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Strengthening Chinese in the world language sphere

LI YUMING | 2018-09-28
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Visitors try writing Chinese calligraphy during the 9th Chinese Language Day at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York on April 20. Photo: PEOPLE.CN


Language is a vehicle for knowledge and also a barrier for people from different linguistic backgrounds to acquire information. Along with the globalization of language, English has become a de facto lingua franca, especially in the sphere of science and technology and the social sciences and humanities.

With the rise of China’s national strength, the use of Chinese language in international communication has expanded, but in the academic field, as with other languages, it is severely challenged by its marginalization, which presents a serious obstacle for the Chinese to learn about the world’s scientific and technological or other modern knowledge. This barrier greatly impacts the development and prosperity of Chinese culture. Therefore, it is necessary to carry out an in-depth discussion on the use of the Chinese language in the expression of world knowledge.


Challenges ahead
Previously, young Chinese scholar Liu Weishu from Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics conducted an analysis on the papers published in three major databases from 2006 to 2015. He found that in the natural sciences, as represented by the Science Citation Index (SCI), 96.94 percent of the papers were published in English, followed by German (0.61 percent), Chinese (0.59 percent), French (0.46 percent), Spanish (0.39 percent), Portuguese (0.38 percent), Polish (0.13 percent), Japanese (0.12 percent), Russian (0.11 percent) and Turkish (0.07 percent).

In the Social Science Citation Index (SSCI), the proportion of English papers was 94.95 percent, followed by Spanish (1.42 percent), German (1.19 percent), Portuguese (0.68 percent), French (0.58 percent), Russian (0.37 percent), Turkish (0.16 percent), Czech (0.11 percent), Italian (0.09 percent) and Slovenian (0.06 percent).

In the Arts & Humanities Citation Index (A&HCI), English papers accounted for 73.26 percent, followed by French (7.45 percent), German (5.48 percent), Spanish (4.83 percent), Italian (3.18 percent), Russian (1.56 percent), Portuguese (0.70 percent), Chinese (0.56 percent), Czech (0.48 percent) and Dutch (0.36 percent).

Technically, these three databases may not fully reflect the landscape of international academia, but considering its authoritativeness, it is somewhat adequate to show the academic reputation of various languages.

In my opinion, there are several reasons for this embarrassment in academic Chinese literature. First of all, Chinese academic studies have yet to meet the high bar of international research. Second, writing papers in English remains a challenge for a majority of Chinese scholars. Also, most Chinese journals have not made it into these databases. Lastly, Chinese academic concepts and research methods differ from the practices of some foreign journals. All factors contribute to Chinese papers’ disadvantaged position in world academia.

What’s worse, the embarrassment that the Chinese language suffers goes far beyond the science and technology field. On the internet, English users rank first in the top 10 most frequently used languages, followed by Chinese, which is rapidly approaching the number of English users.

However, among the top 20 languages in terms of network text coverage, Chinese only ranks ninth. Even more, in world book translation, a study has concluded that English, Russian and French form the major axis, dominating the global translation sphere, while Chinese is just a minor axis. Languages associated with Chinese are quite limited and are mainly some of China’s dialects. The major language previously mentioned undoubtedly has the most cultural influence and the most powerful communication potential.


Damage to national power
In the world language sphere, the trend of English as a lingua franca is evident, and the predicament the Chinese language faces will not be able to change any time soon. The marginalization of language is the marginalization of modern knowledge, raising two main questions.

First, the cost of acquiring knowledge is high. The development of a nation needs to be based on the knowledge of humanity. The marginalization of the Chinese language means China needs to acquire modern knowledge through English, which is neither convenient nor timely, not to mention the huge costs of learning and translation.

In addition, the knowledge stored in a language, to a large extent, is that of a nation, which is not only the foundation of international discourse and national power, but also closely associated with the fate of Chinese culture and its future role on the world stage.


Possible solutions
Given the circumstances, we might hope that all people can acquire knowledge through English. However, a lot is at stake. To start with, it is not realistic to expect this to solve the problem of language marginalization because not everyone can learn a foreign language well, and even if some people learn English well, it is difficult to be on par with a native speaker.

In addition, there are two major trends in the current development of science: One is the increasingly detailed division of labor, and the other is rapid interdisciplinary integration. Learning English alone is far from enough.

If we take the English route, over time, the Chinese language will have fewer opportunities to express modern scientific and technological knowledge and eventually be excluded from international academic discourse.

With the advancement of machine translation, we can also try to translate world knowledge into Chinese. As information technology develops, automatic machine translation is expected to achieve this goal in the near future. Thus, we need to consider the following issues. First is the promotion of automatic translation. The traditional approach is to form a multilingual translation system with English as the axis and English as the language that has been established through path dependence.

In this case, we need to design a program anchored in Chinese, since its purpose is for Chinese people to get information. Though Chinese cannot become the international academic language, it can at least become the path-dependent language through which Chinese people acquire knowledge.

At the same time, it is necessary to establish a long-term cooperation with the sources of translations. This can be done while taking inventory of the overseas literature worth translating and clearing intellectual property rights barriers.

Finally, we need to integrate large-scale knowledge inventory units in China to form a vigorous and responsible knowledge community, so as to acquire knowledge from overseas in an orderly manner.

Knowledge supply in the internet era should evolve from passive retrieval to active forwarding, so that those in need can get information instantly.

Machine translation seems to be the best way for China to understand the world under the “English monopoly.” However, it also has many disadvantages, such as delayed knowledge acquisition, high cost of knowledge and a lack of original intellectual property rights.

The third solution is to enhance the international prestige of Chinese academic literature. First, it depends on the academic level of China. At present, China’s overall scientific research capacity is rapidly improving. Many disciplines have changed from a “catching up” state to a “running alongside” state with international counterparts, even leading the way in some fields.

Second, it also depends on the academic level of Chinese people around the world. Chinese is the first language of many Chinese people, which has its advantages in sentiment and convenience. The academic weight of the world’s Chinese community should not be underestimated.

As the prestige of the Chinese language rises, non-Chinese scholars may be attracted to publish in Chinese someday. In this light, an academic evaluation system supporting Chinese texts should be established. The academic evaluation system urgently needs to build confidence in Chinese and avoid blind worship of foreign languages.

Under the current situation, we must realize that though it is ourstrategy to use foreign languages to enhance the international status of Chinese academia, our ultimate purpose is to enhance the international academic status of the Chinese language. In practice, mature disciplines and those closely related to national development should see Chinese-language texts weighed more heavily. They should see advocates first publishing in Chinese, then in a foreign language or concurrently, in order to protect Chinese first publication.

The Chinese-language expression of world knowledge has been a universal topic. When a language loses the qualification to convey modern knowledge, it will certainly fall behind the times. When knowledge acquisition depends on foreign languages, national development and rejuvenation can only be a dream. The government and the intellectual community should have a sense of crisis.
In addition to improving the foreign language ability of the people, China should strive to develop multilingual automatic translation technology with Chinese as the axis and to improve the modern knowledge project of information acquisition and forwarding, making Chinese the path-dependent language for Chinese people. Moreover, it is necessary to establish a Chinese academic evaluation system through supportive policy to enhance the international reputation of Chinese texts.


Li Yuming is a professor from Beijing Language and Culture University.

(edited by YANG XUE)