你说啥?Three Guesses at a Global Chinese Language Future

02/24/2011 12:20 pm 12:20:29 | Updated May 25, 2011

Western media was abuzz recently with news of Sasha Obama practicing her hanyu (汉语: Chinese language) with Hu Jintao (try typing "Sasha Obama" into Google and see what the search engine suggests). I couldn't help but wonder: what did she say? Did she get her tones right? And how's she faring with all those darn characters?

Thank goodness she's starting early, and it seems like other families have the same idea. More American parents are enrolling their students in Chinese class, and pretty soon, the dominant language on the Internet will be Chinese.

Could such a famously-difficult language really become as popular as English? Just as Globish, a simplified version of English, has spread around the globe, so would a simplified form of Chinese. Here are three guesses at what might change should "Globese" become the world's next lingua franca:

Fewer Characters, More Letters: Yes, the infamous characters. A fifth of the world reads and writes them, so they can't be that hard, can they? Certainly one of the most beautiful written scripts to behold, hanzi (汉字:Chinese characters) are also one of the most difficult to master. My professor told me I would need to memorize some 3,000 to read a newspaper. By contrast, an English-language learner need only memorize 26 letters and then can more or less decipher the pronunciation of an unfamiliar word and look it up in a dictionary.

Historically, hanzi haven't fared so well outside China. The Japanese language supplemented the characters with a syllabary, and the Korean language dropped them in standard usage a few hundred years ago. Even in mainland China, the characters were simplified in the 50s to improve literacy, and today, street signs and subway maps regularly feature both Chinese script and pinyin, the Romanization system. In a Globese future, we may see fewer characters and more Roman letters.

Flatter Tones: Although Chinese has generally fewer sounds to master than Globish, it's the tones that throw off most language learners. As a native English speaker, I grew up in a world where tones carry little to no semantic content. David Moser elegantly summed up the Chinese language learner's lament, "How is it possible that shùxué means 'mathematics' while shūxuě means 'blood transfusion'?"

Of the world's top ten languages, only Chinese is tonal. I can spot a foreign accent, regardless of the speaker's native tongue, simply by the way he or she pronounces tones. A Chinese friend told me that he's grown accustomed to these accents, with clear enunciation but often arbitrary tones. Despite this, he's still able to understand what they're saying; context determines that the speaker isn't talking about a medical procedure but numbers. In a Globese future, the role of tones will likely be minimized.

...or the Machines Will Take Over: Already, sites like Xiha Life and programs like Tweetdeck allow people of different language backgrounds to speak with each other, so long as the conversations remain simple. Everyone from Google to the Pentagon is investing in translation software for more complex interactions, while apps like Pleco, which automatically translates Chinese characters in view of the camera, to Google's new Android app, which translates spoken Spanish, are turning smartphones into personal interpreters.

Recently, Clive Thompson speculated that these technologies are helping preserve mother tongues. The emergence of translation technologies may actually turn back the clock on Babel. In other words, armed with smartphones, augmented reality and more sophisticated translation tools, we may not need to learn a foreign language in the near future, let alone a common global one. A Globese future may just involve basic phrases for getting around; everything else we'll let the machines manage.

What do you think? Are you learning Chinese as a second language? What other factors do you see shaping Globese as a possible world language?

Originally from Los Angeles and Manila, artist and designer An Xiao Mina is currently based in Beijing. She blogs regularly at http://www.anxiaostudio.com.