Wednesday, June 15, 2016

English literature and literature in English

The 2016 Man Booker International Prize has been won by South Korea's Han Kang for The Vegetarian (Chae Sik Ju Ui Ja), a book about a women who gives up eating meat as a reaction against human brutality. The prize, an off-shoot of the Man Booker prize for English literature, is awarded to writers whose work is available in English, even if in translation, and Han will share £50,000 with her translator, Deborah Smith. Smith did not even begin learning Korean until 2010 and chose it mainly because so few people knew it in her home country of Britain.

The award made me think about the importance of literature and its relationship to the spread of English. We live in an age when the role of literature in education is declining. Last year Japan’s Education Minister announced plans to close many humanities (as well as social science) departments so that universities can focus on “areas that better meet society’s needs”. When this was reported in UK-based Times Higher Education many commenters agreed, arguing that subjects dealing with feelings and impressions are not as useful as those relying on statistics and scientific methods. Yet even people who doubted the value of humanities felt linguistics and language teaching were important as they foster useful skills and involve some scientific research.

I think this is largely how I used to think too. As a child I was not much interested in literature, preferring to borrow encyclopedias and science books from the library rather than novels. I never learnt to recite long passages of poetry in the way that my parents and grandparents did. I did study literature at school, but I left English literature behind quite early and concentrated on languages like French, Spanish and German. I suppose I thought reading novels in these would help me understand and use the languages better.

Nowadays, however, I do think literature is important. We cannot personally experience everything that humans experience, nor would we want to; but through literature we can gain a better understanding of human behaviour. I believe literature can help lawyers understand why people commit crimes. I think it can help us work out how to deal with people at work and in daily life. Above all it helps us understand ourselves better. It is precisely because literature cannot be reduced to numbers that it forces us to learn how to explain ideas and construct arguments – something that scientists are often not very good at.

I was therefore interested to read three or four years ago that Muhyiddin Yassin, then Malaysia’s Minister of Education, planned to reemphasis English literature in schools. However, his reason was not to help students express themselves, but to raise English language skills. Ten years earlier, then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had proposed reintroducing English literature for the same reason, but in the end decided to improve English by having maths and science taught in it. Four years ago, Chua Soi Lek, head of a Malaysian political party, called for English literature classes to be compulsory as poor English was holding many students back in maths and science.

In former colonies like Malaysia and India English language teaching is controversial: few deny that it is useful, but it remains associated with colonial practices and ideas, and extending its use reinforces the economic and social advantages of the rich. The teaching of English literature is even more controversial. It still tends to focus on writers from Britain and America, many of them from the colonial period. Recalling his friend’s claim that “English is not a language in India, but a class”, Indian novelist Aatish Taseer argues in The New York Times (2015.3.19) that the language has ruined Indian literature: the many Indians who win prizes for their English novels depend on popularity from overseas rather than at home, and those Indians who write in local languages are not taken seriously. Taseer himself writes in English because his parents favoured it over Hindi.

So does literature in general, and English literature in particular, have a useful role in Asian countries today? Whenever I am in Malaysia I visit Silverfish, a thriving independent bookshop, and try to chat with its interesting owner, Raman. An engineer by training, and speaking Malay and perhaps several other languages as well as English, he clearly has no doubt about the value of English literature – indeed the majority of the books on his shelves are in English and most are literary. But he disagrees not only with those who think English literature is primarily a tool for language learning, but also with those who think it is about English speaking countries.

According to Raman, literature is about ideas, not language. And English literature is not just the writings of Britons and Americans: attacking Malaysians’ fixation on Anglophone culture on the bookshops’s blog, he claims “England has almost nothing to contribute to the world any more” while even the Americans “are not the force they were ”. Including all those brilliant Indian writers is still not enough. Reading English literature means reading anything available in English, including Chinese and Japanese novels in translation. The former Vice Chancellor of the University of Malaya, Professor Ungku Aziz appears to agree. Despite being born in London to a British mother he calls on universities to teach world literature.

Which brings us back to the vital importance of translators like Deborah Smith. In our short lifetimes we cannot learn enough languages to read all the world’s great books in their original versions, but we can read them in translation. Indeed I’m sure that a good English translation of a Japanese novel brings me closer to the author’s ideas than reading it in Japanese, despite years of using the language. So it is quite right that there are literary prizes for translators, as well as authors. But as translation takes time and money, many people will not find books in their first language and may have to rely on a translation into a second language, with English the most likely but Chinese, Japanese and Spanish also widely available.

So there may be one point that everyone can agree with here: a language such as English is undoubtedly a useful tool, whether it is for discovering science or literary ideas worldwide. I would go further and suggest that to have a really good knowledge of English (or any other second language), discussing literature is excellent training. Doing so does not necessarily mean we have to discuss the ideas of Britons and Americans.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The roads of Mandalay

I recently visited the Union of Myanmar for the first time since the 1990s. Not surprisingly, the quiet streets I wandered through 20 years ago now teem with cars. Poster announcements for Buddhist talks compete for space with billboards advertising imported products.

More foreign tourists are visiting and more hotels being built for them. And as the military government gradually hands over power to democratically elected political parties, new magazines are appearing on newsstands, some of them in English. Yet there doesn’t seem to have been a big increase in the number of people speaking it.

On my previous visits I found that old people were the most likely to speak English as the language was used in schools until 1961. That generation is now dying off. I joined a crowd to watch a game of takraw and many wanted to talk to me, but I don’t speak Myanmar and very few could speak more than a few words of English. English was reintroduced as a compulsory subject in schools in the 1980s and is now the main medium of higher education. So if it is not spoken much I assume that courses that are supposed to be taught in English are actually taught in the Myanmar language.

According to a survey by Dr Thant Sin Aye, the actual practice of most teachers is indeed to use Myanmar, even though the policy at the Institute of Medicine, the Universities of Computer Studies and Arts and Science, and the National Maritime College, is to use English. This makes sense: a study in the Shan State by Nang Moe Kandar Kyi found that 90% of people there could understand Myanmar, even though it was the first language of only 20%. So we have to ask why so many teaching materials are in English.

In fact the use of English texts in higher education is common in many Asian countries, even where students struggle to understand them. In India, the Philippines and increasingly in Malaysia, English dominates higher education. Its use has also grown in countries where it was traditionally not used much as a teaching medium, such as Thailand and Vietnam. One reason is that so much scientific and technical knowledge is published in English only. Translating it would require a great deal of time and money.

However, the Asian countries that use their own national languages throughout higher education tend to be the more economically advanced ones, such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Is it economic advancement that enables them to do so? Or is it by using their own languages at high levels that they have become advanced?

At the moment, the increased importance of English in Myanmar – a language once despised by the military government as a relic of British colonialism – seems to be more a matter of prestige and fashion than substance. It is seen as a symbol of development and modernity. But few people use it effectively in their jobs and lives.

One area where English study does seem to be advancing is one of the most traditional: the Buddhist religion. Many monks are keen to study English, as well as Pali or Sanskrit, in order to continue their religious studies in neighbouring countries like India.

Meanwhile the Myanmar language is rapidly changing and developing in response to recently-introduced communication tools such as email and Facebook as the nation emerges from international and isolation.

While Myanmar is the most widely spoken language, there are some 135 languages in the country, with around half of the population having another first language, such as Karen or Shan. Local languages are especially important in areas far from the political centre, which have for decades been controlled by military groups beyond the reach of the national government. As part of a peace-building process with these groups, a new educational policy was developed between 2013 and 2014 to support local languages so that they become the main MOIs (media of instruction) for younger children.

Studies elsewhere show that when communities are able to use their own languages there is a better chance for developing peaceful relations with other communities. Producing materials in all these languages will not be easy, however. Although some of them were once used in schools, the textbooks that survive are too old to be recycled. Many of the languages do not yet have a written form. Even when they do, there may be disagreement over which alphabet and which spelling system is best.

While supporting local languages, the government also expects children to know Myanmar and English. As usual this means that the people furthest from the centres of economic and political power are the ones who need to learn the largest number of languages.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Indian Teachers for Malaysia

The Malaysian government recently announced that it will hire teachers from India to teach English.

Language is a highly politicised issue in Malaysia, where around 60% speak some variety of Malay as their home language and others speak Chinese, Indian or Bornean languages, with English used widely in business and also in wealthier homes.

English standards are generally thought to have fallen over the last 30 years. But whenever the government introduces policies to raise standards, some people complain that they should promote Malay instead. After all, it is the national language, even though science, medicine, law and other competitive subjects in public universities are mostly taught in English, and private universities teach nearly everything in it.

After gaining independence from Britain in 1957, Malaya (which became Malaysia in 1963 after incorporating the states of northern Borneo, and also Singapore for two years) had English-, Malay-, Mandarin- and Tamil-medium elementary schools, with English used as the main language for secondary schools. But from the 1970s Malay was phased in as the medium of instruction in national schools (although Chinese and Tamil schools were still allowed as ‘national-type’ schools) and in all secondary schools. English-medium schools were abolished. As a result, the level of Malay rose. Nowadays almost everyone except for some older Chinese- and Tamil-speakers can communicate in it.

On the other hand, levels of English started to go down. And so in 2003 the government introduced the PPSMI (Science and Maths in English) programme. These two subjects (alongside English language itself) were taught in English, which had a strong influence on education as they were generally considered to attract the best students.

However, PPSMI increased the gap between richer people living in cities, where many speak English in daily life, and poorer people living in rural areas. Rural pupils already found it hard to compete with city pupils. It became harder still for them when important subjects were taught in English. So in 2012 the government decided to phase out PPSMI. Supporters of Malay welcomed this. But supporters of English opposed it. In 2012 it was reported that two thirds of pupils had failed to achieve basic proficiency in English. And two thirds of English teachers themselves were reported to have failed an English proficiency test.

The government has always had difficulty finding the right balance between Malay and English. English continues to be a compulsory subject in schools, and from 2012 Malaysia started importing English Teaching Assistants from the U.S.A, but some people complained that they were too young and inexperienced. Older Malaysians often speak better English than younger ones as it was the official language when they were at school, so it was suggested that they should be hired to teach instead of Americans.

In contrast the Indian teachers targeted by the government are experienced ones. Some people who support the plan to recruit them recognise the progress that India has made in international business and science and assume that one of the reasons for this is high proficiency in English. But others doubt that levels of English in India are higher than in Malaysia. Some make jokes about children learning to speak with an Indian accent, presumably because they think this is not as good as a Malaysian or British accent.

Many Malaysians believe that their country used to have one of the most successful economies in Asia but fear that, having been overtaken by Singapore long ago, they are likely also to be overtaken by Indonesia, the Philippines and India in the future. And some of them think that declining English is the reason. But in practice it is difficult to measure the levels of English across a whole country, and even more difficult to link English standards to economic standards.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Hong Kong to Guangzhou

I’m just back from a trip to Hong Kong and China. I visit both places every couple of years or so but this was the first time in many years I travelled overland from one to the other. Taking the train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou was my first introduction to China back in the 1980s. At that time Hong Kong was busy, bustling, dynamic, efficient and fascinating, if a little cold-hearted. It still has the world’s most spectacular skyline.
But other Asian cities like Tokyo, Seoul and Singapore are perhaps just as busy, and in some ways their infrastructure is more modern. On the other hand Hong Kong seems more humane these days, with many citizens concerned about justice, democracy and ecology, not just about making money.

As for Guangzhou, arriving there in the 1980s was like going back in time, its old-fashioned shops and buildings somehow peaceful, despite the crowds, its population moving around by bicycle or very old, slow buses.

Nowadays it is a modern metropolis with an extensive underground railway. The skyline seen from a trip on the river was different even from the last river trip I took there just four years ago.

Every time I go to China I am struck by the increasing numbers of people who speak English, especially those who do so extremely well. I was attending an international conference so it was not so surprising to find many presentations by Chinese academics in excellent English, some of them not even needing to refer to their notes.

But I also found more and more people in railways stations and shops able to speak English quite fluently.

On the fast modern train back to Shenzhen – a huge, Mandarin-speaking city on the border with Hong Kong that was a Cantonese-speaking village in the 1980s – I was having difficulty conversing with the passenger next to me in Mandarin and a young student opposite us translated without any effort whatsoever. Of course Guangzhou is not typical of China as a whole, but while smaller towns may be different, according to my experience this growth in English is certainly to be found in other large cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

In contrast, the use of English doesn’t seem to have changed much in Hong Kong. Visually it looks like a bilingual city, with signage, public notices and transport information in Chinese and English. And there has always been an elite for whom English is a first language. But the majority of Hong Kong’s population get by very well in Cantonese only, and if they need another language it is more likely to be Mandarin than English nowadays. If you want Chinese food - and there is a lot of it - you are unlikely to find an English menu except in restaurants frequented by tourists.

The growth of English in China and its apparent stagnation in Hong Kong provide evidence that political colonisation does not necessarily lead to language colonisation. As in neighbouring Macao, where very few people ever spoke the language of their Portuguese colonisers, few people in Hong Kong needed English in order to prosper economically or culturally under the British authorities. Even though English has long been a compulsory subject at school, many of the people who read it well enough are not at all confident in speaking. Personally, I found it much easier to understand the ticket seller's English explanations at Guangzhou East Railway Station than those of her counterpart at Hong Kong's Hong Hom Station.

In fact at the conference I attended there was a presentation about Hong Kong doctors who have to give evidence in court. The Hong Kong legal system operates in both Cantonese and English and witnesses are asked to choose which they prefer. Many expert witnesses such as doctors and scientists choose to speak in English as this is the language they did their medical training in. But while they may be able to read complex medical English texts, many of them have difficulty understanding quite basic spoken English when asked questions by lawyers.

It will probably be many years before a higher percentage of Mainland Chinese than Hong Kong Chinese speak English, but it seems likely to happen sooner or later.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Laos and LOTE

Although the expansion of English is not inevitable and may even be slowing down (see entry for July 2, 2010), over the last two or three decades it has spread to the extent that many educational systems divide foreign language instruction into two categories: English; and Languages Other Than English (LOTE).

I was reminded of this on a recent visit to a university in Laos. The first time I went to that country was as a backpacker in 1990, when tourists were rare. During the visit I went down the Mekong to Savannakhet. It was a long, slow trip and the small boat was crowded, so I spent a lot of time up on deck to get fresh air. I think my two friends and myself were the only foreign passengers and when we were together below no one approached us. I suppose they were shy.

But when I was alone up on deck several people did come to speak to me. First, a guy started talking to me in fluent German. I was still young enough to remember the German I'd learnt at school and heard all about the years he had spent studying engineering in Dresden. Then two women approached me in Russian. Having studied it before visiting the Soviet Union a few years before I was able to follow much of what they told me about being medical students in Moscow. Later, someone chatted to me in Czech. Although my Czech was limited to a few months of evening classes I was surprised how much I was able to understand about his job at laboratory in Prague. And then someone addressed me in Hungarian and I reached my limit! But fortunately the guy who had been in East Germany translated for us.

This experience intrigued me. Far from any large cities, the passengers on this small boat looked to me like they had little international experience. No one seemed to speak English, although a few older people had some French. Yet quite a number had studied or lived overseas and languages like German, Czech and Hungarian were international languages for them. They had studied them in order to pursue overseas studies or overseas work unavailable in their poor, thinly populated homeland. It reminded me that it is often the poor, not the rich, who are the most ‘international’ as they are forced to cross borders for their livelihood, learning new languages on the way.

I had similar experiences in other parts of Southeast Asia. In those days socialist countries like Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam had close economic and political links with the Eastern Bloc, so eastern European languages, especially Russian, were important to them.

Laotions still go overseas to study and work. Some still go to Russia, and there seems to be renewed interest in France, the former colonial power. But far more go to America, Australia or the UK, and interest in English is much higher than in any other language. Many students who go to countries like Germany or Holland learn English rather than German or Dutch as they can study in it there and may be able to use it elsewhere too. Apart from Thai, which is close enough to Lao for people to understand without formal study, Chinese is the next most important language in Laos nowadays, but it can still be categorised as one of those LOTE.

The apparent decline of LOTE as international languages in Asia leaves me with mixed feelings. It’s sad that the variety of languages and cultural experiences Laotians used to get is narrowing to English-speaking cultures. On the other hand, being able to study in a variety of countries using English, rather than having to spend years learning other languages before starting to study what they want, lowers the burden for many people.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Indian literacy and the renewed importance of vernaculars

For this entry I simply want to summarise and comment on an article by Samanth Subraiman for the New York Review of Books* earlier this month. It discusses the recent victory of Narendra Modi in the Indian elections and suggests that the country’s obsession with English may be weakening.

At independence in 1947, 1500 languages were spoken in India and a national language was needed to unite the new country. The first prime minister, Jwarharlal Nehru, had suggested Hindi, which was widely understood by both Hindus and Muslims in the north of the country. But many people in the south resisted Hindi because it is not related to most of the languages spoken there, such as Tamil and Kannada. The other choice was English, introduced by the British and spoken proficiently by a small but successful minority of people like Nehru himself, who was educated in the UK, and Gandhi, who had been a barrister. As well as linking the north and south, English offered a poor country access to advanced technology and information.

Over the last 60 years, there have been many attempts to promote Hindi, and also regional languages. But all this time English has continued as the language of the elite. It has been assumed that most people who are literate and economically successful know English. The country’s recent economic growth and its success in producing software engineers and running call centres have been closely connected to the abilities of the English-speaking elite.

According to Subraiman, the election of Modi suggests a change of direction. He is not from a wealthy background and had to work his way through university. Although he does speak English, he is much more comfortable in Hindi or his native Gujerati. Meanwhile India’s economic growth has helped to increase literacy. Only half the population could read and write in 1981. By 2001 this was up to 65% and now it is over 73%. This means that many more people in small towns and rural areas can read, and most of them prefer to do so in Hindi or in local languages. So there has been a huge growth in non-English newspapers. Their quality is getting better and they are writing about international issues and business and technology, not just local stories.

Subraiman is not saying that English is no longer important, but that to be successful in India you do not necessarily have to know English any more.

At first the article made me think of China. China’s economy has grown so fast and its population is so large that, like America, it can now maintain a strong economy even when there are economic problems in the rest of the world. And although millions of Chinese are learning English, I don’t think they need to know the language in order to become rich and successful. Could India be going in the same direction?

The article also made me wonder about other parts of Asia. I don’t think Malaysia or the Philippines are going to reject English in the near future. However, they may begin to think of it more as a foreign language and as a useful tool for international business, rather than as the main language of their own elites and the only path to success in their own countries.


Friday, May 2, 2014

Chinese teachers for Britain

The British Education Minister recently announced plans to spend £11 million to bring maths teachers over from China to teach in UK schools. She hopes that the Chinese, who will be recruited among English-speaking schoolteachers in Shanghai, will be able to stop the decline in maths skills among British children.

According to the last survey by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2010, children in the Shanghai region of China ranked highest in the world for maths, and also topped the list for science and reading. British kids have fallen to 28 (out of 65 countries) in maths and 25th in reading, although they do better at science, coming 16th. Five Asian countries or regions (Shanghai, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan) were in the top ten countries overall, with Finland coming 3rd, Canada 6th and New Zealand 10th.

The plan to employ Chinese teachers has brought a mixed response in Britain. One or two people have questioned whether the teachers will speak good enough English to teach in Britain. But far more people worry that the teachers will not be able to pass on their skills simply because British children are not as well disciplined as Chinese youngsters and will not listen to what their teachers tell them. Many British people feel that the decline in maths and reading skills is a sign of the general decline in the education system because of teachers not being strict enough.

However, some Britons have also questioned whether Chinese education is as good as it is generally considered to be. For one thing, the PISA survey concentrates on Shanghai, not on the whole of China. China’s largest city is its wealthiest too, and its best educated and most competitive. Further, more than half of Shanghai's children come from poorer migrant families and do not participate in the PISA survey. Another criticism is that Chinese education is based on memorisation rather than analysis and creativity, which means that students get good results in exams but may not be so good at solving real problems when they start to work. On the other hand, many people point out that traditional discipline and emphasis on memorisation and exams were exactly the kind of educational methods that used to be employed in British schools – when standards are assumed to have been higher.

The report reminded me of a plan, a few years ago, for American state schools to teach children Mandarin so that the US would be more competitive. Critics of the plan said it would be a waste of money as it was unlikely many Americans would learn to speak Mandarin as well as the Chinese were learning to speak English. They felt it would be better to spend the money on improving maths skills.

Interestingly, at a time when more westerners are conscious of a decline in local school performance in comparison with China, many Chinese are beginning to question their own education system and comparing it unfavourably with western models. In an article in The Observer two months ago ("Chinese schooling wins praise - but not from nation's parents or educators"), one Beijing mother said she was envious of British schoolchildren who were taught to discover things on their own rather than simply be coached for exams. Lao Kaishing, a professor at Beijing Normal University, said Chinese schools had limited resources and put them all into improving children's exam scores rather than into raising their problem-solving abilities or interpersonal skills.

I cannot help wondering whether the way language is taught is the key to the differences between Chinese and British education. UK schoolkids start writing stories and essays when very young. They make a lot of spelling mistakes - and continue to do so even when older - but they become pretty good at expressing themselves. Chinese kids, needing to learn thousands of characters, have less time for free expression because of all the rote learning they have to do.

Anyway, it seems to me that each culture could learn from the other when it comes to education, so interest in how things are done elsewhere can only be a good thing.