English and Chinese: Comparisons and Learning Patterns

The British and Chinese flags.
Woman teaching English.

The American dominance around the globe in the latter half of the 1900s and, earlier, the power of the British Empire, brought about a world where English became the most widely spoken language. This, in turn, made English the world’s foremost lingua franca, a status that allowed the popularity of English to begin building on itself, since the more people speak a language the more people want to learn it. The snowball learning effect then continued, and today over one billion people speak English as a second language, bringing the total number of people on the planet who can at least hold a basic conversation in English, and native speakers, to around 1.5 billion. This, roughly speaking, is one fifth of the world’s population.

Chinese no threat to English

The 1.5 billion people who speak English in the world today outnumber the number of people on the globe who speak Chinese1. Furthermore, to continue the comparison with Chinese, English is used almost all over the planet, while Chinese is practically only spoken in China, Singapore and on the island of Taiwan. These facts, positioning English far ahead of Chinese in global importance, mean that although there are significantly more native Chinese speakers than native English speakers in the world, Chinese poses no real threat to the English language’s dominant position.

An attractive language to learn

The dominance of the English language notwithstanding, in the eyes of many native English speakers, learning and mastering Chinese is looking all the more attractive. This is mainly because Chinese companies are increasing their production and sale of consumer goods quickly, which makes many Chinese richer and able to buy more products from foreign companies present in China. The chance to sharply increase one’s revenues by communicating with Chinese consumers, in other words, is generating a buzz in the language learning market for Chinese, although the perceived difficulty of learning Chinese still keeps most people from ever signing up for a Chinese language course.

English of little use

Contrasting the low number of native English speakers who learn Chinese, in China, for the most part, students study English in school. However, a lack of qualified English teachers and little need for English in Chinese society overall mean that the giant country’s younger generation, despite their efforts, typically end up knowing only rudimentary English. The older generation of Chinese, moreover, usually don’t speak English at all, rendering English of little use in China outside of tourist areas and former British colony Hong Kong.

  1. The term Chinese is either referring to Mandarin Chinese (which is what most people in China speak) or the Chinese language family, of which Mandarin Chinese is the dominant dialect or language.