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During the Roman Empire Latin was used by soldiers, government officials, traders and other Romans in the Eastern Mediterranean, but the strong presence of widespread languages such as Greek and Aramaic prevented the assimilation of Latin by the local population, consequently the Latin in that area did not develop into Romance languages. In the Middle Ages, Romance languages (notably the French dialects) were widely used in the Levant during the crusades, but eventually died out.
Colonialism and trade brought the Romance languages to many coastal areas and islands in Asia, but today the only places with official Romance languages in the continent are limited to East Timor (Portuguese), Macau (Portuguese), Puducherry (French), and administrative status in Cambodia (French), Laos (French), Vietnam (French), and Lebanon (French), and yet in those places they compete with numerically stronger and official languages.
French in Asia
The French colonial and trade expansion in the late 19th century brought the language to Asia, with some remnant usage in the present.
French is the largest European language spoken in Asia after English. Asia is smallest French-speaking continent after South America and is used in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. French is an administrative language in Laos and Cambodia and is a diplomatic language in Vietnam. In colonial Vietnam, a French creole known as "Tây Bồi" was spoken (now extinct).
French is one of the official languages in Lebanon, along with Arabic, until 1941, when the country declared independence from France. French is widely used by the Lebanese, specially among Christian Maronites, and for administrative purposes, but English is now the second language. It is taught in many schools along with Arabic. English is presently the preferred second language.
In China the language was also spoken by the elite in the Shanghai French Concession and other concessions in Guangzhou (Shamian Island), Hankou, Tianjin, Kwang-Chou-Wan and in the French zone of influence over the provinces of Yunnan, Guangxi, Hainan, and Guangdong. However, the use of French has fallen out of use.
In Burma, French is gaining popularity amongst university students and the tourism sector, as the country slowly opens up. French is not offered in the basic education level, but the University of Foreign Languages in Yangon offers a B.A. in French, and Alliance Française has an active centre each in Yangon and Mandalay. The Francophone community is estimated to number between 25,000 to 50,000+.
In Singapore, the top 10% of Primary School Leaving Examination graduates may choose to opt for French as a second or third language in secondary school, however this language is not an official language in Singapore, and is hardly spoken among locals.
French has de jure official status in the Indian Union Territory of Puducherry, along with the regional languages Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. Some students of Tamil Nadu opt for French as their third or fourth language (usually behind English, Tamil and Hindi).
French is commonly taught as a third language in secondary schools in most cities of Maharashtra, including Mumbai, as part of the preparation for the secondary school (X-SSC) and higher secondary school (XII-HSC) certificate examinations. Certain high-profile schools affiliated with the CBSE in the NCR offer French as an option as early as grade 4. In grade 9 the students are asked to drop either French or Hindi, which is their native language.
Although not a part of the traditional francophone Southeast Asia, the Philippines has become one of the most active areas where French is being studied. Home of the first Alliance Française in the Southeast Asia (founded in 1912), it continues to educate many Filipinos and expatriates in the said language. There are currently two branches of Alliance Française in the Philippines, that of Manila and Cebu.
Although the language is not offered in elementary school, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo issued a proclamation encouraging the language to be an elective in high school. Also, French, along with Spanish, is a popular foreign language offered in many universities in the country. The University of the Philippines offers a Bachelor's degree in European Language, where French is one of the possible majors.
In China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, there also are communities of returned immigrants from France or Quebec who speak French; in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, there also are communities of returned war refugees from France or Quebec who speak French.
There is a small Italian Levantine community in Eastern Mediterranean, notably in Turkey originated with crusaders, merchants, clerics establishing outpost in the area. Today Italian is spoken by nearly 2,000 people within families, social clubs, and churches in Turkey. According to the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel there are 11,288 Italian citizens or descendents registered in the consulate rolls.
In China during the Italian concession (1901–1947) in Tianjin the language was spoken among administrators and traders, but vanished after 1947.
In Asia, Portuguese is spoken in East Timor, Goa, Daman and Diu in India, and Macau in China, as the small pockets of a once widespread language in the continent and employed as lingua franca. Today it is one of the official languages of East Timor and Macau, and many creoles survive in small communities.
In East Timor, while the most spoken language is Tetum, an Austronesian language heavily influenced by Portuguese, the East Timor government asked the other Community of Portuguese Language Countries to help it to reintroduce Portuguese as an official language with growing success. East Timor uses Portuguese to link itself to a larger international community, particularly Brazil, Angola, Mozambique and Portugal, to differentiate itself from Indonesia. Xanana Gusmão, president of East Timor, believes that Portuguese will be widely spoken again within 5 years.
Portuguese in East Timor is spoken officially by roughly 30% of its population, mostly the elder generation, though this percentage is increasing as Portuguese is being taught to the younger generation and to interested adults. The reintroduction of Portuguese as an official language has caused suspicion and resentment among some younger East Timorese who have been educated under the Indonesian system and do not speak it. Recent numbers made in Asian Lusophone meetings showed that the Portuguese language almost tripled the number of speakers from 1999 to 2015.
In the Chinese special administrative region of Macau, Portuguese is a co-official language with Cantonese. It is predominately spoken by the Macanese (Eurasian) and Portuguese minorities, who comprise 5% of Macau's population, although there are Portuguese-speaking ethnic Chinese. There a few schools in Macau where Portuguese is the language of instruction. Macau has been experiencing a Portuguese language and culture renaissance in the last few years.
Macau has a number of Portuguese-language radio and television stations, which existed before the return to the People's Republic of China. Some Brazilian television stations air in Macau, but the only Portuguese-language school said that European Portuguese must be taught to students. Although Portuguese use was in decline in Asia in the early 21st century after Macau was ceded to China in 1999, it is becoming a language for opportunity there, mostly due to Macau and East Timor's boost in the number of speakers in the last five years, but also the Chinese authorities' protection of Portuguese as official language in Macau due to increased Chinese diplomatic and financial ties with Portuguese-speaking countries known as the CPLP. There has been a huge increase in the number of students studying Portuguese in the Chinese universities as a result.
Along the Indian shores, there were about 44 communities where Portuguese was spoken, today there are few communities left.
In Goa, where it is spoken by an increasingly small minority, it is seen as the 'language of grandparents', but Portuguese is also spoken by younger educated populations. However, there are currently a few Portuguese language schools. The Portuguese language and culture is once again increasing in popularity. There are still a few thousand fluent speakers of Portuguese in Goa.
In Daman, the Portuguese heritage is more lively than Goa, and that is also seen in the language use; about 10% of the population uses Portuguese or a Portuguese semi-Creole, called Língua da Casa. Most of the Indo-Portuguese creoles are already extinct. Aside from that of Daman, the other existing Indo-Portuguese creole is Kristi in Korlai.
In Japan, Portuguese is spoken as a home language by Brazilians of Japanese descent, known as dekassegui, who number approximately 500,000 people, making Japan the Asian nation with the largest number of Portuguese speakers. In China, Taiwan, and South Korea, there also are communities of returned immigrants from Brazil or Portugal who speak Portuguese; in Macau, communities of returned immigrants who speak Portuguese came from Brazil.
In Malacca (Malaysia), there is a Portuguese creole known as Papiá Kristang or Cristão, still spoken by some of the Eurasian population. Throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, Formosa, South Japan, coastal China, Myanmar, Thailand, Hormuz strait, Portuguese was once the language of the trade, but eventually was replaced by other languages after the decay of the Portuguese Empire.
Israel received nearly 450,000 immigrants from Romania and Moldova. Today there are 250,000 speakers of Romanian (according to 1993 Statistical Abstract of Israel), older adult speakers use Hebrew as second language, but prefer Romanian.
In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Asian Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan there are small communities of Moldovan Romanian-speakers (about 100,000 people), displaced during the Soviet area.
In Turkey the Romanian-speaking community came during the Ottoman Empire, today it is estimated to be around 30,000 people.
The first Spanish-speaking community in Asia was the town of Safad in upper Galilea, where Sephardic Jews established. After the Jews expulsion from Spain in 1492, many of them sought refuge in the realms of the Ottoman Empire, and kept their language that evolved in distinct form today called Ladino. There are currently 15,000 Ladino speakers in Turkey and nearly 100,000 in Israel.
Once the colonial language of the Philippines, Spanish in its purest form was spoken mainly by the upper classes and the Church, while the majority of the native population spoke native languages interspersed with Spanish loanwords. Its importance fell in the first half of the 20th century during the American Occupation and the substitution of English as the language of government, business, and higher learning. Spanish was abolished as an official language in 1973. In 1990, the population whose first language was Spanish was about 2,658 including mestizos. There remains a significant Spanish vocabulary superstratum in Philippine languages and creole languages such as Chavacano, contributing the largest number of foreign-derived words to native vocabularies. For all intents and purposes, the Spanish language is currently defunct in the Philippines.
In China, state-owned China Central Television established CCTV International Spanish in 2007, while in Iran, state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting established HispanTV; both CCTV International Spanish and HispanTV serve Spanish and Latin American audiences. Qatari TV network Al Jazeera plans to produce a Spanish-language cable network, which will be the second Spanish-language network from Middle East.
- French Declines in Indochina, as English Booms, International Herald Tribune, 16 October 1993: "In both Cambodia and Laos, French remains the second language of government, but losing ground to English."
- "1973 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines". thecorpusjuris.com. Retrieved 2008-04-06. See Article XV, Section 3(3)
- "Ethnologue". Ethnologue Report for the Philippines.