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Thursday, Dec. 7, 2000

Journalists debate role of English in Asia


Staff writer

English, as the dominant language in cyberspace, is becoming an indispensable communication tool for Asian people. And the increased use of English among nonnative speakers should make it more colorful as a world language.

However, journalists from the Asia-Pacific region said in a recent symposium in Tokyo that acquiring English proficiency should not come at the sacrifice of one's culture.

The symposium titled " 'Only English, Please' -- A Recipe for Asia's Growth in the 21st Century?" was attended by eight journalists from Japan, China, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia and the United States.

The Asia-Pacific Journalists Meeting, organized by the Foreign Press Center every year since 1995 in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry and the Japan Foundation, was presented this year also with support of The Japan Times against the background of growing debate for the need for English proficiency for Japanese to communicate in the globalizing world. An audience of about 150 people joined the event, held Nov. 30 at the Japan Foundation Conference Hall.

The meeting invited Japanese freelance journalist Midori Hanabusa, Chongkittavorn Kavi of Thailand, executive editor of The Nation, Kwan Weng Kin, Tokyo bureau chief of Singapore's Straits Times, Kwon Chae Hyun, a staff reporter of South Korea's Dong-A Ilbo, and Widjajanto, Jakarta bureau chief of Tempo magazine of Indonesia. Yuko Aotani, the anchor of the "NHK World" bilingual program for overseas viewers, served as moderator.

Kathryn Tolbert, a Tokyo correspondent of The Washington Post, attended the meeting as the sole native English-speaking panelist, and Chan Yuen Ying, a professor and director of the journalism and media studies center at the University of Hong Kong, took part to present views of the academic circles.

In her opening speech for the first session, titled "IT Revolution and English," Chan said that although more non-English speakers are using the Internet, particularly in Asia, and the number of non-English Web sites are increasing, she believes English will remain the main language of the Internet.

Chan noted that Asia's growth will depend on the full utilization of the Internet, and that those without the technology will be left behind.

Using English is indispensable for Asian voices to be heard globally in this Internet age, she said. However, it is not the only thing necessary for Asia's development, she added.

If Asia wants to be a power in e-commerce on a global scale, Asians must also push for reforms in areas like education and democracy, she said.

"It (English) is not a magic wand that will turn us into a digital nation overnight," she said. "English is one of the ingredients for (Asia's) growth but not the entire recipe."

She also stressed that the importance of Asians presenting their own identities in English while "injecting" their own cultures and tradition into the language.

"We should embrace English as a world language without having to compromise our own tradition and culture. And by doing so we will enrich the English language and contribute to the global culture that is only beginning to take shape," Chan said.

In search of a standard

Many Asian countries have faced problems promoting English as a second language. Some panelists referred to struggles to find a "standard English," and others mentioned problems surrounding English education.

In Singapore, many people cannot speak "standard" English, although English has long been the language of administration and the main language of instruction in local schools, said Kwan from The Straits Times.

Although the Singaporean government encourages its people to use English to communicate and to do business in the international community, many Singaporeans use "Singlish" -- ungrammatical English sprinkled with words and phrases from many local Chinese dialects, he said.

Supporters of Singlish say it is "unique to Singaporeans and it allows Singaporeans to identify themselves," Kwan said. "But the government is adamant that poor English will make Singaporeans less attractive to foreign investors," he said.

As for such localization of English, Kavi of The Nation newspaper said that nonnative speakers should not bother much about standard English. It would better for people to speak intelligibly in their own accent than speak with British or American accents, because it reflects their Asian identities, he said.

"In the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) meetings, it is not a problem at all whether (participants use) a standard English. English is used as a vehicle to exchange information and discussion," Kavi said.

Kavi said nonnative English speakers would enrich the language by adding vocabularies to express terms that are particular to their own culture. He went on to say the future of English depends no longer on native speakers but "on other groups of speakers."

Kwon of Dong-A Ilbo cited an insufficient number of teachers who can teach in English in South Korea, although the state has tried to beef up English learning in its curriculum.

Referring to Japan's struggles to improve general English proficiency, Tolbert of The Washington Post said she felt that Japan has a "mind-set problem" with English. In this country, English skills do not seem to significantly affect people's status in employment and success in society, she added.

"The other part of the mind-set problem is the way English is taught" in Japan, Tolbert said.

Kavi shared the view.

"What surprised me (in Japan) is that, the form of learning English is like a ritual . . . but in Thailand when you speak in English you just say anything you want, as long as you can communicate," he said.

Second official language

During a subsequent session titled "National Cultures and English," the participants discussed the influence of bilingualism on their national cultures, and the question of adopting English as the second official language.

Citing the recent proposal by an advisory panel to the prime minister that Japan should make English the official second language, Hanabusa said Japanese should think about what level of proficiency in English they need and why. In this respect, Japan should learn from the experience of its Asian neighbors, she added.

Kwan said, "Japan is the only country in east Asia, where people still do not reckon that English is necessary." He noted that the Japanese government still appears uncommitted on whether English should be adopted the second official language.

"And if they need the reason (to have the debate), they should only look at other countries," Kwan said.

Dong-A Ilbo's Kwon said that in South Korea the ongoing discussion on making English an official second language has focused on two aspects: that English is needed to bring the country into the global community, and that the country must not lose its national identity.

"I think (being) bilingual does not mean changing your own culture," he said.

Chan said that in China, people are aware that they need to learn English to integrate the nation into the international community and to do business worldwide. "The issue in China . . . is how we get ahead with and how we teach English . . . and not a second guessing of why we should do it. The issue is 'how'," she said.

In Indonesia, Widjajanto said, people use English in business and academics, but interpreters are often required in meetings due to the difficulty of translation of a large variety of local languages, which number some 600 if dialects are included.

The panelists agreed, however, that making English a second language is not that easy, adding that the learning method is the key.

Regarding Japan, Tolbert said the start of English teaching -- from junior high school -- is too late, and the learning program, which focuses on preparing students for university entrance exams, lacks a practice in conversation skills.

"I wonder why the immersion method (of learning English by using the language in all classes) has not become more popular in Japan," Tolbert said, adding that Japan seems to fear what would happen to their own language if more English was introduced.

Hanabusa said that if the Japanese government wants to foster more bilingual speakers, English learning must start in the early stage of education.

She also commented on the various benefits of being bilingual, while Aotani from NHK said she wonders whether all Japanese really need English in their daily lives.

Five years from now

At the end of the one-day conference, panelists exchanged views on the prospects for how English would be used in their countries in the coming five years.

Kwon said more people are speaking English fluently in South Korea thanks to the improved education system, while Kwan said the Singaporean government is making efforts to get rid of Singlish.

Chan predicted that Chinese people would become more proficient in English. More people in major cities will be able to have conversations and offer services in English, and more young people educated overseas will return to work in the cities, she noted.

Widjajanto said more Indonesian students will return to the country after having studied abroad -- contributing to the increased number of professionals speaking English -- once the government successfully leaves the nation's economic problems behind.

Commenting as a native English speaker, Tolbert said, "One thing absolutely clear to me is that, in five years we native speakers of English are going to be a minority."

Hanabusa said she does not expect the Japanese to reach any consensus in five years on the role of English in society.

"But I do hope that there are some experiments introducing English communication and conversation at elementary schools," she said.

In Thailand, "definitely there will be more Thais speaking English in the next five years," Kavi said, adding that there are reasons why Thais need to learn English, including regional pressures.

Kavi predicted that Japan will face psychological pressure when more Chinese people master English in the coming years and go overseas more frequently and express themselves in English.



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