Domestic Affairs

English and Chinese make a thoughtful blend

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2010-12-28 09:08
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Last week, China's General Administration of Press and Publication issued several bans on the expanding use of English in the media. The media is banned from randomly mixing foreign languages with Chinese, required to provide Chinese translations when it is necessary to use foreign words, and prohibited from creating new meanings or new words by combining Chinese with another language. The regulations are aimed at English incursions into the Chinese language which authorities believe are damaging linguistic integrity.

The GAPP's concerns are not unfounded. Like the Chinese, the French government is hypersensitive about the English dilution of the French language, which that nation considers a national treasure on par with the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower.

Many anthropologists would certainly agree that the dilution of a group's language results in the diminution of that group's culture.

From a moral and legal standpoint, a government has every right to ban language which it feels might be detrimental to society. The U.S. Supreme Court, for example, decided over thirty years ago that the government could regulate obscene speech broadcast over the radio in ruling against a station that aired comic George Carlin's "7 Dirty Words" monologue.

Finally, the Anglicization of Chinese is not particularly a two-way street. That is, few Chinese terms are being adopted and incorporated by the English-speaking world, suggesting that there is little cultural give-and-take.

Still, on balance, it seems that there is an important scientific reason to encourage, rather than discourage, the proliferation of new language, even if today it is largely an English by-product.

Benjamin Whorf was a linguist who helped develop the concept that language determines how we think- linguistic determinism. While Whorf's Hypothesis is a radical view, most behavioral scientists today would agree that language influences our thinking to a large extent. That concept has important implications.

Multilingual speakers and foreign language students will readily recognize the fact that their thinking processes change and expand when they switch languages. Simply put, they think about things differently.

To Eskimos, who have many different words for snow, it is important to think about snow in different ways. That is not to suggest that cultures that have only one word for snow are incapable of thinking about different types of snow, merely that within those cultures, people simply do not have any reason to think about broad-based definitions of snow.

By allowing and even encouraging the development of language and new words to describe new ways of thinking, governments are fostering the development of peoples' minds. As Chinese increasingly make their marks in the world, technologies, scientific thought, and the arts will inevitably reflect a Chinese way of thinking. At a time when the Chinese are increasingly contributing to our world's culture, it is important to leave open the world of thinking to China.

Patrick Mattimore is a former AP psychology teacher and an adjunct instructor of law at Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing.