An interesting article in Economist on the 2 camps of view regarding the nature of the Chinese language.
Question : Will Chinese language become the global lingua franca like English?
I doubt so. Though it is in my interest to promote Mandarin, I do not see it replacing English as lingua franca. My thoughts:
i. The language itself (especially the written form) was mostly used by the educated and the scholars in the last few thousand years before it was simplified for common usage from 1917 onwards. Hence it carried a lot of baggage since the characters and words were used by these elites for their purposes, like composing poems, communicating between the elites and writing historical annals. So it is more like a flowery language that would be greatly appreciated in describing nature and people, but would be found wanting in this technology era where simple and direct usage is the norm. For example, in the programming language, it is easier to use English to program than Chinese (call pseudo-coding) as there is less ambiguity when writing codes.
ii. With English, you basically have an infinitive construction of sounds of words using the alphabet system. But Chinese is not so as it is limited by sound (about 400 x 4 tones) so it is very challenging for non-native speakers. In addition, you have to learn the written characters which is an additional task. So the underlying difficulty would render it impossible to be lingua franca.
iii. The world is becoming multi-polar. The dominance of English is the result of sole superpowers – England in 19th Century and US in 20th Century. For Chinese to become global lingua franca, US must decline and China is ripe to replace US. The geographical sizes of US and China are comparable but US has the advantage in the much smaller population, so it could attract migrants to boost economy if need be. China will take a long time to become a middle-class country due to its humongous population. In the end, these two would have to co-exist together to check and balance each other, just like the duopoly of Apple and Android Operating Systems.
As highlighted on my page, it is precisely the long transitioning of China that offers opportunities, especially to people from matured economies which have found out that their jobs are drying out.
What I foresee in the future is the evolving of Chinese more and more as a spoken language with a de-emphasis on written form to facilitate social interaction between Chinese and foreigners. The advances in technology allow for better translation for the written form, so perhaps the student can spend more time on listening and speaking. But for those who have a capacity to learn, it would be rewarding to learn more about the Chinese especially the written characters as it is an emotive language that would touch your heart. Below is the example of mandagrams, an attempt to introduce Chinese character to foreigner.