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The New Mandarins

December 1, 1996 Topic: Society Regions: Asia

The New Mandarins

Mini Teaser: The New MandarinsRobert M.

The New Mandarins
Robert M. Pease

A prim twenty-one year-old with a perpetual smile, Yumi isquick-witted, energetic, and thus, one would think, eminentlyemployable. But the Japanese job market, tough for a young woman inthe best of times, has been downright forbidding in the past fewyears of economic slow-down. So Yumi has ventured to multilingualSingapore to improve her job prospects, betting that foreignlanguage skills will raise her chances.
There are many young Japanese women with similar intentions atYumi's language school. There are also students-teenage,college-age, and middle-aged-from around the world. Athirty-something husband and wife from Korea; a pair of middle-agedsisters from the Philippines; academic exchange participants fromthe United States, Australia, Europe, and even Russia. But whenthese foreign students pass in the hallways it isn't with thetypical English greetings hello or what's up but rather theMandarin Chinese ni hao (are you good?) or zenmeyang (how's itgoing?). For these individuals, like thousands of others inuniversity and commercial classes throughout Asia, are betting thatMandarin Chinese will be the next business language of the PacificRim.
Will the economic transformation of China spread the use of Chineselanguage throughout the Asian region, as these students expect?Could the increasing utility of Mandarin erode English as thesecond language of choice in Asia? And now that the sushi, sumu,and karaoke crazes have subsided, is the world turning not Japanesebut Chinese after all?
Despite the growth of Mandarin language instruction in Asia andelsewhere, these questions may still seem farfetched from anAnglo-American point of view. We have become so accustomed toEnglish as the global language of commerce, science, andentertainment that no alternative seems practicable. English can beheard, read, and spoken from Buenos Aires to Brussels to Beijing,and it is commonplace to overhear a Thai and German, or Indonesianand Japanese executive conversing in English within the lobbies andlounges of Asia.
But commonplace is not always commonsensical. The initial momentumtoward English as a global language was provided by two conditionsno longer evident: the British Empire and U.S. postwar economicpredominance. The language itself is a frustrating one to masterthrough study. Compared to most languages, English uses anenormously large vocabulary. It has numerous phonetic andgrammatical inconsistencies. As one Chinese professor in Beijingconfesses, "I have been studying English for fifty years, and stillI'm afraid of your prepositions."
Chinese is no picnic either. Spoken Mandarin may have relativelysimple grammar and an economical use of words. But the reading andwriting of 2,500 to 3,500 essential characters or ideographs is adaunting task even for native speakers. In any post office in Chinaone can hear appeals for help: Hey, how do you write Harbin (anorthern provincial capital)? Which is the Shan of Shantou (asouthern coastal city)?
In many respects, however, computerization of Chinese willfacilitate commercial functions, and the race is already on, amongstart-up firms and corporate giants alike, to produce the softwareof choice for the Chinese language market.
The English term "Mandarin" refers to the northeastern Chinesedialect that China's rulers have long promoted as a unifyinglanguage. Within China this dialect is referred to as "standardspeech" (putonghua); outside China, it may be called "countrylanguage" (guoyu) or simply "Chinese" (huayu). Most Taiwanese speakfluent Mandarin, as do most educated mainlanders. Large numbers ofHong Kongers, who traditionally speak Cantonese dialect, arebrushing up their Mandarin for post-1997 PRC rule. Similarly,business and cultural ties with China and Taiwan are reinvigoratingMandarin usage among the twenty to twenty-five million ethnicChinese throughout Southeast Asia.
Mandarin has always been the language of high culture among theChinese within China and abroad. It is now becoming the language ofpop culture as well. Taiwanese and Hong Kong movies, televisionshows, and music formerly produced in dialects, like Cantonese orHokkien, are increasingly made for distribution to the widerMandarin market. The international success of Chinese artists suchas filmmakers Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) and Zhang Yimou(Raise the Red Lantern; To Live) adds to the allure of Mandarinamong the young.
Until recently the designation of Mandarin as the world's mostspoken language was mainly due to the size of the population ofChina itself (1.2 billion and climbing). But now Mandarin may bepoised to spread beyond the Chinese world as a language of commerceand influence among the elite and professional classes of Asia. Theeconomic impetus is clear: Trade within the region is expandingtwice as fast as Asia's trade with other regions. And if reformistpolicies are sustained, the growing China market stands near thecenter of those trade flows. China could also become Asia's largestsource of tourist revenue. In 1995 PRC citizens represented thethird largest group of Asian tourists, a relatively new and growingphenomenon.
The potential for Mandarin as an Asia-wide language rests onhistorical as well as economic foundations. Japan, after all, wasthe major source of finance and tourist revenue in the region fortwo decades until its recent recession. Yet the Japanese languagenever did catch on. The legacy of the Second World War threw upsome obstacles, as did the peculiarities of the language itself.More fundamentally, however, Japanese language offered other Asiansaccess only to Japan, not the wider region. Japan is a uniquecultural entity centered on itself; by contrast, Chinese influencehas long circulated throughout East and Southeast Asia. ClassicalChinese characters provide the foundation for written Japanese and,to a lesser extent, Korean languages. The Korean President KimYoung Sam has called for efforts to standardize Chinese characterusage in East Asia, thus facilitating document translation andsecond language study. While Chinese characters no longer occur inwritten Vietnamese, spoken Vietnamese still contains a largepercentage of Chinese loan words from the many centuries (111 B.C.- 939 A.D.) of Vietnamese tributary status. This means that nativespeakers of Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese may find the study ofMandarin easier and more stimulating than that of English.
In Singapore, where 78 percent of the population is ethnic Chinese,the government's "Speak Mandarin" campaign has been in force forseventeen years. Originally intended to unify the many Chinesedialect groups in Singapore, both culturally and politically, thecampaign now touts Mandarin as the key to business success in Asia.Not surprisingly, a growing number of minority citizens inSingapore (Malays, Indians, Eurasians) are petitioning to havetheir children admitted to Mandarin courses.
The potential for Mandarin elsewhere in Southeast Asia is stillproblematic and yet is progressing. Chinese minorities have longbeen viewed with suspicion by the dominant ethnic groups for theircliquishness and business acumen. Indeed, suspicions haveintermittently erupted into hostility, as with the post-coup chaosof mid-1960s Indonesia. However, this has not prevented SoutheastAsia from having two national leaders of partial Chinese ancestryin recent years-former President Corazon Aquino of the Philippinesand former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai of Thailand. Similarly,while private Chinese language schools were barely tolerated inSoutheast Asia three decades ago, now they are prospering.Commercial Mandarin study is on the rise in Thailand and thePhilippines among students of both indigenous and ethnic Chinesebackgrounds. The Malaysian government is expanding the study ofMandarin as a third language (after Malay and English) ingovernment schools. Even in Indonesia, where resentment of Chinesecommercial influence runs deepest, there has been a relaxation oflong-standing Chinese language prohibitions. Two Indonesianuniversities now have Chinese language departments, and a widercirculation of Chinese newspapers and tourist brochures has beenpermitted to stimulate commerce and tourism.
The mates down under are also in on the trend. The Australiangovernment has launched an Asian language campaign as part of anambitious effort to integrate Australia with the Asian economies.Their target is for 60 percent of all secondary school graduates tobe functional in one of four Asian languages (Mandarin, Japanese,Bahasa Indonesia, or Korean) by the year 2006. The Australianmilitary has also announced that it will use Asian language fluencyas a promotion criteria.
The question of whether more Mandarin in Asia will mean lessEnglish is a complex one. Many societies pursue successfulbilingual education programs, but trilingual communities are rare.A remarkable number of EU citizens do speak three or four languageswith virtual fluency, yet these languages have basic similarities.Some Hong Kongers and Singaporeans function effectively in threelanguages, but many more fail in the attempt.
English will clearly remain the predominant global language, evenas Mandarin usage spreads in the Asian region. There is too muchmomentum behind English for it to be easily displaced. Yet agrowing number of aspiring young Asian professionals, like Yumi andher classmates, will be weighing the relative advantages of Englishagainst Chinese as they chart their careers. "Can I master bothEnglish and Chinese?" they will ask themselves. And for those whocannot there will be a further question: Which is more useful,appealing, and easier to learn?
At the same time, Asian government officials and educators will bepondering different questions around the same issue. And theirassessments will be affected by geopolitical and macroeconomictrends. Is China becoming a more or less responsible actor in theregion? A more or less coherent economy? Are the United States andother English speaking economies integrating more or less closelywith Asia? And, last but not least, which language is leastupsetting to the existing political and social order? The answersto both sets of questions, in English and/or Mandarin, will beheard in the hotels, airports, and classrooms of Asia for decadesto come.
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