in China, (estimated at over
86,000) than Chinese students abroad. Not surprisingly, interest in the
HSK, a standardised exam to test proficiency in Chinese similar to the
TOEFL test for English, has surged. From year 2000, when only some 4,500
people appeared for the exam, the number of test takers leaped to almost
22,000 in 2004.

Significantly, the profile of those taking the HSK has also changed from
comprising largely academics and linguists to include large numbers of
entrepreneurs and white-collar professionals. Driving this boom in
learning Mandarin is the perception of the economic opportunities that
China offers and a concomitant sense that the future firmly belongs in the
Middle Kingdoms hands.

Multinational businesses across the mainland now routinely require foreign
employees in China, to be fluent in Mandarin. Choo Shuo Yen, a Singaporean
student currently studying International Relations in Beijing, observes
the sea change in attitude towards Mandarin that has taken place in
Singapore over the last few years. In the 70s, it was all about English
because our government saw Englsh as the most important language of the
future, he says. As a result many Singaporeans, even those of Chinese
ethnicity, could no longer communicate adequately in Chinese. But now, its
slowly being seen as a disadvantage to not be fluent in Mandarin, says
Shuo Yen.

Thus, last year the official language policy of Singapore was reformed to
place greater emphasis on Chinese. Adds Shuo Yen, Its not only ethnic
Chinese, but even Malays and Indians who are taking a greater interest in
learning Mandarin. That the Chinese authorities see language as a
foundational pillar in the projection of soft power is evident from a
recent statement made by the Chinese Vice Minister for Education, Zhang
Xinzheng at a conference in Beijing. Zhang said, The demand for a language
represents the countrys overall national power and image in the
world...more importantly it, forecasts the countrys future.


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