Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Speaking the Language

I'm a horrible linguist. I'm pretty good at English, though not to the extent that I can quote many of the more obscure rules verbatim. I'm more of a "I know it when I see it" master of the language. I used to be better at it when I was an English teacher, but that was fifteen years ago and, honestly, spending ten of those years among businessmen (and women) who abuse the language at every opportunity pretty well squeezed from me much of my devotion to the nuances of grammar. It was that or run screaming mad. Which I more or less ended up doing anyway, so there you go.

So I'm down with English, but beyond that I'm hopeless and helpless. I took something approaching five years of French in high school, followed by another year in college, and I can neither speak, write, nor read French at even a basic level. I know a few words each in Spanish, Italian, German and Japanese, but far from enough to really communicate in any of those languages.

But with my oldest kid heading closer to middle school, I've started thinking about language. In my parents' lifetime, English was the dominant language to such an extent that unless you wanted to go visit a foreign country, you just didn't have to worry about languages. Any business or transaction you wanted to conduct from the good ol' U-S of A would be conducted in English. That's changing pretty quickly, however.

We're not a bilingual country like Canada, yet everything is increasingly going bilingual, with Spanish included on labels, coupons, phone menus, and signs. What does this say to me? Well, it suggests that a mastery of Spanish might have some real value as a citizen of the U.S. in years to come. The more Spanish is accepted and catered-to, the less incentive there is for native speakers of Spanish to learn English, and the greater the chance that an English-speaker will encounter a situation where they wish they knew Spanish. So that's a point in favor of learning Spanish.

But I'm also wary of China. Much like the US prior to World War II, I see China as the "sleeping dragon," with a bright future as THE big global powerhouse ahead of them. It's painful to admit, because America has been that global powerhouse for the last sixty years and I'd prefer not to see that end, but it's just not plausible to compete with a country that controls such a huge landmass (and corresponding wealth of natural resources, including some precious metals necessary for modern technology and available nowhere else) and such an enormous population. They're growing exponentially in power and influence, and that growth is going to overwhelm us at some point. There are likely economic scientists who could nail down exactly when that point is going to be, but I figure it's no more than 15-20 years away, and that may be grossly conservative. It might be 5-10 years away.

Look, for instance, at this article. It points out that pretty soon, there will be more web-pages in Chinese than there will be in English. And then there will be many more. And then the Internet will be in Chinese, with a small portion set aside for English and other languages. Wow. That hits pretty hard. I mean, nobody's going to force English-language websites to convert to Chinese. All things being equal, it doesn't matter whether the Internet, as a whole, is 10% Chinese and 80% English (with the remaining 10% being other languages) or if it's 10% English and 80% Chinese. We could all surf happily along in our own "language zones" and all would be hunky-dory. But all things aren't equal, and many of the pages on the Internet are put there for money. If you can make much, much more money by communicating in Chinese, you will. You might ALSO communicate the same info in English as long as it's not too big a hassle and as long as it also brings in money, but after a while you might decide it's not worth the effort to bother, because you're making 98% of your revenue off Chinese-speaking traffic.

So as a global citizen, chalk up a point for Chinese as a pretty worthwhile language to know. It's not likely that you'll need Chinese to buy groceries in my kids' lifetimes, but if you want to get ahead in business, politics, academics or a wealth of other careers, you might be very well-served to know Chinese. Because the dragons are waking up.

No comments:

Post a Comment