Being the most populous nation China has always been a force to be reckoned with but average growth of 9 per cent annually since 1989 has seen it rise to become a powerhouse of the world economy. China has overtaken the US in real terms, according to the IMF. In GDP terms the US is still ahead but it seems that China is powering along. So, should non-English speakers switch their focus from learning English as a second language to Mandarin?
Mark Zuckerberg, head of Facebook certainly sees merit in learning Mandarin. He set it as his big challenge in 2013, culminating in a 30-minute address to students at a Beijing university, complete with question and answer session conducted completely in Mandarin. This garnered a lot of headlines around the world and re-introduced the question of which language will be the preferred choice as a second language in the future.
Researchers at MIT looked into this question last year and published research in December, which argued that English is still the most influential language in the world. The reason for this is not necessarily down to numbers. English actually comes in third in terms of first language speakers. There are an estimated 955 million native Mandarin speakers, 405 million native Spanish speakers and 360 million native English speakers. Instead, the global reach of English has led to it becoming the default option for how we communicate.
English has long been a second language of choice for most people around the world because of its position as a first or official language across the breadth of the Commonwealth. This has encompassed regions as geographically diverse as India, Australia, Canada and parts of the Caribbean. Add in the US and Britain itself and it is straightforward to understand how English became the preeminent first and second language.
This position of strength has been solidified by the unprecedented growth of the Internet. International versions of websites by default use English with around 56 per cent of all online information written in English. In addition, the overwhelming majority of domain names are spelled using English characters. Even our standard keyboards use QWERTY, which is based on the Roman alphabet. How would computers and mobile devices cater for Mandarin with its more than 2,000 characters?
When we consider computer languages it is perhaps unsurprising that these are based on English. Notably, two of the most popular programming languages, Python and Ruby, were created by non-native English speakers. Python was designed by Guido van Possum of the Netherlands and Ruby was designed by Yukihiro Matsumoto from Japan. These act as examples of the choice of English as the language of choice when communicating with the world.
Today there are around 800 million people across the world who speak English as a second language compared to around 500 million who speak Mandarin. The latter are concentrated in South East Asia meaning the usefulness of Mandarin outside this region is limited. Moreover approximately 1.5 billion people are currently trying to learn English. This momentum is likely to prove unstoppable and these factors make it unlikely that Mandarin will overtake English as the second language of choice for the world’s citizens.