In search of an Asian lingua franca

Philip Bowring- The International Herald Tribune

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
SATURDAY, MAY 28, 2005
SINGAPORE Is use of the English language at its high-water mark? One might
not think so in Asia. Millions of Chinese are learning it, thousands of
already fluent Indians are changing their accents to meet the demands of call
centers. Almost everywhere in Asia English is the second language, and it is
in everyday use in India, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia.
But there are hints that things are changing, that while English will surely
remain the global lingua franca for the foreseeable future, its position may
be undermined by different languages.
Given the current fascination with all things Chinese, its language naturally
comes to mind as possible substitute for English when Asians are dealing with
each other.
A recent survey in British Hong Kong revealed a declining number of people
comfortable with conversing in English. In Korea, there has been a huge
increase in numbers learning Chinese. Ditto, to a lesser extent, in Japan.
Japanese and Korean may be conceptually different, but these nations share
much cultural history and still use some Chinese characters as well as local
alphabetic scripts.
In Thailand, with its large and growing population of people of Chinese
origin there is a revival of interest in Chinese. Chinese is also enjoying
some revival in today’s more liberal Indonesia. And even in Malaysia, where
the ethnic and linguistic divides are deep and define the politics of the
nation, the government recently encouraged Malays to study Chinese.
In addition to China’s size, the huge overseas Chinese network in east Asia
provides, in theory, a basis for Chinese to be the lingua franca.
But things are not so simple. China’s ideographic writing is hard enough for
the Chinese, let alone for others. Even countries most subject to past
Chinese cultural influence (Korea, Vietnam, Japan) have largely or completely
replaced it with alphabetic scripts. Historically the scripts of Southeast
Asia, before the arrival of Arabic and then Roman scripts, were all of Indian
derivation, as is still the case in Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.
Singapore, which is predominantly Chinese, lies at the heart of the language
issue. In Singapore everyone learns English in school and each racial group –
Chinese, Malay, Tamil – must study its own language.
This month saw the relaunch of an official “Speak Good English” campaign to
counteract the spread of “Singlish,” a local patois including many Hokkien
and Malay words and constructions.
But do not assume Chinese is faring better than English. Since the late
1970s, Singaporean Chinese have been required to learn Mandarin and
encouraged to use it at home in place of the dialects which used to divide
them.
However, the burden of learning written Mandarin as well as English has been
too great for many, forcing the government to ease the syllabus.
According to critics, the replacement of dialects with standard Mandarin has
been a setback for Chinese culture which had been transmitted through dialect
and clan traditions and associations. And it has cut the younger generation
off from many Southeast Asian Chinese who speak dialect but little Mandarin.
Finally, the two-language system has meant that most Singaporeans had a
minimal knowledge of Malay – which is, technically, the national language of
Singapore as well as the common language of Indonesia and Malaysia.
This came home to Singapore when it was noted how few of its tsunami relief
mission dispatched to Aceh could communicate in Malay.
After years of preferring to associate with English as the global language or
Chinese as the ethnic root, Singapore may be reawakening to Malay which,
before English, was the lingua franca of Southeast Asia.
It is now being made easier for Singapore’s non-Malays to add it their school
curriculum. Malay is not a tonal language (unlike Chinese); it is now written
in Roman script, and it has an uncomplicated grammar. Many see it as a
natural regional common language.
Even Singapore’s fourth language, Tamil, may have a future. Ethnicity draws
the nation to China but geography and perhaps economics may see closer future
links with south India, with Chennai and Bangalore.
For now, English will be the link between south and Southeast Asia but Tamil
is the main Indian language of Singapore and Malaysia as well as south India.
Thus, while one can foresee a very gradual decline of English in Asia, the
succession is unlikely to be simple.
SINGAPORE Is use of the English language at its high-water mark? One might
not think so in Asia. Millions of Chinese are learning it, thousands of
already fluent Indians are changing their accents to meet the demands of call
centers. Almost everywhere in Asia English is the second language, and it is
in everyday use in India, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia.
But there are hints that things are changing, that while English will surely
remain the global lingua franca for the foreseeable future, its position may
be undermined by different languages.
Given the current fascination with all things Chinese, its language naturally
comes to mind as possible substitute for English when Asians are dealing with
each other.
A recent survey in British Hong Kong revealed a declining number of people
comfortable with conversing in English. In Korea, there has been a huge
increase in numbers learning Chinese. Ditto, to a lesser extent, in Japan.
Japanese and Korean may be conceptually different, but these nations share
much cultural history and still use some Chinese characters as well as local
alphabetic scripts.
In Thailand, with its large and growing population of people of Chinese
origin there is a revival of interest in Chinese. Chinese is also enjoying
some revival in today’s more liberal Indonesia. And even in Malaysia, where
the ethnic and linguistic divides are deep and define the politics of the
nation, the government recently encouraged Malays to study Chinese.
In addition to China’s size, the huge overseas Chinese network in east Asia
provides, in theory, a basis for Chinese to be the lingua franca.
But things are not so simple. China’s ideographic writing is hard enough for
the Chinese, let alone for others. Even countries most subject to past
Chinese cultural influence (Korea, Vietnam, Japan) have largely or completely
replaced it with alphabetic scripts. Historically the scripts of Southeast
Asia, before the arrival of Arabic and then Roman scripts, were all of Indian
derivation, as is still the case in Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.
Singapore, which is predominantly Chinese, lies at the heart of the language
issue. In Singapore everyone learns English in school and each racial group –
Chinese, Malay, Tamil – must study its own language.
This month saw the relaunch of an official “Speak Good English” campaign to
counteract the spread of “Singlish,” a local patois including many Hokkien
and Malay words and constructions.
But do not assume Chinese is faring better than English. Since the late
1970s, Singaporean Chinese have been required to learn Mandarin and
encouraged to use it at home in place of the dialects which used to divide
them.
However, the burden of learning written Mandarin as well as English has been
too great for many, forcing the government to ease the syllabus.
According to critics, the replacement of dialects with standard Mandarin has
been a setback for Chinese culture which had been transmitted through dialect
and clan traditions and associations. And it has cut the younger generation
off from many Southeast Asian Chinese who speak dialect but little Mandarin.
Finally, the two-language system has meant that most Singaporeans had a
minimal knowledge of Malay – which is, technically, the national language of
Singapore as well as the common language of Indonesia and Malaysia.
This came home to Singapore when it was noted how few of its tsunami relief
mission dispatched to Aceh could communicate in Malay.
After years of preferring to associate with English as the global language or
Chinese as the ethnic root, Singapore may be reawakening to Malay which,
before English, was the lingua franca of Southeast Asia.
It is now being made easier for Singapore’s non-Malays to add it their school
curriculum. Malay is not a tonal language (unlike Chinese); it is now written
in Roman script, and it has an uncomplicated grammar. Many see it as a
natural regional common language.
Even Singapore’s fourth language, Tamil, may have a future. Ethnicity draws
the nation to China but geography and perhaps economics may see closer future
links with south India, with Chennai and Bangalore.
For now, English will be the link between south and Southeast Asia but Tamil
is the main Indian language of Singapore and Malaysia as well as south India.
Thus, while one can foresee a very gradual decline of English in Asia, the
succession is unlikely to be simple.


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