English rules the waves

June 7, 1996

Thirty years ago, it would have been difficult to travel around Western Europe speaking only English. This is not true today. In fact, the standard of English among the educated in some of these countries is so good that it can match that of the best-educated native speakers.

Two recent trips, to Norway and to the Netherlands, confirmed this. I was frankly amazed at the quality of the English spoken by their university students. There is, however, no suggestion that this is a threat to the national languages of the two countries. So I am puzzled when language nationalists, notably in France, are defensive. With the European Union gaining acceptance, ever more Europeans have more than one second language and many have a few others in addition. The threat to national languages from the greater use of English must be more imaginary than real.

In Asia, the willingness to learn European languages during the period of European supremacy gathered momentum during the early 20th century.

When western political and military power retreated in the 1950s, that willingness was curtailed for a while and there was greater stress on the use and development of national languages.

Today, economic growth and national confidence have led to new attitudes towards the language of economic and technological potency.

Invariably, the language preferred has become English, partly because of the past extent of the British Empire in Asia, but also because the successor to the British in global influence, the United States, also uses English. In all areas of science and economics, no other language now can be as useful. All the same, serious questions remain.

With the rapid economic development of Asia, are there enough people who have mastered English for national needs? Should there not be an alternative to English, or even third language competence, instead of total dependence on English for all cross-national transactions? Is there not room for an Asian language like Japanese, Chinese, or Malay (Bahasa Indonesia or Bahasa Malaysia), perhaps as the common third language?

In recent months, Malaysia has encouraged students to acquire higher standards of English and opened up international education opportunities on its own soil in an unprecedented way.

In China, the preferred second language is English, but more students are learning Japanese and there is once again encouragement to learn a long-neglected language - Russian!

In Vietnam, the French hope to regain their first foreign language status, and some Vietnamese leaders who had struggled with Russian or Chinese, and now face the pressures of English, are said to feel more comfortable with the idea of returning to the use of French.

It is well-known that, in commercial cities like Bombay, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Shanghai, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and the city-state of Singapore, the demand for professionals with higher and yet higher standards of English is growing. Expatriates can be found to fill various gaps to some extent, but there is concern at the shortage of own-nationals to control this key instrument of international discourse.

In the hallways of chambers of commerce in every city, there is talk of the need for a whole army of English teachers to lift the standards in order to enable the businesses to perform more efficiently and extensively.

There are interesting differences in the three regions of South, Southeast and East Asia. For South Asia, English is widely used, the quality of its English is high and there is no challenger. Also, there is no talk of threats to the various languages of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka.

In East Asia, English still has to compete with the national languages in areas like business and technology. And both the Japanese and the Chinese governments are seeking to make their languages invaluable for the region.

Eventually, they hope that their respective languages will become widely accepted, especially in Southeast Asia.

There is no region in the world more complicated than Southeast Asia where religions, cultures and types of polities are concerned.

A very practical solution to its linguistic variety has been for the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean, with its seven, and eventually ten, members) to use English for all official regional business.

There is, therefore, no lack of incentives for everyone to learn English. On the contrary, in those places where English is most used, the perception is that English has gained at the expense of the native languages.

This has not, however, led to hysterical calls to curb the use of English as had happened at an earlier phase of nationalism.

The rational response has been to improve the quality of all language teaching and, as the standards of education rise, to encourage the learning of other foreign languages, including Asian ones like Japanese, Chinese and the two forms of Malay.

It is too early to predict the consequences of such developments. The experience of Europe should be relevant. As each nationalism becomes self-confident, the use of a common foreign language as a lingua franca becomes acceptable, and the learning of other foreign languages and cultures is regarded as normal.

This is specially true in areas of business and information technology, but increasingly, areas of ideas, institutions, culture and the arts will open up as possible components of a shared regional heritage.

The gradual but steady growth of a common consciousness among the Southeast Asian countries has set a valuable example for the rest of Asia.

The role of an international English for advanced discourse could achieve, despite initial resistance, what it has done for Europe.

In addition, it could also be a powerful catalyst to enable native languages to develop modern usages and thus seek new cultural expressions. Such a phenomenon, the beginnings of which are already visible, would deserve careful and sustained monitoring for years to come.

Wang Gungwu is chairman of the Institute of East Asian Political Economy at the National University of Singapore and former vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong.

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