Linguistic imperialism

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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