The Realist Learns Mandarin: Lingua Francas and the New World Order

As related in an article from New Eastern Europe, there’s an old joke about global lingua francas that goes “the pessimist learns Russian, the optimist learns English, and the realist learns Mandarin”. As I’m discussing an awful lot in my dissertation (when I’m not going down 10 other equally interesting rabbit holes), the languages people are encouraged, told, or compelled to learn can speak volumes about the current global political and economic situation. Namely, they tell you who’s powerful and influential enough to have their language graduate to lingua franca status.

A lingua franca is, put simply, a common language for communication between people who speak different L1s. Usually they are languages of trade, empire, and diplomacy. Think Latin in the Roman Empire’s heyday, Arabic, French, English (especially English), Russian, Swahili (which itself is heavily influenced by Arabic), and Spanish. The examples I just listed are pretty big global lingua francas, but every multilingual country has at least one lingua franca, which gained that status either through widespread use or through deliberate government policy.

The question I often get from people who know my area of study is “will Mandarin Chinese replace English as a global lingua franca?”

The answer I often give is “probably not.” Why? Two main reasons:

  1. As I’m finding out in my dissertation research, Mandarin is very difficult for a wide swath of learners to master, and the resources to teach it on a grand scale (and teach it effectively) are still very much in a nascent stage, at least in the West.
  2. English is well and truly entrenched as a global lingua franca, at least for the foreseeable future. Thanks to historical circumstance (namely imperialism and all the economic and political dominance that comes with that) and its perception as a politically neutral “link language” (especially in formerly colonized areas with deep language-based divisions, like Sri Lanka and parts of India) and a language of technology, trade and education, English has a nigh-impenetrably strong foothold in the world’s linguistic landscape. Mandarin would have a lot of ground to gain before it could come close to the influence English now has and will continue to have.

But regardless of Mandarin Chinese’s future as a lingua franca, I can’t help but draw comparisons between Mandarin Chinese and Russian. Obviously the parallels can never be perfect, but I think the stories of these two languages have some key similarities.

To start, both languages have a wide geographic, linguistic, and political influence, but those who speak them as a second or additional language sometimes view them with suspicion due to the cultural assimilationism that often comes with the promotion of a language as a lingua franca. Both languages emerged as the “standard” in multilingual, multicultural nations that did not have concrete language policies until well into the modern age (China in the 20th century, Russia in the 18th). Both languages were used to expand the scope and reach of Communist governments in the mid-20th century.

A key difference, I believe, is that while Mandarin is being heavily promoted in Singapore and Hong Kong, it does not hold sway as a multinational lingua franca in the same way that Russian did at the height of the Soviet Union. However, its influence is growing. As mentioned before, Mandarin Chinese is taught alongside Cantonese and English in Hong Kong, and the Singaporean government has heavily promoted Mandarin Chinese since the 1970s. As China’s global power grows, it is expected that more and more people inside and outside of Asia will learn Mandarin Chinese. My current research reveals that Mandarin’s appeal is increasing in the West and beyond, and many people see it as a vehicle for career advancement and understanding a global superpower. But will Mandarin Chinese have the same reach as Russian, let alone English?

As I stated earlier, probably not. For one, English, as we’ve already explored, holds far too much sway for Mandarin to take its place, at least for the time being. Although Mandarin Chinese is the second most frequently used language online, it’s a distant second to English, and most programming languages for computing and tech are English-based. The TESOL and English-language assessment industries would be loath to give up their plum positions to TCFL (Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language) or the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, or Chinese Level Test). In addition, compared to the Soviet republics, China far less direct political control over its (independent) neighbors, who, as Andrés Martinez points out in an article for Time, are far more comfortable using English as a politically neutral link language (getting snapped up as colonial possessions or client states by Europeans and Americans probably helped a bit as well).

So does that mean we should dispense with learning Mandarin altogether? Of course not. We didn’t do away with learning German, Italian, or Korean just because those languages’ spheres of influence aren’t as expansive as those of English or Arabic. Mandarin is still incredibly useful and can open up an amazing world of culture, politics, and business opportunities to its learners. I can attest to that from my own experience as a Mandarin learner and speaker.

If the Chinese government and interested non-state actors want to realize Mandarin’s global ambitions, they should focus on improving learning resources and access to those resources, especially for adults (cf. my dissertation once it’s done). They should encourage developments in technology and the arts, especially popular culture — for a model, they could look to South Korea, whose popular culture and attractive tech products have inspired many around the globe to learn Korean. That, of course, requires a modicum of free expression and enterprise. The potential for Mandarin to grow as a taught foreign language, a useful regional language, and a lingua franca among Han Chinese diaspora communities (though I plan to write a post soon about how this has caused friction with Cantonese and Hokkien-speaking diaspora/Sinosphere communities) is there, but there is also no need to wring one’s hands at the possibility that it could one day overtake English.

As for Russian, I do wonder about its status, especially as former Soviet republics further develop their individual cultural, linguistic, and economic identities. How much importance can we ascribe to, for instance, Kazakhstan’s government switching the Kazakh-language writing system to the Latin alphabet from Cyrillic? Going back to Donskis’ article for New Eastern Europe, what will the rise of Baltic languages mean for Russian intellectual life down the line? Russian, like Chinese, will always hold an esteemed place as a language of world philosophy and culture, but how will it fare in the political and economic arenas (for what it’s worth, at least in Kazakhstan, Russian has remained a lingua franca and a first language for many residents, unlike in other Central Asian countries)?

Perhaps we should lament the dominance of English on the world’s lips. Many academics before me have. To some extent I do (though I won’t lie and say that it isn’t a relief that almost everywhere I go, I can find at least one person who can speak at least a little bit of my native language). And we should certainly curb any shades of Yellow Peril rhetoric when discussing the growing popularity of Mandarin Chinese as a popular foreign and second language. I believe that a realistic approach to promoting and analyzing Mandarin’s rise is best — in my opinion, it may well have a trajectory similar to modern Russian: a useful second language/limited lingua franca around the nation’s immediate sphere of influence, and a prestigious (though due to English’s dominance, not required) foreign language among those interested in the cultural or economic clout of the country.

In any case, I hope that people other than realists and policy wonks choose to study Mandarin, and that realists see beyond the instrumental value of the language and appreciate its rich history and cultural influence. The same goes for Russian. And frankly, the same goes for English.


Donskis, L. (2014). The Failed Lingua Franca of Eastern Europe? New Eastern Europe.

Lillis, J. (2013). Kazakhstan: The ABCs of the Alphabet Debate. EurasiaNet.

Martinez, A. (2014). Why Mandarin Won’t Be a Lingua Franca. Time.

Oi, M. (2010). Singapore’s Booming Appetite to Study Mandarin. BBC News.

Pavlenko, A. (2006). Russian as a Lingua Franca. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 26, pp. 78-99. doi:


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