Disclaimer: Warwick ASEAN Conference would like to clarify that all opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ and editors’ own.
BY JAZZLYNE GUNAWAN
Moving forward through the 21st century, countries are becoming more global and people are becoming less fluent in their country’s official local language(s), especially in the case of Southeast Asia. There are around 6000-7000 languages spoken worldwide, but with the tremendous linguistic diversity, the number of average speakers for each language only amount to so few. While English remains the dominant global language, should the cost of learning the language really be losing fluency and the ability to properly speak the official local language of one’s country? The English language has been rapidly spreading to the youth, possibly in response to modernization, technology, as well as other sociopolitical and sociolinguistic dynamics, and Southeast Asia is no exception to this process. This inability to speak our local language not only jeopardizes the language itself, but may also contribute to the endangerment of the culture and hindrance of development within our regions.
Using the term ‘local languages’ may be contentious, but for the purpose of this article it would refer to the official spoken language of the respective country. For the Philippines, this would be Tagalog; for Malaysia and Brunei, it would be Malay; for Vietnam Vietnamese, Thailand Thai, Indonesia Indonesian, Myanmar Burmese, and Cambodia Khmer. In this case, Singapore would be an exception where English would be considered as one of the multiple official languages spoken in the country, alongside Malay, Mandarin and Tamil.
English has undoubtedly achieved some sort of global status making it one of the top 4 languages, after Mandarin and not far behind Spanish, with most internet sites and information databases being stored and encoded in the language. It is the working language of the Asian intergovernmental organization ASEAN, as well as the official language of the European Central Bank, and research fields in multiple countries despite the fact that English is not the dominant language in the country. In the Southeast Asian region, a large portion of the urban population are well-acquainted with Western influences. Advertisements, businesses, brands (technology), as well as entertainment are largely Western-oriented, resulting in the tendency of the youth to be increasingly familiar with Western cultures in their community. To attribute the deficiency of local linguistic familiarity to globalization is oversimplified and possibly misleading. However, the basis of this assumption may have some truth in it, especially regarding the globalization of economic, social and political factors shaping the dynamics of the world today.
While English is not the most commonly spoken language, English-speakers are more geographically diverse than the majority of the near billion Chinese speakers that largely reside in one country. Its attractiveness and influence in Southeast Asia continues to increase where the use of English as a language of education, international trade and commerce and international relations is still largely prevalent. Aside from the security the English language has in Singapore, its demand continues to rise in countries like the Philippines, Brunei and Indonesia, while still being a dominant foreign language in Myanmar and Cambodia. A sense of the possible dilution of the local languages may be seen from the loose league of local varieties of English present in these regions. This is due to the absorption of elements of the countries’ local languages with english, creating either ‘english-based creoles’ such as Maglish and Singlish, or code-switching between conversational local languages and English, such as Taglish (Philippines) and Indonesian-English.
An example of this would be how countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and to a greater extent, Singapore has integrated English into their conversational languages, especially amongst the youth. English in these countries is replete with not only local vocabulary but also a syntax that owes much to the home languages. The languages in these countries often have certain phrases to describe cultural practices, norms and feelings that transcend what can be put into English, where one would typically need to understand the context of the sentence to be able to decipher the meaning, as there may be multiple. Among other words, these include the Filipino word ‘usog’ (a Filipino superstition where usually, an unsuspecting child could suffer from an illness when greeted or complimented by strangers) or ‘kulit’ (someone pesky and irritating, but could describe someone or something funny and playful); the Indonesian word ‘gemas’ (a mix feeling of intense love and hate, or when you see something or someone so adorable and cute that you can’t help but want to squish them), or ‘garing’ (which directly translates to ‘crunchy’, but in day to day conversations, is a colloquial term that refers to ‘unfunny jokes’).
Being unfamiliar with one’s local language might make participation in national discourse difficult for certain groups of people, though this is dependent on each country’s situation. In the case of Singapore, it is the older generation who do not speak english that suffer. In Indonesia, among other Southeast Asian countries, fluent English speakers are typically the people who are able to afford a higher degree of education. They are often seen as ‘exclusive’ to a certain demographic and to their awareness of certain issues. Setting aside learning one’s local language and instead placing an emphasis on English may create a wider gap between the rich and poor, stigmatizing the latter and worsening the already prevalent problem, especially in the case of in Indonesia.
Dominant regional discourses are often discussed and published in the country’s local language (i.e. local media outlets; newspapers, etc.). Understanding the language in which it is discussed more likely enables the understanding of the cultural assimilations associated with the language that may otherwise not be understood. As previously mentioned, those unable to speak the language are often disconnected due to a social gap caused by the differences in the education they receive. This divide can add to the miscommunication and interference from understanding and participating in social problems relevant to the different demographics. In the wider context, it is understandable why English is desirable to spread these issues on a global scale. However, in order to understand fully and include the majority of a country’s demographic in the discourse, it would be beneficial to know the issue through the understanding of the language itself.
Exposure to a wholly Western account of world events would not only intensify the existing language biases, but add to that of cultural imperialism as well. The dominance and exposure the Western culture to Southeast Asian regions may have contributed to this lack of fluency and interest in one’s local language, however, we must not merely sit back and watch this unfold. We could encourage the use and practice of native languages, starting with bringing about, exposing, and exhibiting these cultures, learning them through the local’s eyes and thus the context within the region itself. We can encourage governments to develop programs promoting their culture and promote opportunities within the country for fluent speakers of the local language.
Being able to understand sources and accounts from a regional perspective would bring insight and could expand discussions on issues that may have exclusively had a dominant Western perspective. This is especially pertinent as the number of youth forums and initiatives have been growing not only in Southeast Asian regions, but also worldwide. Understanding a language often enables one to grasp the mannerisms of the culture and traditions, while also shaping one’s cultural identity. In understanding the language, it opens doors to understanding the culture and context of a subject written through this language, ensuing one to empathize and relate to the way the narrative has been written.
Though the push to promote the use of local languages may be easy to campaign for, it is acknowledged how it sometimes may not be in the interest of the people still living in these developing societies, trying their best to learn a foreign language to gain more opportunities and increase their mobility. However, the concerns of those in the poorer demographic for their mobility in the local level would also need to be addressed. By reinstating the importance of local languages in the Southeast Asian regions, this may be a start to narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, while reducing the stigma around local non-English speakers.
Although being fluent in the English language may broaden opportunities for individuals to succeed in the competitive world today, it is also crucial to understand that the preservation of their local language serves just as great a value. Through these means, new ideas and varied ways of thinking could emerge and spark greater innovation and interest, pushing for greater development in the regions. It is understandable how governments may be inclined to encourage the learning of languages and practices that will attract foreign investment from businesses and various tourism boards. However, finding a balance in retaining and encouraging the learning of these local languages, in addition to more dominant global languages, may not only broaden opportunities but also add depth and meaning to our understanding of culture, politics, and (preservation of) national identity on the global scale.
References and Further Reading