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Opinion

Thursday, 7 December 2017 | MYT 12:00 AM

China rising, but English is still king

ON Dec 3, The Star published an article, “Sway of the Chinese language”, detailing the rising popularity of learning Chinese.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, US President Donald Trump’s granddaughter and billionaire investor Jim Rogers’ daughter are among some of the famous people or their family members brushing up on their Chinese language skills.

Tourists from China are splashing their cash all over the world (in some countries such as Thailand and Malaysia, the Chinese can also go cashless by making their purchases through Alipay).

Meanwhile, economists predict that the GDP of China, currently the world’s second largest, would surpass the United States’ within 10 years. As the economic value of the Chinese language grows, it will unseat English to become the world’s leading language. Or so we are told....

But if history is a clue, this may not happen so soon.

In the heyday of the Roman Empire, as the great Julius Caesar and his successors conquered the Mediterranean, Latin became the dominant language of the European continent. The Roman Empire began to disintegrate in the fifth century. Latin, however, remained relevant for many centuries to come. (The Eastern Roman Empire, also known as Byzantine Empire, survived into 15th century, but its capital was in Constantinople, and its official language was Greek.)

In year 1215, the unpopular King John of England, pressured by rebel barons, issued Magna Carta. The document established for the first time the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law. It is considered one of the first steps taken in England towards establishing parliamentary democracy. The Magna Carta was initially written in Latin.

In year 1687, Sir Isaac Newton published three papers which were collectively known as Principia Mathematica. These works form the foundation of classical mechanics. Principia Mathematica, like the Magna Carta, was written in Latin. That was more than 12 centuries after the demise of the Roman Empire.

In ancient times, Malay language was the lingua franca of the Malay Archipelago. Then the Western powers came, created the modern states of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia. Post-independence, Javanese, who make up 40% of Indonesia’s population, dominate the republic’s politics and economy. Somehow, Bahasa Indonesia is based on Malay rather than Javanese.

By 2050, China will become the world’s largest economy. The US will drop to second place. In the third spot, as economists believe, will be India. Like Malaysia, India was a British territory. And like our country, English, the language of the former colonial master, is still widely spoken.

By mid-century, the combined GDP of English-speaking and English-as-second-language nations, which include US, India, Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia, will likely be larger than that of China.

I do not doubt that Chinese language will get more important every year, and I encourage everyone to learn it if conditions allow. However, it would be foolish if we, in the advent of “China’s Century”, neglect English.

CHEW KHENG SIONG

Kuala Lumpur