For better or for worse, English has become “the” global language. This is very much evident in Southeast Asia where English proficiency is being promoted as key to the integration and success of the ASEAN community.
Many people relate the rise of English to the post-World War II emergence of the US as a superpower. However, that’s only part of the story.
English as a global language is also a product of the British empire, because although that empire started to fall apart after World War II, it left a linguistic foundation that helped enable English to become a global language.
Then today I came across something that made me think of another factor that might have enabled English to become dominant. I was looking at the “Instrument of Surrender” that was signed by Japanese military officials in Singapore on 12 September 1945.
This document contains the various stipulations that the Japanese had to agree to, and then there is a final point that states, “This Instrument is drawn up in the English language, which is the only authentic version.”
Now I’m probably exaggerating things here a bit, but I do find it interesting that the British, who had long trained their colonial employees in Malaya to learn Malay, would demand that a document only be in English.
Why did they do that? Well, probably because they were pretty damn angry at the Japanese. And while the British at that time might not have known that their empire was going to fall apart (some people must have known) and that the US was going to become a superpower, this statement nonetheless strikes me as very symbolic.
It’s as if the British were saying, “We’re finished with communicating in other languages.” And the Americans, of course, never seriously tried.
So on 12 September 1945, the British said to the Japanese in Singapore, “English!”
And in 2013, the governments of the ASEAN countries are all saying to their citizens and to each other, “English!”