———- Forwarded message ———-
Date: Feb 7, 2008 1:40 AM
Subject: Economist: Speaking In Tongues: South-East Asia’s Language
February 6, 2008
Speaking In Tongues: South-East Asia’s Language Wars Continue
HAD he been president of Indonesia, not France, Charles de
Gaulle might have modified his famous saying about cheeses and
asked how to govern a nation with over 700 different languages.
The answer, as elsewhere in South-East Asia, was to impose a
As the region’s countries became independent, most wanted their
citizenry to speak the same indigenous language. But choosing an
acceptable candidate sometimes proved difficult, laying the
ground for “language wars” that still rage.
A new collection of essays* from the Singapore-based Institute
of South-East Asian Studies (ISEAS) reviews the region’s
struggles to build monolingual nations. Several themes emerge:
first, globalisation is forcing governments to reconsider
restrictions on daily use of English; second, with the economic
rise of China, governments increasingly see their ethnic-Chinese
populations as assets rather than threats; and third,
democratisation and decentralisation may revive local and tribal
languages. Each of these trends may undermine the quest for a
unifying national language. AFP Studying globally
The language wars have been particularly bitter in the
Philippines. Shortly before the second world war, the
country—semi-independent but still under America’s sway—chose
Tagalog, already widely spoken in the populous region around
Manila, as its future national tongue. This annoyed speakers of
the archipelago’s 120-odd other languages, so a new, official
version was invented, incorporating bits and bobs from other
local tongues, called Pilipino, and later renamed Filipino.
Despite recurring rows, the adoption of Filipino by schools and
the mass media made the language almost universal. The 2000
census found that 96.4% of those with at least elementary
schooling could speak it.
But many Filipinos have come to realise the benefits of speaking
English—the de facto world language—and have grown concerned
over its waning use. Though the census showed that 64% of
over-fives could speak English, their fluency may be fading.
Record numbers of Filipinos work abroad; their remittances help
support the economy. Like India, the Philippines has also been
enjoying a boom in call centres and other outsourced work that
requires good English. So, in 2003, President Gloria Macapagal
Arroyo ordered schools to “return” to teaching mainly in English
(though, as ISEAS’s book shows, most were using it for
mathematics and science lessons all along).
That same year, the Malaysian government ordered a return to
teaching basic maths and science in English after decades of
aggressively promoting Malay. Again, this directive responded to
worries that a competitive advantage was being lost (similar
concerns surfaced in India and Sri Lanka too). Policies to force
Malay down the throats of Malaysia’s large ethnic Chinese and
Indian minorities have done more to divide than unite the
nation: many minority children now go to separate schools where
they mostly speak Chinese or Tamil, as they do at home.
Indonesia’s national language—a version of Malay called Bahasa
Indonesia or just Indonesian—is unusual in that it is not the
tongue of a dominant group: only about 3% of the population are
ethnic Malays. This has helped make it acceptable to the
country’s 300-odd other ethnicities, but means that it its
adoption has been slow. Even today, while over four-fifths of
the population understand Indonesian, only about a third use it
as their main language.
Indonesia’s former colony, Timor-Leste (not covered in ISEAS’s
book), uses Portuguese, the little-spoken language of a previous
bunch of imperialist invaders. That has left it tongue-tied:
Tetum, the main vernacular, is seen as insufficiently developed
for official use. Many people understand Indonesian but many no
longer want to hear it spoken. Having adopted the American
dollar instead of a national currency, the country may also see
a drift towards English, the language of its rich southern
Most South-East Asian countries have significant ethnic-Chinese
minorities, towards whom official attitudes have been at best
ambivalent. But China’s growth is encouraging some governments,
like Thailand’s, to promote the teaching of Chinese where once
they might have discouraged or barely tolerated it.
Similarly, Singapore is dominated by an ethnic-Chinese,
British-educated elite that has promoted English as the main
working language, but in 1998 the government launched a campaign
to encourage people to speak Mandarin. This was soon followed by
another to stop standards of English slipping: young
Singaporeans tend to speak slangy “Singlish”.
Most South-East Asian schools (Singapore excepted) struggle to
teach the basics; teaching world languages as well as the
national language may increase their struggles. In some
cases—notably Indonesia, where decentralisation since Suharto’s
fall in 1998 has boosted provincial power—the challenge will be
amplified by demands to restore the status of regional and
Similar pressures may emerge in Thailand. Although standard
Bangkok Thai is compulsory for all school lessons, about a third
of the population, in the country’s north-east, speak Lao as
their native language—in December’s election candidates courted
voters there by addressing them in their own tongue.
Even authoritarian Vietnam is increasingly allowing broadcasts
in the languages of its small ethnic minorities. If Myanmar ever
democratises, its many ethnic groups will doubtless seek a
rollback of official efforts to promote Burmese, though, as the
ISEAS book notes, these have in fact helped opposition groups to
communicate with each other.
More worryingly, teaching global as well as local languages may
entrench class divides: while rich metropolitan kids enjoy
increasing returns from learning English and Chinese, schools in
the impoverished provinces, expected somehow to teach global,
national and local tongues, may fail to equip their pupils
adequately in any.
“Language, Nation and Development in South-East Asia”, edited by
Lee Hock Guan and Leo Suryadinata, published by the Institute of
South-East Asian Studies, Singapore.