Language Policy and Education in Southeast Asia

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Language Policy and Education in Southeast Asia

A primer on Southeast Asian language policy and education.

Language Policy and Education in Southeast Asia
Credit: Depositphotos

Recent years have seen a revitalized interest in the role and status of language in our increasingly interconnected world. Language is a force that binds people together and enables cooperation from interpersonal to international levels.

Southeast Asia is a region of marvelous linguistic diversity, with over 1,200 languages spoken by 655 million people all across this large, geographically and culturally diverse area. It is a melting pot of many different language groups, making Southeast Asian languages a rich field of study.

The state of these languages has been highly dependent on how the different countries have approached them in terms of policy and educational support. In order to understand the future of language policy in the region, it is important to look at how historical forces have shaped it.

The issue of language is inextricably entwined with the concept of the modern nation-state from its very beginning. With the exception of Thailand, the entirety of Southeast Asia has been split under the rule of Western colonial powers. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century, between 1945 and 1957, that these territories would attain independence as sovereign states.

Language was a crucial component to the work of nation-building — for most Southeast Asian countries, colonization entailed bringing together many disparate ethnic groups that spoke different languages, with the language of the colonizer serving as a lingua franca. The colonial language also served as the language of government and the primary medium of instruction.

Upon gaining independence, most countries rejected the use of these languages and elevated at least one dominant local tongue to official status as a national language instead. In Vietnam, for example, less than 1 percent of the population now speak French.

The importance of Southeast Asian languages in nation-building is premised on the post-colonial state’s need to establish a cohesive cultural identity distinct from its former colonizer.

The scholar Benedict Anderson best captures the essence of the nation as a concept by framing it as an “imagined community” — an entity that is socially constructed by people who perceive themselves as part of a group that is larger than them, composed of people that they do not know but have a common cultural and historical affinity with.

Given that language is a major marker of cultural identity, most of the fledgling Southeast Asian states found the continued use of a colonial language to be anathemic to the project of building a national identity. But replacing them with Southeast Asian languages was a complex process. In those with clear ethnic majorities such as Cambodia and Vietnam, the process could be more straightforward, but for other countries the problem of choosing which language became a point of tension. Toward the turn of the millennium, all of these countries would also begin to contend with the increasing prominence of English in world affairs.

English had already begun to consolidate itself as a global lingua franca in the 19th century in large part influenced by the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the spread of its maritime empire. Its status as a linguistic hegemon was cemented by the United States’ post-World War II political, economic, and technological boom, which meant that by the advent of the 21st century a vast portion of the world had already embraced the language to different extents.

In recent decades the English language has become a point of convergence for language policy.  It has a long history in the region on account of the historical factors of colonization, international trade, and religion. But among the different Southeast Asian countries, the role and status of the English has varied considerably.

Scholars have categorized countries as belonging to either the “outer circle” or the “expanding circle” in terms of their relation to the language, according to a three-circle model of World Englishes proposed by preeminent Indian linguist Braj Kachru.

In outer circle countries, English is considered a second language and often holds status as an official language. This is as opposed to countries of the “inner circle,” where English is considered the first language, such as in the United States or the United Kingdom.

As for expanding circle countries, English has not had any historical foothold and is therefore considered a foreign language. This means that English has played no significant role in the institutions and the life of the nation, and is largely relegated to the classroom and foreign diplomacy.

In Southeast Asia, there are four countries that are considered to be part of the Outer Circle. Singapore, Malaysia, and Brunei are former British colonies or protectorates, while the Philippines was a colony of the United States. As such, English has historically played a big role in their institutions. This extended into education, as the colonial administration would come to depend on developing an educated local upper class with a fluent grasp of the language.

English continues to play a major administrative function in these countries. The Philippines and Brunei use English in an official capacity alongside their respective national languages Filipino and Malay, while in Singapore it holds official status alongside Malay, Chinese, and Tamil. In Malaysia, the role of English was gradually phased out in favor of Bahasa Melayu, although it has seen a resurgence from the 90s due to the pragmatic necessities of globalization.

The rest of the Southeast Asian countries fall under the “expanding circle,” where English has largely played a limited role up until the rise of globalization. These countries include Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. Although Myanmar is a former British colony, the place of English in this country weakened over the course of decades of isolation, during which it was displaced by Burmese in educational and institutional settings.

For a time, English occupied a stronger position in South Vietnam due to the country’s alliance with the United States during the Cold War. However, its hold weakened significantly after the withdrawal of American troops leading up to the country’s reunification.

Vietnam’s tumultuous policy developments regarding foreign languages makes for an illustrative case study. During the Cold War era, their influence and significance was contingent on political and ideological factors, with Russian and Chinese being encouraged in the Communist north, while French and English remained influential in the south.

The North’s eventual victory drastically reduced the influence of the latter due to policies aiming for their complete eradication from educational curricula and official use. Russian and Chinese would eventually lose their foothold as well, however — the latter due to breakdown of diplomatic relations, and the former as a result of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

Outside Vietnam and the Communist bloc, English had already established itself as a global lingua franca, and was in use within major fields such as commerce, diplomacy, and academe. As the Russian language’s sphere of influence declined, it left a void that English rushed to fill according to market demand.

While English, French, Russian, and Chinese are the primary foreign languages to be taught at school, English is considered to be the most important and is given the most attention in state policy with the government’s ambitious Project 2020. This policy aimed to increase the English proficiency of college graduates, but has met a number of setbacks due to ineffective pedagogical approaches, lack of appropriate materials, and shortage of competent  teachers. Despite this, English is set to remain a major target in Vietnamese language education policy.

The English language’s developmental trajectory in Vietnam is far from unique. With the rise of globalization, which has seen English become the international lingua franca, Southeast Asian governments have increasingly put value on English, and it is predicted that the line between outer and expanding circle countries will continue to blur as the language becomes a bigger part of the life of the people and come into closer contact with other Southeast Asian languages. In all of the “expanding circle” countries, English is now the first foreign language taught in schools.

As previously mentioned, there are over 1,200 Southeast Asian languages. Indonesia by itself contributes over half of the total number, with over 800 languages being spoken in the country. This is followed by the Philippines at 187 languages and Malaysia at 137.

The diversity of Southeast Asian languages has long been at risk, however, due to being excluded from the discourse on language policy as governments put emphasis on the promotion of national languages and English. Multilingual or first-language educational initiatives in most of these countries are often in the hands of NGOs and community organizations.

This state of affairs has had a negative impact in the domain of education. The use of these languages in education disadvantages early learners who speak a different, indigenous first language, leading to lower literacy rates and proficiency in other domains, further influencing their education at later stages.

However, recent years have seen renewed interest in supporting indigenous Southeast Asian languages in education. UNESCO has noted a movement toward multilingual education in the past two decades, particularly in Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam.

Other scholars, however, have noted a disconnect between policy goals and practice in Thailand and Vietnam, where support and implementation still heavily emphasize their respective national languages at all levels.

So far, the Philippines’ Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) policy is the benchmark for this kind of initiative in the region. Cambodia has also begun its own initiatives to emphasize the role of indigenous languages through its Multilingual Education National Action Plan (MANEP) implemented in 2015.

The Philippines’ MTB-MLE policy represents the earliest concerted government initiative to promote indigenous languages in education in the region. The system was put into effect in 2012, after a series of pilot projects were determined to be successful.

The Philippines is an archipelago with regions dominated by different first languages. Under the MTB-MLE system, support would be provided toward developing educational resources in 19 major regional languages.

The implementation of this system would, however, come to be plagued with challenges due to lack of funding and the quality of learning material. Proponents of the system have also criticized the execution of the policy, as it significantly scaled down the original scope of the project.

At present, support for indigenous Southeast Asian languages still faces numerous challenges. Nationalism and globalization remain major driving forces in language policy among Southeast Asian countries. The role of English is likely to become more prominent as economic factors drive the need for a workforce that is able to navigate an increasingly interconnected world.

As the issue gains more attention in the fields of academe and diplomacy, the future of language policy in Southeast Asia will depend on continued dialogue among its constituent nations.