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English in Asia: Do you speak ASEAN?

As economic integration intensifies, the region finds a unified voice

Philippe Beco
November 9, 2012
English in Asia: Do you speak ASEAN?
Thai school children in grade three learn English words during an English language lesson in Bangkok. Photo: EPA/Barbara Walton

The French might describe it as ‘irrésistible’. A German may exclaim ‘unaufhaltsam’. The Vietnamese likely credit it as ‘không the ngan can’. With English continuing its global invasion, one thing is certain: most could describe its rise, in the most widely used language in the world, as ‘unstoppable’.

Globalisation has sped up the process exponentially in Southeast Asia. English is the working language of the ten-member Asean bloc, which is home to more than 600 million people and 1,000 languages. It is an official language in both the Philippines and economic hub Singapore, where a recent poll by market research company Ipsos shows 74% of people use English to communicate with foreigners.

With colloquial versions emerging in the form of Singapore’s ‘Singlish’ and the Philippines’ ‘Taglish’, English and economic growth have spread hand-in-hand across the region.

Photos: Bazuki Muhammad, Chor Sokunthea, both Reuters. Language learners: Cambodian children attend an English class in Kampong Thom province
Photos: Bazuki Muhammad, Chor Sokunthea, both Reuters.
Language learners: Cambodian children attend an English class in Kampong Thom province

Last year, the Philippines became the world’s call-centre capital, nudging India off the top spot. After just ten years, investment in the country’s language training and in technology has paid dividends, with the outsourcing sector projected to generate revenue of $13 billion this year, a four-fold increase from 2006.

While the Philippines looks to advance its call centre industry to tap into the far more lucrative Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) – which offers English-language services in human resources, finance and accounting, and brought $70 billion in revenue to India in 2010 – other countries are concerned the growing gap in English skills between nations will create an imbalance when Asean opens its borders in 2015. Officials in Thailand, in particular, are anxious that low levels of English, information and technology and numerical skills will hamper economic growth and the country’s competitiveness in Asean, which is considered one of the world’s most dynamic economies with its $1.1 trillion nominal GDP being comparable to India’s $1.2 trillion.

Of the more than one billion people who speak English worldwide, only about 330 million speak it as a first language. Andy Kirkpatrick, a professor in linguistics at Australia’s
Griffith University, estimates more than 800 million multilinguals use English in Asia alone.

“[The use of English in Southeast Asia] is developing and growing at a significant pace,” says Kirkpatrick. “English is being used by Asian multilinguals as their lingua franca, their common language. For this reason we can say that it is now an ‘Asian’ language.”

“The move is ill-conceived and will lead to failures in both English learning and teaching on a massive scale, especially in rural areas.”

With private companies increasingly driving demand for English in the region, Sandra D’amico, managing director of human resources research and services firm HR Inc (Cambodia), says that while Cambodia has a relatively high competitive base in terms of basic English-language skills, the country must focus on the next level of communication.

“While I do believe Cambodia boasts a significantly higher level of English than the region,” says D’amico,  “we can really stand out as a workforce if we continue to focus on business aspects of language, interpretation of information and presentation of information, as well as needed skills such as negotiation, persuasion and performance review feedback – [all of] which very much have to do with a higher ability of understanding culture, people, the environment, the context.”

The key to achieving this higher understanding lies, unsurprisingly, in education. In multi-ethnic countries such as Malaysia, English has become the lynchpin of tertiary education. With branches of some of the best British, American and Australian universities opening in Malaysia, the country has emerged as a regional education hub.

“We see a wide array of students of different nationalities as these universities compete to get international students into their programmes. English-language skills are not considered optional any more but a necessity,” says Azirah Hashim, dean of the Humanities and Ethics Research Cluster at the University of Malaya.

The pivotal role English is playing in education in Southeast Asia is perhaps no better evidenced than in Singapore. In 1987, the city-state adopted English as the medium of instruction in all school subjects, except Chinese, Malay or Tamil language lessons.

“It is a good case study on language policy that allows us to keep up with the competitive global edge,” says Ee-Ling Low, an associate professor of English language and literature and associate dean of Teacher Education at Singapore’s National Institute of Education.

Vietnam is another country that has embraced the global language. Last year it launched an ambitious education reform programme to ensure that by 2020 all school leavers have a good grasp of English. The plan will affect 200 million students, while 85% of the programme’s $450m budget will be spent on teacher training, according to Vietnam’s education ministry.

However, Kirkpatrick worries that in countries with under-resourced education systems such initiatives will hamper development. “Almost all regional governments are pursuing policies that see English being taught earlier and earlier in primary schools,” he says. “The move is ill-conceived and will lead to failures in both English learning and teaching on a massive scale, especially in rural areas.”

It recently emerged that of 700 teachers working in one Vietnamese rural province, only one passed the required English proficiency test. “Ironically,” Kirkpatrick says, “the aim is to give everyone a chance at climbing the economic and social ladder, but it will increase the divide as the rich will always be able to afford to educate their children, while the poor will be offered bad English by incompetent teachers using inappropriate materials.”

Narrowing this gap is a fundamental challenge for regional governments wishing to capitalise on the relationship between economic growth and the spread of the English language. If Southeast Asia wishes to maintain its status as one of the world’s major growth engines, the bloc must dedicate huge resources to raise and harmonise the standard of English across its many borders. “It is important not to focus on the ability to talk only,” says D’amico, “but the ability to express information credibly to the right audience and for the right purpose.”

The Malaysian Factor

When the Malaysian government dropped an eight-year experiment to teach maths and science in English, many lamented a missed opportunity to emulate the economic success of Singapore. However, the move found a supporter in Andy Kirkpatrick, a professor in linguistics at Australia’s Griffith University. “Children can only benefit from being able to learn these cognitively complex subjects through their own language rather than through a foreign language. This was a brave decision by the government as it obviously upset many of the wealthy middle classes,” argues Kirkpatrick.

The government’s decision to double the time spent on English lessons for primary school and increase that of secondary school children by half will reap rewards if properly implemented and supported by all players and appropriate resources, says Azirah Hashim, dean of the Humanities and Ethics Research Cluster at the University of Malaya. “The earlier policy of teaching maths and science in English was good for students who were already proficient in English, but not for those in the less urban areas who lacked the proficiency and whose teachers struggled with English,” she says.

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