Fri, 11 Mar 2005

The political economy of (foreign) language

Aziz Munich, Germany

Most people when asked to name the international language of business and trade would quickly answer English.

And recent surveys show that English is frequently nominated as the most useful and sought-after foreign language in most non- English speaking countries in the world.

In line with this international demand, the University of Indonesia (UI) and the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), two prominent higher education institutions, have introduced a program to make English the medium of instruction in most teaching activities.

This is a great initiative, albeit arguably 30 years too late. As part of this program UI and ITB signed a cooperation agreement with Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, a neighbor that has already gone a long way to making English an important language.

It is worth noting that such a program, directly campaigned for by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, did not go through unchallenged. There was anxiety at the time that the Chinese language, spoken by most Singaporeans, would slowly vanish or become marginalized and there was strong resistance to this campaign.

However, Singapore, India, Malaysia and Hong Kong have maintained English as an important medium of instruction and everybody can see where they have ended up. Indonesia, which discarded Dutch soon after the revolution, unsurprisingly has been left behind.

Realizing the importance of English, Indonesian parents who can afford it eagerly send their children to international schools, "plus schools" or even to schools abroad to ensure their children grasp the universal language that is increasingly critical in finding a job.

Teaching English has become a lucrative business. The ETS (English Testing Service) has generated millions of dollars in revenue from the world's most-popular standardized language test, TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), which has hundreds of thousands of participants every year.

Meanwhile, European students from non-English speaking countries usually speak two languages, theirs and English. It is not unusual for them to speak three or even more languages, usually including German, French, Spanish or Italian. Some speak even more if they come from Eastern Europe.

In America, there are rising numbers of multilingual Hispanic and Asian Americans, who speak English fluently along with their mother tongue.

But mastering English is not an end in itself. It is just the first step for Indonesians to become fluent in many languages.

Hispanics, Afro-Americans and Asians used to be labeled minorities in America, however, their increase in numbers along with an increase in identity politics has meant that their languages could become more important in the future.

The same applies when dealing with the European Union. English is important tool in penetrating this common market but the member countries have not abandoned their native languages. This means that a student or businessman in Sweden is encouraged to learn Italian if they wish to establish a connection with an Italian partner.

Finally, for a complete picture, language must also be considered in its political context. Currently there are about 7.3 million foreigners resident in Germany, 70 percent of them from Turkey.

With a new immigration law in place, those seeking permanent residence in Germany are required to take courses in the German language and in law, culture and history.

This measure, the Germans believe will help the integration of foreign residents into German culture.

The writer is a post-graduate student in sustainable resource management at Munich Technical University. He can be reached at