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?