There are more speakers of English in Asia than anywhere else. Once the language of the colonials, it has become the neutral language of business, a lingua franca for a vast continent whose economic might is growing.
"To give millions a knowledge of English is to enslave them," Gandhi once said. "Is it not a painful thing that, if I want to go to a court of justice, I must employ the English language as a medium; and that someone else should have to translate to me from my own language?"
Decades later, in post-colonial Asia, English is the official (first or second) language in several countries of the region. In most others, it is the first foreign language taught to children and in all it is used as a facilitative language by people of different mother tongues wanting to interact for business or social purposes.
Chinglish, Hinglish or Manglish
Globalization has also led to the development of new varieties of English such as Chinglish, Hinglish, Konglish, Manglish and Engrish. Increasingly, native speakers of Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Malay or Japanese are mixing their mother tongues with English to form new languages.
There is much talk, as Europe and the US struggle to battle economic and financial crises, of the 21st century being Asian. China and India are touted as upcoming superpowers and there is frantic speculation about the demise of the West. As a result, Western powers are scrambling to get a foothold in Asia and they are doing this partly through language.
At a recent conference at the Free University in Berlin, scholars and linguists from around the world gathered to discuss the phenomenon and where it was headed.
Joseph Lo Bianco from the University of Melbourne, Australia gave an overview of the Australian government's drive to promote "Asia literacy" through the teaching of Asian languages and the integration of an Asian perspective into the national curriculum. Although positive about the idea, he was skeptical about the results of the campaign, considering how ambitious the goals are.
'Asia is not a monolith'
Most participants at the conference agreed that English would continue to play an extremely important role in the future, but that it would change dramatically.
"The more dominant English is globally, the more heterogeneous it becomes internally," explained Christian Mair from the University of Freiburg. "The farther the language spreads, the more it is affected by the multilingual settings in which it is being used."
Z.N. Patil from the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad, India pointed out that "Asia is not a monolithic culture. There are so many varieties and sub-varieties of English within a country or region, as there are in the UK."
The hegemony of native varieties is increasingly coming under question, Patil explained. However, he did insist that that intelligibility and comprehensibility of non-native varieties were crucial, illustrating his point by relating the tragic example of a plane crash caused partly because the pilots of two planes landing and taking off simultaneously did not understand the air traffic controllers although they were all speaking English.
"We need to develop pragmatic competence," he said "and recognize that each variety has its own norms and is autonomous and that there is a plurality of varieties."
Joseph Lo Bianco agreed that "metalinguistic knowledge" was imperative. Moreover, "if you have an understanding of other languages you might be less judgmental about other peoples' English," he said, pointing out, too, that there are "fewer emotional implications when neither interlocutor is a native speaker of English."
What does understanding mean?
Andy Kirkpatrick from Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia argued that English should be taught as a lingua franca. "This means shifting the traditional model from that of a native speaker to a 'multilingual model.' Instead, therefore, of deriving linguistic benchmarks, communication styles and pragmatic 'norms' from native speakers of English, these can be derived from successful multilinguals."
"The Anglo norm has to change - it's time to adapt and to listen to how people are speaking. You have to learn how different people from different backgrounds have adapted English according to their cultural norms," he said. "You have to learn how to understand their use of English."
Gerhard Stilz from the University of Tübingen asked the fundamental question: "What does it mean to understand?"
He argued that the world knowledge and intercultural competence needed to really understand could be learnt through literature, on the basis of a shared language - English.
As many of the speakers made clear, writers are increasingly using hybrid varieties of English in their works to reflect the code-switching that is common practice in many parts of the continent, especially those from South Asia.
Globalization and imagination
In her paper about language, globalization and imagination, Karin Ebeling from the University of Magdeburg drew the conclusion that "English is now neutral - no longer owned by the British colonials." She presented her research on the works of acclaimed writers Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga, who experiment with the English language in their works, creating hybrid varieties that recall Salman Rushdie, whose "grandchildren" they are often hailed to be. Hybrid language forms are used between Hindi and English, she said.
This was a phenomenon that Marina Marinova from Hamburg University had witnessed in Bollywood cinema, perhaps even more than in literature. She argued that a new creole was developing as Hindi borrowed more and more from English, especially terms related to economics, the sciences, or the Internet.
Gandhi's mother tongue was Gujarati, but he spoke Hindi and several other languages, including Tamil, English and Arabic, fluently.
Perhaps he would have liked this new Asia where English is a facilitative language that is flexible enough to take on elements of regional languages as well as influence them, and would no longer see the language as a means of enslaving millions but giving them the possibility to communicate with millions.