Monday, May 25, 2009

English in Asian languages

Many Asian languages contain a lot of words that originated in English. We can learn something about social and technological trends from the kinds of words that are most commonly borrowed. We can also learn something about Asian languages by looking at how the pronunciation, form and meaning of the words change.

Borrowing words often happens when a new technology or practice is introduced from overseas. For example, many Asian languages have a word similar to 'taxi', such as taiksi in Urdu, teksi in Malay and diksi in Cantonese. Despite pronunciation changes, such words are obvious to English speakers. Others can be more puzzling. Sri Lankans gamble at 'bucket shops' rather than betting shops. In Korea, your sekeund is your 'second wife' or lover. In Japan a koin randorii is not a place to wash your coins but a launderette or laundromat. And the manshon so many Japanese live in nowadays are, sadly, just simple apartments.

Two thirds of new words published in Japanese dictionaries each year come from other languages, 90% of these from English. According to a newspaper survey, over 80% of Japanese are confused by these loanwords (gairaigo in Japanese). Even English-speakers get confused because meaning and pronunciation may depart widely from the original. I used to think a pusshuhon must be some kind of phone that you can push around (it means a push-button telephone) and that sumaato was smart (it means 'slim'). And it took me a long time to work out that a korukushikuru is something you open bottles of wine with.

There is now help for Japanese people who are confused about loanwords. The National Institute for the Japanese Language has a website

and a telephone hotline (03 3900 3111) that explain the meaning of words like baachuaru (virtual) and bariyaa furii (barrier-free). It also suggests alternatives made up of Japanese words (most of them written in characters borrowed from Chinese). For 'safety net', for example, they suggest anzenmou (安全網).

Korean is also full of loanwords. Interestingly, many of these resemble Japanese ones in the way that their form and meaning vary from the original English. Both languages turn 'ballpoint pen' into ball pen, for example, use talent to mean a media personality, and call a steering wheel a handle. One reason may be that a lot of English vocabulary entered Korea while it was under Japanese occupation.

Indonesian has borrowed a lot of words because it is a relatively young language, based on an older variety of Malay. When English nouns are borrowed, they more or less retain the sound and meaning of the original. But when verbs and adjectives are borrowed, they are often changed to fit Indonesian grammar and morphology. Thus 'to control' is mengkontrol or mengontrol. You might be able to work out that melobi comes from 'to lobby' (although Indonesians use it more to mean 'discuss'). And recently on Indonesian radio, someone was heard complaining about politicians who just menothingkan (do nothing).

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Educators sometimes classify countries on the basis of language use. Thus Singapore is said to be an English-as-a-first-language society. Not only is English the language of education and government there, but many parents talk to their children only in English.

Pakistan is usually called an ESL (English as-a-
second-language) country because an influential minority speak the language fluently and frequently with each other and a great deal of business, politics and education is conducted in that language.

In contrast, countries such as Syria are usually labelled
EFL (English-as-a-foreign-language) societies because the language is used primarily for communicating with
foreigners, such as tourists visiting Syrian historical sites and overseas business contacts.

Whether a country thinks of itself as ESL or EFL is often reflected in its educational system. In ESL countries such as Malaysia, English classes themselves are supposed to be taught by the direct method without using any other language but English. English is also used to teach some other subjects including maths and science. But in EFL countries such as Thailand, nearly all subjects are taught in the national language and it is also used quite a lot during English classes.

Where English is spoken as a first or second language, there is wide acceptance of local usage, such as Singaporeans' use of ‘lah’ at the end of statements, Filipinos' addition of words from Tagalog and Spanish, and Indians' preference for continuous tenses (e.g. ‘I am going to school every day’). On the other hand, local patterns used by Thais, Japanese and other EFL users are often thought of as errors, even if they are produced regularly and understood by foreigners.

Categorising whole societies as ESL or EFL is an oversimplification of Asia's complex reality. Singaporean children who use English at home generally speak it much better than those who do not, and they frequently do better in other school subjects too since these are taught in English. On the other hand, Vijaya Sankar of Taylors College in Malaysia found that some students whose first language is English do worse than others in English classes designed for ESL learners. For many educated Pakistanis, English is the first language – indeed the country's first prime minister, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, could hardly speak the national language, Urdu. But in rural areas of the same country, English is a foreign language which few people ever use.

Whether they themselves use it as a first, second or foreign language, people tend to adjust their English when talking to someone for whom English is not the first language. Moreover, the majority of communication in English around the world nowadays takes place among nonnative speakers. This kind of intermediary language has been labeled EIL (English as an International Language). Many linguists are studying EIL conversations to understand what kind of adjustments speakers make. Do they restrict the vocabulary (e.g. ‘Let's go to Osaka by plane’ instead of ‘Let's fly to Osaka’)? Do they simplify tenses? Or do they just listen more carefully and express themselves more imaginatively than native speakers usually do?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Standard English and English Standards

Proficient speakers of English are often quite interested in variation and take pride in their ability to switch between local and international Englishes. But learners – and their teachers – tend to be more interested in standards. The question then arises: which standard is best?

For many Asian learners, the main choice is between some kind of British English (still popular in Malaysia and Sri Lanka) and something more American (the usual preference of Filipinos, Japanese and South – but not North – Koreans). But reducing the choice to a simple UK-US division exaggerates the divide: many beginners cannot even hear differences between spoken British and American English, let alone see them in writing. And it overlooks the great diversity of speech within the UK and the USA.

This UK-US focus also overlooks the millions of Asians who speak fluent English with local characteristics. Even today, many Asians think of native speakers as North American, Britons and Australasians, rather than Singaporeans or Indians. The concept of native speaker is a complex and controversial one. Acquiring a language when very young may indeed bring a mastery that is almost impossible to replicate when learning another language later, but we cannot assume that everyone's strongest language is the first one they learned. To want to speak as well as a native speaker seems an admirable goal, but it can be quite a vague one. The ideal standard of English varies from person to person, depending on what they want to do with the language. And a standard suggests something that is fixed, whereas language is always changing.

In recent years I've noticed greater acceptance of different varieties of English around Asia. Schools in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward routinely invite foreign students to give conversation classes and don't mind where they come from as long as their English is reasonably fluent. Thai television's MCOT News uses newsreaders and reporters with American, British, New Zealand and also distinctly Thai and other Asian accents. Indeed, Leeds University's Anthea Gupta argues that there are so many varieties of spoken English that it is almost impossible to choose one standard form. On the other hand, Gupta believes that written English is remarkably standard throughout the world. Written language changes much more slowly than speech, and TOEFL tests, spelling checks on computers and the narrow range of writing styles preferred by international academic journals all operate to contain variation. Nevertheless, local vocabulary and grammar are increasingly evident on the internet. Many blogs written in standard Pakistani or Filipino English are easy enough for people from other Asian countries to read, but some are quite difficult because of the use of Urdish or Taglish – English mixed with Urdu or Tagalog.

A common theme in Asia's English-language press is the apparent slide in English standards. Readers of Malaysiakini, an online newspaper, regularly post examples of ‘bad English’ (such as a law professor asking his students “Are you understand?”). Hong Kong's South China Morning Post debated why 11-year-olds could not pass exams designed for 9-year-olds. The people who complain are often from a generation that studied entirely in English, and they typically blame postcolonial educational policies that emphasise local languages – as well as the‘broken English’of text messages and blogs. But they should remember that far more Asians use the language now than in the days when it was restricted to the middle and upper classes. Inevitably, many of this new generation use it badly. But many others simply use it differently.