* Is English or Mandarin the language of the future?

BBC: “English has been the dominant global language for a century, but is it the language of the future? If Mandarin Chinese is to challenge English globally, then it first has to conquer its own backyard, South East Asia.

Mandarin-English dictionary

In Malaysia’s southernmost city of Johor Bahru, the desire to speak good English has driven some children to make a remarkable two-hour journey to school every day.

Nine-year-old Aw Yee Han hops on a yellow mini van at 04:30. His passport is tucked inside a small pouch hung around his neck.

This makes it easier for him to show it to immigration officials when he reaches the Malaysian border.

His school is located on the other side, in Singapore, where unlike in Malaysia, English is the main language.

It’s not your typical school run, but his mother, Shirley Chua thinks it’s worth it.

“Science and maths are all written in English so it’s essential for my son to be fluent in the language,” she says.

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Robert Lane Greene

Author of You Are What You Speak

The assumption that Mandarin will grow with China’s economic rise may be flawed. Consider Japan which, after spectacular post-war economic growth, became the world’s second-biggest economy. The Japanese language saw no comparable rise in power and prestige.

The same may prove true of Mandarin. The character-based writing system requires years of hard work for even native speakers to learn, and poses a formidable obstacle to foreigners. In Asia, where China’s influence is thousands of years old, this may pose less of a problem. But in the West, even dedicated students labour for years before they can confidently read a text of normal difficulty on a random topic.

Finally, many languages in Asia, Africa and the Amazon use “tones” (rising, falling, flat or dipping pitch contours) to distinguish different words. For speakers of tonal languages (like Vietnamese) learning the tones of Mandarin poses no particular difficulty. But speakers of non-tonal languages struggle to learn tones in adulthood – just ask any adult Mandarin-learner for their funniest story about using a word with the wrong tone.

An estimated 15,000 students from southern Johor state make the same bus journey across the border every day. It may seem like a drastic measure, but some parents don’t trust the education system in Malaysia – they worry that the value of English is declining in the country.

Since independence from the British in 1957, the country has phased out schools that teach in English. By the early 1980s, most students were learning in the national language of Malay.

As a result, analysts say Malaysian graduates became less employable in the IT sector.

“We’ve seen a drastic reduction in the standard of English in our country, not just among the students but I think among the teachers as well,” says political commentator Ong Kian Ming.

Those who believe that English is important for their children’s future either send their kids to expensive private schools or to Singapore, where the government has been credited as being far-sighted for adopting the language of its former colonial master.

Nearly three-quarters of the population in Singapore are ethnic Chinese but English is one of the national languages and very widely-spoken.

Many believe that this has helped the city state earn the title of being the easiest place to do business, by the World Bank.

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Lost in translation

Up to 7,000 different languages are estimated to be spoken around the world

Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, German and French are world’s most widely spoken languages, according to UNESCO

Languages are grouped into families that share a common ancestry

English is related to German and Dutch, and all are part of Indo-European family of languages

Also includes French, Spanish and Italian, which come from Latin

2,200 of the world’s languages can be found in Asia, while Europe has 260

Source: BBC Languages

Read more about languages of the world

However, the dominance of English is now being challenged by the rise of China in Singapore.

The Singapore Chinese Chamber Institute of Business has added Chinese classes for business use in recent years.

Students are being taught in Mandarin rather than the Hokkien dialect spoken by the older Chinese immigrants.

These courses have proved popular, ever since the government began providing subsidies for Singaporeans to learn Chinese in 2009 during the global financial crisis.

“The government pushed to provide them with an opportunity to upgrade themselves so as to prepare themselves for the economic upturn,” says chamber spokesperson Alwyn Chia.

Some businesses are already desperate for Chinese speakers.

Lee Han Shih, who runs a multimedia company, says English is becoming less important to him financially because he is taking western clients to do business in China.

“So obviously you need to learn English but you also need to know Chinese,” says Mr Lee.

As China’s economic power grows, Mr Lee believes that Mandarin will overtake English. In fact, he has already been seeing hints of this.

“The decline of the English language probably follows the decline of the US dollar.

“If the renminbi is becoming the next reserve currency then you have to learn Chinese.”

More and more, he says, places like Brazil and China are doing business in the renminbi, not the US dollar, so there is less of a need to use English.”

via BBC News – Is English or Mandarin the language of the future?.

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