English's hold on Asians

January 24, 1997

REPORTS of the importance of English are commonplace. But the recent spate of news about English in Asia begs attention. In Hong Kong the University Grants Committee has proposed tougher English standards for students entering higher education. In Malaysia the education ministry is giving incentives to students to acquire fluency in English. And the Singapore government in the recent general elections strongly reaffirmed that English is the country's working language and is vital to social harmony. The response to this statement was positive.

In Thailand there have been calls for more funds to support good English teaching. And in China, English is taken so seriously now that two senior officials, who wanted an English qualification badly, were caught paying others to sit the examination for them. They were caught and have been duly punished for cheating.

Why has English excited so much interest? The popularity of the language in Asia has always ebbed and flowed. The politics have been controversial and sensitive. For example, politicians have rarely spoken in favour of English at a general election. Hence the strong statement from Singapore stressing the political and social value of English is unusual.

But the economics of language is a different story. What we have noted above is merely a small part of the response to the massive economic transformation in East and Southeast Asia that is leaving nothing untouched.

The economic value of English to Singapore and the major trading cities of the region is obvious. Economic value applies not only to English. News last year that thousands of children in Malaysia are registering in Chinese primary schools so that they can have an early start in learning that difficult language took most people by surprise.

This was a language that was associated with communism, communalism and chauvinism, three Cs that the Malaysian leaders were determined to erase. Now that Chinese can be linked with three new Cs, commerce, capitalism and consumerism, perceptions of the language have changed radically. But the universal key is still English.

English is the language of diplomacy among all the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and therefore, by extension, also the language of all the new organs that ASEAN has spawned to involve other Asian nations. It is, for most countries in Asia, still the most useful language of multinational and intraregional trade and travel.

It is also the basic language of science and technology in Asia and, as the most used language of electronic communication, has contributed extensively to the transmission of essential information among the best high-tech brains that Asia has produced. Almost all scientific research and major engineering projects need English, and the language gives access to the very best databases available. Other examples are easily found. It is globally acknowledged that English is the most versatile tool for knowledge communication that we have.

Perhaps the most telling is the report that there are now about 50 million Chinese earnestly studying the language for career improvement. If even half of them succeed, there will be another 25 million people who will be bilingual in the two languages most spoken in the world. The real question is one of quality. To continue with the example of China, students there have been working very hard to master English for nearly 20 years. Assuming some of them have been taught well enough to acquire great fluency, most have not had opportunities to use the language at work. This may be changing in the larger cities as more foreign firms and joint ventures are introduced in to the country. Should increasing numbers be able to retain effective use of the language, it may not be too far out to suggest that close to 1 per cent of the population may be described as bilingual in English and Chinese by the end of the century.

When I was in Hong Kong, my attention was drawn to this 1 per cent as already a likely figure of the people on the mainland who are bilingual in English and Chinese. If it is correct, there could be as many as 12 million of them, and that would be twice the total population of Hong Kong. The context was: for how much longer will the bilingual graduates of the universities of Hong Kong have a clear linguistic advantage over their future compatriots in China?

Assuming that they are all equally competent in Chinese (not many would make that assumption), the Hong Kong edge in English would remain only if not more than 5 per cent of the 12 million on the mainland, say half a million, are truly proficient in English. My advisers told me that the time was already near when 0.05 per cent of the population of China could achieve the quality of bilingualism that the best bilinguals in Hong Kong have attained. My colleagues were suitably impressed.

The judgement about quality, of course, remains subjective. In any case, other skills matter, different personal and social attributes may be required for specific kinds of employment, and the bilinguals in Hong Kong also have Cantonese, and that counts. Nevertheless, to stay competitive in Hong Kong, good English is basic, if not essential, and it will continue to be so well beyond 1997.

All the recent news about the value of English was further reinforced by two other stories. The English-language Jakarta Post has a daily circulation of 43,800, and two-thirds of its readership is Indonesian. Now two other English-language newspapers are entering the market, the Indonesia Times and the Indonesian Observer. This comment was made in connection with one of the launches: "The trend of globalisation would make the ability to read English increasingly important for Indonesia's emerging middle class".

So that's it? Does it all come down to class, that renowned English phenomenon? It does seem terribly simplistic, and even more so when applied to China. There, the story is that a foreign-based and independent English-language newspaper which could reach a predominantly Chinese readership is in the offing. As English usage spreads and the normalcy of an ubiquitous global middle class extends towards China, is this "the end of history" again?

Wang Gung Wu is chairman of the Institute of East Asian Political Economy at the National University of Singapore.

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