Linguistic imperialism

I’ve recently found myself browsing tons of blogs of people teaching abroad. And while they’re of course very interesting, they’ve also caused me to question the very idea of teaching abroad. I find the stock photos of a white girl grinning broadly amongst a group of dark-skinned Africans to be unsettling. The pretentious nature of outsiders attempting to describe a culture they have known for a few years (at most) is just awkward. The attempts to “fit in” seem pointless and weird, considering our eventual departures. The aversion to hanging out with fellow Westerners and pride in “local” friends is surreal. There are allusions to the awful history of imperialism or current day political tensions, alongside a statement that there is “high demand for native English speakers.”

Last year I had so many students who hated learning English. Their families didn’t speak it and they were rich enough here in their own country to see English-speaking places as places to maybe visit briefly, rather than lands of opportunity and wealth. Plus, Arabic is the language of their religion, which is deeply ingrained in their daily life, and the English translations of the religious phrases seem contrived. (“If God wills it” sounds ridiculously prudish next to “Inshaallah.” I’ve habituated so many Arabic phrases simply because the English equivalent is lame.) It’s extremely hard to express emotion in a second language, and Arabic was full of emotion as their first language. Instead, English is full of colloquialisms and slang and varying pronunciations. (How do you pronounce “pronunciation”? Pro-nown-see-ay-shun or pra-nun-see-ay-shun? Which is right? And can you explain why one is better than the other?) It’s a constant battle to not sound naive or non-native. Is it better to speak American or British English? Most people here prefer American, but how much effort should go into saying “kor-der” rather than “kwar-ter”? English was just not worth the bother.

And I get it! But obviously as their English teacher, I have to attempt to entice them towards the subject. But you know the only reason that logically made sense? “Well, English is the language of international business.” And I hated myself for saying that. Because what if they asked me why? Why the hell is English the language of global business? There are nearly as many native Arabic speakers as native English speakers. And there are definitely more native Chinese speakers. And native Spanish speakers. Why did English get to win? Why was their government forcing them to learn this language and hiring all these foreigners to invade to spread it? And the answer is probably “Because America and Britain run the show.” Which isn’t exactly a pleasant answer to anyone who isn’t American or British.

Remind me to learn Arabic one of these days. And find a new job. One that doesn’t push the American-British world-domination agenda so hard.

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8 Responses to Linguistic imperialism

  1. pollyheath says:

    So true. Cultural imperialism has (and likely always will be) alive and well. We just got lucky enough to be born in the right place this time. I always find it difficult to balance between feeling weird about pushing English as an international language versus seeing how much a Russian’s life can improve (salary, job stability, etc) with English.

  2. Chantelle says:

    In Korea, there’s very little pretense made about it. It’s obviously a form of imperialism.The US is extraordinarily powerful, so people learn English. English is the language of business and science here. I’ve never met a kid who hated it, but I don’t teach ESL, so I don’t know. But I still don’t think we should hide our country’s (or the UK’s) history and pretend that English came about as a global language by some peaceful and fair method.

  3. Liz says:

    I think English is so widely spoken because it traces back to the European culture and how they thought the Earth was flat and discovered North America in the process… English is built up of words from many languages, so that is probably another contributing factor.

  4. Jessica says:

    I am going to begin by saying that I agree 100% that English is the most difficult language to learn…especially if you are not a natural speaker. There are so many different words that can be pronounced differently, and then there are words that are not pronounced like they look…it is enough to drive a person insane. šŸ˜›

    As for why English is so dominant, I think that it has to do with the fact that whoever wins Wars writes history. Britain and/or the United States have been dominant powers for over 300+ years, so they naturally want their people to speak the languages that they use.

  5. Hiro says:

    You seem to have already gotten to the core of WHY… but yes… Imperialism!! That’s all there is to it! Though nowadays, I hear more and more people are learning Mandarin because China is doing so well, with their economy flourishing (unlike its American counterpart). Though it’s not going to be pretty, because Mandarin is a pretty darn difficult language coming from a non-tonal speaker… Not to mention all the characters they have to learn!

  6. Stephanie says:

    Ditto to everyone who answered something along the lines of “British imperialism followed by US dominance in the postwar era”. Because of that, tons of people in other countries have been studying English for decades. Today I’d guess that people study English not only because of continued US dominance, but because English now carries a ton of momentum that is difficult for another language to replace. International academic conferences in science and engineering are almost always conducted in English. My parents were required to learn English while they were growing up in Taiwan in the 1960s and the 1970s. All my Taiwanese cousins are proficient enough in English to parse the paragraph I’m writing, despite the fact that their speaking skills are crap. Plus, many populated countries whose denizens don’t speak English as a native language use English in official functions, like India and Malaysia.

    On the bright side, I think that Americans are beginning to learn more languages than they did a generation ago. My high school even had an after-school Arabic class, which doesn’t prove my last sentence, but is something that probably wouldn’t exist in a local, all-white snobby, public school in rural New England a generation ago.

  7. pixxybug says:

    Not going to repeat what you and everyone else just said so here’s a tangent. NZ is going through a big push for people to learn Chinese. I think German’s been pushed off the secondary curriculum as well… But our PM (as a rich rich businessman) keeps endorsing the learning of Chinese and there are a lot of companies that like whites who speak Chinese (or Asians that are very westernised), but these same firms would probably never hire Asians that aren’t “bananas”, so to speak.

    My friend is doing a law and arts conjoint and he’s already finished all you “can do” in the Spanish department and is making his way through the Chinese curriculum… All in an attempt to “get ahead”. So whilst English still dominates all over the world, I think in smaller, western countries, you’ll find a bigger push for learning Spanish, and increasingly Chinese. The Australian labour leader is well-known for speaking Chinese and damned if I can read a news article on him without that fact being thrown out there.

  8. pixxybug says:

    P.S. British English ftw. The irony of “British-English” being a phrase kills me. To us in NZ, it’s just English and American-English!!

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