"Its importance cannot be overemphasized," said Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong of Singapore. "This is the decision of the leaders. You need to have English to translate the knowledge-based IT economy so as to be able to compete with other economies."
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Asean leaders realised that advances in the information technology era could only be tapped if people in the region had a working knowledge of the language. The leaders hope that this initiative will help bridge the digital divide and economic disparity between the more developed nations in the region, such as Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, and its newer members Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, where English is not widely spoken.
They are not the only ones who are concerned that a lack of proficiency in English will hold their people back in the new economy.
In January, a report entitled Japan's Goals in the 21st Century, released by a commission organized by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, contained this controversial recommendation: "The Internet has accelerated the speed of globalization and the need to proliferate English as the international lingua franca. The government and other public institutions should print their publications and make announcements both in Japanese and English, and the information should be released via the Internet." Japan’s English proficiency level is one of the lowest in Asia.
Even in Europe, more and more businesses are making English their official language. This is due in part to the lowering of economic barriers between countries in the continent, resulting in one large European market with English as the common language. But the Internet was also a factor. Because the World Wide Web is still predominantly in English, in order to get on it, Europeans had to use English. And through the Web, Europeans who previously encountered English only in school and in pop songs, started using the language daily.
Does all this foreshadow a world in which English steamrolls in, crushing native languages everywhere?
Many non-native speakers of English may use English for practical purposes, but they continue to use their native languages with family and friends, and it is the native language which speaks most intimately to them.
Since more people are learning English to take advantage of the Internet, it should follow that there would be no need for multi-national companies to create web sites in any language but English. But that is not what is happening. Global companies are realizing that they must localize the web sites for the people in each country, and that includes using the native language on the web site.
A recent study by Euro Marketing Associates estimated that nearly 44 per cent of the world's online population speak a language other than English at home. Although many of them are bilingual and are able also to speak English, Euro Marketing advises advertisers of non-business products to use the home language instead of English to appeal to these people.
The Internet may even help to preserve languages in some communities, like those of immigrants. Through the Internet, they can continue read newspapers, listen to radio broadcasts and even watch television programs in the language of their homelands. The Internet could also help to bring together people who speak rare languages, thus helping to ensure that it does not die out.
Perhaps, the Internet will have no more impact on language patterns than global satellite television did. Although satellite television offers a mind-boggling array of programming, it was found that people still like programs in their native language best.
There is a hunger for native-tongue Web content that is not being met at the moment. The demand is potentially huge considering that there are 372 million people in the world whose native language is English and about 5,700 million people whose native language is something else. Demand may prove to be the impetus for overcoming the obstacles currently facing the non-English Web.