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Will China join the culture club, or wield it?

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Beijing ‘Wo ai Beijing,” Serena Williams told a Chinese television audience in passable Mandarin: I love Beijing. And the Chinese love her, chanting “Sah-Reen-Na” and singing happy birthday — in English — as the American tennis star turned 23 at the China Open tournament last month.

Tennis isn't a sport for the masses here. But the crowd's devotion never wavered, even when Ms. Williams took umbrage at an official's call at the women's final and smashed her racquet into a bench. Cheered on by her Chinese fans, Ms. Williams rallied to defeat her Russian opponent and then, beaming, presented her replacement racquet to the mayor of Beijing.

A foreigner going out of her way to speak Chinese and kowtowing to a Chinese mandarin; a Chinese crowd embracing her foreign combativeness and singing in her language: It's all so 8th century.

And so 21st.

China reached its zenith in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), one of the most open and confident periods in the country's history. Back then, the Middle Kingdom entranced the world, at least the parts that had heard of it, the way Hollywood mesmerizes us today.

Now, 1,100 years later, a newly confident and increasingly wealthy China is again opening up to outside influences. The question is: Who will be more affected, China, or the rest of the world?

Every great power — Spain, France, Britain, ancient Greece, Rome — exported its language and culture. Everyone is watching to see how China walks that path. Which language will dominate the world in 25 years, English or Chinese? Whose culture will reign supreme, America's or China's? Are we on the cusp of a new world order, or could we all end up with a hybrid blend of both worlds?

To be sure, it's hard to predict the cultural-linguistic future. No one in 1759 imagined that losing a single battle at the Plains of Abraham would ensure the decline of French culture and language in North America. Or in 1945 that a handful of refugees from Europe would create a pop culture in Hollywood that within a half-century would spread American English, mannerisms, values — the whole idea of cool — to the rest of the world.

But certainly the 19th-century idea that everyone would one day speak English is dead. In the past decade, English has declined as a native language from 9 per cent to just 5 per cent of the world's population. The global penetration of U.S. culture aside, Chinese is already the most-spoken language in the world, with three times as many native speakers as English. And through the diaspora, rather than old-fashioned colonization, the Chinese language is spreading into other countries. In Canada, for example, it's now the third most spoken language, after English and French, according to government statistics.

Soon, Chinese could be chosen ahead of English as a second language by people around the world, says David Graddol, managing director of The English Company and the author of a study on this topic.

“In the next decade, the new ‘must-learn' language is likely to be Mandarin,” Mr. Graddol told the Independent in London.

Many of the major population increases of the past century took place in China, not in English-speaking countries. Now, the Internet and satellite television allow immigrants to stay in touch with their mother tongue. With China's population already the world's largest, it will be impossible to ignore when its economy overtakes that of the United States. In Asia, businesses whose employees are not multilingual will find themselves at a disadvantage. Already, they're looking beyond English.

In Beijing alone, 50,000 foreign students are learning Chinese. That's a drop compared to those studying English worldwide, but way up from the two Westerners — myself, the lone Canadian, and an American teenager from Yale University — who were learning Chinese there in 1972. (We kept company with one wounded Palestinian guerrilla fighter, two Laotians and nine North Koreans.) Already, the current contingent of Canadian students in Beijing is so huge it recently inspired a Friends-like Chinese television sit-com called Vancouver.

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