Tag Archives: Malaysia

The Chinese Yuan, the US Dollar and the Currency of Language

Imagine a time in the not too distant future when global business deals are mainly conducted in Mandarin Chinese. Contracts outlining  sales of, say, Brazilian planes to India are written in Mandarin, the payments made in yuan. The websites of the World Trade Organization and the G20 are in Chinese, with options to switch to Spanish, Portuguese and English.

That may be a bit hyperbolic for the near future, but in certain parts of the world there’s evidence of some resistance to English.

In Malaysia, a new generation of political leaders are embracing the Malay language (known to its speakers as Bahasa Malayu) as a nationalist symbol.  Schools have been told to stop teaching math and science in English, and instead teach those subjects in Malay.

In neighboring Singapore, English remains the language of instruction. It is also the “glue” language that binds the multilingual, multiethnic population together.  But the government also wants its citizens to speak Mandarin— the majority of Singaporeans are ethnic Han Chinese, but older Singaporeans tend to speak Hokkien and other dialects that are not understood by Mandarin speakers.

The Singaporean  government’s reasoning is the same is at was when it introduced English to the city-state many decades ago: then,  Singapore’s future depended on trade with English-speaking nations; today, its future depends on trade with China. For Singaporean businessman Lee Han Shih, if the Chinese yuan replaces the dollar as the world’s leading reserve currency, “then you have to learn Chinese.” What’s more, if trade deals are done in yuan,  “there’s no need to use English.” The decline of the English language, Lee predicts, will follow the decline of the US dollar.

Then there’s the growing popularity in Singapore of Singlish, a home-and-street language that’s a mash-up of English, Hokkien, Malay and several other languages. In this linguistic milieu, English is feeling the squeeze.  Even if it remains in schoolrooms, it may be on the wane everywhere else in Singapore.

The question is: are these two examples from the Malay Peninsula exceptions to English’s march to global supremacy? Or are they harbingers of the future decline of English?

I’ve talked about Singlish before in the pod, with the very entertaining Singporean ex-pats Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo. Also, there’s Mr Brown’s Singapore blog and podcast here, and more on Jennifer Pak, who reported today’s episode, here.

Incidentally, the next pod and post suggest that English doesn’t have much to be worried about in the immediate future.  Jennifer Pak will be reporting from Vietnam, where young people are clamoring to learn English.

Listen here or via iTunes.

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Hebrew’s revival, Turkey’s banned letters, Malaysia’s Allah crisis, and Q

Hebrew is the most successful attempt ever at language revival (though some argue that the evolution of Modern Hebrew is closer to language invention than revival).  Drawing on an ancient language has its drawbacks. The original had perhaps only a few thousand words, some of which — cherub, concubine — aren’t hugely useful these days.  And then there are the tens of thousands of words that didn’t exist in Biblical Hebrew. Not just technical words either. No word for icecream. Or skateboard. That’s where the Academy of Hebrew Language comes in. In last week’s podcast, Daniel Estrin reported on how the Academy helped come up with Hebrew names for  Uranus and Neptune.
Picture: Daniel Estrin

This week, Daniel tells us about how the Academy works, and what Israelis think of its work. The story was prompted by the Israeli cabinet’s decision to establish a Hebrew National Day on 21st of the Hebrew month of Tevet (in 2010, it was January 7). That’s the birth date of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew. (All this originally came to us via Tablet Magazine and its podcast Vox Tablet, where you can hear a slightly different version of Daniel’s report.)

Also, Malaysians have rioted and attacked churches after a court ruled that a Catholic newspaper can continue to use the word Allah. The government had banned its use, but an a court sided with the newspaper. Now the government is appealing to Malaysia’s highest court.

Then, two reports on letters in the Latin alphabet. In Sweden, parents have won the right to name their newborn Q. Just Q.  It’s not the most charming of names, but it’s not the least either. A previous controversy was over a baby girl named Metallica. Our second letter-related story comes from Turkey, where using the Kurdish-associated letters Q, W or X could land you in jail. There’s a nice Onion skit on the subject of letter additions to the English alphabet here.

Finally, a two-nations-divided-by-one-language examination of the word grit. These days, it’s the mot du jour in Britain because supplies are low. Not that Brits suddenly lack grit of the courageous determination variety. (That figurative take on the word is just about the only way it’s used here in the United States.) No, Brit grit is what Americans call salt, meaning that salt/dirt mix that is spread over icy roads. Britain, of course, is not  prepared for the kind of extreme wintry conditions that have been wreaking havoc on the nation this past month. So, there’s not enough grit.  Like in the British summertime when it doesn’t rain for a few weeks, there suddenly isn’t enough water.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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Banning Hungarian, swearing for pain relief, and dog barks translated

clarklostFor this month’s language news podcast, I roped in The World’s Online Editor Clark Boyd. In a former life, Clark taught English in Hungary — yes that’s a barely younger version of him posing beneath the signpost. He, of course, has some choice stories about that time. (I wish I could offer up a hyperlink here…) He and I chose the following stories:

5. Slovakia passes a law banning Hungarian in official communications in some of its Hungarian-speaking regions. The is just the latest in a long-running series of bureaucratic battles between this small country’s Slovak-speaking majority and its Hungarian minority. Hungarians are getting used to this. Because they found themselves on the losing side in World War One, their country contracted. That left millions of Hungarian speakers living in surrounding nations, primarily Slovakia, Romania and Serbia. And aside from –in some cases — sharing the same script, the Hungarian language bears no similiarities to the languages spoken in these countries. Cue suspicion, fear and loathing.

bilingual4. New research out of Italy seeks to show why babies and young children are so adept at learning two languages simultaneously. It’s more evidence of the possible advantages — social and neurological — that bilingual speakers have over monolinguals. Above is a picture I took inside a Phoenix-area elementary school that has had to change its curriculum because it was deemed to be teaching “too bilingually.”bowlingual
3. Stereotyped Japanese toy story alert: toy maker Takara Tomy has come up with a device that claims to translate dog noises into human language. . That language, for the time being, is Japanese, so it might not work for you. This may or may not be entirely a gimmick. But even if there is something to the translation “algorithm,” do you ready want to know what pooch is saying? $220 will buy you a Bowlingual.

2. Six years ago, the Malaysian government ordered its public schools to start teaching math and science in English. After several protests, mainly from ethnic Malays, the government has lifted the requirement, so that schools can choose which language to use. The main languages of instruction there are Bahasa Malay, Chinese and Tamil. This will please rural schools where finding a English-speaking math or science teacher was vitually impossible. But the fear now is that Malaysia may fall further behind the the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong in producing a tech-smart, English-speaking younger generation.

swear1. Good news for people who occasionally swear: results from a new study show that the trangressive nature of cursing helps when it comes to tolerating pain. You can keep your hand submerged in a jar of ice for longer if you put filthy words to your feelings. Try it at home! However, this methodology won’t work if you are a over-sweary person, you swear constantly even in your most painless moments: the curses will have lost their meaning.

A bonus this week: our favorite hated words. This is inspired by the Ledbury Poetry Festival in England which asked poets to come up with their least favorite words. The winner: pulchritude — not a bad word till you know what it means: beauty. Clearly, it needs a meaning reset. How about the lingering smell of garbage? Other words Clark and I discuss: benign, dadrock, homeland and alien.

Listen in iTunes and here.

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