International Languages

S. Bougerolle steveb at
Sun Oct 27 08:01:35 PST 2002

On Sun, 2002-10-27 at 23:09, A.Melon wrote:
> Chinese is also used a fair amount in southeastern Asian
> countries (e.g., Singapore, Malaysia).  

"Chinese" is not a spoken language.

Practically everyone in the PRC can speak Putonghua (Mandarin), the
official language.  However, it is only estimated to be the *native*
language of about 70% of Chinese people.  A very large minority, mostly
in the south, speak Cantonese.

Outside China I think you will find very few Chinese speak Mandarin as
their first language.  The huge majority of Chinese emigrants were from
Guangdong (Canton) and Fujian provinces, and they tend to speak the
languages native to those areas; Cantonese and various less common ones
like Hakka or Chiu Chow, which are somewhat related to Cantonese.  

They are NOT different dialects as some mistakenly say.  Dialects sound
strange but are mutually comprehensible.  Hong Kong Cantonese and
Guangzhou Cantonese are two slightly different dialects (different
enough that I can sometimes tell them apart).  Singaporean Cantonese and
Hong Kong Cantonese are quite different dialects.  But Cantonese and
Hakka (for example) are different languages, and speakers of one will
understand only a percentage of the other and probably not be able to
communicate in it.  My wife speaks native Cantonese, but when she comes
to the barber shop with me the old guys there all speak Shanghainese and
she can't understand what they're saying.

Written Chinese is a different thing entirely.  You will do well to
think of it as a separate language, and in fact it is about the only
language that all Chinese people have in common (which is why Chinese
movies are always be subtitled in Chinese characters regardless of which
language the dialogue is in).  The relation between spoken Chinese
languages and written Chinese is just about infinitely complex and
confusing, and just writing a paragraph about it is enough to give me a
headache, so that's all I have to say except that this is the only
language which you could reasonably label with a catch-all name

If you want to play the "who has the biggest language" game, you could
reasonably compare English speakers to Mandarin speakers, but be careful
not to limit yourself to English NATIVE speakers - that is not a fair
comparison since hundreds of millions of Chinese people do NOT speak
Putonghua as a first language.  Last time I got into this argument, ten
years ago, I did a quick reckoning (don't forget to count English
speakers in places like Africa and Asia - there are hundreds of millions
of them) and estimated there were about 1.3 billion people around the
world who could communicate "well enough" in English (ie well enough to
hold jobs or travel around the U.S.).  The records are still around
Usenet if you search, and I even got cited in a linguistics paper
written by some guy in Germany :-).  

Whether you argue just by numbers, or by "usefulness" English is clearly
#1 on the list of world languages.

> My guess, though,
> is that it would still come in behind English and Spanish
> for international use.

It's a much more interesting argument which would be #2... And one can
have infinite fun arguing which dialect of English is most common, as

>(Rather curious, that Spanish,
> being used by maybe 200 million or so in the Americas, is
> not used uniformly throughout Spain)  

Hm.. I vaguely remember the number 350 million for Spanish.. Mexico has
a population close to 100 million all by itself.  Add places like
Argentina and Venezuela...

> Then there is Arabic,
> which is the language of choice in more than a dozen
> countries, some of which have quite large populations.

Er.. Which?  Egypt is the only big Arab country, really.  It is pretty
big, though.  60 million people, last I heard.

> French is also a common language, being often used in
> not only France and Switzerland, but also North America,
> the Caribbean, many countries in Africa, and some countries
> in Asia.  

And I might add that it is thriving in Africa.  People who say "you can
speak English and spend US dollars everywhere" would be instantly
disillusioned by spending half a day in Mali or Senegal.

> Portugese and Dutch also have an international
> following.  

Where, outside Holland and Belgium and perhaps South Africa, does ANYONE
speak Dutch?

> And then there is Swahili, the lingua franca
> of eastern Africa.  Quite a few international languages
> out there...

Swahili is useful but not as pervasive as one might think.  Once you
head inland from the coast of East Africa it drops off quickly.  In
Uganda you won't find all that many speakers, and in Kenya it's as much
a second language for most people as English is.

(P.S. Useful phrase in bad but effective Swahili: "Ninataka moja pilsner
baridi sana")

Steve Bougerolle
Creek & Cowley Consulting

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