Lexicon Valley

Is English Getting Too Popular in China?   

A worker is dwarfed by the skyline of Shanghai.

Photo by Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

A flood of sensational headlines concerning language use in China recently crossed my transom. Here are just a few of them:

English-language studies ‘destructive’ to China’s education, says CPPCC deputy

Education ministry: 400 million Chinese can’t speak national language

China: 400 Million Cannot Speak Mandarin

30% Chinese citizens can’t speak Mandarin

Very often, such stories suggest that increased attention to English is the major cause of the deterioration of Chinese language skills. Indeed, this anxious refrain recurs frequently enough that many wonder whether there may truly be a language crisis in China and whether the strong emphasis on English in education, commerce, and communication really is the cause. The fact that the charge this time comes from a national think tank (the Intelligence Research Academy), founded by the prestigious and powerful Chinese Academy of Science, means that it carries a considerable amount of political weight, but that doesn’t make the charge any more linguistically true.

The main problem with all such sweeping assertions about how many people do or do not speak Mandarin is that Mandarin is not a monolithic entity. I would consider it a branch of the Sinitic language family (or group, if you think Sinitic is part of some other family) with many more or less mutually unintelligible varieties.

For example, my wife, Li-ching Chang, was born in Changyi, Shandong (not far from Qingdao). Both her parents spoke Mandarin with a heavy Shandong accent. When Li-ching was still a baby, they fled with her to Sichuan, far away to the southwest. As an adult, Li-ching was a superb teacher of Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), but up to the age of 11, when she again fled with her parents to Taiwan, she had grown up in Sichuan and spoke Mandarin à la Chengdu city (lots of tonal and lexical differences from MSM).

In July 1987, Li-ching and I went back to visit her old haunts in Chengdu, and she had no problem communicating so long as she was in the city; she would simply shift gears from MSM to Chengdu-style Mandarin, with which she was very comfortable, having kept up contacts with many people from the city even after she had moved to Taiwan and then to America. Once we went outside Chengdu, however, Li-ching’s ability to understand speech diminished rapidly. When we went to villages around Leshan (140 miles away) and Emeishan (89 miles away), she couldn’t understand a word of what the locals said. In fact, Li-ching thought that they must be “minority” people like the Yi and was astonished to find out that they were Han (i.e., Sinitic speakers).

The late Jerry Norman, who is considered by many to be one of the best Chinese linguists of the last 50 years, once told me privately that he thought there were at least 300 different varieties of Mandarin that were mostly mutually unintelligible, and that they were essentially different languages, not dialects. But Jerry, who did not relish controversy and confrontation, said that he would never make such a statement in public or in print. When people dare to talk about the many languages of China, they’re met with hostile reactions from Chinese nationalists who view MSM as a way to foster cohesion and identity, just as patriots the world over, whether in Italy or Russia or America, are threatened by minority languages.

In the early 1980s, with money from the Luce Foundation, I invited a professor named Guan Dedong of Shandong University in Jinan—an expert in Chinese popular literature—to come to the University of Pennsylvania as a visiting scholar. Our research interests overlapped a great deal and we got along famously until one day I said I thought Taiwanese and Cantonese were languages, not dialects, because they had different lexicons and grammars, whereupon Guan shouted, “If you say that Cantonese and Taiwanese are languages, China will split up!” He didn’t talk to me again for weeks.

In the minds of such individuals, there is only one Chinese language, proper Mandarin, and everything else is merely slang. Of course, no linguist worth his salt could possibly accept such an explanation of the linguistic landscape of China. The real threat, far greater than that of English, is the one that Modern Standard Mandarin poses to the hundreds of other varieties, call them what you will. That’s a sensational headline I’d like to see more often.

A version of this post originally appeared on Language Log.