[lg policy] The English language in the ‘Asian century’

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Jun 9 16:28:10 UTC 2013

The English language in the ‘Asian century’
Phan Le Ha08 June 2013 Issue No:275

      Asia is seen as the future for the internationalisation of higher
education, and the globalisation of English is enabling this future.
Countries in Asia have therefore started to align their
internationalisation strategies towards this Asia focus.

For example, Singapore’s Minister of Education Heng Swee Keat concluded in
his talk at the Singapore Management University on 16 February: “Asia is
going to be a critical part of our future. The more we understand what is
going on in Asia, the better our future will be. We must position ourselves
as a global Asian hub that connects Asia with the world.”

The internationalisation of higher education and the English language play
a key role in Singapore’s endeavour to become a ‘global Asian hub’ and to
identify and create ‘advantages that others find relevant’.

However, it seems that the internationalisation policies of countries and
universities in Asia seldom question the global dominance of English and
what consequences it may have for knowledge and scholarship building and
the general well-being of Asian societies in the long run.

Let me now turn to a few interrelated issues to elaborate this problem

Scholars continue to raise questions related to the overemphasis on the
English-only curriculum and the English-only mentality when it comes to
what counts as valid knowledge and as legitimate intellectual sources in
knowledge exchanges and knowledge production.

More and more (academic) knowledge is produced in English, while less and
less is produced in local (Asian) languages, partly because publications in
English are valued and seen as a desirable sign of intellectual integration.

Many scholars, including Asians, also admit that they have not tried to
publish in Asian languages. Many others do not see the need to learn Asian
languages for their academic work because they have many Asian students
eagerly wanting to ‘teach’ them about Asia through the medium of English.
Their engagement with Asia tends to stop at the surface, and I believe this
can be improved.

*The case of Japan*

In a forthcoming article on the internationalisation of higher education,
the role of English and national cultural identity issues in Asia, I
analyse in particular Japan’s Action Plan 2003 to ‘Cultivate Japanese with
English Abilities’ and the ‘Global 30’ Project 2008.

The former endorses the critical role of English for Japan’s advancement
and integration, and notes the essential requirement for global
communication through English language skills in the 21st century.

The latter aims to introduce English-medium programmes in Japan’s top 30
universities to partly promote Japanese higher education internationally,
to provide access to English to Japanese students and to attract more
international students to Japan.

One argument put forward in this article is that “the Japanese government’s
policies to strengthen Japanese culture and identity through its English
language education and the internationalisation of higher education are
causing more concern regarding the government’s perceived identity crisis
and a decreasing interest in Japanese universities from both Japanese and
international students”.

What is more, while Japan has for a long time been paying more attention to
minimising the potential of ‘losing’ the uniqueness of its national
cultural identity through contact with English and the West under the
pressure of globalisation, Japanese scholars have now warned the government
and Japanese universities about something bigger and more fundamental.

Precisely, they point to over-reliance on English and the potential loss of
knowledge production in Japanese and other Asian languages, should these
languages not receive serious consideration at a national level.

*Over-reliance on English*

With the expansion of English-language programmes, courses, schools and
universities across Asia as a part of the drive to become international
hubs of education, innovation and scholarship, the over-reliance on English
is becoming even more alarming.

In certain settings, students start learning in English at a very young
age. It is more common, however, that students stop learning and being
taught in their local languages once they enter university.

Many students and academics do not know how to present a topic in their
local language because they do not know the norms, genres, styles,
concepts, theories and vocabularies needed to perform such tasks. They
become ‘illiterate’ and thus much less sophisticated in their own tongues.

One may also say that for many people in Asia, English is their native
language and thus other local Asian languages are not necessarily their
mother tongues and-or native languages; yet this group is still a tiny
minority in the vast context of Asia.

This phenomenon has the potential to (re)produce an unequal and somewhat
superficial engagement with scholarship under the banner of
internationalisation that is largely driven by commercialisation, the
overindulgence of English in government policies as well as a
nation-building agenda that tends to take many shortcuts to English while
undermining local languages.

After all, the international role of English does not have to result in the
impoverishment of knowledge and scholarship in other languages, and this
needs to be realised in policy and practice of the internationalisation of
education and language policies across the Asian region.

Likewise, English is never going to entirely replace local languages.
However, it will create a divide in local societies between those who use
English and those who do not.

At the moment, the knowledge that circulates in the world of international
education does so largely through the medium of the English language. It
only indirectly touches those beyond the English-language world.

Part of the rationale for the internationalisation and globalisation of
education is to make the world more equitable – that is, to allow people
everywhere to have access to the same body of knowledge.

Does that rationale only apply to the English-language world? Or should
policy-makers be thinking about how to move that equity beyond the language
barrier, particularly in the context of the 'Asian century' and
Asia-focused agendas worldwide?

* *Phan Le Ha lectures in the faculty of education at Monash University in
Australia. She has been publishing in the area of English language
education and international education. In her work, she engages critically
with the debates surrounding the global status of English and the policy
and practices of internationalisation. Email:
ha.phan at monash.edu.<ha.phan at monash.edu>

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