November 21, 2006

English as a Quasi-Official Language of China

When I got back from Manchester, two guest posts from Victor Mair were waiting in my inbox. Here's Victor's first note:

In an earlier post, I observed the ubiquity of English-language teaching in Chinese schools, in most cases starting from the elementary grades. More evidence for the growing importance of English is its usage instead of Chinese at international conferences, meetings, and diplomatic events, and even more prominently in business with other countries.

Attached hereto is a photograph that accompanies an article about the signing of an agreement between China and Cambodia concerning cultural preservation. Wen Jiabao, the Premier of the PRC, is seated just to the left of center. The signing took place in Phnom Penh on April 8, 2006. I'm only coming across this now as I go through some of the back issues of Zhongguo Wenwu Bao (China Cultural Relics News) that I brought back from a recent trip to China. This report appeared on the front page of the April 12th issue.

Note that the Kampuchean hosts permitted the use of the older English spelling of the name of their country as "Cambodia."

Click on the pictures below for larger versions.

One comment: since the event took place in Phnom Penh, wouldn't the banner have been prepared by the Cambodian hosts? And in that case, isn't this a question of Chinese diplomats permitting the use of English, and not insisting on Chinese being displayed as well, rather than a case in which the Chinese government itself prepared an English-and-Khmer sign for a bilateral meeting? But it's certainly striking to see the Chinese premier signing a bilateral agreement with his Kampuchean counterpart under a banner in English and Khmer.

[Update 11/27/2006 -- Josh Jensen writes:

I'm catching up on the recent LL posts, and I just read this one. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a Chinese young woman last year, a guide for our adoption agency group in Guangzhou, China. She complained that when she'd visited South Korea, there weren't enough English-language signs.


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 21, 2006 06:35 AM