Why Chinese can become a global language

Most commentators, including those in academia and the media, maintain that the difficulty of its character-based writing system will prevent Chinese from becoming a global language. However, much of this discussion is founded on flawed assumptions about ‘proficiency’, technological advances in language learning and usage, an excessive focus on the challenging features of Chinese characters and linguistics. Contrary to popular belief, a character-based writing system will not stop Chinese becoming a global language.

Most of the world’s languages are written using a phonetic script such as an alphabet. In these scripts, each symbol represents a unit of sound. The Chinese writing system is one of few exceptions – it is logographic, which means each written symbol, or character, represents the meaning of a word (or part of a word) rather than a sound. 

As such, at least one character must be learned for each word, and this makes achieving literacy in Chinese a time consuming and onerous task. 

The challenges involved in learning and using characters for foreign learners of Chinese have been well-documented. These challenges are generally seen as insurmountable obstacles to Chinese ever becoming a global language. Geoffrey Pullman’s “The awful Chinese writing system” is a typical example of this position.  

But do such arguments hold up to scrutiny? 

Proponents of this view seem to think that for Chinese to become a global language, everyone would need to learn to read and write, and do so to a native level of proficiency. But this is not how English works as a global language. 

A cursory look at the use of English around the world shows not everyone can read and write the language, and certainly not to a native level. An important reason for this is that, generally speaking, people only learn as much English as is required for their purposes. 

The same applies to Chinese as a global language – not all learners need to know how to read and write the language, and not all of those who do need to do so to a high level.  

Furthermore, technology has changed the way characters are written, and this has important implications for the chances of Chinese becoming a global language.  

The Pinyin Romanisation system was developed in the 1950s to facilitate literacy for Chinese children and foreign learners. It uses the Roman alphabet to represent the sounds of Chinese. Devices like computers, mobile phones and iPads have software that converts Pinyin into characters. This process, which can be seen in this video, involves typing a word in Pinyin and then selecting the matching character from a list generated by the software. 

Such technology drastically reduces the time and effort needed to learn and use characters because people do not have to physically write them. Instead, they can learn how to write in Pinyin and how to recognise characters. 

Chinese characters have been used by people outside of China before, although not on the same scale as the Roman alphabet – used not only in English but most other European languages.

From approximately the third century to the second half of the twentieth century, scholars, officials and Buddhist monks in Korea, Japan and Vietnam used Chinese characters for reading and writing in administration, religion and many genres of literature. 

In addition, diplomats from these countries also carried out face-to-face communication with Chinese diplomats by writing characters – a practice known as “brush talk (笔谈 bǐtán). Communication took place through written Chinese, rather than their respective spoken languages, which were considerably different from each other.   

Characters were used for these purposes out of the desire to emulate China, then seen as the most advanced and civilised country in the world. This provided the motivation to devote time and effort to learning and using characters. 

Finally, many of those who argue that a character-based writing system will stop Chinese attaining global language status focus on the linguistic features of Chinese. But linguistic features do not make a language into a global language – English’s high number of loan words, minimal inflections and lack of grammatical gender are not the reasons it is a global language today. English became a global language because it was the language of the two most powerful countries of recent centuries, Britain and the United States. 

There are also a number of discrepancies between how English sounds and how it is spelled. These present challenges to learners of English, but they did not prevent it from becoming a global language. This shows that concentrating on linguistic features can be misleading. 

If we accept that it is the power and influence of the countries in which a language is spoken that make it global, then as China’s power and influence continue to grow, so too will the global use and status of the Chinese language. 

This piece is based on the author’s recent article, “Will a character based writing system stop Chinese becoming a global language? A review and reconsideration of the debate”, published in the journal Global Chinese.