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September 09, 2013

Asia | Opinion

Asian academia faces language block

Teach-English-in-AsiaMalaysian political scientist and historian Farish Noor writes on the challenges faced by Asian academics who are not publishing their work in English.

The debate over the teaching of the English language continues, not only in Malaysia but also in many other countries across the world. While the form and content of the debate has been shaped by domestic political considerations and agendas, there are some pressing realities that we cannot escape from; and one of them is the simple fact that English remains the most commonly used language in global academic circles.

In order to circumvent the somewhat heated temperature of the debate here, allow me to offer some observations based on my experience teaching in some other Asian countries. In countries like India and Pakistan, the teaching of English remains a serious concern for many students, parents and educational institutions that wish to give Indian and Pakistani students a fighting chance in the ever-changing global economy. For many of the new industries that have emerged, including information technology, the working knowledge remains English - despite the linguistic nationalism that is articulated and foregrounded by some politicians and activists there.

One country that I have come to know rather well by now is Indonesia, where I routinely travel to do research as well as to teach. It has been my honour, and pleasure, to meet a wide range of Indonesian academics, who have become my colleagues and friends for more than a decade now. Equally rewarding has been the experience of supervising more than a dozen Indonesian post-graduate scholars, who have done their doctoral theses under my supervision.

It is no exaggeration on my part, I feel, when I say that the Indonesian scholars and students I have met and known are among the best academics I have come across. Indonesia today produces some of the best work in the humanities and social sciences, and in all honesty, I have to state that the quality of work I have seen in Indonesia matches the work I have seen in countries like France, Holland and Germany, where I have also worked and taught in.

However, there remains one stumbling block that hinders Indonesia's rise as a major centre for teaching, research and knowledge-production, and it is the fact that an overwhelming majority of the works produced by Indonesian scholars today is in Bahasa Indonesia. And, despite the fact that Indonesia's population numbers almost a quarter of a billion souls, Bahasa Indonesia is not widely known, spoken or read beyond the shores of Southeast Asia. It has always seemed grossly unfair to me that Indonesia's academic presence is not known or felt wider, but the sad fact is that English remains the dominant language of academia in both the social sciences and the hard sciences.

Read the full article from the New Straits Times.

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