• People Talk and My Ear Bleeds

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    Wednesday, February 22, 2006

    Can humanity speak too much English??

    No, it can't.  In fact, it needs to speak a lot more.  English has become the international language (not the universal language...that's love).  Today, Reuters reports that over 500 million people in China study English in schools ... more than "the total number of mother-tongue English speakers elsewhere in the world."

    It also goes on to say that,

    "The report commissioned by the British Council says monolingual English graduates "face a bleak economic future" as multilingual competitors flood into the workforce from all corners of the globe.

    A massive increase in the number of people learning English is under way and likely to peak at around 2 billion in the next decade, according to the report entitled "English Next."

    Some parts of this are true.  This world's economy is increasingly global.  It is that way because America forces it to be that way.  As long as Americans are in power who want cheap toys from China or customer service in India, trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA will continue to be conceived and born.  Only if the new, increasing vocal protectionist/isolationist minority is successful in taking control of Washington D.C. will economic globalization hit the brakes--and by then it might be too late anyway.

    Therefore, yes, if you know only one language, you are at a disadvantage.  Welcome to the club, English speakers!!  I'm sure you have much less to worry about than the Vietnamese people I interact with on a daily basis.  Ask Miss Thao, selling cherries on the side of the road from the back of her bicycle if she knows English.  Nope, not a chance.  What are her employment opportunities?  Local farming and produce selling.  If the cherry season is bad, Thao goes a little hungry and tries to switch to selling something else.  Vietnamese is a limiting language...not English.

    That being said, those who speak English and have no desire to learn another language or culture will increasingly find themselves earmarked for local markets just like Thao--true.  But just as likely is that someone who truly knows his or her stuff, and speaks English, has a better chance of moving up and around in the corporate world because everyone else will speak English too, so he or she doesn't NEED to speak another language.

    I love teaching English in Vietnam.  Most of the students are fun, happy, outgoing, and genuinely want to learn English.  I receive a sense of pride when I see a student say something correctly, because I know I am helping to open a myriad of doors later in life for the student--opportunities he or she previously could not have experienced.  However, find me the Vietnamese person, having never lived in England, Australia, or America, who can speak English fluently, without accent, and understand all hidden nuances in a sentence, and I will show you a needle in a haystack.

    Learning English from funny expats and native teachers a couple hours a day, a couple days a week, provides enough fluency to be competitive on the global market, but will never be a replacement for someone who truly lives and understands the language.  English is too nuanced a language. 

    Also, stopping at 2 billion of 6 billion people sounds ludicrous to me.  Unlike Chinese, spoken by about 1 billion people but all stuck in one part of the world, English is truly global.  Now that English has hit the saturation point of a truly international language, the ball will roll downhill until everyone speaks it.  It only makes logical sense for people to learn it. 

    In the end, companies may soon be able to choose between "generic" English speakers (ESL) and "name brand' ones (natives), but neither speaker should ever worry about being phased off the market. 

    4 comments:

    ss said...

    I like the way you view the English language as the most prominant, though a little hard to make out subtleties, language in every walk of life for people living in a capitalist society. I am also happy to know that you are proud of this profession that requires much patience and devotion. But the best part of this job, as you may imply, is the intangible reward you get from your students, isn't it? I feel this way as another English instructor who is one of what you call "generic" speakers.

    Triet said...

    Thanks. It is definitely the joy of working with the students (even when they don't listen) that makes the job worthwhile. I know that some of the teenagers I work with today, are going to have the ability to study in Europe or America, go to universities there, and garner much better jobs, because I helped them learn English.

    Also, I should clarify, that in no way should "generic" and "name brand" be considered as hierarchical. Just as in medicine, both types work equally well, so it is in English. But also like in medicine, consumers have their favorites, whether it's the comfort zone, or taste, or size of the pill, so it is with an employer and it's decision to hire an employee who learned English as a native tongue or second language.

    MGO said...

    On the effect of the nuances of language on job prospects, I'd submit to you the local Houston retail market and Spanish. There's a significant demand for bilingual (or Spanish-only) employees.

    But underlying any language is the culture that birthed it. So much of the nuance of language really seems to be the nuance of culture - inflection, double entendre, gender. So even though I can speak perfect textbook Spanish, I'd stand out as an impostor. And I probably wouldn't get the jokes.

    [I have to note that Castillian Spanish from Spain is pretty different from our local variety. One example: the word "taco" means "bad word" in Castillian]

    Triet said...

    Precisely. Today I was reading the poetry of Ho Xuan Huong. She is one of my favorite Vietnamese poets, and perhaps, one of my favorite poets, period.

    She lived at the end of the 1700s, wrote in a male-dominated, confucian society, and is famous for her critiques of men and sexual entendre.

    One poem I was reading (Kem Trong) says,
    Hai ben thi nui, giua thi song,
    Co phai day la Kem Trong khong?
    Gio giat suon non khua lac cac,
    Song don mat nuoc vo long bong.
    O trong hang nui con hoi hep,
    Ra khoi dau non da rong thung.
    Qua cua, minh oi nenngam lai,
    Nao ai co biet noi bung bong.


    It means (roughly translated),
    In between two mountains lies a river,
    could this be Kem Trong? (where she was born)
    As the wind blows the grass back and forth,
    waves grow and swell quiveringly.
    In the cave the way is tight,
    Leave the mountain tops and head to the valley.
    Out the door, oh my love turn around,
    How can anyone understand raising children?


    On the surface, this is a poem about her birthplace, Kem Trong, where a river runs between two mountains down to a valley. However, for those truly understanding the culture, this poem is about her lost love--who pleasured her "mountains" and then moved south to the "cave" (to keep this pg-13). When he was done, he left her to raise the child alone.

    There will always be jobs where technical knowledge of many languages is necessary for competent service. However, there will always be jobs where an intimate, native knowledge of the language and culture is indispensible.