Asia grapples with artificially created need

R. A. Stegemann moogoonghwa at
Wed Mar 23 16:45:49 UTC 2005

Dear list members,

If English were so important, there would be no need to make it
mandatory across the Far East, everyone would take it up voluntarily.
This article is packed with so much nonsense that it is difficult to
decide where to place the first axe.


R. A. Stegemann, A.B., M.A., M.A.
EARTH's Manager and HKLNA-Project Director
EARTH - East Asian Research and Translation in Hong Kong
Tel/Fax: 852 2630 0349

> Munshi Ahmed for Asiaweek
> Singapore's bilingual education policy requires students to learn
> English
> as well as their mother tongue KEEP YOUR RIFLE CLEAN, your boots
> polished,
> and follow orders. That used to be enough to become a good soldier -
> but
> not any more. "You will not rise in rank if your English is way beyond
> help," says Philippines Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado. What? We
> know
> that bankers, computer engineers and hoteliers need English. But
> soldiers?
> Mercado is firm; English proficiency is as essential for a military
> career
> in the Philippines as the ability to march and salute. "A lot of
> information, procedures, official forms, our legal system, our
> management
> manuals, are all in English," he says. It's another sign that anyone in
> Asia who wants to avoid spending his or her professional life as a foot
> soldier has to ask a simple question: "Is my English good enough?"
> English, the de facto global language, is turning from a mere useful
> skill
> into a prerequisite for access to the best jobs and the highest
> incomes.
> "In technology, business and diplomacy, a command of English is
> essential," says Najib Tun Razak, Malaysia's minister of education. Of
> course, Asia has long known the importance of being able to
> communicate in
> English - historical, political and economic ties with the United
> States
> and Britain made sure of that. Now, though, the demand for more and
> better
> English is increasing so fast that individuals, companies and entire
> countries are wondering if they can keep up. "There is a growing
> concern
> within the government that we have to make a very conscious effort to
> improve proficiency in English throughout the educational system," says
> Najib. "It is important for Malaysians to have a good command of
> English,
> particularly if we want to be an important global player." Ditto the
> rest
> of Asia.
> technology. Highlighting the challenge is the Internet, where 80% of
> Web
> pages are in English. Since the biggest companies, the hottest startups
> and the best research institutions are in the U.S., the industry and
> the
> technology dance to English lyrics. "Our students have no future in the
> information technology universe if they cannot command English as an
> effective medium of communication," warns Joseph Wong Wing-ping, Hong
> Kong's secretary for education and manpower. And computer technology is
> changing the way other businesses work - giving English-speakers an
> edge.
> Most spreadsheets, databases and other productivity-enhancing programs
> first come out in English, so those awaiting local-language versions
> must
> watch while rivals steal a march. Meanwhile, advanced communications
> allow
> work to be done anywhere on the globe where there are English-language
> skills. India, already riding a boom as its English-proficient
> programmers
> handle Y2K bug fixes for clients from Iceland to Indonesia, now wants
> to
> grab a chunk of mundane clerical and other back-office tasks that
> multinationals are increasingly shifting overseas via the Internet.
> Even without the IT boom, the globalization of business has been
> raising
> the need for English. As Asian economies move up the value chain,
> shifting
> from manufacturing to services, and becoming home to more foreign
> investors, the ability to communicate grows increasingly important. No
> longer is it sufficient for a factory's top manager to be able to
> decipher
> a telexed English-language order. Everyone, from the president to the
> receptionist, is likely to have to talk to English-speakers. Dennis
> Wong,
> managing director of the Leo Burnett advertising agency in Hong Kong,
> says
> deals are closed, contracts are signed and ideas are presented all in
> English. "I have written no more than five documents in Chinese since I
> joined advertising 20 years ago," he notes. And it is not just a
> matter of
> speaking with Westerners. "Most Southeast Asian tourists speak English
> as
> an automatic first language when they come to Hong Kong," points out
> John
> Girard of the Omni Hong Kong Hotel.
> Beyond its importance in day-to-day business, English is now the prime
> language of learning - perhaps even of thought. "Books on current
> findings
> are almost entirely in English," Malaysian Education Minister Najib
> points
> out. "We do not have the capacity to translate each and every book. If
> you
> have low proficiency, your access [to new knowledge] will be cut off."
> This is true not only in science and technology but in economics,
> management, finance - in every field where Asia stumbled into its
> recent
> Crisis. "The common denominator of the countries that have done best in
> this age of dashed expectations is that they are the countries where
> English is spoken," U.S. economist Paul Krugman said in a recent issue
> of
> Fortune. Besides the fact that English is the language of technology
> and
> of business, Krugman reckons that English-speaking countries were
> largely
> immunized against the Crisis by the ideological groundswell they
> underwent
> in the 1980s in favor of open markets and against government
> intervention.
> "Perhaps the rest of the advanced world missed the tide because it
> couldn't read [economist] Milton Friedman in the original," he said,
> only
> half in jest.
> For Asians, the importance of English in winning promotions is obvious.
> But just to join the Bank of the Philippine Islands, candidates have to
> pass written and oral tests "all conducted in English," says Dina
> Orosa,
> vice president for human resources. "The bottom line is, everybody
> should
> know how to express himself in English, [even if] not necessarily in
> perfect English," she says. Professionals used to be able to hide
> behind
> their qualifications, but not anymore, especially now that jobs are
> tight
> in the aftermath of the Crisis. "I expected all my expatriate clients
> to
> bring a [Bahasa-speaking] interpreter, which was appropriate to my
> position," says accountant Fransisca Lesut in Jakarta. But since the
> bank
> that employed her closed down earlier this year, she has been studying
> English at the Indonesia-America Institute. "If the employer has to
> choose
> one of two candidates with similar technical qualifications, but one
> candidate's English is much better, he will get priority," Lesut says.
> She
> is right.
> Yet even as the importance of English is rising, proficiency in much of
> Asia remains poor - though not necessarily at the top of some
> companies.
> Charles Johnson, manager of industrial services at International
> Environmental Management in Bangkok, says he is impressed by the level
> of
> fluency he encounters among engineering staff. "Most people with
> technical
> skills speak English very well, so I haven't had to stretch myself."
> But
> below a certain educational level, English fades and disappears in the
> Thai workplace, Johnson says. The situation is better in former British
> colonies such as Malaysia, but standards seem to be falling there too.
> "There has been a slow but steady decline in English-language skills,
> especially among support staff - secretaries, drivers,
> non-professionals,"
> says James Travis, director of technical services at Perwaja Steel in
> Kuala Lumpur. Business still gets done, but clients have a slightly
> harder
> time reaching the right people, managers have to watch over their
> staff a
> little more closely and everything is subject to a bit more friction -
> until someone decides that enough is enough and cancels an order or
> relocates an office. James Tien Pei-chun, chairman of Hong Kong's
> pro-business Liberal Party, says locals will lose jobs to Shanghai
> unless
> their English improves. So worried are the Liberals they have begun
> putting up public billboards around the city proclaiming "Use English.
> Keep Hong Kong International."
> Why have so many Asians tried so hard for so long to learn English,
> with
> so little to show for it? In Beijing, 14-year old Wang Shaolin reacts
> to
> "Did you have a good week?" with a blank stare, despite almost five
> years
> of English in school. "I haven't learned that yet," she responds in
> Chinese. Traditions of rote learning are part of the problem. "As long
> as
> queries have a direct relation with the text book, an unsuspecting
> observer might think that the level of most students is okay," says
> Imara
> Johnpulle, who teaches in Beijing. A professor in the Philippines,
> where
> "cool" students and even instructors liberally mix English and Tagalog
> in
> the same sentence, notes that usually smooth understanding can stumble
> when abstract concepts come up. He once failed to get an answer to the
> question, "What are the two currents of socialist thought?" because (he
> later learned) his student did not know the meaning of the word
> "currents."
> In some cultures, students are throttled by the fear of looking
> foolish.
> "I am ashamed so much for making a grammatical mistake," confesses
> Takei
> Takashi, a Tokyo college student. "My major challenge is to overcome
> such
> psychology." Poorly trained instructors don't help. "I saw a teacher
> pronouncing 'the' as 'ta-hee,' so it was 'ta-hee boy' and 'ta-hee
> girl,'"
> says Rung Kaewdaeng, secretary general of the Office of the National
> Education Commission in Bangkok.
> Such problems mean that the years of English that many Asian school
> systems require are wasted. Education authorities are well aware of
> this
> and are starting to emphasize practical usage over grammar and
> memorization. "Look at textbooks today and you will see how completely
> different they are from those we used to study," says Fukuda Hiroshi, a
> Japanese Education Ministry official in charge of foreign-language
> teaching in high schools. But he acknowledges that progress is slow and
> not always obvious.
> Some Japanese are not prepared to wait for a government fix. After
> returning home from two years in the U.S., Goto Minako and her husband
> decided to send their two daughters, 13 and 10, to an international
> school
> in Tokyo. Goto speaks hardly any English but her children are now
> fluent.
> "Our children love the freedom and creativity in their school. They
> display a confidence and maturity that Japanese children don't have,"
> she
> says.
> In South Korea - a laggard if ever there were one in the use of
> English -
> the prestigious Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology
> this
> year began asking bilingual professors to teach their regular
> engineering
> and computer courses in English. School president Choi Duk In agrees
> that
> that both teachers and students had trouble at first, but says the
> experiment is working. "Some have mixed feelings, but they know they
> should do this," he says. About 13% of courses are now in English. Choi
> wants to push that up to 20% as soon as possible.
> Malaysia went the other way in the 1970s. It introduced Bahasa
> Malaysia as
> the language of instruction in government schools, teaching English as
> a
> subject. Now Hong Kong and the Philippines are making similar switches
> (see story). Mother-tongue instruction often carries nationalistic
> ideals
> but has a pedagogical purpose as well - children are said to absorb
> instruction more easily in their native language than in English. But
> critics say these countries are squandering their linguistic advantage.
> One other problem is whether the English that some Asians speak is
> really
> English. Singaporeans, probably the most proficient in English in the
> region, use "Singlish," a distinctive way of talking that identifies
> them
> wherever they are. "When [children] listen to Singlish in local radio
> and
> TV programs, they assume that this brand of English is acceptable,"
> frets
> an Education Ministry spokesman. But Tommy Koh, the city-state's
> ambassador-at-large, is not too worried. "I would be concerned if we
> spoke
> only Singlish because then our ability to communicate with the world
> would
> be diminished," he says. "I wouldn't be concerned if there is a steady
> increase in our fluency in standard English at the same time."
> Sometimes, what appears to be a decline in English proficiency is more
> perception than reality. At one time, fluency in English was the
> preserve
> of the urban wealthy, the only group that had dealings with foreigners.
> Now, as more people with origins in the countryside join commercial and
> civic life, fluent English speakers are declining proportionately. But
> the
> total number of English communicators may be rising. Says Nigel Bruce,
> principal language instructor at the University of Hong Kong: "What
> we're
> seeing is an increasing number of people admitted to higher education,
> more people competent to use English in international business, and the
> disappearance of those who went to elitist secondary schools and to
> overseas universities." Truly atrocious - and commercially perilous -
> English has also become largely a thing of the past. Martin van
> Hameren, a
> Belgian businessman dealing in agricultural technology, recalls being
> completely dependent on incompetent translators when he first went to
> China 15 years ago. "We were talking about 10,000 kilos, while they
> thought it was 100,000," he says of one near disaster. "You don't see
> those problems anymore."
> Is there a minimum level of English that an economy needs, below which
> it
> will hemorrhage industries and jobs? That is difficult to say. While
> tiny
> Hong Kong may need more English-speakers than Japan, with its huge
> domestic market, language is just one part of an equation that includes
> factors such as infrastructure, costs and location. Nonetheless,
> English
> is the language that offers the single biggest market, the largest
> pool of
> talent, the most educational and research capabilities, and the
> greatest
> probability of being able to communicate with anybody else on the
> planet.
> And it hasn't suddenly happened in the age of the Internet. Over a
> century
> ago, Japan's first education minister, Mori Arinori, predicted: "Our
> meager language, which can never be of any use outside our islands, is
> doomed to yield to the domination of the English tongue, especially
> when
> the power of steam and electricity have pervaded the land." For a long
> time, Mori appeared to have got it all wrong as Japan caught up with
> and
> seemingly overtook the West. Now, he is sounding a bit more prescient.
> One day, the English-dominated computer industry may give us flawless,
> simultaneous translations. But that's for the future. Right now,
> English
> remains a bridge for individuals, companies and countries in Asia to
> help
> themselves out of the Crisis and into the next millennium. And, yes, it
> will get you out of mess duty in the Philippine armed forces.
> - With reports by Julian Gearing / Bangkok, Anne Meijdam / Beijing,
> Yulanda Chung / Hong Kong, Dewi Loveard / Jakarta, Santha Oorjitham /
> Kuala Lumpur, Raissa Robles / Manila, John Larkin / Seoul, Jacintha
> Stephens / Singapore, Murakami Mutsuko / Tokyo and Suvendrini Kakuchi /
> Tokyo
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