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Why we speak English and not Chinese? - Views on News from Equitymaster
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  • Aug 20, 2010

    Why we speak English and not Chinese?

    Why do we speak English and not Chinese? The short answer is because the British colonised much of the world for centuries. That helped spread the use of English in countries like India. The question then becomes, what made Britain and not some other country the dominant power for centuries? After all, a few centuries ago, China and India together accounted for more than half the world economy.

    The fire power of human civilization

    So why Britain? To answer this question, we must ask an even more basic question. Why did human beings emerge as the dominant species? For two reasons - the evolution of their bodies (hardware) and the application of their minds (software). Among the most important physical changes in early humans was when they stood up on two feet instead of using all four limbs. That freed their hands and expanded their vision. Among the most important behavioral changes was the making of tools. So, tool making was the first real catalyst for human dominance.

    Human beings began by making basic tools using stones. But soon they moved on to metals. In order to shape metals, humans had to master the use of fire. The earliest source of fuel was wood. Fires fuelled by wood reach temperatures of about 700 degrees Celsius. To cross the 1000 degree Celsius mark, charcoal was used instead of wood. Charcoal is derived by burning wood under controlled conditions. The carbon content is higher in charcoal. And charcoal remained the fuel for choice for centuries.

    Eventually, the demand for charcoal far exceeded the availability of wood coming out of forests. This was perhaps the first ever energy crisis the world had known. It led to the search of a better source of carbon. Coal. The country which would excel at coal mining was destined to become the pre-eminent world power.

    When preparation meets opportunity

    Unfortunately mother nature is fickle in distributing coal reserves. Coal was abundant in a tiny North European island nation - Britain. When the British started mining their abundant coal reserves, they very quickly hit a problem. The mines would flood as soon as they reached the depth of the water table. The water could not be pumped out manually. The British applied their minds and the steam engine was invented. It was designed specifically to pump out water but found many uses. Including that of the locomotive. This unleashed the industrial revolution.

    There was another country with abundant known coal reserves. China. But it was located in the heartland, away from the main markets - the cities on the Chinese coast. Hence, it had to be transported hundreds of kilometers. The yellow river, which connected the coal to the cities, was difficult to navigate. Carrying the coal by land was prohibitively expensive. Unfortunately, the Chinese never got around to solving this problem. They were too obsessed with building their empire.

    History repeats itself

    The lesson in all this is clear. Britain attained world dominance because it was blessed with critical resources (coal) and developed the most relevant technology (steam engine). China was equally blessed with resources but was found lacking innovation. Come to think of it, the US took over the mantle of superpower from Britain for similar reasons. The next major superpower will need both the resources and the drive to apply itself. In this digital age, the most critical resource could well be skilled human resources. And India may well turn out to be lucky on that count. The question is - as a nation, do we have the drive to apply ourselves?



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    6 Responses to "Why we speak English and not Chinese?"


    Aug 22, 2010

    Really a thought provoking article!. India's main concern should
    be to deal with corrupt politicians and if they can innovate some
    means of identifying erring politicians, our dominance will be
    complete in all respects. We need to educate people before we
    commence such exercise. MPs demanding more pay (for polluting the
    nation and making money on every count) should be asked to resign
    and pave the way for young politicians to lead the nation.



    Aug 22, 2010

    Until unless a feeling of nationalism is aroused in the youth of India we can not use the demographic dividend rightly. People think, that we are the superpowers for IT sector, But are we really? We are merely producing the goods and services in IT sector for the capitalist economies of the world. Of course,I dont deny with the fact that it contributes to our GDP but how far? If the same thing was innovated by the Indians in the India (Which in turn was produced by and Indian in US) have'nt we encashed on that in more pronounced way? Point rightly stated that until unless we have a right blend of aptitude to drive the human skill we can not reach to the brim of becoming the superpower.


    Ninad Dhure

    Aug 21, 2010

    Interesting , thoughtful analysis.



    Aug 21, 2010

    Yes..India will become very strong...the only hurdle i see is quality of our current political leadership (breding corruption at all levels and activities)..our IT grew mainly because the politicians and Govt machinery were not in the picture till it reached a certain mass...


    Akash Sethia

    Aug 20, 2010

    Excellent analysis. Very impressive indeed.

    Indeed Indian manpower is its biggest strength - will it translate into Indian leadership - lets hope.


    Anand Kumar

    Aug 20, 2010

    This is a very interesting Article. I never knew the reasons behind the Britain's dominance.

    Looking for more such Articles.

    Equitymaster requests your view! Post a comment on "Why we speak English and not Chinese?". Click here!

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