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Philip Bowring: In search of an Asian lingua franca
Philip Bowring 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.
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