Friday, August 01, 2003

English Language and Globalization

Godless Capitalist points to this Asia Times article promoting another interesting theory which on closer inspection turns out to be completely unworkable. In this one, Asia Times reporter Mr. Rahul Goswami would like to fault Hollywood and English for language extinctions throughout the Asian continent:

"In Southeast Asia, the response to globalization is to acquire language skills, not in many languages, but in one, the English language, which is seen as the key to success in the globalized age," said Dr Rujaya Abhakorn, lecturer in Southeast Asian history at Chiang Mai University in Thailand.
It is indeed English, which served the colonial British Empire and now drives the knowledge economy and the Internet, that is all too often seen as a Tyrannosaurus rex that voraciously gobbles up cultures and traditions.

It's rather disingenuous to lay the blame for indigeneous language loss in multilingual and multiethnic states at the feet of the English language and American "cultural imperialism" without at least considering the effects of national language policies. Those deliberately marginalized linguistic minorities by using the school system to force the ruling group's language and culture on the entire country. Next to that, English, spread not by government diktat but instead by people's natural desire to trade with a rich country, is positively beneficent.

To take an example close to home, if the Malays had followed the example of India in promoting English as the national language, instead of insisting on giving special status to BM and deriding as unpatriotic anyone who didn't learn it, then Orang Asli, as well as Chinese and Indians, wouldn't find themselves obligated to be trilingual in their mother tongue, Malay, and English. Instead, they could simply have continued to use the mother tongue among themselves and English in school and with members of other communities. But as things stand, they learn English because it is economically beneficial, and Malay because they need it for STPMs. This forces many of the youth to leave their mother tongue lying in the dust for lack of time and energy to develop their abilities in it beyond aconversational level.

Even Mr. Goswani himself is forced to admit that in India, because of the widespread adoption of English, people of different mother tongues have become more united, though he tries to cast it as disunity between Hindi-speakers and regional language speakers:

Even where languages are not endangered, there are confrontations between them and English ... The official language of communication of India is Hindi. But, Singh explained, "There is always a hidden tussle as well as open confrontation between supporters of Hindi who mostly oppose the use of English, and supporters of the regional languages who look to English as an alternative link between the Indian states."

Imagine how much worse that clash would be if supporters of Hindi had forced their mother tongue on the rest of the nation in all contexts.

Even so, there are parallel globalizations, Professor Chua Beng Huat of the National University of Singapore observed.
"In entertainment, one is looking at a very conscious effort of an industry globalizing itself," he said. "In East Asia, where Singapore is culturally placed because of its Chinese-dominant population, the idea that we are being Westernized/Americanized is being disrupted."
Chua said that fans of products such as pop music from Japan or television soaps from Korea claim it is easier than watching Hollywood ... "Are these programs in fact reactions to globalization, and nationalistic?"

In otherwords, whereas a Hollywood cultural invasion and English linguistic encroachment puts indigeneous cultures in danger due to racist oppression, a Japanese cultural invasion is to be celebrated, as it promotes solidarity between the brothers and sisters of the Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere? Tojo would have been proud.

South Korean Film and American Trade Policy

Not back until Wednesday, but I thought I'd post this article and a few other articles to give you something to read while I work on other stuff. Anyway, Hollywood continues to complain about South Korea's continued protectionism in the movie industry, which requires cinema owners to show domestically produced films for at least 146 days per year. CNN reports:

It's an increasingly familiar sight in South Korea these days -- the making of movies. South Korean films are packing a punch, both at home and overseas, and are more popular than ever. Box office sales are strong and critical acclaim is growing on the international circuit.
But the success of the Korean film industry is not all about quality. This is a protected industry and the United States, led by Hollywood, wants to change that.

As an advocate of free trade, I believe that one purpose of American trade policy should be to benefit American producers by knocking down those tariff barriers in foreign countries which are directly contributing our ridiculously wide trade deficit, especially with Asia. Would forcing the elimination Korea's screen quota system contribute to this goal on any more than a superficial level?

At the moment Korean films are actually being shown more than the quota level because of high demand. They're also taking almost 50 percent of box office sales.

The South Korean public overwhelmingly prefers their local product, because it's better adapted to their tastes than any foreign-made movie ever could be, as Charles Paul Freund predicted in Reason magazine several months ago. Technical prowess in camera work, computer-generated special effects, and big explosions, at which Hollywood continues to possess a minor comparative advantange, can only go so far in bridging the cultural gap.

So eliminating the screen quota system probably wouldn't do much towards reducing our trade deficit with S. Korea (which rose to $13 billion dollars in 2002) --- Hollywood wouldn't be able to gain much ground, unless they started employing local directors and actors to create movies which would appeal to the Korean public. This would likely mean they have to produce locally, in Korea; wages would be paid to South Korean workers, not to American workers. It's hard to see how that would benefit anyone besides Hollywood itself. At the same time, however, that kind of symbolic inroad would come at a high price: it would be seen by the already anti-American public of South Korea as a major economic and cultural concession by the government, regardless of its actual effect.

This would invitably lead to accusations of "cultural imperialism," which would put the damper on any government official proposing further cooperation with America. That just makes it even harder to push through tariff reduction in areas which are less glamourous and less visible (and thus less likely to provoke fears that "America is taking over the economy), but more important to the average American, areas such as agriculture, automotive parts, or photographic film, or visa agreements which would make it easier for American professionals to work in Korea. Such agreements could benefit a wide range of middle-class and blue-collar Americans, as well as mitigate the threat our continued export of debt poses to the value of the US dollar. In contrast, eliminating the screen quota system enriches only a bunch of overpaid, self-centered celebrities, at the expense of the American public image and quite likely the rest of American trade.

Ironically, the overall goal of free trade might be best advanced by permitting continued protectionism in this one psychologically weighty but economically insignificant sector.

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