Mandarin Asserting Its Dominance In North Laos

The hegemony of English is declining fast in northern Southeast Asia as China ups its investments in region

I am currently working on a documentary research project about borders and frontier-zones across Asia, and have been startled by some of my findings thus far. On a research trip along the Laos-China border recently, I was struck by the number of Mandarin schools that have popped up in the small towns and villages that lead to the border, and the number of Laotian families that have chosen to send their children there to study Mandarin.

The reason for this shift in attitudes is simple enough: China is the biggest investor in Laos at present, and the might of China’s economy is keenly felt among the small population of Laos, who see hundreds of Chinese lorries and boats go down the highways and the Mekong river.

Entire communities have sprung up as a result, and along the border, new Special Economic Zones have emerged where Chinese businessmen and tourists flock by the tens of thousands all the time.

So strong is China’s presence, the most popular language now, apart from Lao, is Mandarin, and increasingly, poor Laotians are learning the language so that they can get jobs with Chinese firms that are investing in their country.

Nobody could have anticipated this more than a decade ago, when it was assumed that Communist China would keep its capital within its borders. But China’s economic liberalisation has occasioned the rise of a new form of soft power politics, and this translates as expanding Chinese cultural and economic influence, via language.

I visited a small Mandarin school by the border and noted that even the textbooks came from China, and Laotian children now learn about Chinese history and geography. In time, they may know more about China than any other Southeast Asian child today. In the process of learning more about China, they are also forgetting what their parents and grandparents had learned about Europe and North America.

This development also has another twist to it that will bear interesting results in the long run: the demise of English as the language of choice, and with that, the demise of Western political, economic and cultural influence in Southeast Asia, too.

But this is, in a sense, inevitable — for Western investment in Laos pales in comparison with the Chinese presence — and there is no point in learning English or French if American, French and British companies are not investing heavily there. During my trip, I was only able to speak French with one elderly Laotian gentleman who was born during the French colonial era. As he put it: “This is the new world. And now everyone looks to China and wants to learn Mandarin instead.”

The same pattern of economic development and cultural influence can be seen in Myanmar and northern Thailand, where there is the same influx of Chinese capital and with that, Chinese migration and settlement, too. There, too, I found that locals were keen to learn Mandarin, and to get their kids into Mandarin schools.

It seems a far cry from the 1960s-1980s when Coca Cola and Hollywood were the popular symbols of progress and the good life. Now, the currency that is most commonly used is the yuan, and the northerners of these countries look further north towards a more prosperous future.

All of this signals the eventual eclipse of English as the global means of communication, and perhaps also the waning influence of North America and Western Europe in the affairs of Asia.

The experiment has just begun, but already the effects are palpable and in some respects irreversible: as Laotian kids learn Mandarin, their world view, value system, means of cognition and knowledge, are all bound to be shaped by the perspective of the Mandarin tongue.

Is English faced with the threat of extinction then? Perhaps not immediately, but its influence and its hegemonic power is certainly declining fast. The powers of the Western world may still wish to preach the values of the West and to predicate their foreign policy upon Western notions of justice, liberalism and equality; but what is happening now in parts of Southeast Asia may well render all of that futile.

The Western world view will simply become a parochial one if Asia opts to looks at the world anew, via a different linguistic lens that reconstructs reality through the prism of Mandarin instead.

This is a development worth watching closely, for its impact will be lasting and will re-shape the cultural and political contours of Asia for good.

Source: Farish A. Noor / New Straits Times