What languages should you learn?

Andrew Sullivan links to a piece advocating for French over Mandarin. Very interesting piece, and the author may be right about the virtues of French, but I wonder if he underestimates Mandarin. He argues that the problem with Mandarin is the writing system:

Fewer and fewer native speakers learn to produce characters in traditional calligraphy. Instead, they write their language the same way we do—with a computer. And not only that, but they use the Roman alphabet to produce Chinese characters: type in wo and Chinese language-support software will offer a menu of characters pronounced wo; the user selects the one desired. (Or if the user types in wo shi zhongguo ren, “I am Chinese”, the software detects the meaning and picks the right characters.) With less and less need to recall the characters cold, the Chinese are forgetting them.

[snip]

As long as China keeps the character-based system—which will probably be a long time, thanks to cultural attachment and practical concerns alike—Chinese is very unlikely to become a true world language, an auxiliary language like English, the language a Brazilian chemist will publish papers in, hoping that they will be read in Finland and Canada. By all means, if China is your main interest, for business or pleasure, learn Chinese. It is fascinating, and learnable—though Moser’s online essay, “Why Chinese is so damn hard,” might discourage the faint of heart and the short of time.

My thought here is that if the Chinese are failing to learn traditional Chinese writing, and using the Roman alphabet to get a computer to write it for them, that creates good conditions to make a complete switchover to the Roman alphabet. The ability to use a computer to come up with characters other people can’t recognize in print isn’t a terribly useful ability, after all. So there’s that barrier gone.

Mandarin’s big advantage is sheer number of speakers. Check out Wikipedia’s “world language” page–after English, no other language comes close. In fact, there are more native Mandarin speakers than native English speakers. As things stand, this can be discounted somewhat because of China’s poverty. It’s harder to sell stuff to people who are really poor, so poor people matter less from a business-language point of view. I also suspect most tourists, if they’re honest with themselves, aren’t eager to spend a lot of time in the desperately poor Chinese countryside. This will change, though, as China plays catch-up with richer countries.

Now I don’t exactly think Mandarin is the language of the future (as Sullivan puts it), but maybe in the future we’ll all talk like the characters in Firefly. Though for myself, I’m just hoping Korean turns out to be a marketable job skill.


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