When I am pushing on correction of the misspellings in Shanghai Metro, I hear about debate whether we should put on English signs in Shanghai. For me, there is no doubt that we have to do it. It is interesting to see why people want to pull English signs out of the direction boards.
The following comments are quoted from the thread under Is English Skill That Important, in courtesy of the commenter.
Reading this post made me feel a little sad. I’m from the southwestern part of the US, and I’m really interested in foreign languages. I grew up with Spanish around (since more than 15% of the people in my state speak Spanish, not English at home). Later, I studied Japanese in college.
Anyway, my experience with Chinese has been terrible. As I grew up I really loved Chinese culture, Chinese movies, Chinese food, etc… My school didn’t offer Chinese language classes, but after I graduated from college I moved to Taiwan, hoping to learn Chinese. After moving here, I’ve been taking Chinese classes at Shifandaxue for nearly a year. The classes are ok, and my reading is improving, but I’m learning almost NOTHING from daily life!
Why? It’s because Taiwanese are so f#$@ing obsessed with English, that as soon as they see a foreign-looking (i.e. WHITE) guy, they use English. Even though I gave up my job, and traveled 10,000 miles from home, I still can’t have a Chinese language environment, and it’s all because of how crazy they are about English. I guess there’s a racial element too. I have an ABC friend who speaks much worse Chinese than me, but nobody pushes her to switch to English when they talk with her. People don’t even know where I’m from, they just see the color of my skin and then assume I MUST speak English. I’d give anything just to be able to find a place where people would just speak to me in Chinese (even if my Chinese is only so-so).
One last thing I’ve thought of… English is actually only the world’s 3rd most spoken langague, according to ethnologue.com
#3 English 470,000,000 speakers
#2 Spanish 490,000,000 speakers
#1 Mandarin 1,200,000,000 speakers
Look at that. 60 years ago, French was considered the world langauge of diplomacy. Now, it’s become English. If China ever becomes a rich country, I think I know what langauge will be dominant 60 years from now…
Posted by: Mark on January 16, 2004 11:19 AM
I work for Pearson Education the largest English Language Publisher in the world. I have been to Shanghai to bring english teaching software to Mainland China. My opinions maybe biased however I feel strongly:
You can learn other languages without losing your culture. China has been around a long time and the culture has remained in tact. I think people confuse american cultural invasion with the fact that people everywhere want prosperity they want cars, nice homes, good life. Having more prosperity is not an inport of america. We have a developed country and we have all these things. One hundred years or more Europe was the envy and Britain was the ideal before that it was France.
English is not the world language because of america. Britain established english in many places of the world during the colonial period. Post WWII American economy and business dealings made English the language of business and commerce. Now English is taught pretty much as a second language. Why?
English is simply an easy language to learn. I know many people in Shanghai who are self taught. Something that would be almost impossible with Mandarin. Because of the tonal qualities of Chinese, Japanese and other asian languages it makes it very hard for europeans and americans to speak these languages properly. The romance languages like english, spanish, french etc are very similiar so they can pick up english quickly and we share a common alphabet. The written languages of asia especially china are not aligned with the spoken language making it even more difficult.
In asia in particular there are so many numerous dialects which are so different they are like a foreign language to each other. Take cantonese versus mandarin. As stated above english is a simple common format for everyone to be able to communicate with.
Does knowing english give you a better life in China. The answer depends on the person. It definitely gives you better work opportunities but its up to the person to seek those opportunities out. This would be especially true in areas where people interface with people in other countries like the big costal cities etc.
History has shown people borrow from each other’s cultures. I dont thing there is a need to worry the Chinese will all become Americans like some of the phobic comments made above. I do believe that there are many misperceptions about China in the states and in China about America. The bottom line is the more people can communicate with each other the better off we will all be and the safer the world will be.
Posted by: Nick on July 25, 2003 07:46 AM
Great website! I was looking for info about PUDONG and stumbled upon it. Wonderful information and thanks for being so kind and friendly! As for learning English, it does help open up doors of communication of others. I do think it is important to have your own dialect/language as well. I can’t speak my mom’s dialect but I understand it and Mandarin/Cantonese. I studied Japanese, Vietnamese and Spanish (but I am able to do small talk at best with the others). I believe communication with others is vital for international understanding but “when in rome, do what romans do” I do agree. Or at least have people aware of this. Just my small two cents worth.
Posted by: Anna on September 3, 2004 03:27 AM
Geno’s long arguement that English should NOT be the world language
No offense here, but I have to disagree with just about everything in your post. I’m a Korean-American who’s traveled thru much of the world, both as my parents moved around and on my own for business and vacation. If there’s one thing I’ve learned with certainty, it’s that this claim that people utter all the time– that “English is the international language of business, pop culture, diplomacy, and just about everything else”– is totally false. TOTALLY BOGUS. In fact, the more I hear this myth about English taking over the world, the more I become convinced that it’s a thinly veiled attempt at commercial imperialism by the USA and UK, a way to pry loose and ruin longstanding business relationships that many non-English speaking countries have with each other so as to draw them into the commercial sphere of the US, UK, and other English-speaking countries. Oh, and also to force the poorer countries of the world to bear the cost of language-learning and translation, so that the US in particular gets to boost its profit margin even higher. English is popular as an international language but not nearly to the extent that people play it up, yet USAers in particular repeat this lie so often that many people become duped into believing that it’s a truth, to the advantage of USA companies and at the expense of home-grown firms.
I heard a story on the radio recently about an American businessman– Jeffrey Jones– who’s actually pushing hard to make English the official language of South Korea, claiming that he’s acting benevolently in Korea’s self-interest and increasing their national wealth. It made my blood boil to hear this carpetbagging jerk from the USA try to push something that would essentially ruin my country’s ancient culture and split us from our own history, and even more angry that there are apparently enough gullible idiots in the Korean government and school system to help this guy along. Look, I’m all for Koreans doing the English-immersion programs and improving their command of English (and other languages too), but I’m disgusted by this misguided infatuation with the language.
I for one think that Koreans would benefit more by learning Japanese and Mandarin, since these are the two countries that Koreans will predominantly be doing business with. China particularly will be very powerful and in 20 years Mandarin may be even more important than English both on the Asian Pacific coast and worldwide, so it would be foolish to get obsessed with English as a foreign language at the expense of Mandarin. Nick, you yourself point out that French used to be the ideal language, which goes to show that “world languages” change over all the time, and we shouldn’t get caught up in the fad of the moment. I spent a good deal of time in various countries of Europe, and while there are a lot of people who can speak good English there, English isn’t nearly as much of a common standard as a lot of people pretend. In most of southern and southeastern Europe, places like Italy, Romania, and Greece, they tend to use French as the lingua franca, not English. In most of northern and eastern Europe, in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Finland, Estonia, and many of the other former Soviet Republics, German is the lingua franca much more than English. Some of the best German literature and movies these days come from Eastern Europe! German is also the main second language in Serbia, Croatia, Turkey, and some other places farther away from Germany because of all the immigrant and business contacts between Germany and those countries. In much of Central Asia and some other former Soviet republics, Russian is still a lingua franca. (And a lot of Russians speak perfect German and French and actively use them, again with a lot of Russian immigrants going to France and Germany recently.) In North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, French is more of a lingua franca than English, and in East Africa it’s Swahili. In India English is not widely spoken– I’ve been to India and while some elites do speak it, Tamil is a sort-of lingua franca for the south while Hindi is the lingua franca for the north and center. (I’ve actually seen statistics showing that Hindi is spoken by millions more people than English, and in a lot of different countries.) Spanish is the lingua franca for Latin America. The point being that in the EU French and German are both shaping up as important lingua francas, with Russian, Swahili, Hindi, and Spanish having that role elsewhere, and probably Mandarin soon in East Asia.
Nick, you claimed that “English is not the world language because of america. Britain established english in many places of the world during the colonial period.” That’s totally wrong. In the vast majority of places that Britain ruled, they are not using English as their principal or official language. In Singapore English is co-official, it’s also co-official in African countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe (though not very widely spoken), and of course English is used in the white settler colonies like Australia, but in most former Brit colonies they’ve switched back to their indigenous languages. In Burma, Malaysia and Pakistan for example they may use English at times as a second-language but English is definitely not the main language used. As I pointed out in India, Hindi is official and Hindi and Tamil share lingua franca status in different regions of the country. Up to the fall of the British Empire after World War 2, English wasn’t very widely used, and so the popularity of English today is entirely a result of the US, American business, military and pop culture particularly. If US gets weak for whatever reason, English won’t be nearly as widespread.
Nick, you also claim that “English is simply an easy language to learn.” This is simply outrageous and totally wrong. I’ve talked to a lot of Japanese and Koreans who say that English is extremely difficult to learn– in fact, most Japanese and Koreans say that German is a lot easier since they have similar grammar structure. English has a totally nonsensical spelling and difficult pronunciation, plus it has some very complicated grammar in many places, and vocabulary that’s all over the place. Asian languages by contrast (particularly Chinese) have very simple grammar, no tenses or weird changes of verbs, nouns, or pronouns, plus a rich but easy-to-learn vocabulary.
You go on to say that “I know many people in Shanghai who are self taught (in English). Something that would be almost impossible with Mandarin. Because of the tonal qualities of Chinese, Japanese and other asian languages it makes it very hard for europeans and americans to speak these languages properly.” Again, totally false. I know a large number of Americans who can speak fluent Chinese, Japanese and Korean and who in some cases are self-taught (usually spent some time in East Asia too of course to get fluent). Some Americans and Europeans have studied many foreign languages, and they’ve told me that Chinese is actually the easiest of all to learn because of the very simple grammar and easy-to-learn vocabulary. They’re not bothered by the tones nearly as much as you think. It’s unfamiliar at first but you get used to it. Remember that tones aren’t in Korean either, but lots of Koreans and Korean-Americans learn Chinese dialects, and it’s not too hard to do it.
You also say that “The romance languages like english, spanish, french etc are very similiar so they can pick up english quickly and we share a common alphabet. The written languages of asia especially china are not aligned with the spoken language making it even more difficult.” First of all Nick, English is not a Romance language, it’s a Germanic language. Second, Chinese written language is aligned with the spoken language (each character consists of a phonetic as well as a meaning radical), and if anything the Chinese written system actually makes it a lot easier for Asian countries to communicate with each other, since they can use the writing even if they don’t speak each other’s language. It does take some years to master the writing but again, it’s not as hard as you make it out to be. Most of the characters are pretty unique and it’s not too tough to learn them and tell them apart. In addition for many purposes both native and non-native Chinese speakers just use pinyin Romanization of Chinese which is also popular, so Chinese has the advantage that it can be written both with the characters and with the pinyin phonetic romanization, and people understand it.
You say that “In asia in particular there are so many numerous dialects which are so different they are like a foreign language to each other. Take cantonese versus mandarin. As stated above english is a simple common format for everyone to be able to communicate with.” First of all, as someone who’s been to UK and Australia I can tell you that there are many places in those English-speaking countries where an American won’t know what in the world anyone is saying, since the dialect is so strong. Second, why do you assume that English would be a better common format than any of the Asian languages? As far as a common language goes, East Asian countries have a strong historical connection to Chinese culture and language and in fact over 40% of the words in Korean, Japanese, and some other languages come from Chinese originally. Plus the cultural features of Chinese language are a lot closer for us. So it’s much easier for us to use Mandarin as a common language than English there. On the other side of the coin, in many parts of USA we don’t even use English as the main language. In a lot of states, including in California where I grew up and other states that used to be part of Mexico, Spanish is used more than English, and you’d better know it. (In my middle school our teachers all told us that Spanish was the language that everybody had to learn and speak fluently to get ahead.)
The one place where I agree with you is here-”The bottom line is the more people can communicate with each other the better off we will all be and the safer the world will be.” Yes, I agree. But this has to work going both ways. I’m sick of so many of my fellow Americans being so lazy that they expect everybody in foreign countries to speak English to them-they should at least make some effort to learn the main languages of the places they visit. I think it’s fine that people in Asia and Europe learn English-I think it’s also fine and helpful that many of them get fluent in French, German and Hindi too. But in return, we Americans have to stop being so lazy and spoiled about languages ourselves. If more Americans actually made the effort to learn French, German, Spanish, Hindi, Chinese, Swahili, and many other important languages, this would help communication just as much as other countries learning American English. (I’m obviously not saying that every American should learn 10 languages-I’m saying that learning foreign languages should be more valued in general for Americans, and each American should work hard to get fluent in at least one or two foreign languages, the way most Europeans and Asians do.) My parents taught me Korean but I also worked hard to learn Spanish and German at school, and I take a lot of pride in speaking them. In return, people from other countries appreciate it a lot when I speak their languages rather than demanding that they speak mine all the time. Communication goes in two directions, and we Americans need to do more on our side of the bargain. In addition to other advantages, it would also help Americans to stop being so narrow-minded. A lot of our stupid foreign policy mistakes and arrogant actions recently are probably the result of a self-centeredness, the fact that many Americans think the world revolves around them. We’ll help ourselves as well as the rest of the world by breaking out of this.
Posted by: Geno on September 29, 2004 04:23 PM
Kwong blamed why an American came to Shanghai for 5 years but didn’t show effort to learn the language.
you are so freaking right about “communication goes in two directions”. I have been working in US for over 10 years, and recently relocate back to Shanghai on a new assignment, it really pissed me off to see whole bunch of Chinese folk need to speak English in a meeting just because there is one dude from US who never makes real effort to learn the language, he has been in Shanghai for over 5 years and he knew he has to deal with Chinese people 24-7, like most of of American, they take it for granted.
Posted by: kwong on September 29, 2004 10:37 PM
Bigbro’s post is interesting to claim that the buyer’s language provails:
The language for international communications evolves around commercial activities. In trade dealings, usually there is a buyer (customer) and a seller (supplier) and over time the buyer’s language provails. This stems from the natural law of “customer is king.” In today’s world, the US is still the largest buyer in terms of dollar value of its market, so English is the leading-brand tool of communication. That could change over time after (if) other markets surpass the US in buying power.
This CNN article talked about the English vs. Mandarin issue: http://www.cnn.com/2004/TECH/science/02/27/future.language.ap/index.html. The following paragraphs were taken the article.
Nonetheless, English is strong as a second language, and teaching it has become a growth industry, said Montgomery, a Seattle-based geologist and energy consultant.
Graddol noted, though that employers in parts of Asia are already looking beyond English. “In the next decade the new ‘must learn’ language is likely to be Mandarin.”
“The expectation that someone should always aspire to native speaker competence when learning a foreign language is under challenge,” he comments.
Posted by: bigbro on September 30, 2004 01:23 PM
Why English? Buyer’s Language?
I agree with Bigbro that the root of the popularity of English is economic reasons. People won’t choose a language because it is simple, or more people speak it. The buyer’s language rules – I agree on that.
I saw some interesting examples. In the Xiang Yang Market, the venders can speak good English, because most buyers can speak English. In Tailand, venders can speak Mandarin, because there are so many visitors from China visiting the place. In Paris, it is the same. With increasing number of visitors from China so the shopping malls are broadcasting using Chinese.
It is the power – the buying power, and the economic powers, that made the choice.
I talked with my brother yesterday and he described what happened in Toronto. Two years ago, Cantonese are the most used “Chinese” there. The new comers from mainland have to learn some Cantonese to survive. The local Canadian salespersons in shops have to learn some Cantonese to gain business. Very soon, with more and more people (or “customers”) migrate to that city; mandarin has become the official Chinese language. The English/French speaking sales persons just found the language they learnt so many years is not called Chinese any more and they have to learn completely a new language to keep the customers. It is interesting story that proofs the buyers’ language becomes THE language.
Another example is Japanese. When Wicresoft starts to provide software development services for Japanese companies, the signature of the Engineers becomes Japanese. Well. No body made the choice – it is the choice everyone would make – to provide easy access to the customers.
English is not the Preferred Language for Local People
Recently, I saw an article in the newspaper criticizing the greetings in hotels and big companies. They use English first and repeat it in Chinese. He argued “It turned out most customers in the hotel or companies are Chinese and how many time was wasted to listen to English?”
I agree that every business should follow “Customers first” rule, but do follow which language the customer prefers. English is not always the preferred language, especially both party can speak the local language. It is ridiculous for two persons who can speak Mandarin to talk in English – for whatever reason.
After so many years, English became the most popular language for international communication because of the strong buying power of English speaking countries. I believe it is proper to add English signs to airports, to Metro and to other public transportation to make the city more accessible. The visitors are the buyers and buy making the city more accessible and friendly to them, the city can grow and so does the country. When the country becomes stronger, the language can be more popular… That is how the world works in the last century.
I do agree that putting more languages in Airport and Metro is better. However, it is not possible to put every language onto the same board. It is not acceptable to use only one language so making other people who cannot read it totally lost. English seems a good choice, even for visitors whose language is not English.
This is the reason why I spent effort to talk to the Metro to make sure they put on the CORRECT English signs on the boards.