Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The invasion: colonial, neocolonial - or countercolonial?

While it was still cold and snowy in Japan I visited British Hills, a replica of a British village where people can study the English language and British culture. Its castle-like structures reminded me of the common idea that English is a kind of colonial invader.

The Far Eastern Economic Review has called English “Asia's premier language.” This may seem odd considering that in no Asian country except for Singapore could it be called the first language. Yet it is the main language in which Asians from different countries communicate with each other. There are important regional languages, such as Chinese and Arabic. But when Israelis talk to Turks, Cambodians to Thais or Japanese to Koreans, they probably use English. Moreover, the political and business elite in many Asian countries use English at home too. This is the case in India and the Philippines and very often in Malaysia and Pakistan too.

The spread of English is often traced back to political and military colonialism by Britain and later the USA. But promoting English was rarely part of British policy. Many colonial officers had an interest in Asian languages. Williams Jones, the first person to see a link between European and Indian languages, felt British officers needed to master local languages in order to maintain effective control. R.O Winstedt, Director of Education in Malaya, advised against teaching English to Malay children in case they deserted their villages for the towns: knowing English could mean knowing how to compete economically and politically with the British.

The Americans were later and more reluctant colonisers in Asia. But in contrast to the British, they promoted mass education – in English. By 1918, just 20 years after taking the Philippines from Spain, they had taught English to 7% of the population. By 1939, over a quarter of Filipinos knew the language.

Nevertheless, the biggest expansion of English in Asia took place after the end of formal colonialism, covering areas that were never occupied by Britain or America. Colonialism undoubtedly created conditions facilitating this expansion – e.g. by provoking Japanese nationalism, the Pacific War and the rise of American military power. But more important was the fact that English happened to be the language of the world’s most powerful country at a time when the need for a global lingua franca was becoming strongly felt. After the Pacific War, scientific, technological, economic and military information was being shared or traded as never before.

For some Asian linguists, such as University of Malaya's Asmah Haji Omar, English is not an invader but an invitee. She argues that Asians buy educational materials and cultural products freely and fairly from English-speaking countries when they need them. But others argue that linguistic imperialism has followed on from political imperialism: the spread of English is neither free nor fair but manipulated by English-speaking business and military groups. For Indian-born Vaidehi Ramanathan of the University of California, many of these elite groups are within Asia itself. Some researchers have suggested that English has sometimes played a countercolonial role: after all, Gandhi used the language brilliantly in his campaign to achieve independence for India.

Discussion about the spread of English in many ways parallels debates about economic globalisation:

Is it spontaneous or directed?

Do people have a choice?

And does it benefit those at the periphery as much as those at the centres of power?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Tokyo, Terengganu & Thimphu: 3 Asias, 3 Englishes

A Malaysian friend visited me in Tokyo recently. Walking to my local station we passed vending machines selling Boss Coffee and Royal Milk Tea. Next door, a dry cleaner's offered Service for Clean Life. A kindergarten called Children's Garden stood near the Watanabe Medical Clinic and shops with names like Cotswolds, Original Roast Beans and Babys Design. A convenience store told us that it was a Convenience Store, a post office announced it was a Post Office, and a large hoarding over the street informed us we were in a Shopping Street. “Well at least I should be able to get around using English,” my friend told me as he left to board his train and go sightseeing.

A famous artist from Terengganu, my friend was educated in Mandarin but regularly speaks Hakka, Cantonese and Hokkien as well as Malay - the majority language in his hometown. He gets embarrassed about his English, which he often makes up as he goes along by translating directly from Chinese. Yet he has little trouble conversing in it about art, politics or whatever else those around him are discussing. And like many Malaysians, he switches effortlessly among different languages, often mixing several within the same sentence.

A few years ago he and I travelled to Thimphu, the tiny capital of Bhutan, one of the world's most isolated and least developed nations. Buddhist monasteries dot the hills under the towering Himalayas, aged monks walk through the streets carrying prayer wheels, and nearly everyone wears traditional local clothing. But approach someone with a question and you invariably get a reply in flawless English. 40 years ago Bhutan decided the best tool for economic modernisation was an English-based education system. Now more than 80% of the children receive free education. At home they might speak Dzongkha, the national language, but at school they use English.

When I met my friend again in the evening I asked how he had got on. “OK lah. But so shock not many people speak English! Japan is the richest country in Asia, but much easier to find English in Bhutan. Or Terengganu. I can find some English words but what meaning?” He then showed me advertisements people had handed him throughout the day with phrases like Book off and Hair and make all over them. “Maybe it's a kind of...art?” In Asia, English can appear in the most unexpected places at the most unexpected times. But sometimes what appears to be English may not be English at all.