Tuesday, October 27, 2009


After spending years mastering the sounds, grammar and vocabulary of a language, we expect to be able to communicate successfully. But communication depends not only on recognising words, but on understanding the various meanings that speakers attach to them. It can even depend on silence.

If a man’s wife simply tells him “Tomorrow’s Tuesday,” for instance, it may be enough for him to understand she is reminding him to put out the rubbish. But if speakers don’t know each other very well, they may require more specific communication.

Interestingly, communication is sometimes easier between non-native speakers because they tend to avoid ambiguous or culturally-specific expressions. Conversely, people sharing the same first language may think they understand each other when in fact they don’t. If a Briton makes a joke, a Californian may think he is serious (or boring, or strange); black and white Americans can listen to the same politician’s speech but hear different messages. This kind of misunderstanding is cross-talk: speakers talk across each other rather than to each other.

In general, however, the risk of cross-talk is higher when speakers have different language backgrounds because of cultural differences. For example, many East Asians avoid direct refusals when speaking to strangers. I once interpreted for an American friend trying to sell artwork in Japan. If someone said Kentou shimasu or Ocha wa ikaga deshou ka”, it didn’t help him if I simply translated this as “We’ll look into this” and “How about some tea?” I had to explain that they were probably saying “No thank you”.

There is plenty of advice available for people visiting and

doing business in Asian countries. But it tends to contain
sweeping generalisations, such as ‘Politeness is very
important to Thais ” or ‘Chinese people hate to lose face.
As American Rachel DeWoskin found when she starred in a
Chinese TV drama (
Foreign Babes in Beijing, 2005.),
no one, in China or elsewhere, likes to lose face.

Language classes generally include some kind of cultural information. But people can be very vague about what they mean by culture. It covers superficial and obvious differences such as how people greet each other and what they eat, but also differences about how people see the world that may be deep-seated and hard to change. US psychologist Richard Nisbett even claims that the different educational practices of Asia and the West produce different ways of reasoning (The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... and Why, 2003). Moreover, teachers of English find it especially difficult to teach culture because the language is used by people from so many different countries.

We can’t learn the cultural norms of everyone who uses English. But we can increase our awareness of the causes of communication. Even before opening our mouths, for example, we should think about body language. Do we maintain eye contact? Is it okay to touch someone? When on the phone should we listen quietly or continually make noises so that the other person knows we are still there? If we talk loudly will people think we are confident, or rude? Li Yang, a popular English educator in China, tells learners to speak foreign languages as loudly and quickly as possible in order to lose their shyness. But for some people, his Crazy English may sound …well… crazy.

And what about the conversational topic? A Korean magazine recently warned against discussing marriage, relationships, health, age, religion or money with Americans, even though these are acceptable topics in Korea. So what areas are safe? The weather? Family? Most Asians love to discuss food, but whereas Singaporeans never tire of this subject, Pakistanis may find you superficial if you don’t soon move on to something deeper.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Conferring and conferencing

While there are obvious connections linking the Muslim societies of the west of Asia, or those in the east that have Buddhist and Confucian traditions, there are few strong links across the whole continent. While pan-Asian identity remains weak, new Asian networks are gradually evolving through the work of international bodies based in Asian cities. Many of these function largely in English. UNESCAP (the Bangkok-based United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific), for example, requires staff to be fluent in English. SAARC (the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) holds all its meetings in English.

As well as helping to construct Asian identity, English also plays an important role in conflict resolution between Asian countries. Israeli leaders usually speak to their Arab counterparts in English since fewer and fewer of them study Arabic and almost no Arabs speak Hebrew. Indian and Pakistani army generals hold their discussions in English, even though their respective national languages (Hindi and Urdu) are very similar.

ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations) is one of Asia’s most active organisations. When it was formed in 1967, there was a proposal to make Malay its working language since it is spoken in four of its founder states (Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei). 30 years later there was an attempt to make Malay its second language. Neither succeeded. In practice the organisation has always conducted business in English.

ASEAN is starting to develop its own style of English, rich in bureaucratic acronyms such as HOGs (Heads of Government), HOSs (Heads of State) and IMT-TG (Indonesian Malaysian-Thai Growth Triangle). However, if we search through ASEAN speeches and literature we can find very few uniquely ‘Asian’ words or expressions.

Leaders of several Asian countries, including Malaysia, the Philippines and the Subcontinent, have traditionally known English as well as or even better than their own national language. Sri Lanka’s S.L. Bandaranaike, Pakistan’s General Zia and Malaysia’s Dr Mahathir, for example, became famous for promoting Sinhala, Urdu and Malay respectively, yet in private mostly used English. Singapore’s first leader, Lee Kuan Yew, was educated in English and didn’t learn Chinese until he was an adult. Many of Israel’s leaders, including the late Golda Meir and the current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were educated mostly in the USA. Thailand’s current leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, went to Oxford University.

Other Asian leaders have tried to learn English later in life. Jiang Zemin
was too old to become fluent, but his efforts encouraged younger Chinese
leaders to study the language. Even Iran’s Mahmood Ahmedinejad, a fierce critic of American culture and politics, has an English blog www. Ahmadinejad.ir/) for people from all over the world to exchange messages about politics. Not surprisingly, most of these messages say what a wonderful leader Ahmedinejad is and what a terrible country the USA is.

But not every Asian leader makes effective use of English The poor English of Korea’s Kim Young Sam was the source of many jokes. And few of Japan’s leaders have been able to conduct conversations in English. When Japanese premier Yoshiro Mori met US President Bill Clinton, he managed to say "Who are you?" instead of "How are you?". Thinking this must be a joke, Clinton joked back "I'm Hillary's husband". Mori replied “Me too.”

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Asian Englishes

In the last topic we saw that there is evidence that Asians often understand each other's English better than that of Americans or Britons. I find this quite interesting, given that there are so many different kinds of English spoken in Asia.

Even as a non-Asian, I can easily tell whether someone is from the Philippines or Thailand or the Indian Subcontinent when they talk English. Locals can do much better than me, of course. Most Malaysians and Singaporeans can tell each other's English apart. Malaysians can tell whether someone is from the East or West of their country and whether they have a Malay, Chinese or Indian background.

Since 1998, the Tokyo-based journal Asian Englishes (http://www.alc.co.jp/asian-e/) has published many articles about the rich and well-established Englishes of Southeast and South Asia (but fewer about northeast Asia, where English tends to be used as a foreign rather than a first or second language). It is not surprising that Asia's great linguistic and cultural diversity is reflected in its English. But I wonder if there is anything distinctly 'Asian' that links Asian Englishes? Is it possible that Korean and Pakistani English have more in common with each other than with Russian English, for instance?

As far as pronunciation is concerned, many Asians avoid clusters of consonants since these are rare in Asian languages. So they add vowels (Sri Lankan children attend 'ischool') or drop consonants (when Cantonese say they feel 'so cold' the two words rhyme). However, similar features are also found in many non-Asian Englishes.

What about grammar? As mentioned before, Indians tend to favour the progressive aspect of verbs ('I am not understanding you') , and this tendency can also be found among some Malaysians and Filipinos. Tags like 'will you?' and 'didn't they?' are simplified all over Asia, with Singaporeans preferring 'isn't it?' or even 'ah?', and Sri Lankans using 'no?'. The verb 'to be' and many pronouns are often omitted ('He so lazy', 'Can afford?'). And the active voice is frequently used instead of the passive ('Vitamin A can find in carrots'). But again, similar practices can be found outside Asia.

As for vocabulary, it is more likely to divide than unite Asian English speakers. Words originating in Britain or America get new local meanings, so in Sri Lanka an abbot is a maid and a basketwoman is a talkative one. Some words are borrowed from local languages, especially for food (balut in the Philippines) and clothing (sari and dhoti in India). Others are taken from the languages of the various Europeans who once colonised Asia: thus Philippines English is littered with Spanish words like barrio (neighbourhood), merrienda (afternoon tea) and estafa (corruption).

Many Asian English words and expressions are entirely new. Hence Malaysians call their badminton players shuttlers. A project about to be implemented in India is said to be 'on the anvil' (in the UK it would be 'on the cards'). Sri Lankans describe the increasing participation of monks in politics as saffronisation (because of the colour of Buddhist robes).

In fact there are some words that appear in many Asian Englishes, such as Malay terms like amok and arrack that have travelled to India and beyond, and expressions used by British-trained administrators such as to gazette (to publish a new regulation) that are hardly used in Britain itself. Muslims across the continent include Arabic expressions such as syolat (prayer) in their English, much as Buddhists include Sanskrit words. But in general, the main thing Asian Englishes have in common is their sheer diversity.