The Language Business

I looked at the grainy photo included in the ad. A plain-looking building made of earthen materials stood in the dead center of the frame. A tall man wearing a pristine white button down shirt smiled at the camera. Behind him was a small rag-tag army of schoolchildren. Most were smiling, some looked bored, and one was picking his nose with intense concentration. I sent a reply to the advertisement. I told him that I wanted to volunteer at his tiny, underfunded school. I’m technically not qualified to teach. I don’t have a degree in English. I don’t even have a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate—the piece of paper that says you were “professionally trained” in indoctrinating the English language upon your subjects—but I speak English and I speak it quite well when sober.

English is like the gold bar of languages: if you speak it, you can cash in your nouns, verbs, adjectives and “The cat kept clawing the car salesman from Kansas…remember, kids, you pronounce it kan-zuhs.”

The export of English is a multi-billion dollar industry. Japan alone employs more than 60,000 English teachers. There are platoons of English teachers being deployed overseas to train students in the language that will allow them to snag a good job; students like Raj in New Delhi—an IT specialist—who is getting ready to fly to Seattle to work for a software design firm. He tells me that he wouldn’t have landed the job if the recruiter didn’t have confidence in his English. Raj’s parents had hired a private English tutor for him when he was 16 . Six years later, he has almost mastered the language, although he’s still self-conscious about his accent.

Times are changing though. An American kid would probably benefit in learning Spanish and Mandarin just as an Indian student would benefit in learning English. The shifting of economic and, therefore, political tectonic plates is reshaping the landscape of international communication. Some schools in the U.S. are now teaching Mandarin along with Spanish, especially on the West Coast where there is a large and steadily-growing Asian population. It is both immigration trends and an expanding global market that is shaping the way we speak.

I asked my friend, a Spanish teacher at a local high school, if I have a better chance at finding a job as a Spanish instructor in the U.S. than landing a gig as an English teacher in South Korea. She told me that English is still the most desired language to be taught in schools abroad. It’s probably true.

I remember we were forced to speak only English at a particular private high school I had attended in the Philippines. The teachers were actually instructed to write up students caught speaking the native language, Tagalog. It was an advantage for me, but I rebelled against it, because I felt that it was a totalitarian approach to teaching English. If you want to foster a habit of speaking a lingua franca among students, you should do so in a holistic way, not through an enforcement-and-punishment system.

But like old empires, language trends are ephemeral in nature. During the height of the Roman Empire, Latin was considered the universal language. Even Arabic left its mark in the countries the Caliphate had covered, especially in North Africa and Central Asia where the people either still speak Arabic as their primary language or are fluent in it.

50 years from now, I wouldn’t be surprised if the global community winds up speaking a kind of mixed-language, like the ‘Singlish’ that has evolved in the linguistic lab that is Singapore. With the rise of Brazil in South America as a major economic player in the world stage, you might as well add Portuguese to your list of languages-I-want-to-learn-this-year-but-will-probably-only-end-up-learning-creepy-sexual-innuendos.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Tanzania to trade in my nouns for some goat milk.

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