March 2017

Tidbits on the English Language - No. 5: English, the Key to Global Expansion

Singapore's Global Expansion Through the English First Policy

In the previous article, we discussed how English took root as lingua franca among communities in many colonies as they became independent nations.

Even outside of these former colonies, many countries consider English to be the only foreign language worth learning. There are innumerable examples of English being used in international organizations such as the United Nations and business discussions, naturally, but also in international exchanges of a personal nature.

In Asia, very early on, people from Indonesia, Japan and China started showing a high interest in popularizing English.

In China, the broadcast of English conversation programs produced by the BBC started in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It gained tremendous popularity, at some point even attracting over 50 million viewers. At the time, the Chinese government was working toward the Chinese economic reform, and they were coming to a decision to invite investments from the Western block. In today's China, the situation has evolved: there are more and more Chinese people studying abroad and/or traveling overseas, and efforts have been made to increase the number of fluent English-speakers.

As for Singapore, the country's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew implemented the English-first policy up until the mid-1980s. This was based on his strong belief that everybody must be able to accurately speak English for a small multiethnic nation to succeed in the world. After entering the 21st century, with the synergy produced by its fluency at English and its remarkable business/economic expansion, this helped this small island nation to expand its presence despite its small size and to often be regarded as a likely contender for capital of ASEAN in the future.

Ample Adoption of English Borrowed Words in the Japanese Language

In Japan, although English is not commonly spoken, tens of thousands of English expressions have entered the Japanese vocabulary as borrowed words since 1945. Their pronunciation may have been transliterated to Japanese, but an overwhelming amount of English-sounding words have nevertheless permeated Japanese. This is a different approach to the one adopted by Japan during its isolationism period at the end of the Edo era (1603 - 1868) or its opening up in early Meiji era (1868-1912), when people who had received a sophisticated classical Chinese education made foreign words their own by remodeling them for inclusion into their mother tongue (ex.: philosophy > 哲学 tetsugaku; economy > 経済 keizai; etc.).

However, Japan isn't the only country to have adopted English transliterations.

German: die Jeans, die Soundtrack
French: le weekend, le drugstore
Spanish: el escáner (scanner), el golf
Chinese: 的士 (taxi), 因特網 (Internet)
Thai: Akwariian / อควาเรียม (aquarium), diisaai / ดีไซน์ (design)

Fighting the Encroaching English Language to Protect the French Tongue

In the latter half of the 20th century, in an effort to protect the French language from the invasion of English ("la langue du Coca-Cola", "the language of Coca-Cola"), France launched a movement to re-appropriate Anglicisms into French (jumbo jet > gros-porteur, fast food > prêt-à-manger). Indeed, it is said that one English term appears every 150 or 200 words in famous newspapers such as Le Monde.

A struggle between French and English also stands in Canada. Quebec, a state with a large French-speaking population, has lobbied for independence since the late 1940s. In the end, Quebec didn't become independent, but a law was instated in 1977, establishing French as the first language (Charter of the French language, Loi 101). Signboards and bulletins have to be written in French, and French education was made compulsory for school children unless one of their parents received education in English at an elementary school in Quebec.

On the other hand, as many wished to continue using English in Canada, actions appear to have been taken (illegally) to teach English to students at churches and other places. When short on room, schools had to be rented out after-hours or during the weekend, and the teacher's wage had to be paid through non-governmental means.

With such political measures, vehement protest arose in Quebec from English-speakers, naturally, but also from minority groups of Italian, Greek and Chinese origin. Unable to accept this law or to abide by it, as many as 200,000 Canadians left Quebec.

Evolving Toward Anglo-French Bilingualism

Be that as it may, we no longer live in a world where people are constricted in regional communities, and it goes without saying that Quebeckers speak English when communicating with people outside of the French-speaking zone. English is also commonly used in Quebec airports, when air-traffic controllers correspond with pilots, and in banks when contacting branches in other regions.

The French First Charter has subsequently been made unconstitutional, however, the current adoption of bilingualism has put English in French on an even keel. And this has secured for now the position of the French language in Canada despite the decreasing French-speaking community.

Canadian English is also strongly influenced and corroded by their American neighbor. Their use of U.S.-made textbooks and dictionaries in the education system is cited as one of the reasons why Canadian and American English are so much alike.

We have tackled various aspects of the English language, so next time I would like to present some of the benefits of English that scarcely seem to appear with other languages.

Written by Masanori Itoh, Translation/Localization Department