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Linguistic nationalism and the realities of the global age

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Dealing with the bugbear of our colonial past, our cultural-linguistic anxieties of the present and the challenges of the future will be a task that no nation can avoid. But dealing with the thorny question of language and the politics of language policies will require more than the emotional humbug and patriotic essentialism that we have come to expect from some of our politicians, writes Farish Noor.


After several years of aimless mismanagement and half-hearted attempts, it would appear that the Malaysian government has finally thrown in the towel and scrapped the policy of teaching Science and Mathematics in the English language. To be sure, it was a flaccid proposal from the start, and the very idea that standards of English in the country could be raised and improved by the selective appropriation of certain subjects to be taught in English beggared the understanding of many an educationist in the country.

While the advocates of mother-tongue education are elated (for the moment at least) by the victory they have secured for themselves, there remain a host of questions that need to be addressed and answered seriously. What is more these questions pertain not only to Malaysia and the Malaysian government, but to practically all of the countries in the developing world.

What is worrisome about the developments in Malaysia is that the demand to end the use of English for the teaching of math and science came primarily from those who championed the cause of vernacular education for their respective ethnic communities. In the context of a plural country like Malaysia, this boils down to the simple fact that the representatives of the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities preferred to maintain the ethno-linguistic barriers that continue to divide their respective communities rather than to seek a neutral medium whereby some degree of inter-cultural exchange and dialogue could take place. Of course the arguments that were marshalled to the cause were from the expected repertoire of essentialist claims concerning ethno-linguistic identity and belonging, the defence of cultural identities, the defence of linguistic purity, et al.

Now Malaysia is certainly not alone in facing up to the problem of linguistic nationalism of this variety; and indeed it can also happen to the most developed of nations: witness, for instance, the constant attempts in France to ‘purify’ and ‘cleanse’ the French language of English and American terms. I recall my stint in Germany seven years ago, when many German academics insisted on writing in German on the basis that the German language was and should be regarded as one of the foremost academic languages in the world. Sadly, the rest of the planet did not concur with this view, and my colleagues who insisted on writing their books and monographs in the German language found themselves to be increasingly marginalised in time.

It is undeniable that the question of language and the national language in particular is bound to elicit emotional responses such as what we have seen in Malaysia as well as in France and Germany. National communities – particularly when they happen to be complex, mixed and hybrid communities such as the Malaysian model – are often at pains to identify a common medium via which they can communicate and identify themselves with. Then there is also the historical baggage that is associated with English, French and Spanish that are historically the language of colonisers and imperialists; a rather sensitive point that has to be contended with as well.

Unfortunately the very real power differentials that exist in the world today have not and probably will never make room for any of the other languages of Africa or Asia to have the same hegemonic reach that the English language enjoys at present. But for nations to deny themselves access and competency in English on spurious historical grounds – the most common being that it was the ‘language of the coloniser’ – is not only counter-productive but ultimately suicidal for the nations in question.

Furthermore to suggest that the English language is permanently rooted in the moment of its cultural-linguistic genesis is to overlook the fact that languages also adapt and evolve as they are spoken further afield. English, as it is spoken and used today, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as the language of the English people solely, for we have come to the point where English is spoken and used by more non-English speakers the world over. In this respect at least English has been removed from its cultural-historical moorings by virtue of its geographical expansion. Refusing to use, speak and write in English on the grounds that it is the ‘language of the coloniser’ is therefore a ridiculous claim to make, considering that it can no longer be identified exclusively with the country and people who first used it.

What then is to be done? In so many developing countries across Asia and Africa, linguistic nationalism has become the favourite tool of many an ethno-nationalist politician who favours the return to a precolonial past. Even in Europe the rejection of English often stems from a yearning for an age of unreconstructed nostalgia.

Yet the world will not wait for any nation, and nor does the world owe any nation a living. The champions of vernacular education in Asia and Africa may find momentary comfort and solace in the familiar territory of a vernacular culture that they recognise as their own, but refusal to face up to the realities of the global age we live in means that we are in danger of condemning the future generations of our societies to a marginal position. It was not too long ago that I had to reject a paper that was written by not one but three professors of a Malaysian university that once claimed the honour of being among the best universities in Asia. No longer. The very first sentence of the paper was littered with four grammatical errors and two spelling mistakes, and the laborious reading of the rest of the paper did not bring me to the safe harbour of a clear conclusion or even a consistent argument. If this is the standard of English that we can come to expect from the professors and lecturers of our universities today, then one shudders at the thought of the academic writing to come in the near future.
Dealing with the bugbear of our colonial past, our cultural-linguistic anxieties of the present and the challenges of the future will be a task that no nation can avoid. But dealing with the thorny question of language and the politics of language policies will require more than the emotional humbug and patriotic essentialism that we have come to expect from some of our politicians. If anything, what is required now more than ever is a heavy dose of realism and intelligence.

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