Late last year, a senior official from the Confucius Institute headquarters in Beijing announced that there were now over 40 million foreign learners worldwide studying Chinese. According to The World of Chinese magazine, that means by Chinese government estimates, the number has grown by around 10 million in just half a decade.
And there’s little doubt these figures will continue to rise, boosted by things like the continued success and expansion of the Confucius Institute programme, (which I’ve been discussing for the past week) and China’s increasing economic clout. Chuan Sheng Liu, director of the Confucius Institute in Maryland, and Rebecca McGinnis, its coordinator, both highlighted to me the importance of the Chinese language.
‘A large percentage of the world's population speaks Chinese, so it’ll be very important to have some knowledge of this language for common understanding in the global community, in business, education and many aspects of our daily life,’ the director told me.
Indeed, one question that’s being raised by many is whether Chinese has the potential to become the next global language. This is something that China scholar Don Starr, of Durham University, thinks is very possible, partly because it’s already got the numbers: ‘Chinese is the mother tongue of the largest number of speakers in the world, and if you look at the Internet statistics, those for 2010 suggest that there are about 550 million English speakers to 450 million Chinese speakers. The next language is Spanish, with 100 million or so speakers.’
Starr also believes that the internet and modern technology will help to further revolutionize the Chinese language on a global scale. ‘It’s not like in the past when the only point in learning another language was if it was a nearby country and you could go there frequently,’ he told me. ‘Now, there’s this huge amount of Chinese language information available on the Internet, so you can immerse yourself in a Chinese language environment just from home. I think it’s a bit of a game-changer.’
He added: ‘Technology is completely transforming the handling of Chinese characters. Before computers, people would only send type-written letters at a very official level. Most of the correspondence was hand-written. Computers have transformed this, so now Chinese functions just like any alphabetical language’
With the power of the Internet and new technologies, the ever-increasing presence of Confucius Institutes all over the world and a general interest in China, there’s bound to be significant continued growth. And that’s certainly going to change the way a large number of people feel toward the country in all arenas, not just business. Language is, after all, an important soft power tool.
However, there’s one barrier that could pose a challenge to this rapid evolution: Chinese is simply a notoriously difficult language to learn. According to the Defense Language Institute, Chinese is rated one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn (along with Arabic, Japanese and Korean), for people whose native language is English. This can be attributed to several factors, including the tens of thousands of Chinese characters, its unique tones and large number of homophones.
Perhaps this is where Confucius Institutes and the Chinese government will just have to get more creative. While I’ll explore China’s soft power future in more detail in the next (and final instalment) of the series, it seems clear that one of the country’s biggest challenges will be showing a softer side to its people and the world moving forward.
One way of doing this will be through greater promotion of the country’s arts and culture. When I spoke to China watcher Daniel Bell on the topic, he emphasized the importance of music in the Confucian tradition. Certainly, music is already a universal language by default—and according to Bell, it’s central to Confucianism as a philosophy, because ‘it produces joy and enjoyment and also because it has certain moral effects—empathy, understanding, having some sense of harmonious relationship with others.’
He said that he has even been to international academic conferences on Confucianism that end ‘with pe
ople breaking out in song or taking out instruments and playing them together,’ and that this has been a striking thing that never happens when he attends conferences ‘on Western political theory.’ Bell believes that music, not just in China but in the West, has too often taken a backseat to other fields.
Unfortunately, the arts are too often pushed aside in education and elsewhere in the name of more ‘practical’, economic skills. Perhaps, then, China can lead the way and show how developing nations can actually benefit internationally from embracing rich traditions such as music and making them an integral part of what it is to be a flourishing and successful nation.