Asian academia faces language block

Malaysia, as a country that was once partly Anglophone, and where English was once spoken well, has to make a choice sooner or later. While it remains the case that we cannot deny or neglect the importance of Bahasa Malaysia as a tool for nation-building, Malaysia’s future — like all other countries in this globalising world — lies beyond our shores as well.

Farish Noor, NST  

GLOBAL LINGUA: Scholarly works that are not in English are not able to penetrate the international arena

THE debate over the teaching of the English language continues, not only in Malaysia but also in many other countries across the world. While the form and content of the debate has been shaped by domestic political considerations and agendas, there are some pressing realities that we cannot escape from; and one of them is the simple fact that English remains the most commonly used language in global academic circles.

In order to circumvent the somewhat heated temperature of the debate here, allow me to offer some observations based on my experience teaching in some other Asian countries. In countries like India and Pakistan, the teaching of English remains a serious concern for many students, parents and educational institutions that wish to give Indian and Pakistani students a fighting chance in the ever-changing global economy. For many of the new industries that have emerged, including information technology, the working knowledge remains English – despite the linguistic nationalism that is articulated and foregrounded by some politicians and activists there.

One country that I have come to know rather well by now is Indonesia, where I routinely travel to do research as well as to teach. It has been my honour, and pleasure, to meet a wide range of Indonesian academics, who have become my colleagues and friends for more than a decade now. Equally rewarding has been the experience of supervising more than a dozen Indonesian post-graduate scholars, who have done their doctoral theses under my supervision.

It is no exaggeration on my part, I feel, when I say that the Indonesian scholars and students I have met and known are among the best academics I have come across. Indonesia today produces some of the best work in the humanities and social sciences, and in all honesty, I have to state that the quality of work I have seen in Indonesia matches the work I have seen in countries like France, Holland and Germany, where I have also worked and taught in.

However, there remains one stumbling block that hinders Indonesia’s rise as a major centre for teaching, research and knowledge-production, and it is the fact that an overwhelming majority of the works produced by Indonesian scholars today is in Bahasa Indonesia. And, despite the fact that Indonesia’s population numbers almost a quarter of a billion souls, Bahasa Indonesia is not widely known, spoken or read beyond the shores of Southeast Asia. It has always seemed grossly unfair to me that Indonesia’s academic presence is not known or felt wider, but the sad fact is that English remains the dominant language of academia in both the social sciences and the hard sciences.

Those of us who live and work in the academic field are even more acutely aware of the power of English as the language of knowledge and power today. In any academic discipline, be it in the humanities or the hard sciences, access to the latest theories and developments in the field are crucial.

And, for this, books and journals are vital, for the latest theories are to be found in the journals that are circulated between universities or online. A simple cursory search on any online search engine will tell you that an overwhelming majority of such journals are now in English.
 We, who live and toil in the postcolonial world, are thus caught in a dilemma of sorts, for we are torn between our own linguistic-nationalist needs and the equally compelling need to be realists and pragmatists. In the past — at least up to the late 19th century — German and French were also important languages in the academic field, but no longer. (Honestly, ask yourself: when was the last time you read a journal article in French or German? Or, if you did, was it not translated into English?)

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