The Economist wonders why English has borrowed so few new words from China over the past 30 years, despite the country’s rise as a major world economic power. The Hermit Kingdom isn’t a hermit any more — Chinese government and business are everywhere, not only trading money for influence and business opportunities in the developing world, but also buying up American companies in sectors like general aviation.
Unlike the European colonial powers of 150 years ago, however, China does not seem interested in exporting its cultural values; for example, Beijing may donate a fleet of Chinese-made cars to a Latin-American government, but it doesn’t also set up missionary schools to try to teach the country’s elite to speak Mandarin and follow Confusian principles.
Can Chinese language and culture spread on its own, without a deliberate attempt to promote it, the way Europeans once promoted English, Spanish, Dutch, French, or Portuguese language and culture in the Americas, Africa, and Asia? Would China even want its culture to spread (beyond just cuisine)?
One interesting model is Japan, which has also made little attempt to promote its language outside its borders. For decades, while Japan rose as a world economic power, little happened. Then, suddenly, Japanese culture exploded on the rest of the world. American students, for example, not only eat sushi, but read manga, sleep on futons, and use Japanese terms like “panchira” to classify their pornography. And they’re often prone to take Japanese language classes, despite the complete lack of Japanese-sponsored missionary schools.
Now, we’re starting to see the same thing happen with South Korean culture. We might not be borrowing many new Mandarin words into English right now, but will that still be true in 20 years?