review: Language Policy, Culture, and Identity in Asian Contexts

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed Oct 1 15:21:10 UTC 2008


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September 2008
Volume 12, Number 2   Contents <http://tesl-ej.org/ej46/toc.html>   |   TESL-EJ
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  *Language Policy, Culture, and Identity in Asian Contexts * *Author:* Amy
B. M. Tsui & James W. Tollefson, Eds. (2007)  *Publisher:* New York:
Routledge  Pages ISBN Price Pp. ix + 296 978-0-8058-5693-4 $34.50 U.S.

Appropriately titled, Tsui and Tollefson's edited volume *Language Policy,
Culture, and Identity in Asian Context* addresses the role of language
policies in the social construction of national cultural identities in a
wide range of Asian sociopolitical contexts. The book includes twelve
articles organized into three sections: (1) globalization and its impact on
language policies, culture, and identity, (2) language policy and the social
(re)construction of national cultural identity, and (3) language policy and
language politics: the role of English. An evident strength of the book is
that it provides a metaphorical space for scholars from countries
underrepresented in research to give voice to their compatriots' lived
experiences. In this regard, the volume presents rich accounts of language
policies in the following countries/ regions: Japan, South Korea, Malaysia,
Singapore, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Brunei Darussalam, New Zealand, India,
Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

The editors recommend reading chapters 1 and 14 prior to exploring the
individual countries' accounts. The introductory chapter sets the stage for
the following articles by situating them within the current unprecedented
global spread of English. As a result of globalization, Asian countries
found themselves confronted by the need to teach English as one part of a
national strategy aimed at engaging with an increasingly globalized economy.
However, while some countries may view globalization as a resource and thus
English as an access tool, others see globalization as a threat with English
as an imperial culture's carrier. Discussions in the book do not fail to
capture the paradoxical nature of national language policies; the very
practices meant to control the hegemonic nature of English end up
legitimizing it. Illustrative examples will follow later.

Based on the themes emerging from the articles, the concluding chapter
provides a reframed understanding of the concept of identity. Informed by a
postmodernist standpoint, the editors make it clear that an essentialist
conceptualization of collective identities as fixed and well-defined
entities does not accommodate the current realities where speakers may have
access to multiple language systems and cultural codes, especially those who
are members of a linguistic minority. Since national identities are being
(re)constructed, articulated, and negotiated in different ways by the State
and the individual, the editors promote a problematized understanding of
identity as an ongoing process.

Contributors to this volume make it clear that language policies are always
linked to broader national social, economic, and political agendas. However,
such links are often strategically left unarticulated. Within such a
holistic and critical look at the constitutive role language plays in
national identity formation, a range of national approaches to English
language teaching and planning are offered. Of particular interest in the
first section is Kayoko Hashimoto's article on Japan's fight for economic
and political independence. In constructing its cultural national Self,
Japan unapologetically took an anti-Western stand. In other words, the
significant Other against whom the Japanese national cultural Self was
constructed has been the West. By promoting pride in Japaneseness, Japan has
become a model for countries in the East for managing English as the
handmaiden of economic globalization to prevent the de-culturation of their
English language learners. Similarly, Yim Sungwon's article on the influence
of globalization on language policy in South Korea highlights the
instrumentality of English language learning in his country. Sungwon's
analysis of the English textbooks in Korea reveals a strong non-Western
orientation that emphasizes a sense of national pride in the Korean culture.
Both the Japanese and the South Korean cases represent the growing
international trend of contextualizing English within the learner's own
national cultural environment, not the West's.

The hegemony of English as a cultural carrier is evident not only in
contexts where it is taught as a foreign/ international language but also in
contexts where an indigenous language is influenced. Richard Benton's
contribution in the second section of the book on the status of the Maori
language in New Zealand presents a strong case where language plays
significant symbolic and pragmatic roles in constructing an indigenous
minority's cultural identity. Denton's discussion makes it clear that
despite the efforts to revitalize the Maori language through New Zealand's
formal education system, the language, from the perspective of its
indigenous speakers, has lost its purity and authenticity. The "Maoriness"
of the language is being constantly threatened by the influx of lexical and
semantic borrowings from English—in the name of modernization. That English
is perceived as the language of science and technology potentially threatens
the linguistic and thus the cultural identities of its Maori learners.
Denton's analysis of the Maori language case also demonstrates how in
multicultural and multilinguistic contexts minority-language issues are
sometimes manipulated by the State to achieve national unity and
cohesiveness. Since internal nationalist efforts could function at the same
time as repressive practices against linguistic minorities, Benton's
discussion implies that a sound national language policy has to pay
attention to values of liberty and individual freedom.

The Janus face of national language policies is also captured in the last
section of the book in an article from Pakistan by Tariq Rahman titled "The
Role of English in Pakistan with Special Reference to Tolerance and
Militancy." Using a World Englishes perspective, Rahman deconstructs the
power structures embedded in gaining access to the linguistic and cultural
capitals represented by native English varieties. A World Englishes approach
views all English language varieties as structurally equal, thus rejecting
the superiority of the native varieties. Pakistani English as a non-native
variety is spoken and written as three sub-varieties: the acrolect, the
mesolect, and the basilect, the first being the closest to British Standard
English. According to Rahman, the acrolect speakers, who constitute only 2%
to 4% of the population (p. 221), are mostly the product of private elitist
English-medium schools. The rest of the student population, who attend
either the cadet colleges or the public schools, do not have equal access to
English as a linguistic resource. Consequently they end up speaking a
variety of English perceived as inferior.

Attempting to address the socio-economic inequalities resulting from such
language distinctions, Rahman calls for pluralizing English and making it
equally available and accessible to all learners. He suggests phasing out
English-medium elitist schools and teaching English only as a subject,
rather than as a medium of instruction, to all learners. However, Rahman
warns that such a proposed policy could unintentionally result in making
English, as a global transnational communication medium, available to a
growing number of Pakistani religious/political 'fundamentalists' who might
use English to further promote ideologies of intolerance and militancy by
reaching larger audiences. In discussing his proposed pluralized English
policy in the Pakistani context Rahman reminds national language planners to
consider not only the positive impacts of a given policy but more
importantly its potential spillovers and externalities.

The issues raised in* Language Policy, Culture, and Identity in Asian
Contexts* should be of interest to students of (critical) applied
linguistics as well as to students of nationalism. By situating national
language policies in their complex sociopolitical settings, the book
provides compelling analyses of some of the paradoxes engendered in forming
national cultural identities via language and through identifying
stakeholders, their (conflicting) interests, and the identity construction
and negotiation processes at work. Linguists and language planners in
education should benefit immensely by reading these case studies of various
Asian countries and their recent language planning and management efforts.

Suad Alazzam-Alwidyan
Portland State University
<suadpdx.edu>
http://tesl-ej.org/ej46/r8.html

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