Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently surprised Chinese students when he spoke to them in Chinese. In a talk at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Zuckerberg spoke Chinese for about 30 minutes. Although his Mandarin was far from perfect, students and faculty cheered his effort.
Clayton Dube is the head of the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California. He praises Zuckerberg's effort and thinks more American CEOs should learn foreign languages.
"To speak Chinese means you begin to think as Chinese people do. You begin to understand how Chinese speakers have the world organized, how they perceive things. And that is a vital step if you're going to be culturally competent."
Zuckerberg's talk raises a larger question: is Chinese the language of the future? Could it replace English as the world's international language? Mandarin Chinese already has the most native speakers of any language. And, China may soon pass the United States as the world's largest economy.
The study of the Chinese language is increasing in the United States and around the world. In 2009, about 60,000 American college students were studying Chinese. That is three times as many as in 1990.
A small but growing number of American parents are even sending their children to bilingual Chinese immersion schools. Leianne Clements has no cultural connection to China, but her children are learning Chinese at the Yu Ying Public Charter School in Washington D.C. Every other day, classes at this school are 100 percent in Chinese. Ms. Clements thinks knowing Chinese could give her children a competitive advantage.
"So far, English has kind of been the universal language, but more and more, with Chinese businesses and just the amount of industry that they have there it seems that that would be, you know, logical thing that could be happening or it seems like it would make you a valuable employee if you also spoke Chinese."
Clayton Dube thinks Chinese will grow in importance, especially for people who want to work and do business in China. But he does not think Chinese will overtake English any time soon.
"As China rises you can anticipate that more people will adopt the language. But is China going to replace English? I don't think so--certainly not in my lifetime, probably not in the next two, three, four generations."
English rose to prominence through the British Empire in the nineteenth century. American dominance in the twentieth century spread the language even further. Dube says American pop culture is one reason for English's popularity as a foreign language.
"American movies, music, television, video games have wide audiences...So far China's success in this realm has been very limited. Chinese films, Chinese television shows, Chinese music doesn't have a huge following outside of China."
Andres Martinez is the editorial director at Zocalo Public Square and a professor of journalism at Arizona State University. He says that he respects Chinese culture and expects the language to grow. But he says English, with its association with freedom, will remain the global language.
"You don't have anybody on the Internet stifling speech in English, censoring speech in English. And most of the dominant English-language countries internally also have a tradition of freedom of speech."
Martinez says that English is seen as a more neutral language than Chinese. Unlike Chinese, it is not associated with one country. He says even the ideas of equality are built into English grammar.
"If you study German, if you study Spanish, if you study Russian, there are many languages where the "you" form and how you conjugate verbs is very different depending on whether you're talking to a grandparent or a boss versus one of your children or an employee or a close friend...If I'm talking to President Obama or if I'm talking to my closest friend or my son, its ‘you.'"
Chinese is also a more difficult language to learn. The U.S. Foreign Service Institute estimates it would take a native English speaker 2,200 hours to reach professional fluency in Chinese. That is four times longer than it would take to reach the same level in Dutch, French, or Spanish. While Chinese grammar is much simpler, Chinese has a tone and writing system that is more difficult for adult learners to master.
A recent survey by Gallup showed that only one in four Americans is multilingual, or able to speak more than one language. And most multilingual Americans are immigrants or the children of immigrants. For most Americans, Brits, and Australians, learning a foreign language is a choice, not a necessity. China Daily estimates that 400 million Chinese are studying English. That means China has more English learners than the U.S. has English speakers.
Last month, China hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in the capital city of Beijing. But the meeting was not in Chinese – or any Asian language. The official language of APEC is English.
I'm Adam Brock.