Monday, April 17, 2006
In Bangkok, most of the magazines were foreign with their mastheads in English. I took this to mean they were direct imports and bought a couple, only to discover the contents were in Thai with only titles in English. Judging from the visuals, most articles were translated and a few locally produced. There were lots of foreign publications, all of them similarly handled. It appeared there was a thriving industry in translating magazines, with local content production slowly picking up.
In Kuala Lumpur, the magazines were all direct imports in English. There was no local production except a few independent publications that were clearly not up to international standards.
I thought this was rather telling of how the dominance of a language plays itself out. Let me explain.
The Thai language is closer to Chinese than to the Indo-European languages we are familiar with. In Thai, the tone with which a word is pronounced decides its meaning (see tonal languages). In Indo-European languages, intonation changes the type of sentence, usually between statement and question. For example, in English, a rising tone indicates a question, like in “You will come?”, while most Indian languages use a falling tone, like in “You will come-a?” or more likely “You will come, no?” The Thais have as much difficulty comprehending this as we have getting how the very meaning of a word can change with its tone. It is not possible to accurately transliterate Thai into the Roman alphabet because the Roman alphabet does not record tone.
Little wonder then, the Thais have so much difficulty speaking English, even in a tourist friendly place like Bangkok. English is no threat to the Thai language. It’s a curiosity that the foreigners use, and the foreigners have a lot of money, so one might as well indulge in it. Bangkok celebrates being hip with English. Signboards everywhere use it. Magazine titles and captions are all in English. The government encourages further use of the language. The local population couldn’t be more bothered. English is too inconvenient to ever be their primary language.
In Kuala Lumpur, everyone speaks English, with perfectly intelligible accents. It’s their first language (though to be fair, I did meet people who spoke Malay first and English second). The Malay language uses the Roman alphabet, so it’s all the more easier to learn English. The government goes out of its way to defend Malay from English. Signboards everywhere are only in Malay.
In Bangkok, my hostess Ton complained that Thai youth have no global outlook. They’re happy to limit their world to Thailand. In Kuala Lumpur, that was clearly not the case. If the magazine rack suggested anything, it is that Malaysians are so comfortable at being world citizens that their local media—and with that, their cultural traditions—are having a hard time holding up against imports.