Opinions

Linguistic imperialism

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One of the biggest job markets for students nowadays involves ESL teaching in foreign countries. The idea is quite appealing: free travel, cash and a chance to educate the rest of the world. In reality, the bigger picture shows they are participating in a global conquest for perfecting Standard English.

Indeed, in many countries, the more English you know, the better off you'll be. It's a pity many kids don't even respect their mother tongue anymore and only aim to learn the more "useful" English.

Having spent most of my life in China, I know the advantages that come with knowing English. I recall many times when my father, who obtained his degree in Canada, would put his co-workers in their places simply by speaking to them in English. Furthermore, his ability to manipulate slang usage and technical terms always gained him an advantage in the world of commerce. Even American business partners give way when they listen to him, openly applauding his linguistic abilities.

"Wow, you're really good at English!" they say, following the logic that "if he can speak English then he must be smart."

My parents know damn well that language is power, so they shuffled me between as many schools teaching in as many different languages as they could since the day I could babble. Try French preschool, Cantonese elementary, English junior high and Mandarin senior high. Instead of feeling "powerful," I went from struggling with Chinese characters to wiggling through English as a Second Language classes.

Right now, I'm thankful for it, but the lesson I learned was that if you knew English, you can screw all other languages.

When I was at Shanghai, I had many English-speaking friends. Everywhere we went, there was this superior air around us. From the two international schools I attended, I knew over 2,000 people of non-Chinese descent and less than one per cent of them ever attempted to learn any Chinese. There was a Belgian kid in my grade six class who lived in China for more than eight years and couldn't speak a word of Chinese--but his English was better than most Americans.

The funny thing was all the Polish, Korean, Finnish and other non-Americans I knew came to China with little knowledge of English or Chinese but within half a year they had already picked up English. They didn't need to know Chinese, they got by just fine--more than fine, to be accurate.

Soon, I also learned to speak only English in certain settings to get what I want. Every time I got into trouble or wanted to buy alcohol, I would bust out my English words. It didn't matter that I was skateboarding inside a mall, drinking gin at MacDonald's or throwing empty bottles at apartment buildings, the moment I spoke the magic words, authorities would disappear or simply become more lenient. Sometimes they would even attempt to learn a couple English words from me. I felt the imperial powers of English and I'm not even white!

I came back to Canada in 1999 thinking that if I showed off my English the moment I landed, no one would see me as "inferior." In reality, Canada was more tolerant of other cultures than any international school I ever attended. People here actually want to learn from foreigners.

The whole overseas ESL deal is attractive to Canadians because they want to experience different cultures. Little do they know their future students on the other side of the ocean simply want a piece of that English power-speak. These worldwide ESL teachers are promoting linguistic imperialism in the name of multiculturalism.

Where I come from, a person's non-English language skills are, at times, something to be ashamed of. Even with the best of intentions, ESL teachers to-be should reevaluate some of the social implications behind these language programs.

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Comments

Should teachers teach the British and American culture in the EFL classroom?

Since English has become a lingua franca of the global village, so indispensable in the business world, it has reached every classroom around the globe as a primary foreign language to be learned. All those wishing to keep abreast with the modern global society need to have a good communicative competence in this language. But learning a foreign language does not mean memorization of a few grammar rules and thousands of words. To understand a Brit or an American is to have some basic knowledge of their culture and the way these people think. See more at http://www.geocities.com/pan_andrew/culture.htm

Shouldn\'t the focus be on multi-cultural learning within a global context, with English as an international language rather than as a British or American one? In todays World, there are more second language speakers of English than first language speakers, so shouldn\'t the understanding of cultural background be extended to all those, more numerous, speakers and their contributions to English as a global medium for commnication, rather than only British and American culture? Admittedly, British and American cultural understanding could be incorporated into learning the new lingua franca, but should it really be the sole focus within textbooks and English language classrooms? Surely, students of English are more likely to speak to other second language speakers rather then the (far fewer in number) native speakers of the language. If we can move away from the imperialistic, Anglo-centric approach often found in English language learning, then perhaps second language learners would feel more personally involved in the language, and able to adopt it more easily with the view of it being an international way to communicate, rather than an imperialistic tool.