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Will a character based writing system stop Chinese becoming a global language? A review and reconsideration of the debate

Jeffrey Gil
From the journal Global Chinese

Abstract

Whether China’s rise means Chinese becomes a global language like English is a much discussed topic. Most academics and media commentators argue its character based writing system will prevent this because it is difficult and time consuming to learn. In this article I present four counter arguments informed by an analysis of the language practices, language ideologies and language planning surrounding the Chinese writing system and the characteristics of contemporary global English. Firstly, I argue this view is based on the flawed assumption that all learners of Chinese must learn to read and write, and must do so to a native-like level. This does not reflect the global use of English, as not everyone can read and write, and certainly not to a native-like level. People learn as much English as is required for their purposes, and the same would apply if Chinese was a global language. Next, I argue this view ignores the use of devices like computers and mobile phones which convert Pinyin Romanisation into characters, meaning learners need only learn Pinyin and character recognition, saving considerable time and effort. Thirdly, I show there is a historical precedent for the adoption of characters outside of China in the form of the long-standing use of written Chinese for scholarly and official purposes in Korea, Japan and Vietnam. This occurred due to China’s status as the most powerful country in the region, if not the world, and demonstrates people will learn and use characters if there is sufficient reason to do so. Finally, I argue this view focuses excessively on linguistic properties. The inconsistencies and irregularities of English’s writing system show linguistic properties do not determine whether a language becomes global. I conclude a character based writing system will not, in and of itself, prevent Chinese attaining global language status.

Acknowledgements

The core argument of this article was first put forward in my piece “Writing system won’t stop Chinese becoming the global language”, published online in Asia Times on August 30, 2017 (https://www.asiatimes.com/2017/08/opinion/writing-system-wont-stop-chinese-becoming-global-language/). I thank Asia Times for permission to reproduce this material. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewer for providing useful comments and suggestions which improved this article.

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Published Online: 2020-04-10
Published in Print: 2020-04-28

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