Power of Language

The New York Times carried two interesting articles on language in Asia over the past few days.

The first one is about upwardly mobile Indonesian parents worried that their kids are speaking so much English at home and school that they can barely converse in Bahasa Indonesia even though they live in Jakarta. Speaking English is something lots of Indonesians aim for as a ticket to a better education, a better job and a higher income. However, the idea that some Indonesian kids among the country's growing affluent classes are struggling to speak the national langauage comes as a shock. After all, Bahasa Indonesia was at the heart of the country's independence struggle in the first half of the 20th century and remains central to maintaining unity across that sprawling and diverse republic where the peoples of its many islands all have their own local dialects and languages.  

The second report tells of a protest in Guangzhou, in southern China, against a plan by a local politician to end TV broadcasts in Cantonese, the local language—or, if you prefer, the local dialect. He wants only China's official language, Mandarin, on the airwaves. Again, it goes back to the importance of language for a nation and also, in this case, for an ethnic grouping.

Like English, Mandarin is growing fast in importance as a global language. (We at Asia Society understand this and are playing our part).  Of course, Cantonese has one major modern-day strength ... it's the language of most pop songs and movies from Hong Kong.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Geoff Spencer
Geoff Spencer oversees Asia Society's online, public relations, and marketing departments. He has over 25 years of experience as an Asia-based journalist.