South-East Asia’s language wars continue

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language in SE Asia

Had he been president of Indonesia, not France, Charles de Gaulle might have modified his famous saying about cheeses and asked how to govern a nation with over 700 different languages. The answer, as elsewhere in South-East Asia, was to impose a “national” tongue.

As the region’s countries became independent, most wanted their citizenry to speak the same indigenous language. But choosing an acceptable candidate sometimes proved difficult, laying the ground for “language wars” that still rage.

A new collection of essays* from the Singapore-based Institute of South-East Asian Studies (ISEAS) reviews the region’s struggles to build monolingual nations. Several themes emerge: first, globalisation is forcing governments to reconsider restrictions on daily use of English; second, with the economic rise of China, governments increasingly see their ethnic-Chinese populations as assets rather than threats; and third, democratisation and decentralisation may revive local and tribal languages. Each of these trends may undermine the quest for a unifying national language.

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