When it comes to understanding China, a multiplicity of voices informs the global discourse, each trying to make sense of that enigmatic nation. Trying to make sense of their language is an equally, if not more, daunting task: the complex intonations and inflections and a hieroglyphic script almost makes one wonder how more than a billion people manage to speak it.
Having swept its way through the west, Mandarin is now set to be introduced in Indian schools. Eleven thousand schools affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) will have Mandarin as part of their syllabi. As with schools in Britain and in the United States, the Chinese government has already shown interest in providing material (textual and audio-visual) and teachers for language training.
Though initially dismissed in the west as a fad that would exhaust itself — as did the craze for learning Japanese in the 1980s and Spanish in the 1990s — a tighter job market has meant that Mandarin is seen increasingly as a tool to enhance one’s employability rather than as a cultural accomplishment. Either way it works for China. Its global power aspirations can surely benefit by using language as a tool of cultural hegemony (even as it makes it compulsory for its own citizens to master English) to gradually establish a challenge to English’s preeminent position as the global lingua franca.
However, Nicholas Ostler, a British scholar with a working knowledge of 26 languages, argues in his latest book, The Last Lingua Franca, that while governments across the world will increasingly favour the use of regional languages in their commercial and administrative transactions, none of these languages (Mandarin included) will ever replace the scale of popularity and dominance English enjoys. With technological advancements and new software enabling smoother translation, English might end up being the last lingua franca, Ostler adds.
Language is no dead millstone around our necks. Apart from being a means of communication, it is also a passport to a way of living and thinking. Its beauty lies in its growth and metamorphosis, in the way it responds to its surroundings.
There is more to human thought and speech than involuntary word-processing. While the Chinese may believe that a greater number of Mandarin practitioners implies wider political influence, they should keep in mind that thought will flow both ways. Mark Liberman says in The Economist’s ongoing language debate that “when we encounter or create new ideas, we can usually describe them with new combinations of old words. And if not, we easily adapt or borrow or create the new words or phrases we need.”
There is probably no language in the world that has a phrase that describes the diplomatic own goal of an empty chair in a Nobel award ceremony. But who knows, someday an enterprising foreigner with a panache for Mandarin might combine the fluidities in several languages to hew together a word for it.