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
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
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
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.
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.