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    South Asia
     Jan 28, 2006
Whose English is it?
Asian Englishes: Beyond the Canon
by Braj B Kachru Buy this book

Reviewed by Martin A Schell

So long as the English language is universal, it will always remain Indian.
- Raja Rao

Affirming that English belongs to everyone, Braj B Kachru ranges wide in subject matter and geography, challenging many assumptions that he attributes to residual aspects of colonialism. His approach is kaleidoscopic: instead of proving his assertions with a linear sequence of logic, he shows numerous facets that fit

like the pieces of a puzzle.

A native of Kashmir, Kachru holds joint professorships in linguistics and comparative literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he has taught for the past four decades. That combination of specialties is the source of both the brilliance and the flaws of this jewel of a book.

The topic is timely, given the large number of countries using the global language, many of them now requiring English classes in elementary schools. Kachru's writing is always lively - and occasionally witty - as he moves gracefully back and forth from details about phonology and lexical sets to abstractions about culture and identity.

His main thesis can be framed by a pair of questions: Is the English language inevitably linked with Western culture? Or is it a tool or instrument that can be applied to local commerce and literature, like adapting the design of an automobile to fit life in Japan or using a violin to play an Indian raga?

After introducing key terms in Chapter 1, Kachru presents striking statistics and a set of concepts in Chapter 2 to support his answer of "yes" to the second question. He believes that anglophones in Asia have the right to determine the direction of their own varieties of a language that is no longer owned by the people for whom it was named.

Chief among the concepts is his model of three concentric circles that has become standard among linguists since he formulated it in 1985. The Inner Circle consists of Great Britain and the countries settled by it, whose people are called native speakers of English in the mainstream media and English-language teaching (ELT) industry. The Outer Circle surrounding it consists of countries that have institutionalized the English language to one degree or another in the aftermath of being colonized by the British (or by the Americans in the case of the Philippines). Finally, the Expanding Circle consists of all other countries (eg, Japan, China, South Korea, Indonesia) that are promoting the study of English as a foreign language (EFL) by their populations.

Kachru claims majority rights for Asian anglophones on the basis of a startling statistic: a total of 533 million people in China and India "use" English. As he explains in Chapter 11, the component figure of 200 million English "users" in China is a 1995 estimate by Zhao Yong and Keith Campbell, who tallied the number of students in China during 1982-91 and extrapolated for 1992-94. They assumed that everyone who graduated junior high school after passing an English exam "uses" English. The figure of 333 million for India is Kachru's update of "almost one in every three Indians" reported in a 1997 survey commissioned by the magazine India Today.

The total of 533 million may draw gasps from readers who are familiar with articles that followed in the wake of David Graddol's "The Future of English?" report in 1997. For example, Stefan Lovgren's "English in decline as a first language, study says" in National Geographic News (February 26, 2004) noted that the Inner Circle's percentage of the world's population is shrinking. However, Graddol himself pointed out that many English speakers in India and Nigeria are "migrating" toward first-language status. Kachru mentions such a shift in regard to Singapore (p 2) and takes the point a step further, explaining that "functional nativeness" should replace the concept of native speaker because the boundary between native and non-native has become blurry.

The first edition of Graddol's report coincided with Hong Kong's return to China, which precipitated a shift in the former colony from Cantonese to Mandarin. As a result, media coverage often combined the "decline of English" theme with the "rise of Mandarin", citing billion-sized figures for the number of native speakers of Mandarin. However, the National Language Commission of the People's Republic of China (PRC) threw cold water on these estimates last May by announcing that only 53% of China could speak Mandarin, and many of those people prefer to speak a more familiar Chinese language ("Half of all Chinese people can't speak Mandarin: Report", Taipei Times, May 23, 2005).

In Chapter 3, Kachru presents a convincing case for a regional variety called South Asian English (SAE). Readers who enjoy etymology will revel in this long and fascinating chapter. In addition to mentioning words that English borrowed from India's languages (bungalow, coolie, jungle, etc), he gives an account of the landmark 1835 decision to institute English as the language of colonial education in India, and also discusses the political fortunes of English after independence in 1947. The sample letters in Babu English may remind readers of the style seen in Nigerian scam e-mails.

Chapter 4 focuses on Japan. Although Mori Arinori and several other 19th-century scholars recommended shifting the national language to English, English has no institutionalized status there. So, despite its heavy emphasis on English in education and business, Japan is part of the Expanding Circle. Indeed, this chapter is almost devoid of examples of so-called "Japanese English" - all of the loan words cited are evidence of English embedded in the Japanese language. For example, when I lived in Tokyo, I heard the Japanese say "white shirt" when speaking English but waishatsu when speaking their native language. By analogy, if Americans sprinkle their English discourse with such phrases as karate sensei or aikido dojo, no one would claim to be speaking a new variety of Japanese called "American Nihongo".

The remaining chapters are devoted to: a broad look at convergence and hybridization of English with local languages; an attack on the "myths" of the English for specific purposes (ESP) industry; a thorough look at the implications of modern writers using Indian English as their medium for literature; a balanced discussion about whether English "kills" endangered languages; a critique of English pedagogy in Asia; and an overview that includes a few pages about colloquial Singaporean English ("Singlish").

The subtitle Beyond the Canon refers to Kachru's challenge to the Inner Circle's monopoly on canons of correctness and creativity. In his praise of Raja Rao and others who write literature in SAE, Kachru transcends the dichotomy of imitation versus rejection that polarized local attitudes toward English on the subcontinent for much of the 20th century. He enthusiastically insists that Asians can use English to express their own cultural heritage.

Kachru praises the "linguistic hybridity" of The Chessmaster and His Moves in which Rao uses three European and five Indian languages. This multilingualism may well be a pinnacle of creativity, but Kachru seems to have a chip on his shoulder when he writes, "The burden of linguistic and cultural intelligibility and interpretation is on the reader" (p 144). Why should the burden be on the reader? Communication involves two parties, who share responsibility for comprehension. Kachru's attitude comes from the legacy of colonialism, which was so thoroughly imbued with oppression that the colonizer usually did insist that the burden of understanding was on the colonized.

The persistent demand for redress seems to be his motivation for conflating actual varieties of English in the Outer Circle (eg, SAE, Singlish, Malaysian, Hong Kong) with potential varieties in the Expanding Circle (eg, Japanese, Chinese) under the rubric Asian Englishes. Does it make sense to combine 333 million Indians whose English heritage goes back nearly two centuries with 200 million Chinese who began studying English two decades ago? I suppose it does if one is trying to rally disparate forces under a single banner in an assault on the authority of the Inner Circle.

How many of those 333 million foot soldiers are able to make sense of the multilingual novels written by their literary generals? This is where Kachru's literary expertise becomes a liability, because it reinforces "privileging writing above speech", an ivory-tower tendency noted by David Crystal. In living languages, spoken words generally outnumber written ones, and expository documents outnumber literary works.

The heart of the matter is speech, not writing. The former is rooted in subconscious collective knowledge or tacit consensus, which is why the Academie Francaise and the government of Singapore repeatedly fail in their attempts to proscribe usage. It is conversation, not literature, that generates a new variety of English. Bilingual novels that express the maturity of Indian English promote that variety's identity, but they did not create it. Innovative "Japanese English" advertising slogans are not evidence of a new variety because people read those phrases far more often than they speak them.

More to the point, Japanese anglophones differ greatly from Singaporeans because they rarely use English among themselves unless a foreigner is present. Without a critical mass of speakers to generate norms, how can a hybridization like "Japanese English" be called an independent variety? Indeed, Kachru himself separates norm-providing and norm-dependent countries (p 19), which appear to fall on opposite sides of the answer to the question, "Do compatriots often speak English with each other?"

Although I agree that the Inner Circle needs to become more flexible in both ear and ideology, I think it is presumptuous to discount native-speaker expertise as nothing more than a vestige of imperialism. The flip side of Kachru's praise of the "invisible functions" of English in Japan is that the Japanese themselves are deeply appreciative of the invisible skill of an expatriate editor performing a "native check". In contrast, lack of general knowledge about Western culture leads local translators in such places as Indonesia to make bizarre mistakes, such as rendering the name of the US tabloid National Enquirer as "National Cloud" in a movie subtitle.

Kachru's repeated invocation of the term "linguistic ecology" can also be turned against his cause: if one considers time to be as valid a dimension as space, then the rejection of established canons of English in the name of modern diversity is like cutting down first-growth forest to plant a vegetable garden. The specious analogy with biological niches implies that only certain combinations of languages can succeed in a given environment, a notion that we New Yorkers would find laughable.

Given that the number of Englishes is likely to increase, what is the future of mutual intelligibility? Kachru touches on this question in his criticism of ESP but he avoids discussing international standards, perhaps because he assumes that the right to establish new canons means forging a global consensus will be impossible. Yet as the pro- and anti-Singlish battle has shown, it is likely that the formal registers of Asian Englishes (especially in the written mode) will diverge more slowly than the new vernaculars.

It is true that elite Asian anglophones have a vested interest in the linguistic status quo. I taught with several at universities in Thailand and saw how they looked askance at expatriate teachers who accepted the type of local linguistic innovation that Kachru promotes so fervently. But such conservatives are right to ask, "Shouldn't the variety of English we teach our compatriots be as universally recognizable as possible?"

Finally, I feel compelled to comment on the production of this book by the Hong Kong University Press. Although Kachru's volume has clean printing on lovely white pages, its non-physical substance is deficient. The editors should have checked that Manx was spoken on the Isle of Man (not the "Isle of Manx") and the adjective relating to Vishnu is Vaishnava (not "Yaishnava"). Tables 2.1 and 11.2 have errors, and Prince Charles deserves to have his given name capitalized just as much as commoners do.

Other errors that suggest a blind reliance on spell-checker software include "various label", "now its is", and the typo "Whiteworth" inside a paragraph that twice spelled the man's name correctly as Whitworth. Even the author's name is misspelled as "Karchu" (p 253) and "Karchru" (p 288). Proper editing - in any canon - requires the attention of a human being who understands the text.

It was in a spirit of brotherhood that the Bengali Nobelist Rabindranath Tagore, upon arriving at the port of Jakarta in 1927, remarked, "I see India everywhere, but I do not recognize it." In this light, an Inner Circle anglophone in Asia who says "I see English everywhere, but I do not recognize it" should not be presumed arrogant.

Martin Schell is the founder of American Services In Asia, a consulting firm based in his wife's hometown of Klaten, Central Java. He is an Adjunct Faculty Professor of Communications at NYU's Stern School of Business and the author of Developing a Global Perspective for Knowledge Management.

Asian Englishes: Beyond the Canon by Braj B Kachru. Hong Kong University Press $27.95 paperback. 

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing .)

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