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