chinese: the next international language?

Paul   Sunday, May 23, 2004, 06:49 GMT
Goodness Gracious.
I would never say that because the Literacy Percentage rates are low in China, the number of literate people are insignificant.

Literacy is a potent force with so many people participating in Chinese literature and Culture. I just wanted to point out the Chinese Literacy is not as easy to develop for someone foreign to Chinese Culture and Language.
I think English culture is more widespread at this point in time and even with all the spelling problems, the English language is easier to learn and to develop full Literacy than the Chinese Language.

I base this judgement on the difficulties that the Chinese have with the best will in the world to achieve full functional literacy in the last 50 years.
Personally, my information is that Literacy in China is much higher than 20%, especially, if you exclude older people (Over 60) who did not have the benefit of Public Education. Before Public Education more than 80% of the male population were really illiterate.
Lets start with the numbers that you gave me on the number of Putonghua speakers in China and the world. In the cities, there is 400 million.
Of those 400 million, say 75% of the males an 64% of the females are fully literate in written chinese. Perhaps half of those can effectively use Pinyin romanization (That is a guess). So those are the ones who can use the computer to write Chinese. I wonder if China has Cyber Cafes, where people can rent time on a computer, in the cities.
There are 600 million Putonghua speakers in the countryside, and say 62% of the males an 40% of the females are fully literate in written chinese.

Then there are an additional 200 million Putonghua-as-a-second-dialect speakers with the English-as-a-second-language speakers in various parts of the world. Perhaps 65% of these speakers have a good enough understanding Putonghua to be potentially literate. About 85% of the males and 80% of the females are fully literate in written chinese. And with the wider use of computers, 60% to 70% are familar enough with Pinyin to use a computer to write Chinese.
This is not say that these people are not educated. Almost all younger Chinese people have had a good public education. Unfortunately, a basic primary education will not develop full functional Literacy in Written Chinese. That requires advanced or secondary education. Slow learners are at an especial disadvantage.

To fair, we must acknowledge that a large number of Chinese, Korean and Japanese people are functionally literate in the hand written Chinese even with an incomplete or non-existent understanding of spoken Putonghua.
They are in a sense, bilinguals, and have Chinese only as a second language.
I consider this level of literacy to be quite useful, but not the equivalent of being literate in your own spoken language.

Interestingly, the difficulties with Putonghua for a local learner are not insurmounatable. Improved Computer Software should eventually allow all speakers of Putonghua to write Chinese comfortably and quickly. Although it will never be easy.
For foreign learners with little Chinese culture and no native language speaker tutoring, Putonghua will only be learned by people in dire need or linguistically gifted.

Regards, Paul V.

P.S. As for Chinese culture, I notice that Jackie Chan Movies do pretty good in the Canadian Movie Market, as do a number of Chinese movies over the years. Most of them are from Hong Kong.
Zhongguoren   Monday, May 24, 2004, 00:21 GMT
Anyway...Putonghua, such a beautiful language and with such great potential. They really need to create and popularise an easier way to write Chinese. Rome wasn't built in a day but it was built in a few centuries. Maybe 200 years later...

Jackie Chan be damned. He is not an accurate representation of modern Chinese life and culture, or even of the Chinese people. They're excellent for entertainment, though. If you want Chinese culture, watch some mainland films made after 1990, even though some can be quite boring. Together (Héni zài yiqi) is a good mainland film about a young violin prodigy who goes to Beijing. To Live (Húozhe) is another good mainland film about the tragic early years of Communism in China, and no, it is NOT a gov't propaganda film.
Paul   Monday, May 24, 2004, 17:49 GMT
I agree that Putonghua is a beautiful language and has great potential, but I just wanted to point out it is very difficult for foreigners to learn and not just because of the writing system. English has much simplier but still basically flawed writing system.

You should talk to Simon Ager at He is native born Englishman, but he studied Chinese at the University of Leeds, National Chengchi University and National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei and Kansai University of Foreign Languages in Osaka.
He gets around and he knows more than anyone outside China about some of the new methods to write Chinese (Putonghua) more efficiently.

Regards, Paul V.
Zhongguoren   Monday, May 24, 2004, 22:48 GMT
Hello Paul,

I'm just curious...Apart from the writing system, how else is Chinese difficult to learn? I spoke Chinese since I was a kid so I don't know what difficulties foreigners have in learning spoken Chinese. The grammar is easy, most of the words make sense, and it's easy to pronounce. Take away the chengyu (proverbs?) and you have a spoken language that really makes a lot of sense and is very flexible, the kind of language that can be made into a lingua franca.

The English writing system is okay once you get used to it. I think the Russian writing system is the best, the way they pronounce the Cyrillic letters is almost phonetic (right word? I don't know. People here are picky with "phonetic").

Paul   Tuesday, May 25, 2004, 23:31 GMT
Chinese is very simple and logical grammatically.
The word order is pretty standard and simple to use.
The real difficulty for foreigners is the Chinese word itself.
Chinese words are usually just a consonant followed by vowel or vowel combination optionally followed by an "n" or "ng". There are only about 300 of these combinations which are commonly used. This word is then usually accented by 1 of 4 tones. And so you have about a 1000 recognisable Chinese words. So most Chinese words are homonyms with 40 or 50 other Chinese words. A Native speaker will figure it all out based on context and the addition of Classifier words.

Now take it as given that a foreigner will have trouble recognizing these different tones. Taken it as given that the pronunciation of these tones vary and change in different regions, even when everyone is speaking Putonghua.
I heard that there is Cantonese phonetic representation "jyutping" which can facilitate the input of Chinese characters for native speakers of Cantonese, as well as provide a means of teaching better pronunciation.
I haven't heard anything about any attempt to standardize the pronunciation of "Putonghua". It is still evolving.
So a standard pronunciation of "Putonghua" is far in the future.

So the result is while most foreigners will learn to recognize and repeat words that they have heard in a familar setting, they are usually unable to recognize new words or words outside their familar context. And they are also unable to easily determine which Homonym reflects the correct Chinese word, when the word is not in their base vocabulary. They have to work with very restricted vocabularies based on frequency and context.

Difficult as the written writing system is to learn at least it eliminates Homonyms.

It is a Catch-22 situation, for most foreigners.

Regards, Paul V.

P.S. I am surprised that you are not aware of some of these difficulties.
A Chinese   Wednesday, May 26, 2004, 03:20 GMT
ā á ǎ à
ō ó ǒ ò
ē é ě è
ī í ǐ ì
ū ú ǔ ù
ǖ ǘ ǚ ǜ

When I type chinese characters I like to use ZiGuang pinyin typing method, a very easy-to-use software.
A Chinese   Wednesday, May 26, 2004, 03:22 GMT
Oh, I see.

I can type those four-tones but here they won't display.
Zhongguoren   Wednesday, May 26, 2004, 08:04 GMT
Ah yes, Paul, I never thought about the tones and the homonyms. As you said, I as a native Putonghua speaker can decode the meanings of words from the context.

Now you mention the many Putonghua accents, I just recalled something- my family came to Beijing from the south a few years ago and my father still has trouble understanding some local talk. He says that Northerners mumble in their mouths and when he's watching local films he has to turn the volume up loud because he can't hear the words properly. But I'm young and I have goods ear so I can understand the people with no problem. And I also have a lot of relatives and friends from the midland and southwest and I can understand their Putonghua accents with no problem too. So it's a matter of experience and ear training. Yes, you're right- foreigners will have trouble with the accents and that problem can only be solved by living in a big cosmopolitan Chinese city like Beijing where there are a lot of migrant workers from all over the country.

For standard Putonghua, it's Beijing Putonghua. Hanyu pinyin, which is the romanization used to teach most urban Chinese children, is based on the Beijing pronunciations.

- Zhongguoren
Paul   Friday, May 28, 2004, 16:07 GMT
Hi Zhongguoren

Thanks for confirming my analysis. I do see Chinese as becoming a world auxiliary language in the future. Obviously, the Chinese Language had a great influence on other languages in East Asia, and the written language was the basis for these other countries writing systems. In it present state
it is very difficult for foreigners to learn.

Beijing Putonghua & Simplified characters & Hanyu pinyin, which is the romanization based on the Beijing pronunciations
is being used to teach most urban Chinese, the standard language Putonghua.

The next generation of Chinese people willhave full access to their language in written as well as the spoken form.

Chinese People are using statistical sampling to identify the more common Homonyms and so provide a cutdown but more effective vocabulary.

And as you say there is a standard, standard Putonghua, it being the Beijing Putonghua. Hanyu pinyin, which is the romanization used to teach most urban Chinese children, is based on the Beijing pronunciations.
And this standard is being taught to Chinese students around the world.

So a standard pronunciation of "Putonghua" in China may not be so far in the future. Computers can teach pronunciation. But until that point is reached, Putonghua will not be considered as a practical World Auxilary Language.

But until that point is reached, English even with its inconsistent Alphabet, will be the World Auxillary language of choice.
Spelling reform of English, or use of a phonetic Alphabet (i.e. Shaw Alphabet) would make English by far the best World Auxilary Language available today.

Regards, Paul V.
Javier   Saturday, May 29, 2004, 10:12 GMT
To Paul

"But until that point is reached, English even with its inconsistent Alphabet, will be the World Auxillary language of choice.
Spelling reform of English, or use of a phonetic Alphabet (i.e. Shaw Alphabet) would make English by far the best World Auxilary Language available today"

I think that there is a basic English which is spread out around the world, and that, with some faults, works fine. But the problem is not just worked out by changing the spelling. You must be aware that many non-native speakers, included myself, make a whole lot of mistakes in grammar, false friends, mispronunciation, and so on. If you want to know some examples, you could check out this website

Best wishes,

Paul   Sunday, May 30, 2004, 07:21 GMT
Sorry, I got a little carried away there.

English is world language strictly as an accident of history.
There other modern languages that are fundamentally easier to learn.
I would guess that Greek, Spanish and Latin all have advantages over English. Spanish and Latin as Romance languages also fit nicely into the Roman Alphabet.
But their historical period of primacy is over.
And British English has borrowed so much French terminology, it has the benefits of both languages.

Anyone with an opinion on the simpliest language to learn?
endie   Sunday, May 30, 2004, 07:43 GMT
I agree that English has become an international language by a mere historical accident. But in no way can I support the idea that Greek or Latin or Russian (mentioned by Zhongguoren above) would be a better choice than English.
Look, I've learn all of the mentioned languages but for Greek. Both English and Russian are my practically native tongues and I have enough authority and knowledge to compare them. Russian is much easier than English in phonemic structure but its grammar rules are much much more difficult to learn. Russian phonetics is also hard for immitation by both occidental and oriental people and it's simply not true that Russian is simple. In some sense, Polish or Belarusian or Ukrainian phonetics is easier. The principle of Belarusian morphology is to write in the same way how the word is pronounced. But all slavonic languages are harder in sense of grammar.
So still I see no other choice than English for being international.
javier   Sunday, May 30, 2004, 08:57 GMT
"English is world language strictly as an accident of history"

English is a world language because Great Britain was an empire in the past, and now the United States has already take on this position.

Spanish is spoken in South American because Spaniards conquered America in the 16th century.

France colonized many parts of Africa

Overall, every major language has always been supported by an empire, although this one dissapeared, like Roman Empire.

We don't learn the language which are easiest to us, but the most powerful one. We must just assume this situation.

"I would guess that Greek, Spanish and Latin all have advantages over English"

Both Spanish an Latin are complicated for Japanese, Koreans and Chinese people. I don't think that there are advantages over English in this aspect.
Damian   Sunday, May 30, 2004, 10:34 GMT
Sign language?
Paul   Sunday, May 30, 2004, 16:53 GMT
Hi Damien

I guess sign language is the simpliest language for everyone to learn. The Grammar is simple and rigid, but allows for the quick expression of ideas. There is a relatively small number of words. Now if only there was a written and spoken version of Ameslan, you would get my vote.

I accept the Drawbacks of Russian.
As for the critiques of Greek, Spanish and Latin, let me discuss the benefits and drawbacks of each one.

1. Latin - Phonetic Alphabet, simple clean grammar, lots of literature, small number of words
Drawback - Dead Language only spoken in Vatican

2. Greek - Phonetic Alphabet, simple clean grammar, lots of literature, Language of Christian Bible
Drawback - Language only spoken in Greece, large number of words, but still it does have a word for everything.

3. Spanish - Phonetic Alphabet, simple clean grammar, lots of literature, small number of words, spoken in North and South America, Spain and in a number of Spanish Colonies around the world.

I think an English with a simplified grammar and a phonetic Alphabet would be able to compete with the above mentioned 3 previous World Languages, but right now in its present form, I do not see it reaching the heights of influence that the other languages including French and Russian (somewhat) achieved in their heyday.