Friday, June 18, 2010

The other imperialists

English is a relative latecomer among the languages brought to Asia by European imperialists. Long before the British or Americans had any bases on the continent, Portuguese traders were active from the Middle East to Japan. By the 17th century their language had become a lingua franca for many Southeast Asian seamen. Portuguese words adopted by Asian languages include almariya (cupboard) and iskolaya (school) in Sinhala, jendela (window) and meja (table)) in Indonesian, and pan (bread) and tabako (tobacco) in Japanese. Some people believe arigato comes from obrigado.

Despite the long colonial influence, however – Macau was the first European colony in Asia (1557) and also the last, returning to Chinese control in 1999 – how many Asians today speak Portuguese? While it continues to be an official language of Macau and remains important in the legal system, Cantonese is far more widely spoken, with 93.4% using it as a first or additional language. Many people in Sri Lanka have Portuguese names, but very few can speak what was once a lingua franca there.

We see a similar situation with other European languages. The Philippines were a Spanish colony for 350 years and both Tagalog and Philippines English are full of loanwords such as fiesta and presidente; yet a mere 2,658 of the 93 million Filipinos use Spanish as a first language. The Dutch, who controlled the East Indies for 400 years, brought numerous everyday words such as hantuk (towel) and kamar (room) to the Indonesian language. We also find many Dutch words in Malay and Sinhala. But very few Indonesians, Malays or Sri Lankans speak the language.

In all the above countries, English is now much more important than European languages that preceded them. Even in Macau, which was never a British colony, over 12% of Macanese claim to speak English, compared to only 2.7% using Portuguese as a first or additional language there. The fate of Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch in Asia seems to suggest that colonisation is not the main reason for the spread of languages. Military alliances and access to jobs and global trade may be more important.

In recent years, some Asian countries have re-emphasised their links with former European occupiers. In August 2007, for example, Philippine President Arroyo announced that Spanish would be reinstated as an official language. But it will be trade with Spain and Latin America rather than government policy that determines whether the language increases in importance.

There was some surprise when Timor Leste chose Portuguese as an official language when it gained independence from Indonesia in 2002. Most of its 220 million speakers are in far-away Europe, Africa and South America, and few Timorese know the language as well as Indonesian or the local lingua franca, Tetum. However, Timor had been a Portuguese colony for 500 years before being invaded by Indonesia, and Portuguese had symbolic importance for groups resisting Indonesian rule. Tetum was considered too underdeveloped to be used exclusively for education and law, and Indonesian is too closely associated with the military occupation. So Portuguese and Tetum were made co-official languages. This complex situation has created a growing unofficial role for English, which many locals hope will help them get jobs with Australian and other international NGOs operating in the country.

In recent decades France has gained a reputation for resisting the global spread of English, promoting French language and culture through L’organisation internationale de la Francophonie, which now has 55 member states. It might therefore be expected that French would have fared better than Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch in former Asian colonies. But it is probably only in Lebanon, in the far west of the continent, that French is as important as English. Although neighbouring Syria was under French rule for as long as Lebanon, it has been less exposed to international business. Few Syrians know any language other than Arabic, but those who do are more likely to speak English than French.

We find similar stories in the region once ruled by France as Indochine. As late as the 1970s most private schools in Laos, and the one public lycée (secondary school) in Vientiane, taught in French, but Lao seems largely to have displaced the language in the public sector and English in the private.

The first wave of Vietnamese escaping communism tended to know French and headed for Paris, but subsequent groups were more interested in the United States and English. In Cambodia, French – and even Russian and Vietnamese – were more important than English until the 1990s, but in recent years Phnom Penh has seen protests by university students against compulsory French classes.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Military exercises

When a friend and I were trekking in Nepal twenty years ago we found very few locals able to speak English, but every so often we would pass someone working in a field with whom we could chat fluently. Usually these were older men who had been Gurkhas – Nepalese soldiers who serve with the British or Indian army.

Under international law the Brigade of Gurkhas are an integral part of the British army, yet only in 2007 were their pensions raised to the value of those of their UK comrades; even now the Ministry of Defence appears to be trying to reduce its financial commitment through a policy of early retirement. But there is no shortage of support when it comes to strategies to promote military efficiency, and language is at the centre of these. The Gurkha Language Wing organises courses “to equip Gurkha soliders to operate alongside multinational forces,” including a 9-week English programme for new recruits.

Clearly it is crucial that participants in international training exercises and actual operations are able to understand each other, and the number of such collaborations is increasing. NATO has expanded beyond the group of 12 North Atlantic nations which formed it in 1947. Turkey has been a member since 1952, and the break-up of the Soviet Union led to Individual Partnership plans with several other Asian countries including Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. In 2004 the latter created a military language institute in Almaty to train officers in French, German, Turkish, Chinese and above all English.

Military English is now a significant and growing business. In 2005 a series of coursebooks for teaching military peacekeepers was shortlisted for an Elton, the ELT world’s equivalent of an Oscar. UK-based Military English Language Training Ltd advertises itself as far away as India as a “combination of English language teachers and former military personnel” with experience from British, NATO and UN operations. It targets members of overseas armed forces expecting to take part in multinational operations and its website includes pages in Arabic. The British Council has been particularly active in this field, managing a programme of Peacekeeping English projects on behalf of the UK’s Ministry of Defence and Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

But British military involvement in Asia is dwarfed by that of the United States, whose emergence by the end of the Second World War as a global military power was a major impetus behind the globalisation of English. In South Korea, for example, General Hodge set up an English military school in 1946 whose cadets included future president Park Chung Hee. The Korea Military Academy sought to adopt not only America’s military practices but also its doctrines and culture, with English language a key discipline. Today the Academy’s intensive English programmes target the whole cadet corps and aim “to cultivate officers capable of performing joint military operations with UN forces”. These include the four main annual exercises of the SK-US Combined Forces Command: Team Spirit, Ulchi Focus Lens, RSOI and Foal Eagle.

All the examples of military English mentioned above have been tools of powerful governments, but it should not be forgotten that English also has a small but significant role among Asia’s anti-government movements. Many of the ethnic-based forces fighting the Burmese government make extensive use of English to stay in contact with each other and the outside world. And when a faction of the Japanese Red Army hijacked a Japan Airlines flight in Dhaka in 1977 they refused to speak Japanese, even to the Japanese negotiator flown to Bangladesh. The tapes that survive from the incident reveal some of the communication problems that can occur when a well-educated but English-deficient group of hijackers try to convey threats about time limits and hostage executions to negotiators who either genuinely do not understand them or claim not to do so as a delaying tactic.