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Chinese as a global language: Negotiating ideologies and identities

Bal Krishna SharmaORCID iD: http://orcid.org/0000-0002-2365-3253
Published Online: 2018-03-28 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/glochi-2018-0001

I started drafting this introduction by googling the internet with the three keywords: Chinese, global, and language. The search result yielded several hits on the topic of Chinese as another global language, and here are some representative headlines: Will Chinese replace English as the global language? (Voice of America Learning English); Is English or Mandarin the language of the future? (BBC News); Will Chinese be the next essential global development language? (devex); Will Chinese become a global language in the future? (Quora.com), and Why Mandarin won’t be a lingua franca (Time.com). The Chinese Global Television Network, for example, had the following text in its opening paragraph of the article Chinese as a second language growing in popularity published in March 2015,

Guess what the former Australian Prime minister, Kevin Rudd; the successful entrepreneur, Mark Zuckerberg and the U.S. President Obama’s daughter, Malia Obama have in common? They all take Chinese as their second language. The study of the Chinese language opens the way to different important fields such as Chinese politics, economy, business opportunities, history or archaeology.

These media pieces constitute and represent conversations about the expanding role of Mandarin Chinese (henceforth Chinese) around the globe. These conversations overlap with some recent discourses in academic scholarship about the global role of the Chinese language. Arguments have been made that the Chinese language is slowly establishing itself as a major global language as China’s economy and political power continue to grow globally. Some researchers claim that the growing number of Chinese learners could eventually give rise to a power contention with the decades-old hegemony of global English (Kobayashi 2015). For example, Ding and Saunders (2006) nearly a decade ago noted,

The Chinese language’s practical value has surpassed that of French, German, and even Japanese in much of the world and its future opportunities seem limitless … As the utility of the Chinese language grows, there are increasing predictions that Chinese may even replace English as the dominant language in the late 21st century, assuming that China continues its trajectory towards replacing the United States as the leading power in East Asia. (p. 27)

Goh and Lim (2010) also echo a similar sentiment,

If China continues to expand at the economic pace of the past two decades, the rise in its language status and consequent strong demand for Chinese as a second or foreign language course will further strengthen the global position of Mandarin, thereby granting it a competitive edge in the world language ecological system of the twenty-first century. (p. 32)

As these conversations gain more ground, there is a growing scholarly interest in recent years in researching Chinese from a broader perspective (Ding and Saunders 2006; Liu & Lo Bianco 2007; Lo Bianco 2007). There are specific conferences and research associations set up for the study of Global Chinese. Hua and Wei (2014) note that although the term was used to study different varieties of Chinese used in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore where Chinese has an official status, it now includes the Chinese diaspora worldwide and speakers of Chinese as a foreign/second language. The journal Global Chinese is one key example that began with an aim to respond to the fast-growing scholarly interests in Chinese as a global language.

Empirical evidence and theoretical arguments for studying Chinese from a global language perspective mainly come from four domains of research. First, researchers have documented ideologies of Mandarin Chinese in contexts such as Hong Kong and Taiwan with which the mainland China has special political links (see the case of Taiwan Mandarin by Chen in this volume). Hua and Wei (2014) remind us of some notable language-related attempts made at the political level to foster better communication between people who do not use the same Chinese written characters, by for example publishing a cross-strait dictionary which would “facilitate cultural exchanges between the people on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait who use different Chinese written characters, different words and phrases, and different pronunciations” (327). Studies have also looked in to the use of Chinese in countries where there is a significant presence of Chinese speaking population, for example, in Singapore and Malaysia (Tan 2006; Phooi-Yan Lee and Ting 2016). The publication Global Chinese Dictionary, for example, is aimed at facilitating cross-cultural communication among Chinese speaking population residing in such different geo-political contexts (Hua and Wei 2014).

Second, Chinese has been a popular additional language for individuals from both heritage and non-heritage backgrounds in many countries in the West (see Fang and Duff in this volume). Duff et al. (2015) note that Chinese has become a marker of exceptionalism in many language schools, public schools, and universities in Anglophone countries. The growing number of non-native learners taking Chinese as a foreign language in higher institutions across the globe is an indicator of the growing international status of Mandarin (Seng and Lai 2010). For many, proficiency in Chinese indexes business expertise, cosmopolitanism, scholarly spirit, and future paths to success (Duff and Doherty 2015). In the United States, Chinese is also treated as one of the “critical languages” in terms of the country’s security policies and interests. Hua and Wei (2014) likewise note that the rise of Chinese as a global language is seen as a modern foreign language in schools and universities in the United Kingdom. The new role and importance given to Chinese, as the authors argue, largely replaces French in this context. For many, Chinese has been a vehicle of an identity marker and membership to an imagined Chinese ancestral community among Chinese diaspora and transnationals (Li et al. 2012; Duff et al. 2017). Teaching Chinese in families and schools serves as a vehicle for developing cultural and heritage affiliation to China and its culture for some people.

Third, China in recent years has been home to international students and professionals for learning Chinese as a second language. Many Chinese universities and language schools now offer a range of Chinese language and culture courses, in addition to courses taught in Chinese, for people wanting to travel to China. A recent article published by China Global Television Network noted that China is the third most popular destination for international students. In 2016 alone, nearly 400,000 international students went to China in pursuit of higher education (Shao 2017). This trend will continue to rise, impacting the teaching and learning of Chinese both inside and outside China in a greater scale. Fourth, the teaching of the Chinese language and culture is gaining more ground in recent years in other new contexts where it is used as a lingua franca. In addition to the teaching and learning of Chinese in contexts such as Japan and Korea where there are close historical, cultural and trade links (Kobayashi 2015), new contexts of the spread of Chinese have been noted. Due to changes in transnational business, international tourism, and internationalization of higher education, countries with little presence of Chinese speaking population have shown tremendous interest in learning Chinese. As a result, many countries in other parts of Asia (e.g. Nepal, Kazakhstan and India) and Africa (e.g. Kenya, Egypt, South Africa and Tunisia) are teaching Chinese as another international language, in addition to English (see Sharma in this volume).

All these emerging media and scholarly discourses point out an important direction that the Chinese language is taking at present and in the future. Chinese is more than just the language associated with China’s 5,000-year civilization and the origin of the oriental philosophical thought. This expanding role of Chinese leads us to ask some important questions: What are the changing ideologies of Chinese? How do learners and users perceive the expanding role of Chinese globally? Can Chinese establish itself as another global language in the future? When does a language gain a global status?

1 Chinese vis-à-vis English as global languages

David Crystal’s (2003) often-cited work on English as a global language provides a useful framework for defining and conceptualizing what a global language is. Crystal (2003: 4) writes: “To achieve such a status, a language has to be taken up by other countries around the world. They must decide to give it a special place within their communities, even though they may have few (or no) mother-tongue speakers”. English achieved its global status due to various historical, political, and economic reasons, first through a result of British colonialism and the British leadership in the Industrial Revolution, and later aided by American economic supremacy and political leadership. Lo Bianco (2007) further notes that language spread during the colonial periods was evident in case of other dominant European languages (such as Spanish and French) that attained their inter-continental spread on the basis of centuries of political colonizing. In many post-colonial societies, colonial legacies still continue to exist along with the liberatory goals of English, where learners produce resistance discourses against English using the English language. English has become an important form of cultural and symbolic capital that people believe will help them achieve their material and other goals such as employment, higher education, and global mobility. This is true especially among a younger generation. Taking the case of Tanzania, Vavrus (2002) comments that current economic conditions of school graduates urge them to learn English more as they believe that educated persons who know English well can find ways to cope with material changes they are facing, for example, through employment in tourism or higher education abroad. The status associated with knowing English, Vavrus argues, is not because it is the language of the former colonizer but because it is a language that invites respect and offers opportunities. Taking a more critical stance, Pennycook (2002: 9) questions a common assumption of English as a language of neutrality and global communication, and by contrast argues that it is a language laden with colonial baggage when he mentions “English language teaching was the crucial part of the colonial enterprise and English is the product of colonialism”. As a result, English continues to present tensions in post-colonial contexts, which can be recognized as a dilemma of post-coloniality after Vavrus (2002) —the conflicting ideologies toward the English language held by individuals and societies as a language of the former colonizer versus a language of economic empowerment.

From a historical perspective, the global expansion of the Chinese language today is different from the global spread of English. Unlike British, Spanish or Dutch colonial empires in the past, China did not colonize territories overseas using language as a tool for political power. The spread of Chinese instead is seen as a result of the recent phase of economic globalization and China’s prominent position in this globalization. This coincides with the global expansion of English around the world today mainly driven by America’s economic and political power. It should, however, be noted that the expansion of Chinese is not a neutral phenomenon, but carries an implicit goal of expanding China’s culture and its “soft” political power through the teaching of the language (Xiao 2017; Yang 2010). The Confucius Institute has been the major avenue to expand the global reach of Chinese. With the expansion of the language, these institutes have been utilized by the Chinese government to expand the country’s cultural and political power as a form of its participation in the ongoing process of cultural globalization (Ding and Saunders 2006; Hua and Wei 2014). In the words of a Chinese scholar Gao (2011), the spread of Chinese culture through Confucius Institutes seems intentional,

On one hand, we should try to make a good job of economic construction in a down-to-earth manner, continue to enhance the comprehensive national strength of our country and further reinforce military and scientific strength. On the other hand, we should continuously improve quality of teaching Chinese a foreign language and connotation of teaching Chinese as a foreign language and strengthen competitive force of “Confucius Institute” as a primary channel for teaching Chinese as a foreign language. It is necessary to carry forward Chinese culture, manifest quintessence of Chinese culture and enable Chinese to become one of the languages that people from all over the world show favor for in their communication. (p. 253)

Following this line of argument, the expansion of Chinese reflects the strength of China both at regional and international level.

In his book English Next, a prominent linguist David Graddol (2006) noted that languages other than English now challenge the dominance of English in some parts of the world. He further claims that this situation may lead to a decline in the value of English since the attractiveness of Mandarin to learners across the world is growing and this may remain a long-term trend. Lo Bianco (2007) also presents a more optimistic picture of the possibility for Mandarin Chinese gaining a global status claiming that although Chinese cannot attain the geographic dispersion like that of English, French, and Spanish through many sovereign state powers that use these dominant languages. He further notes that there are possibilities that Chinese will continue its current momentum as it is “present in public policy, educational settings and socio-demographics in an extraordinarily diverse and rich array of contexts, as cultural capital and as instrumental attraction on an unprecedented scale (p. 24).

We need more research analyzing the role of English and Chinese in globalization, scrutinizing what the global spread of Chinese means for itself and for English. Research shows the continuing expansion of English in many parts of the world including China in several domains such as business, internet, education, and media. The spread of Chinese does not automatically or totally lead to a “fall” of English. However, this does not mean that global hegemony of English remains uncontested. English may not be the only language to entertain the global status, as Graddol (2006: 62) noted: “English is no longer the ‘only show in town’”. The global spread of Chinese indicates a shift in economic power away from the West to former “peripheries”. What we are faced with now is a more complex picture in which English co-exists with another emerging lingua franca, hence Mandarin Chinese, in many world contexts. Instead of valuing one international lingua franca (English), possibilities are emerging that English-Chinese bilingualism will be valued in many international communication contexts that are already multilingual in different ways. As a result, the ideologies and identities associated with the Chinese language as a language of the People’s Republic of China may lead to several reinterpretations such as the language of trade, tourism, mobility, and popular culture, to name a few.

2 Researching language ideologies and identities

The notion of language ideology provides a useful framework in understanding the various and shifting attitudes, roles, and identities associated with the Chinese language today. Following Kroskrity (2010: 192), language ideologies are “beliefs, feelings, and conceptions about language structure and use which often index the political economic interests of individual speakers, ethnic and other interest groups, and nation states”. These feelings and conceptions are either explicitly articulated in speakers’ statements or they are more implicitly embedded in their communicative practices. Language ideologies largely are attempts to the rationalization of language use which is multiple, contextually shaped, and produced from a sociocultural experience of language users. Kroskrity’s conceptualization of language ideology into the following five dimensions provides a useful framework for putting the three articles in this volume together.

  1. language ideologies represent the perception of language and discourse that is constructed in the interest of a specific social or cultural group,

  2. language ideologies are profitably conceived as multiple,

  3. members may display varying degrees of awareness of local language ideologies,

  4. members’ language ideologies mediate between social structures and forms of talk, and

  5. language ideologies are productively used in the creation and representation of various social and cultural identities.

    (pp. 195-204)

I explain the relevance of these points in the paragraphs that appear later in this section as I provide an overview of the articles. All three articles draw on scholarship in linguistic anthropology, applied linguistics, and sociolinguistics to conceptualize and define language ideologies and their relationship with the identity of the speakers who use the Chinese language. Together, language ideologies articulated by language learners and users of Chinese in various world contexts provide a useful lens for exploring variation in ideas, ideals, and interactional practices (Kroskrity 2010). The articles in this collection come from three different geo-political and social contexts (Taiwan, Canada, and Nepal), and this diversity on research settings further helps us understand multiple ideologies and identities associated with the Chinese language.

Historically, language has been used as a major resource to create, maintain or break the boundaries among social and national groups. Following Kroskrity’s fifth dimension, language ideologies, thus, are productively deployed as useful resources for constructing various forms of social identities. The first article by Spencer Chen deals with the shifting and multiple ideologies of Taiwan-Mandarin in Taiwan. The paper examines the stylistic uses of Taiwan Mandarin in Taiwanese tourism targeting Chinese tourists and discusses the sociolinguistic and political economic implications of using a language variation. Through a careful analysis of some selected phonological and lexical aspects, Chen shows that speaking Taiwan Mandarin enables its speakers to assert and maintain their distinct Taiwanese identity amidst other Mandarin-speaking population. The article very well shows the changing ideological significance of Taiwan Mandarin: while many dominant ideological assumptions construct Taiwan Mandarin as a linguistic deviation of Putonghua, Taiwanese people’s conceptualization of Taiwan Mandarin projects more positive ideological stances indexed by feelings of home, closeness, and familiarity. Following Kroskrity’s (2010) framework, the participants in Chen’s study display varying degrees of awareness toward Taiwan Mandarin. Overall, the article shows how some forms of talk are connected to the social structure in Taiwan, arguing that indexical value of Taiwan Mandarin largely supports the ideological differentiation and boundary maintenance between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China.

Language-related identities can be broad and relatively more stable such as those based on nationality and ethnicity, or they can be more context-bound resulting from such activities as an affiliation or disaffiliation to certain media products. Taking account of these aspects, the second article by Sumin Fang and Patricia Duff investigates how Chinese as an additional language learners in a university in Western Canada use Chinese popular culture to construct their various ideological stances and subject positions. The authors claim that popular media provides multimodal semiotic resources to construct various language ideologies and group identities (based on gender, heritage and political viewpoints) for the language users, who can also exercise their agency to engage with, interpret, reproduce and possibly reproduce some dominant ideologies. In their study, Fang and Duff note that Phillis– Chinese as a heritage language learner—was able to negotiate her society-imposed group identity of “Chinese Canadian” by enacting her sub-group identity as a Hong Kong descendant in Canada. Another participant Gordon – a non-heritage learner – was able to enact his agency by interpreting Chinese movies from an oppositional standpoint, thereby constructing his identity as a critical audience member from a liberal-democratic political system. Fang and Duff’s observation here closely aligns with Irvine’s (1989: 255) argument that language ideology is “the cultural system of ideas about social and linguistic relationships, together with their loading of moral and political interests”. Overall, the authors show that users and consumers of popular culture display, in their own words, accepting, negotiating (or possibly ambivalent) or oppositional stances toward particular forms of that culture to construct or negotiate their multiple identities and ideologies.

The third article by Bal Krishna Sharma discusses ideologies of the Chinese language in the context of Nepal’s tourism and its related businesses, drawing on ethnographic and interview data from Chinese language learners and users such as tour guides, hoteliers, vendors and business people. Sharma documents the changing linguistic landscape of some places in Kathmandu noting that due to the recent boom of Chinese tourists to Nepal, a mini Chinatown has appeared within the winding streets in the city which are now covered with Chinese-language signs, Chinese restaurants and hotels. The article shows that the learners and users of Chinese in Nepal position Mandarin Chinese according to its practical and instrumental ideals mediated through its commodity value. With reference to Kroskrity’s points above, the ideologies of the Chinese language articulated by these people are conceivably multiple and they show various levels of awareness. The participants note that both people and the government of Nepal look up to China as a resource for capital and investment. Sharma further argues that the Chinese language is closely tied to Nepali nationalistic ideology in that learning Chinese is interpreted by the participants as a major weapon to maintain an adequate distance and optimum proximity with India and China respectively. The findings as a whole underscore the power, prestige and commodity value of Chinese in Nepal, questioning the largely taken-for-granted role of English as the global lingua franca in tourism.

The three articles in this collection were first presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Applied Linguistics in Florida in 2016. Overall, these articles conceptualize language ideologies and identities as dynamic and multiple that are constructed by self and others in social interactions. The spread of Mandarin Chinese in its various forms invokes an array of ideological and identity positions in different geo-political contexts: as a socio-political identity marker in Taiwan, a vehicle for Chinese popular culture in a language learning context in Canada, and a commodifiable resource in tourism and business in Nepal.


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About the article

Published Online: 2018-03-28

Published in Print: 2018-03-26

Citation Information: Global Chinese, Volume 4, Issue 1, Pages 1–10, ISSN (Online) 2199-4382, ISSN (Print) 2199-4374, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/glochi-2018-0001.

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