Globalization erodes local languages, fuels "Glocal" English


A continent that contains a third of the world's spoken codes -- and yet one whose astonishing diversity of speech and written systems -- is being eroded by relentless globalization. That, in a nutshell, is the ethnolinguist's lament for Asia.

"In South-east Asia, the response to globalization is to acquire language skills, not in many languages, but in one, the English language, which is seen as the key to success in the globalized age," said Dr. Rujaya Abhakorn, lecturer in South-east Asian history at Chiang Mai University, Thailand.

It is indeed English, which served the colonial British empire and now drives the knowledge economy and the Internet, that is all too often seen as a tyrannosaurus rex that voraciously gobbles up cultures and traditions. "Efficiency and development, growth and human capital, are not tolerant of difference," commented Prof. Joseph Lo Bianco, director of The National Language and Literacy Institute of Australia. "Globalized modernization requires that knowledge is imparted in ways that are comparable across differences of setting, culture and language."

Abhakorn and Lo Bianco were participants at a conference on language trends in Asia, held this month by the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute. The discussion focused on the sorts of globalization in Asia today, and whether or not the primary language of an economy is endangering other languages.

Generally, some participants pointed out, the endangerment of language is most serious where local globalization is the most advanced and includes virtually all economic sectors.

Against such a background, the future of languages such as Hovongan, in north-central Kalimantan, Indonesia, and Sou, in the southern Laos province of Attapeu, is in peril -- both are estimated to have around 1,000 speakers, and thus classified as being endangered under the definition of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

"Our language has been ripped from the world," Goenawan Mohamad, founding editor of the Jakarta-based Tempo newsmagazine, wrote in a paper presented at the meeting, "stripped of shape, smell, colour and form, cleansed of the grit and grafitti, the rumpus and commotion that make up real life."

Even where languages are not endangered, there are confrontations between them and English.

Dr. Udaya Narayan Singh, director of the Central Institute of Indian Languages in Mysore, India, provided a background to the diversity and linguistic politics of the country.

"Even when 80 per cent of all Indians speak one or another major Indian language, and Hindi is understood by close to 60 per cent," said Singh, "there are still many other languages with a long literary history, grammatical tradition and rich heritage, and they are still in use in all modern means of communication."

"Bilingualism in India," he told IPS, "is not just due to economic causes but also due to conflict."

The official language of communication of India is Hindi. But, Singh explained, "There is always a hidden tussle as well as open confrontation between supporters of Hindi who mostly oppose the use of English, and supporters of the regional languages who look to English as an alternative link between the Indian states."

Globalization has also brought about what has been called the "McDonaldization" of societies, most notably through the entry of cultural products like Hollywood movies, U.S. toys, fast food and pop music.

Anthony Reid, director of the Asia Research Institute, however noted that although media is one of the potent forces of globalization today, it has been beneficial in the past.

For instance, he explained, radio and cheap cassettes have helped non-national language communities in Indonesia, East Malaysia, the Philippines, Burma and India.

"Cassettes and radio invigorated and helped standardize the verbal expression of the language even as its written expression was being lost," said Reid. "In diaspora, even isolated speakers could remain in touch with their musical traditions with a portable stereo and a few cassettes."

Indeed, Lo Bianco commented that new communication processes have arisen that link tribal, small and localized languages to ecological sustainability, or which seek to give these languages political recognition within human rights paradigms. This has also occurred during the 1990s as a means of stemming "the cataclysmic loss of the world's linguistic heritage, a vast proportion of this in the Asian region," he said.

Like plant and animal species, endangered languages are confined to small areas. More than 80 per cent of countries with great biological diversity are also the places with the greatest number of endangered languages.

The need for protection has never been more urgent -- many of the world's endangered plant and animal species today, for example, are known only to certain peoples whose languages are also dying out.

Even so, there are parallel globalizations, as Prof. Chua Beng Huat of the National University of Singapore, observed.

"In entertainment, one is looking at a very conscious effort of an industry globalizing itself," he said. "In East Asia, where Singapore is culturally placed because of its Chinese-dominant population, the idea that we are being westernized/Americanized is being disrupted."

Chua said that fans of products such as pop music from Japan or television soaps from Korea claim it is easier than watching Hollywood: "You can't be white but you can move yourself from Singapore to Taiwan; the dominant language is not English but 'different Chinese,' depending on where it's put together. Are these programs in fact reactions to globalization, and nationalistic?"

One reaction to the conventional idea of globalization, as pointed out by Anne Pakir, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, is that English is "going 'glocal,' that is, going global while maintaining local roots." She sees "glocal English" as a language that has international status but which also expresses local identities.

Already, more Asians speak English than anyone else, and the kinds of Asian English multiply every year. For the many who continue to see it as an intrusion, a destructive force, there may be some solace to be found in the old Malay saying -- "your mouth is your tiger."

* (Inter Press Service, July 30, 2003)

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