Is English or Mandarin the language of the future?

Mandarin-English dictionary

English has been the dominant global language for a century, but is it the language of the future? If Mandarin Chinese is to challenge English globally, then it first has to conquer its own backyard, South East Asia.

In Malaysia's southernmost city of Johor Bahru, the desire to speak good English has driven some children to make a remarkable two-hour journey to school every day.

Nine-year-old Aw Yee Han hops on a yellow mini van at 04:30. His passport is tucked inside a small pouch hung around his neck.

This makes it easier for him to show it to immigration officials when he reaches the Malaysian border.

His school is located on the other side, in Singapore, where unlike in Malaysia, English is the main language.

It's not your typical school run, but his mother, Shirley Chua thinks it's worth it.

"Science and maths are all written in English so it's essential for my son to be fluent in the language," she says.

The assumption that Mandarin will grow with China's economic rise may be flawed. Consider Japan which, after spectacular post-war economic growth, became the world's second-biggest economy. The Japanese language saw no comparable rise in power and prestige.

The same may prove true of Mandarin. The character-based writing system requires years of hard work for even native speakers to learn, and poses a formidable obstacle to foreigners. In Asia, where China's influence is thousands of years old, this may pose less of a problem. But in the West, even dedicated students labour for years before they can confidently read a text of normal difficulty on a random topic.

Finally, many languages in Asia, Africa and the Amazon use "tones" (rising, falling, flat or dipping pitch contours) to distinguish different words. For speakers of tonal languages (like Vietnamese) learning the tones of Mandarin poses no particular difficulty. But speakers of non-tonal languages struggle to learn tones in adulthood - just ask any adult Mandarin-learner for their funniest story about using a word with the wrong tone.

An estimated 15,000 students from southern Johor state make the same bus journey across the border every day. It may seem like a drastic measure, but some parents don't trust the education system in Malaysia - they worry that the value of English is declining in the country.

Since independence from the British in 1957, the country has phased out schools that teach in English. By the early 1980s, most students were learning in the national language of Malay.

As a result, analysts say Malaysian graduates became less employable in the IT sector.

"We've seen a drastic reduction in the standard of English in our country, not just among the students but I think among the teachers as well," says political commentator Ong Kian Ming.

Those who believe that English is important for their children's future either send their kids to expensive private schools or to Singapore, where the government has been credited as being far-sighted for adopting the language of its former colonial master.

Nearly three-quarters of the population in Singapore are ethnic Chinese but English is one of the national languages and very widely-spoken.

Many believe that this has helped the city state earn the title of being the easiest place to do business, by the World Bank.

Lost in translation

Notes saying Merry Christmas in different languages
  • Up to 7,000 different languages are estimated to be spoken around the world
  • Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, German and French are world's most widely spoken languages, according to UNESCO
  • Languages are grouped into families that share a common ancestry
  • English is related to German and Dutch, and all are part of Indo-European family of languages
  • Also includes French, Spanish and Italian, which come from Latin
  • 2,200 of the world's languages can be found in Asia, while Europe has 260

Source: BBC Languages

However, the dominance of English is now being challenged by the rise of China in Singapore.

The Singapore Chinese Chamber Institute of Business has added Chinese classes for business use in recent years.

Students are being taught in Mandarin rather than the Hokkien dialect spoken by the older Chinese immigrants.

These courses have proved popular, ever since the government began providing subsidies for Singaporeans to learn Chinese in 2009 during the global financial crisis.

"The government pushed to provide them with an opportunity to upgrade themselves so as to prepare themselves for the economic upturn," says chamber spokesperson Alwyn Chia.

Some businesses are already desperate for Chinese speakers.

Lee Han Shih, who runs a multimedia company, says English is becoming less important to him financially because he is taking western clients to do business in China.

"So obviously you need to learn English but you also need to know Chinese," says Mr Lee.

As China's economic power grows, Mr Lee believes that Mandarin will overtake English. In fact, he has already been seeing hints of this.

"The decline of the English language probably follows the decline of the US dollar.

"If the renminbi is becoming the next reserve currency then you have to learn Chinese."

More and more, he says, places like Brazil and China are doing business in the renminbi, not the US dollar, so there is less of a need to use English.

Bilingualism

Indeed, China's clout is growing in South East Asia, becoming the region's top trading partner.

But to say that Mandarin will rival English is a "bit of a stretch", says Manoj Vohra, Asia director at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Find out more

  • Listen to Jennifer Pak's two part documentary English in the East on the BBC World Service

Even companies in China, who prefer to operate in Chinese, are looking for managers who speak both Mandarin and English if they want to expand abroad, he says.

"They tend to act as their bridges."

So the future of English is not a question of whether it will be overtaken by Mandarin, but whether it will co-exist with Chinese, says Vohra.

He believes bilingualism will triumph in South East Asia.

It is a sound economic argument, but in Vietnam's case, there is resistance to learning Mandarin.

The country may share a border with China, but the Vietnamese government's choice to not emphasise Mandarin is an emotional one, says leading economist Le Dang Doanh.

Aw Yee Han and his mother Shirley Chua fears her son's English will suffer in the Malaysian school system

"All the streets in Vietnam are named according to generals and emperors that have been fighting against the Chinese invasion for 2000 years," he says.

Tensions flared up again last May over the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Anti-Chinese sentiment means that young Vietnamese are choosing to embrace English - the language of a defeated enemy. Many families still bear the psychological scars from the Vietnam War with the United States.

Yet there is no animosity towards English because the founding father of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, made a clear distinction between the so-called American imperialists who were bombarding Vietnam and the American people, says Le Dang Doanh.

Many Vietnamese who have lost family members during the war are now studying in America, he says.

"We never forget any victim in the past but in order to industrialise and normalise a country, Vietnam needs to speak English."

The Vietnamese government has an ambitious goal to ensure all young people leaving school by 2020 will have a good grasp of the English language.

Bboy dancer Ngoc Tu Vietnamese Ngoc Tu only listens to music in English

But it's not hard for young Vietnamese to accept English. For some, the language offers a sense of freedom in Vietnam, where the one-party communist state retains a tight grip on all media.

In a public square in central Hanoi, a group of young men are break-dancing to the pulsing beats of western hip hop. Ngoc Tu, 20, says he only listens to English music.

"The Ministry of Culture has banned a lot of [Vietnamese] songs and any cultural publications that refer to freedom or rebellion but... English songs are not censored."

It is debatable whether English or Mandarin will dominate in South East Asia in the future. There are arguments for both on the economic front.

But culturally, there is no dispute.

Even Mandarin language enthusiasts like Singaporean businessman Mr Lee, says that English will remain popular so long as Hollywood exists.

The success of movies such as Kung Fu Panda, an American production about a Chinese animal, has caused a lot of anxiety in China, he says.

There have been many cartoons in China about pandas before, but none had reached commercial success, says Mr Lee.

"The moment Kung Fu Panda hit the cinemas everybody watched it. They bought the merchandise and they learned English."

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