Read enough news about language and marketing and you’re bound to come across this claim fairly often: In a few years, the dominant language of the internet won’t be English, but Chinese.
It’s easy to understand why. China has the largest population in the world – approximately 1.37 billion people. It’s also an economic superpower that may surpass the United States as the world’s strongest economy in a few years.
Still, something about the claim has always struck me as a bit strange. My suspicion starts with the fact that there isn’t a single Chinese language, but a number of what are commonly called “dialects”, which are actually mutually unintelligible. These include Mandarin, Wu, and Cantonese.
Then there’s the fact that Chinese internet users don’t have access to many of the most important websites and social platforms used just about everywhere else around the world.
So, is the claim that Chinese will soon dominate the internet a fact, or a misunderstanding? Let’s find out!
Which Chinese is “Chinese”?
First of all, let’s define what most journalists and researchers mean by “Chinese.” That would be Standard Chinese, a form of Mandarin that’s the official language of China, as well as Taiwan. It’s also one of the official languages of Singapore and the United Nations.
About 71% of the Chinese population speaks Standard Chinese – in other words, close to a billion people. And this, of course, isn’t counting speakers in other countries, or non-native speakers who’ve learned it as a foreign language.
All right, so judging from the number of speakers alone, Standard Chinese very well could become the internet’s dominant language, especially as the Chinese market continues to grow and people in countries around the world do more business with Chinese clients.
The Chinese also already have a very strong presence online, to put it mildly: there are more people with internet access in China than anywhere else in the world.
Then again, it’s not so simple. For every claim that Chinese is set to become the language of the internet, there’s an intriguing counterargument.
Standard Chinese is too complicated for the average person to learn
English is the world’s current lingua franca, both online and irl (in real life). This came about due to colonization in the 19th and 20th centuries, and continued in a different way: the dominance of the English language in popular culture (movies, music, and television shows), as well as in the tech world.
But so what? Many other languages have been lingua francas before English, and nothing lasts forever. Why couldn’t Standard Chinese take over?
One reason many experts give is that it’s too difficult for most people to learn. No language is without its challenges, but Standard Chinese involves an 8000-character alphabet that takes years to master, and four different tones that can radically the change the meaning of a word. To put this into perspective, an English-speaking adult would need approximately 2200 hours to learn to speak Standard Chinese at a level where they could conduct business. This is four times longer than it would take to reach the same level in languages like Spanish, French, or Dutch.
Chinese isn’t a neutral language.
From political and human rights implications, to historic disputes with surrounding countries, the languages of China carry negative connotations for certain populations around the world. You could say the same for the world and web’s current lingua franca, English – if it weren’t for the fact that English can’t be precisely associated with a single country the way Chinese can.
In fact, even cultures or groups that would normally consider traditionally Anglophone countries an enemy find English useful or meaningful in different ways. For example, in Vietnam, where the scars of the 1955-1975 conflict with America are still felt, young people see English as a language of freedom. While Vietnamese song lyrics that promote rebellion are banned by the government, English-language ones aren’t policed.
Here’s another good example: even ISIS jihadis use English to spread propaganda and recruit new members.
It’s often said that Standard Chinese will become the world’s lingua franca because China is on the rise, but interestingly enough, scholars have suggested that if countries like the United States and the UK become less powerful, the appeal of English may grow stronger, since the language will become even more independent of its roots.
In addition to English’s relative political and cultural neutrality, there’s also the nature of its grammar. In addition to genderless nouns, Professor Andres Martinez points out that, unlike many other languages, there is no class system in English: “If I’m talking to [the President] or if I’m talking to my closest friend or my son, its ‘you.’”
Not everyone experiences the internet the same way.
One of the reasons I was skeptical about Chinese becoming the new language of the internet is that I rarely, if ever, come across websites or social media posts in Chinese.
My internet browsing and research generally involve English and French. This isolation isn’t unusual. Most people experience the internet only through the cultures and languages they’re most familiar with. Translator Judith Meyer gives some interesting statistics about this, and a pertinent anecdote about her German-speaking parents’ online experience, in this Quora thread.
So, while Chinese may become the dominant language of the web in terms of number of speakers, a vast majority of the world may never realize or be directly impacted by it.
There’s another side to that aspect of segmentation. Internet users in China are notoriously censored and restricted. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, which have an immense influence around the world, can’t legally be accessed by most Chinese residents. Although China has its own social media sites with massive numbers of members, their role is inherently less global.
The Chinese are studying English – and so are lots of other people around the globe.
Despite their language’s possible dominance, an estimated 400 million Chinese citizens are currently learning English. In fact, according to China Daily, the Chinese government is actively pushing public servants with a low level of education to learn at least 100 English sentences, and those who are college graduates to master at least 1000. The reason, the site postulates, is that English is deeply encroached as a global language of business and academics. Technology should be added to that list, as well.
The Chinese aren’t the only English students out there, of course. English is already a second (or third, or fourth…) language for many other people around the world. In fact, while there may be nearly a billion speakers of Standard Chinese, it’s estimated that there will be 2 billion English speakers worldwide in 2020.
China’s powerful neighbors want to keep it in check
Still, Standard Chinese could beat the odds and become the dominant language of the web. But what if someone – a lot of someones, in fact – doesn’t want it to?
Due to certain important cultural differences and a troubled shared history, the Asian countries that share borders with or are in close proximity to China don’t want the country to get too powerful. In fact, a survey by the PEW Research Center found that people in Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam preferred America over China as a superpower.
This is often cited as one of the reasons that organizations like the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) use English as their official language.
This may be a snub, or simply based on neutrality and/or convenience. But one undisputable fact is that when combined, these countries, along with the rest of Southeast Asia and India have a higher population and more economic power than China alone. By refusing to make Standard Chinese a lingua franca, they are effectively limiting the need for people to learn and use it.
English will probably still dominate the web, at least in terms of influence
When you take all of this into consideration, Standard Chinese’s dominance of the web seems doubtful. Of course, life and language are unpredictable. French speakers in the 17th through mid-20th century could never have imagined that their language would lose its role as a lingua franca, but that has definitely come to be. Nothing lasts forever. Still, it seems that English will probably continue to be the language with the most online clout for a long time.
If you’re an English-speaker, this may feel like a huge advantage. But it shouldn’t be a reason to neglect the importance of other languages. If your company or service works closely with customers in China, learning Standard Chinese or hiring a translator or transcreator to adapt your marketing materials is an excellent strategy.
As we’ve explored in recent articles, knowing the local market and language will give you a huge advantage, in China as well as just about any country in the world. When it comes to getting people’s attention and sharing information, truly speaking someone’s language is invaluable.
By Aylsa Salzberg