Coevolving Innovations

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What’s the world’s most popular language?

Posted on April 05, 2007 by daviding

My eldest son Adam is in Beijing, in his second year of Mandarin language immersion at Renmin University. We’re proud that midway through his second year, he scored sufficiently high on the HSK exam that he qualified to be admitted to the classes with native Chinese speakers. (We haven’t set an expectation that he even needs to pass those classes — this is really about education and not certification — so he’s taken the outrageous step of signing up for third year courses in the social sciences, because he dislikes the first-year Chinese style of learning by rote).

In some respects, this immersion is to make up for heritage language training that doesn’t work well for Canadian-born children, but I guess there was an intuitive reason for his immersion, as I discovered on an Wired article from April 2006:

Mandarin Chinese is already the most popular first language on the planet, beating out English by 500 million speakers. And it’s the second-most-common language on the Internet.

Strangely enough, the idea of speaking Mandarin doesn’t scare me half as much as the prospect of having to type in internationalized domain names into browsers someday as Chinese characters.

The Wired article continues with a description of primary and secondary schools in the United States where Mandarin is being offered. Since I studied French in high school between grades 6 to 12, I have a pretty good idea of the level of fluency that could be attained in a second language when the educational resources are properly marshalled. (I’m not uncomfortable reading the other language on cereal boxes, and can get the gist of random conversations when people passing on the street otherwise might think that they’re speaking in secret code).

It’s not just language, though, it’s also culture. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had some interesting conversations with Adam — who will continue his undergrad studies in material science (engineering) program at the University of Toronto this fall — on topics that I know a lot about: Karl Marx, Adam Smith, capitalism. The funniest conversation recently was about game theory: it seems that in the west, we discuss the prisoners’ dilemma, but in China, there’s more emphasis on three monks, no water. The idea of criminality doesn’t enter the Chinese version.

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