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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

Proficient Multilingualism is the Future


By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial for Penang Monthly, November 2014

Let’s get serious about global communication.

In the Age of Nationalism, which is what we continue to live in, we tend to forget that communication between peoples requires a range of compromises, not least of all in the use of language, in the use of concepts, in daily experience even, and in the ethnocentrism inherent in all of us.

A dialogue between a Malaysian and an Indonesian, as one between a Swede and a Norwegian, may require very little departure from each his own language. But more often than not, as soon as there is a meeting between three or more languages, some lingua franca has to be brought into service. There are to be sure quite a few such languages in existence, some more regional than global, and some with a more enviable global reach. Here, I shall not go into a controversy about which is what, but languages like Chinese and Arab, or Spanish and French, can certainly claim to have salience way beyond the regional.

But as the number of participants—cultures represented—in a conversation increases further, we immediately move towards the necessary use of a de facto global lingua franca. For now, that is the English language—which in itself is a measure of the soft power and economic advantage that Anglo-Saxon countries enjoy.

We see the prominence of this language in how when other cultural centres today wish to reach a global audience, they establish television cable and satellite stations broadcasting in English in order to expound viewpoints that are more to their liking, and that counteract the views disseminated by Anglo-Saxon channels. These include Russia Today (RT), China Central Television (CCTV), and even Al-Jazeera, etc.

English is definitely not merely the language of the English today, but of the world. That accounts in fact for the most profound dynamics in the globalization process.

Globalization—economics, politics and culture—has been a painful process. Individuals, societies, governments and countries have managed with varying degrees of success in managing this. The many different solutions attempted have ranged from various forms of isolationism (as in North Korea today) to regionalism (as with ASEAN) to globalism (as with Communism yesterday and Islamism today).

Mastering one’s mother tongue, one’s national/official tongue (if that is not one’s mother tongue) as well as the global lingua franca, are now a basic and necessary complex of skills that present and future generations need to acquire. This is consequently a policy to be pursued by any government who wishes for its people to participate solidly on the global stage.

Simply put, global actors must master (stress master) the global lingua franca. This does not mean that their proficiency in their mother, local or regional tongues must suffer.

A government may choose to focus on the national language at the cost of other languages, or it may go the other way and concentrate on the mastering of the global lingua franca at the cost of mother tongues and local languages. Both have unwanted long-term repercussions.

The point that cannot be avoided is that globalization in language use continues to occur through all sorts of increasingly speedy media, and national language policy makers anywhere in the world simply have to accept that. They would do well to consider adopt a class perspective, and work out what short cuts are available to the less privileged in this contest to master global communication?



About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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