Review of Fighting Words:
Language Policy and Ethnic Relations in Asia

Originally appeared in
Journal of Asian Studies,
Vol. 63, No. 4 (2004) pgs. 1069-71

Harold Schiffman
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania

Fighting Words: Language Policy and Ethnic Relations in Asia. Edited by Michael E. Brown and Šumit Ganguly. BCSIA Studies in International Security. Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, 2003. xi, 480 pp. $24.95 (paper).

This compendium of articles on thirteen-odd Asian nations and their language policies, detailing how ethno-linguistic conflict is manifested in their mainly post-World War II (and post-colonial) political systems, has both weak and strong points.

In terms of the positive, the articles have been written by competent, and in some cases, eminent researchers in their respective fields, who mainly give us clear expositions of the ethno-political relations in the polity they are describing. If one wants facts about which languages are spoken, by whom, and how these policies have developed since the end of World War II and/or the end of colonialism in these nations, the articles are clear and well-written, and the individual articles as well as the collection as a whole could be recommended as primary background reading, indeed as necessary background reading, for the polity in question. One example, Chapter 4, on Sri Lanka, by Neil DeVotta, is the best analysis I have ever read on the situation in that unfortunate country.

Beyond this, however, it seems curious that in a collection of studies of language policy nowhere is the term defined, either by the editors or by any of the authors. It is as if language policy is something we all know and understand a priori, and needs no defining. Nor is there any notion that the term might mean different things to different people, or that some theorizing of it might be in order. The result is often frustrating, as author after author glosses over (or stumbles over) such obvious facets of language policy as what is meant by ‘official’ (vs. perhaps ‘national’) language, what is meant by ‘language’ (as opposed to ‘dialect’ or some other term), or whether any types of language policy such as the territorial principle developed in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, revived in the Soviet Union, and calqued in post-independence India might have some universality and be worthy of discussion or study. Instead, in polity after polity and study after study, the idea that territorial rights in minority areas of, say, Sri Lanka or Vietnam might be a solution to some of the problems found there is either (re-)discovered de novo in a kind of unalloyed self-congratulatory fashion, or is dismissed by both policy makers and analysts alike. Neither does anybody seem to have heard of the distinction between corpus policy (i.e., policy about the form of the language—its grammar, sound system, etc. or which form of it might be ‘standard’) and status policy/planning (that is, the status or rights a particular language is accorded), so problems that might have been averted in those areas are ignored. Many analysts of language policy (myself included) have pointed out that the ‘Achilles heel’ of language policy is implementation, but again and again, the editors and the authors either discover this anew, or note with some distress that when policy decisions fail to be implemented, the policies are likely to fail.

In the final concluding chapter, the editors do attempt to elucidate some principles that can in fact be found in any standard treatment of language policy (such as some of the studies they cite in their bibliographies), but without any recognition that these ideas have already been discussed extensively by the practitioners of the (subdiscipline of) sociology of language such as Heinz Kloss, Charles Ferguson, Joshua Fishman, or others whom they mention in their ‘Suggestions for Further Reading’ section (pp. 449-51). The editors of this volume, then, instead of laying down some guidelines for contributors in terms of looking at the literature on language policy that has been written about their area, are forced to clean up after the contributors in a final chapter, which attempts to deal with topics such as poor planning, poor or inadequate implementation, failure to conceive of territorial rights, failure to see language as both a symbolic (and therefore very emotional) issue and a practical issue, and so on and so on. Features of certain multilingual polities that have been described in the general literature, and which show up in supposedly disparate nations such as China and India are treated as totally unrelated phenomena. The fact that language policy in independent Indonesia was able to choose an Indonesian language for its ‘national’ language, and oust the colonial language, whereas India and the Philippines did not, fails to take account of the fact that Indonesia succeeded because the language it had to oust was Dutch, whereas others had to try to unseat English. And Malaysia, which had worked so hard to displace English, has recently done an about-face and readmitted it for teaching science and technology because of the strong globalization role that English plays today, reversing all the pro-Malay language planning, and downplaying the post-colonial rhetoric of empowerment and uplift for local languages.

Thus while the editors want to conclude that language issues can be overstated and exaggerated in ethnopolitical conflicts, and that while ‘language issues are often contentious issues in ethnic relations, […] they are rarely the whole story’ (p. 479), they seem not to have read DeVotta’s essay very carefully, because at least in the Sri Lankan case, language conflict is the heart of the conflict. As DeVotta very aptly puts it, ‘The manner in which the Sinhala-Only Act and Sinhalese linguistic nationalism facilitated violent conflict, however, has not been fully appreciated’ (p. 106), going on to note how some scholars have insisted on overemphasizing disputes over internal colonization and resource allocation as the main reasons for ethnic disputes in Sri Lanka. Admittedly, when all the studies in this volume are taken into account, Sri Lanka is probably the worst-case scenario, but the editors’ discounting of language as a primary cause of ethnic strife is symptomatic of the whole issue of how language policy tends to be dealt with in academia. Economic issues tend to be given primary consideration as the reason for any kind of problem, or other trend-driven theories that happen to be dominating the academic arena at the moment. The fact that these issues are also poorly understood by policy makers in various polities exacerbates the problem, but this should not be allowed to enable the analysts to accept these poor solutions as givens.

Reviewed by Harold Schiffman, Dept. of South Asia Studies, University of Pennsylvania