Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of Asean – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Formed in 1967 and at the time incorporating Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, the body has since added Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam to now boast 10 member states. The regional political and economic entity is of such significance that a World Economic Forum on Asean was convened recently and the future of the association was discussed, with particular regard to the new global order, connectivity and youth.
The absence of language issues on the agenda was – for some of us – slightly curious.
Asean, with 630 million people within its geographic footprint, is characterised by diversity. Its charter seeks to promote an Asean identity by fostering greater awareness of the region, its 14 principles including “respect for the different cultures, languages and religions of the peoples in Asean, while emphasising their common values in the spirit of unity in diversity”.
Different languages indeed. Some 1,000 are spoken in Asean territory – there are reportedly 726 across the Indonesian archipelago, about 150 in the Philippines, 130 or so in Malaysia, 84 in Laos and 73 in Thailand, just to mention the countries with the most languages. Member states have between one and four official languages, collectively including English, Filipino, Indonesian, Khmer, Lao, Malay, Putonghua, Burmese, Spanish, Tamil, Thai and Vietnamese.
Asean’s working language numbers just one – English. This is striking when contrasted with that other successful regional organisation, the EU, which recognises 24 official and working languages.
It is crucial, however, to note that, at Asean’s formation, English was adopted as the only de facto working and official language. Key founding figures speak of it emerging automatically as the common language.
Simply put, English was at the time the logical, reasonable choice for mutual intelligibility among interlocutors of diverse language backgrounds – an unsurprising consequence of post-colonial order. The continued spread and penetration of English globally means that this is even more the case now. Asean member states without an English-based colonial past actively seek to include English in their educational curriculum.
Asean’s concern today should not be the replacement of English with another language (as has been lobbied for by some member states), but the sustainability of the region’s plurilingual linguistic ecology in the face of English – including the challenges of the maintenance of indigenous languages and their inclusion in education – in ways that are empowering and complementary, rather than competitive.