Back to Index

National Languages

Commenting on the posting about attempts to impose Mandarin as the national language of China, Tim Brown says:

"While I was at the Army Language School [now the Defense Language Institute] studying Thai, the School offered several Chinese languages/dialects, including Cantonese, Mandarin, and Taiwanese. [By way of contrast, it offered only two versions of Arabic - North African and Peninsular]. Later I had a native Mandarin Chinese deputy in the Marines. It was my understanding from both experiences that Mandarin has four tones, while Cantonese has nine, that there are nine separate main Chinese languages that are mutually unintelligible [dialects sound funny but are mutually intelligible], but that all were able to communicate in writing. Later, when I was a Southeast Asia area analyst I found that the entire region was rife with similar or even more complex situations. For example the Philippines has some 197 mutually unintelligible languages, with Tagalog being pushed as the sole national language. Indonesia is almost as complex linguistically; there were four major and dozens of minor dialects and languages in Thailand and Burma, not to mention Bangladesh and India.

On efforts to impose a single language, with language a critical element of identity, along with territoriality, belief and value systems, cultures, and so forth, efforts by a dominant group to impose a single language invariably seem to increase the levels of identity-driven dissonance among the "loser" group. Whether this dissonance becomes sufficient to trigger violence then seems to depend on the relative level of coercion versus persuasion being used by the dominant group to impose its will. If my history serves me well, the Mandarins have been trying for centuries, if not millennia, to impose their spoken language with relatively success at the written and formal levels [government, higher education, mass media] but with almost no success at the popular level. If the intent now is to impose Mandarin also at the familial level, I predict they will once again fail. And if they try too hard, I also predict they will first have to use police force to impose their will with the risk of inciting a violent reaction, and then will fail anyway. Time will tell."

My comment: My guess is that the dynamics of the world will make English the worldwide primary or secondary language, and other languages will be standardized. The stress on local language/dialects will fade away.

Ronald Hilton - 1/09/01