Tag Archives: Mandarin

I have three Chinese names. Which one should I use?

People with English names sometimes take Chinese names. In fact, some expats in China consider a local name to be as important as a mobile phone number. It’s a must-have.

I don’t live in China, but I’ve been learning Chinese for a few years. Many of my fellow students have Chinese names. I decided that it’s high time I got one. Or three.

Three? It’s an insurance policy: China is full of westerners with abandoned Chinese names that have been tried out a few times on the locals—and failed. In the real world of the China street, they look or sound…weird.

So, I needed a Plan B. And C.

My first Port of Call was Boston’s Chinatown, where I go once a week to wrestle with the Chinese language.

Boston-based Chinese teacher Wenjing Li (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Boston-based Chinese teacher Wenjing Li (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Wenjing Li, my teacher, grew up in Shanghai. And this is what she came up with when I asked her to give me a Chinese name: 博刻思 (Bo ke si).

There’s a nice lilt to that (listen to the audio above). It has a passing resemblance to my English name, which Wenjing says is all you need. Mandarin and English have such different phonetic systems that it’s pointless to try to force one language to sound like the other. You’d end up with one of those weird names.

Bo, the first syllable, means plentiful. But it might also imply a certain, shall we say, seniority, which Wenjing tells me is appropriate, “because you are older than me.” I ask her if it’s a name for an old person. Not necessarily, she says. Just someone who’s been around the block, and seen a few things.

The second and third syllables—ke and si—mean constantly, and thinking or considerate.

Wenjing has thrown in some wordplay too. The first two syllables bo and ke, pronounced differently, mean podcast. Very clever. She’s also included a potential banana skin in the final syllable, si. Pronounce it the wrong way with the wrong tone, and it sounds like the word for to die.

I tell her that it’s fitting that Chinese teacher gives me name that demands that I get my tones right.

For my second name I go to meet Tony Huang at the Great Mandarin Restaurant in the Boston suburb of Woburn.

Tony Huang, co-owner of Great Mandarin Restaurant, Woburn, MA (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Tony Huang, co-owner of Great Mandarin Restaurant, Woburn, MA (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Tony is the co-owner, and he’s the father of a friend of mine. He was born and raised in Taiwan, and here’s his name for me: 白翠克(Bai cui ke).

Bai cui ke has some similarities to Bo ke si. Both play off the sound of my English name; they’re both three syllables, also like my English name; and they both include a ke, albeit different ones. But Tony’s name is assembled according to totally different principles: numbers and elements.

Numbers have traditionally played a key role in Chinese names. Older generations of parents would visit a fortune teller with date and time of birth of their child. The fortune teller would then assign a name based on a series of calculations involving, among other things, the number of strokes it takes to write the name in Chinese characters.

For my name, Tony didn’t need to go to a fortune teller. “I went to the fortune teller website,” he says.

I have trouble following all the calculations that Tony is doing. He leafs through page after page of notes. He has spent hours checking charts in books and on websites so he can be confident that my name is sufficiently auspicious.

The character stroke count of Bai cui ke is 26, which, Tony tells me, has both good and bad points. (It depends on a bunch other stuff, which you can read about here.)

When Tony points out a couple of aspects of the math that are “bad,” I ask him if he’s giving me a bad name. He says of course not, though I have trouble following his reasoning. There are apparently issues with the number of strokes of the first and second syllables combined (19) as well as the second and third (21).

But Tony knows what he’s doing. He’s configured things so that the name’s negative aspects indicate bad times for me in my 30s. I’m older than that—as Tony says, who cares what my name says about the past? From my mid-40s on, it’s all wealth and happiness.

There’s one more problem. Because the last two characters add up to 21, I apparently may not have a good relationship with my boss. We may just have to live with that.

I now have two names that I love. I may not need another Chinese name but I’m getting greedy. I want one.

I visit a friend, artist and calligrapher Wen-hao Tien. Wen-hao grew up in Taiwan and she lives now in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Artist and calligrapher Wen-hao Tien (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Artist and calligrapher Wen-hao Tien (Photo: Patrick Cox)

“I like to find names that are a little vague and are humorous,” she says.

No stroke calculations here. Just intuition—and the look and sound of the name.

“You strike me as a very energetic person,” Wen-hao tells me. “Sporty. Somehow the sound of Cui and Patrick is a good fit.”

Cui is pronounced “tsway.”

Wen-hao continues: “Actually, there’s a famous rock singer, his name’s Cui Jian.”

How can I resist?

Wen-hao decides that like Cui Jian, the rock star, my name will have just two characters: 崔可 (Cui ke). “Ke means doable, OK, achievable,” she adds.

She paints the characters on a sheet of paper. She asks me what I think. I tell her I like it but I don’t have trained eye for these things.

“Oh, I think it looks pretty cool,” says Wen-hao.

Listening back to these interviews, I hear myself laughing—much more than usual. It’s giddy getting a new name. And judging by the laughter from Wenjing, Tony and Wen-hao, it must be giddy giving one too.

I realize now how much thought goes into giving someone a Chinese name, so much more than the other way round—calling someone Lucy or Lily or Tony. Tony tells me a Chinese waiter will change his English name if that name is already taken at his workplace.

As for my Chinese names, I’m not going to pick one, at least for now—I like them all. So American of me: spoiled for choice.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Manchus ruled China into the 20th century, but their language is almost extinct

Manchu language class at People's University in Beijing. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Manchu language class at People’s University in Beijing. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Here’s a guest post from the Big Show’s Matthew Bell who was recently in China.

Wei Hubu was quick to make reference to my height. I met the 30 year-old language instructor after class at People’s University in Beijing.

“We Manchus used to be tall just like you,” he pointed out as we walked to the university cafeteria. At 6’4″, I’m at least a foot taller than Wei.

“But most Manchu men were warriors, and they all got wiped out,” he said with an ironic chuckle.

In 2013, China’s ethnic Manchu minority is in little danger of being wiped out. It’s more than 10 million strong. But the Manchu language is another story. It’s on the verge of extinction.

Well aware of this fact, Wei is among a small number of people trying to avert what they see as a looming disaster.

The end of the Qing Dynasty

The last emperors of China belonged to the Qing Dynasty, a fascinating era in Chinese history that begins in the 17th century and ends in 1911. Every Chinese school kid knows 1911 as a turning point, when thousands of years of imperial rule in China finally came to a close.

Screen shot from "Kangxi Dynasty," a Chinese television drama set during the Qing Dynasty.

Screen shot from “Kangxi Dynasty,” a Chinese television drama set during the Qing Dynasty.

Thanks in part to popular television soap operas, people in China have something of an idea what Manchu rule looked like. Or at least how China’s Manchu rulers might have dressed. What is far from authentic in these period drama series though is the dialogue.

Actors in the soaps speak Mandarin Chinese, the national language of the People’s Republic since the 1950s. But during the Qing era, government officials were actually foreigners. Officials in the Chinese court were Manchus from the northeast, mostly beyond the Great Wall, near the border with Korea. Manchuria is the English name of the region.

The Manchus had their own language too. And naturally, Manchu became the language of all official business during the Qing Dynasty.

Like Wei Hubu, most of the students in his classroom at People’s University are ethnic Manchus themselves, there to learn the language of their ancestors.

After class, Wei was kind enough to teach me a few phrases in Manchu. To my non-expert ears, Manchu sounds a lot more like Korean than Chinese.

How Manchu is written

Manchu script is very different from Chinese characters. It’s more like Mongolian. It’s also phonetic, like English, with each letter of the Manchu alphabet corresponding to a specific sound.

Wei admitted that he’s as much student as teacher. He comes from a Manchu family, but only started studying the language a couple of years ago. He said Manchu won’t help him professionally. He is mainly trying to get in touch with his Manchu roots, and – he hopes – to make a modest contribution to the effort to save Manchu from disappearing completely.

“If Manchu dies out,” Wei told me, “so much will be lost. Language is the soul of a culture. People would never truly understand Manchu culture and history.”

Under official Chinese government policy, the languages of ethnic minorities are protected. But attitudes among the Chinese public can be less than charitable. More than 90 percent of China’s 1.3 billion people belong to the same ethnic group, the Han. And many of them see little reason to preserve certain cultural relics of the past.

Apathy toward Manchu

During an evening walk at the summer palace of the former Qing emporers in Beijing, I ran into a 26 year-old lawyer named Chen. The park is a popular historic spot. With some pride, Chen took a look around at the ancient monuments and said that he is captivated by the legacy of the Qing Dynasty, but not the Manchu language.

“I’m Han ethnicity, so I don’t know much about the Manchu language,” he said.

I asked Chen what he thought about the effort to save the language from extinction.

“My personal opinion is that we should let it be, because some languages will slowly fade away,” Chen replied matter-of-factly. “I don’t think we should do something to intentionally preserve them. What will die out, will finally fade away.”

It’s hard to find much enthusiasm for the Manchu language among most of the Chinese public. That might have something to do with the fact that Manchu has been fading away for a long, long time.

In the 18th century, China’s Manchu rulers lifted the ban on intermarriage, allowing Manchus and Han Chinese to get married and start families. At the same time, Manchu officials were told they had to start studying Mandarin.

Traditional medicine

Fast forward to the present day, and no one in China speaks Manchu as a first language, according to Cao Meng, a Manchu language professor at Shenyang Normal University north of Beijing. Cao said fewer than a hundred people can read classical Manchu fluently. But the professor disagreed with the suggestion that Manchu is already a dead language. Not yet, at least.

“The Manchu ethnicity is one of China’s largest in terms of population,” Cao told me. “It would be a national shame if the language was allowed to die out completely.”

Cao explained that there are troves of untranslated materials written in the Manchu language. These sources are full of information about family histories, government policies, and other subjects close to the hearts of many Chinese people, like traditional medicine.

“This knowledge could be lost forever,” Cao said. So, the professor – who is Han Chinese – is working to promote the study of Manchu starting in grade school.

For others though, it’s more personal.

One Manchu language instructor told me she understands the language a lot better than her parents do. She is also from a Manchu family. So, to help her folks get in touch with their cultural roots as well, she makes them listen to pop music with Manchu lyrics.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Hundreds of millions of Chinese stubbornly resist speaking the ‘common tongue’

At 68, Wang Yufang says Mandarin is not necessary in her daily life. Her neighbors speak the Chongming dialect, as do the vendors at the local market, and the island's bus drivers. (photo/Ruth Morris)

At 68, Wang Yufang says Mandarin is not necessary in her daily life. Her neighbors speak the Chongming dialect, as do the vendors at the local market, and the island’s bus drivers. (photo/Ruth Morris)

Here’s a guest post from Shanghai-based reporter Ruth Morris…

It has four tones, strange ‘measure words’ and thousands of characters to memorize. So for English-speakers, Mandarin can be an especially difficult language to tackle.

But here’s some more bad news. Even if you become fluent, you may not be able to communicate with nearly a third of the people living in China.

State media recently reported that more than 400 million Chinese are unable to speak Mandarin—the national language—while millions more speak it poorly.

Instead, they rely on regional dialects—some call them separate languages—that are so far apart, they’re mutually unintelligible. Even Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, spoke with such a pronounced regional accent that many Chinese had a hard time understanding him.

A long trip, linguistically

Today, non-Mandarin speakers tend to be older Chinese from rural areas, like the island of Chongming. It’s just 45 minutes by bus from the center of Shanghai, but linguistically it’s a much longer trip.

“Like eating, eating the dinner. In Mandarin we call it ‘chi fan,’ but in Chongming language we call it ‘chibie’,” said Gu Hangyu, a student from Chongming.

Gu’s grandmother, Wang Yufang, is one of the millions of Chinese who doesn’t speak Mandarin. As a farmer, her life has been hard. Corncobs fuel her stove, and handpicked cotton fills her comforter. In winter, she heats her home with the energy from a car battery.

With her grandson translating, Wang said she doesn’t speak Mandarin, and has no need to. All her neighbors speak the Chongming dialect, and so do the vegetable vendors in the market.

But Gu is less matter-of-fact. He’s worried his native dialect might fade. He also noted that some city dwellers look down on new arrivals if they speak with thick regional accents.

“I have a special feeling towards my native language,” he said. “I’m proud of Chongming. It’s a beautiful town. The people are friendly… the air is fresh, the water is clean.”

Dialects or Languages?

You Ruijie, a linguist at Fudan University, said dialects spoken widely in commercial hubs like Shanghai will likely survive for generations. Others are on their way out.

“I think some dialects, especially the small dialects, could disappear in the near future,” he said.

It’s a testament to today’s mobility and migration in China that You’s family speaks four dialects. Yet his son and his parents don’t have a single dialect in common. It’s a linguistic leap that’s not uncommon here.

You says for all intents and purposes, China’s 10 or so dialect groups should be treated as completely separate languages. He says: think of the difference between Italian and Spanish. At the same time, many Chinese minorities have their own languages, like Uyghur, Mongolian and Tibetan.

This adds another degree of complexity, especially for visitors. If you want to buy a necklace in Xinjiang in the west, or a cellphone in parts of Southern China, you might get further in English than in Mandarin.

Gu Hangyu and his grandmother Wang Yufang (photo/Ruth Morris)

Gu Hangyu and his grandmother Wang Yufang (photo/Ruth Morris)

Wang Yufang and her grandson, Gu Hangyu, at her home on Chongming Island, near Shanghai. Gu says when he has a family, he'd like his son or daughter to speak his native Chongming dialect. Many young Chinese do not speak their grandparents' dialects.

On Chongming Island, Gu’s grandmother says she has no plans to take up Mandarin herself.

“She says it’s hard for older people like her to study Mandarin. It’s useless for them. But it’s useful for young people like me,” Gu said.

At 68, she added, she’s confident the Chongming dialect will outlast her. And if it is lost and she’s still alive, at that time, she said, “I will leave the world.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

China’s linguistic landscape is changing as rapidly as its cities and lifestyles

The children of migrant workers are taught Mandarin at a school in Shanghai. Many speak a regional dialect at home, and some don't speak Mandarin at all when they arrive for the first day of class. (Photo/Ruth Morris)

The children of migrant workers are taught Mandarin at a school in Shanghai. Many speak a regional dialect at home, and some don’t speak Mandarin at all when they arrive for the first day of class. (Photo/Ruth Morris)

Here’s a guest post from Shanghai-based reporter Ruth Morris…

As it stands, Mandarin is the language of government, commerce and pop songs in China. But not everyone is excited about learning it.

While the government insists Mandarin is necessary for social cohesion, some of China’s ethnic minorities have pushed back. Tibetans students, for example, have protested plans to shift nearly all their classes into Mandarin—a policy they say represents a larger campaign by Beijing to dilute Tibetan culture and assert political control.

There have been protests in Cantonese-speaking parts of China too. People there are worried their native dialect is being forced out of public places and into the home.

But the general trend points in the opposite direction. Despite protests and lagging investment in rural education, not to mention the prevalence of regional dialects, Mandarin usage is growing at a breakneck pace.

Just seven years ago, state media reported only about half of China’s population spoke Mandarin, compared with about 70 percent today.

Government policy lags social desire

Steve Hansen and Kellen Parker are the founders of Phonemica, an Internet project that invites people to upload stories in dialects derived from old Chinese. They say China’s staggering economic growth is playing a big role in Mandarin’s expansion. Increasingly, Mandarin is the language of survival, and opportunity.

“I think honestly, in many areas of China, government policy is lagging social desire,” Hansen said.

China’s unruly linguistic landscape is known for its groupings of wildly different dialects that go back hundreds of years, spread over a vast geography.

“The reason it’s so diverse it because it’s so huge. I mean, you have hundreds of millions of people,” said Hansen. “Many of these people, for hundreds of years, they grow up in the same valley. They stay in the same valley. And what’s interesting about China is a lot of them, up until now… have not moved around a lot.”

Menial jobs

Now that’s all changing, fast. Bullet trains crisscross the country. And migrant workers shuttle between home villages and factory floors hundreds of miles away.

On a recent morning in Shanghai, 60 kindergartners—the children of migrant workers from all over China–repeated phrases in Mandarin while their teacher rewarded them with stickers.

School administrator Lai Zherong said many of the school’s students don’t speak Mandarin when they arrive. But they pick it up quickly. Without Mandarin, she said, they risk being slotted into menial jobs when they grow up, on construction sites or factory lines.

Beijing says about 400 million Chinese cannot speak the national language. But Parker, of Phonemica, says: don’t blink.

“I think that number is going to be much, much smaller in 20 years,” he said, then added: “I think it’s going to be shockingly smaller in 20 years.”


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Comic Book Snacks that Talk Back in Two Languages

Third grader Finn Myers (Photo: Yen Yen Woo)

Third grader Finn Myers (Photo: Yen Yen Woo)

The other day, I was in Chinatown in New York City, eating dim sum with Yen Yen Woo and Colin Goh. They’re a married couple, transplants from Singapore.

For reasons that’ll soon become clear, I couldn’t help imagining that those little Chinese snacks we were eating were…alive. Now, some Asian food items really are alive when you put them in your mouth—but that’s a different story. The dishes we we’d ordered weren’t moving, except for the fact that I’d just viewed them in another form—walking, talking and fighting.

Here’s a taste of Goh and Woo’s creation, Dim Sum Warriors: “Their bravery and skill have inspired millions worldwide, while the mere mention of their names causes enemies to quiver like tofu.”

Dim Sum Warriors is a comic book that started as an iPad app. It started online, and now is out in book form, the reverse of most tech-savvy comic book series.

Goh and Woo created Dim Sum Warriors partly for their daughter, Kai Yen Goh. She’s learning to understand both English and Chinese by using the app.

“We felt especially because we were bringing up a daughter in America we wanted something that would represent her mixed-up cultural heritage,” says Goh.

On an iPad, you can read Dim Sum Warriors in English or in Chinese. Or, you can flip between the two languages. If you want to hear the audio, you tap a word balloon. If you hold your finger on the balloon, you get a translation—script and audio.

(Courtesy: Dimsum Warriors/Yumcha Studios)

Click to view a larger clip. (Courtesy: Dimsum Warriors/Yumcha Studios)

Nick Sousanis is a big fan of Dim Sum Warriors. He teaches a class at Columbia’s Teachers College on using comics in classrooms. He says the Dim Sum Warriors is that it makes clever use of some relatively new behaviour patterns.

“If you read the New York Times on the web and you want to know what a word means, you click on it,” says Sousanis. Dim Sum Warriors operates like that. “You can see the action you know what the characters are doing, you see the word. You can associate the word with what that action is. It just synergistically holds together.”

Kids seem to like it too. Third-grader Finn Myers, who lives in New York, says he’s read Dim Sum Warriors “at least” seven times.

“It’s like you’re doing two things at once but you don’t even know,” says Finn. “You’re learning the language and reading.”

Now, that’s something of dream for language teachers—distracting students with a strong narrative so they want to read on.

Of course, it may not work on all kids. But Finn’s teacher Kyla Huang says Dim Sum Warriors will be a valuable addition to many classrooms. Huang says Chinese teachers in the United States do more than teach. They’re “also authors” of teaching materials because there aren’t enough officially approved materials available in the US.

It helps that Dim Sum Warriors is an iPad app—iPads and other tablets are already a big hit in many schools

Yen Yen Woo tried out Dim sum Warriors on some other 3rd graders. She said they liked the idea of Chinese food items talking to each other. But something was missing.

“They all said ‘what about scallion pancakes…and spring rolls?’” says Woo. “They also said teachers should have them read it just before lunch because it’s going to make them very hungry.”

It’s true, you do get hungry. But you also want to read to learn how the likes of Crown Prince Roast Pork Bao fares in the face of the evil Colonel Quicky Noodle. (Woo and Goh describe him as a mixture of Robert Downey Jr and a mutant pot of instant ramen.)

Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Colin Goh’s favorite character is the pompously-named Master Phoenix Claw, who’s actually nothing more than a chicken foot. But in dim sum menus, chicken feet are described as phoenix claws. “I always envisaged him as a sort of used car salesman,” says Goh. “He’s always trying to pull a fast one on everyone.”

There’s the blend again of Chinese and American culture. Who could be more American than a car salesman? What could be more Chinese than a menu item with an over-the-top name? Put them together and you get something new.

“A lot of the comics in the past have portrayed Asians in this stereotypical way, like you’re either dragon lady or the mysterious Zen master,” says Woo. “We really wanted our child to grow up being confident of her own culture and to see all these character as being part of the universe.”

And so in Dim Sum Warriors there is American-style teenage introspection, but also kung fu fights, albeit enacted by dumplings. Just the idea of a comic book is American, or at least not Chinese. Most Asian comic books are Japanese, though comic book scene in Taiwan is picking up pace.

It’s from Japan, too, that the idea of talking food comes. The Japanese have featured various personified food items in comics and cartoons for years. But with its breadth of characters, Dim Sum Warriors takes things a few wacky steps further.

Even though you can now read Dim Sum Warriors the old-fashioned way, you need to experience it as originally conceived, on an iPad, for the full effect.

To grasp the difference, Colin Goh casts his mind back to when he was teenager, obsessed with Japanese pop culture. He taught himself the language in a painstaking way, “by sitting there with manga and three dictionaries and trying to figure out what they were saying.” The iPad, he says, “enabled us to make the comic into what I would have wanted back when I was 15 years old.”

Another advantage is that apps debut in scores of countries—less of a distribution problem than books. So far, though, there are fewer Chinese using Dim Sum Warriors to learn English than the other way round. Woo and Goh hope to change that with a visit to China later this year.

They even have the idea of turning their fantasy into a stage musical—another American genre making inroads in China.

Here’s a previous post and podcast featuring Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo. They talk about their role as editor of a dictionary of Singlish, the mashed-up street patois that all self-respecting Singaporeans use.



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

In Vietnam, a Nation Learns English

In Vietnam, history is daily life. So says economist Le Dang Doanh. So history might be a good indicator of which foreign languages the Vietnamese would be more inclined to learn. French? Russian? Mandarin? English?

The Vietnamese have gone to war many times in the past few decades. With France, the United States, Cambodia, China. And themselves.

China is considered by many Vietnamese to be a permanent threat. Very few kids learn Mandarin at school.

Vietnam’s war with the United States was longer and bloodier than its short war with China in 1979. And even in the years after the Vietnam War, the government in Hanoi view the U.S. as its enemy.

Do Nhat Nam (Photo: Jennifer Pak)

But no more. Now wherever you turn in Vietnam, people are learning English. At least that’s what Jennifer Pak discovered in her reporting there for the BBC.

For Do Nhat Nam, it was “love at first sight.” Do, who is all of 10 years old, is locally famous for his mastery of English. He translated a book at the age of seven.

Nam fell in love with the language after seeing a video of Steve Jobs talking about computers on YouTube.

Other Vietnamese are drawn to English for the freedom it offers. Bloggers and song lyricists can get certain words and ideas past the official censors more easily in English.

For all of that, economist Le Dang Doanh thinks the Vietnamese are missing a trick in not learning Chinese as well as English. China is right next door, after all. And even if you’re not learning Chinese to increase trade, why not learn the language of your enemy, so you know what he’s thinking?

Most young Vietnamese, though, are wowed by the culture of the English-speaking world. So much so that some older Vietnamese worry about how it’s effecting society. Vietnamese culture frowns on confessional language. People don’t talk about their feelings. But watch “Oprah” or read “The Catcher in the Rye,” and people talking about their feelings is all you get. Steeped in English language culture,. Vietnamese youth are far more prone to this and taboo subjects.

Jennifer Pak and My Linh (photo: Jennifer Pak)

Well-known Vietnamese singer My Linh, herself a fluent English speaker, is raising her children to speak good English. Her kids communicate on Facebook mainly in English. But she has a family rule: at home, everyone must speak Vietnamese. “We need to protect our language,” she says. “If we lose our language, we lose our culture.”

Vietnam’s love affair with English is all the more surprising because in other parts of Asia, English appears on the wane. Jennifer Pak produced a companion documentary, featured in last week’s pod, out of Malaysia and Singapore. In Malaysia, nationalist politicians are promoting the Malay language. In Singapore, business-minded politicians are promoting Mandarin.

But in Vietnam English is king.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Chinese Yuan, the US Dollar and the Currency of Language

Imagine a time in the not too distant future when global business deals are mainly conducted in Mandarin Chinese. Contracts outlining  sales of, say, Brazilian planes to India are written in Mandarin, the payments made in yuan. The websites of the World Trade Organization and the G20 are in Chinese, with options to switch to Spanish, Portuguese and English.

That may be a bit hyperbolic for the near future, but in certain parts of the world there’s evidence of some resistance to English.

In Malaysia, a new generation of political leaders are embracing the Malay language (known to its speakers as Bahasa Malayu) as a nationalist symbol.  Schools have been told to stop teaching math and science in English, and instead teach those subjects in Malay.

In neighboring Singapore, English remains the language of instruction. It is also the “glue” language that binds the multilingual, multiethnic population together.  But the government also wants its citizens to speak Mandarin— the majority of Singaporeans are ethnic Han Chinese, but older Singaporeans tend to speak Hokkien and other dialects that are not understood by Mandarin speakers.

The Singaporean  government’s reasoning is the same is at was when it introduced English to the city-state many decades ago: then,  Singapore’s future depended on trade with English-speaking nations; today, its future depends on trade with China. For Singaporean businessman Lee Han Shih, if the Chinese yuan replaces the dollar as the world’s leading reserve currency, “then you have to learn Chinese.” What’s more, if trade deals are done in yuan,  “there’s no need to use English.” The decline of the English language, Lee predicts, will follow the decline of the US dollar.

Then there’s the growing popularity in Singapore of Singlish, a home-and-street language that’s a mash-up of English, Hokkien, Malay and several other languages. In this linguistic milieu, English is feeling the squeeze.  Even if it remains in schoolrooms, it may be on the wane everywhere else in Singapore.

The question is: are these two examples from the Malay Peninsula exceptions to English’s march to global supremacy? Or are they harbingers of the future decline of English?

I’ve talked about Singlish before in the pod, with the very entertaining Singporean ex-pats Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo. Also, there’s Mr Brown’s Singapore blog and podcast here, and more on Jennifer Pak, who reported today’s episode, here.

Incidentally, the next pod and post suggest that English doesn’t have much to be worried about in the immediate future.  Jennifer Pak will be reporting from Vietnam, where young people are clamoring to learn English.

Listen here or via iTunes.


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized