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Vying for global domination

Jeffrey Gil, author of Soft Power and the Worldwide Promotion of Chinese Language Learning: The Confucius Institute Project, offers his views on whether Chinese will overtake English as the world’s language

It’s nearly 25 years since David Graddol, who used to be EL Gazette’s global news editor, wrote the The Future of English? He foresaw an oligarchy of languages with English at the top. In your new book, The Rise of Chinese as a Global Language, you seem to be predicting a duopoly. Is that right and if so, why?

David Graddol’s The Future of English? was a big influence on my thinking about the future of languages globally. I focus on Chinese, because it is widely considered to be the language with the most potential to take over from English as a global language. However, I acknowledge that other languages are also increasing their use and status, and I would like to apply the same concepts and methods I used in my book onto Hindi/Urdu, Arabic and Spanish in future research.

I propose three possible future scenarios for English and Chinese as global languages: English could remain a global language, co-exist with Chinese as a global language or be replaced by Chinese as a global language, depending on the outcome of China’s rise. Continuation will result from either China’s decline or China as a threat, co-existence will result from China as a major power and replacement will result from either China as a superpower or China as a threat.

Continuation is most likely in the short- term future. However, there is already some evidence of co-existence and this is likely to increase in the medium-term future. Replacement is possible only in the long term future, considering the gap between the use and status of Chinese and English at present.

How did you first get interested in Chinese and its changing role?

My PhD thesis was about the English language and English language education in China. One part of my thesis looked at

“I found that Chinese was present in many countries through the Chinese 

whether English was a threat to Chinese language and culture, and as part of investigating that issue I looked at the use and status of Chinese globally. I found that Chinese was present in many countries through the Chinese diaspora and that there was a growing interest in Chinese language learning among people from non-Chinese backgrounds. At that time, the Chinese government was just starting to promote Chinese language learning around the world through Confucius Institutes and other means. I found this fascinating and decided to keep an eye on developments and trends in these areas, which eventually led to my book.

You use the framework of comprehensive competitiveness. What do you mean by that, and what are some of the ways in which Chinese is comprehensively competitive and in what ways is English?

Languages become important in the world because they are associated with power. In other words, a language can give people access to certain resources or benefits. Language comprehensive competitiveness is a framework which sets out what these resources or benefits are. The components of language comprehensive competitiveness are: policy competitiveness, cultural competitiveness, economic competitiveness, population competitiveness, script competitiveness, scientific/technological competitiveness, educational competitiveness and geostrategic competitiveness.

Policy competitiveness is about how governments and international organisations promote a language through their policies. Cultural competitiveness is about the cultural products and practices which can be accessed through a language, such as movies, TV programmes and internet content. Economic competitiveness is about the level of economic development and economic power of the country in which a language is spoken. Population competitiveness is about the number of speakers of a language and number of second/additional language learners. Script competitiveness is about whether a language has a written script and the purposes this script can be used for. Scientific/technological competitiveness refers to the utility of the language as a means to access information about advances and developments in science and technology, while educational competitiveness refers to the utility of the language to access education and research. Finally, geostrategic competitiveness is about the extent of interests of the country where the language is spoken in the international system and its influence within the international system.

English rates highly on all of these indicators because it was the language of the two most powerful countries of modern times, Britain and the USA. Chinese rates highly on geostrategic competitiveness, population competitiveness and economic competitiveness because of China’s political importance, the large number of Chinese speakers around the world, and China’s economic power and influence in the world. At present, Chinese lacks a strong association with popular culture, science and technology, education and research, and its writing system is more challenging to learn and use than the English alphabet.

Your book’s title refers to the new global language of Chinese rather than Mandarin. Isn’t the number of varieties of Chinese spoken, especially by the Chinese diaspora, a disadvantage for a global language?

With China’s rise, Mandarin has become more prominent in the Chinese diaspora than it was in the past. Specifically, Putonghua, that is Standard Mandarin as it’s used in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), has been gaining ground as the lingua franca of diverse Chinese communities. This is the variety which will

“At present, Chinese lacks a strong association with popular culture, 
science and technology”

likely be used for global purposes. This is similar to people using a Standard variety of English for global communication and their own variety for local interactions. Of course, the increasing use and status of Putonghua may have negative consequences for other varieties of Chinese.

What is your message to ESOL teachers – should they be worried about their future careers?

I think English language teaching will remain a viable career for some time yet. I also think there’s a real opportunity for ESOL teachers and researchers to share expertise and cooperate with colleagues in Chinese language education. As Chinese language learning becomes more popular and the language spreads, teachers and researchers are likely to encounter similar issues to those we have encountered in ESOL. Some of these include which variety of the language should be taught, the role of native and non-native speakers as teachers, and whether popular teaching methods such as Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) and Task Based Language Teaching (TBLT) can be used across all contexts.

However, in the long-term future, we may need to adjust to there being less demand for learning English. This will mean there will be fewer job opportunities for those with minimal qualifications. My advice to ESOL teachers would be to make yourself stand out by upgrading your qualifications, learning the language of the country in which you’d like to teach and becoming familiar with the cultural, historical and educational conditions of that country.


Jeffrey Gil is a senior lecturer in ESOL/TESOL at Flinders University, where he is involved in the development, teaching and administration of courses at the undergraduate and postgraduate level. His research interests include English as a global language, and the global use and status of Chinese.

Images courtesy of PHOTO BY DAVID MARK FROM PIXABAY and Library
Liz Granirer
Liz Granirer
Liz has been a journalist for many years. She is currently editor of EL Gazette and has previously edited the magazines Young Performer, StepForward and Accounting Technician; been deputy editor on Right Start magazine; chief sub editor on Country Homes & Interiors; and sub editor on easyJet Traveller, Lonely Planet and Family Traveller magazines, along with a number of others.
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