Monday, January 23, 2012

The Mythology of English: Part 1

Warning - it's about to get nerdy in here! For the next month I will be swamped, overwhelmed and completely reveling in the TEFL certification course I am taking and when I have a few free moments (class was 10 hours today with only a 20 minute lunch break AND I taught a 40 minute lesson to a group of non-native speakers) I will try to share some of the exciting and interesting things I am learning! If you find linguistics or cultural differences or talking philosophically about American culture a snore fest then come back after February 15th. I'll be pretty fixated until then.

It's only 3 days into my course and already I feel like we have covered so much material. One of the aspects I have found most enthralling (its SO totally up my alley) is the discussions we have been having about the mythology of the English language.

Before I get into that though let me back up and talk about why we teach English and some of the different uses of English. English that isn't being taught to non-native speakers fall under three little acronyms: ESL, EFL and EIL. Lemme break it down fo yah (and there will be a WHOLE post about the argument of how the sentence I just used should/can be categorized and whether it counts as English)

ESL - English as a second language. But more directly this means English that is being taught/used in a country where the L1 (native or official language) is English. For example an African immigrant who is learning English IN Great Britian.

EFL- English as a foreign language. More directly this means English that is being taught/used in a country where the L1 is NOT English. For example a French person learning English IN France.

And then the most interesting of the three!

EIL - English as an international language. What does that mean, you ask?

This is where the mythology of English starts coming into play. There is an idea, out there, floating around, that English belongs to everyone now. English belongs to no one. One might argue this and say well English belongs to the English speaking countries and is connected to our culture(s). The only reason people learn English is to communicate and do business with US.

Ah but here's where it gets rich. with EIL the English LANGUAGE is taught but not necessarily the CUSTOMS of an English speaking society. We've all heard of English being used as a "business language" in which case there are usually native English speakers in the situation but consider this curious form of English:

In Thailand EIL is used not to communicate with Americans or the British, but to communicate with the Japanese tourists. The understanding is that while this is an L2 (non-native or second language) for BOTH parties involved, it is one they can both use to communicate. But here is the kicker - along with learning English to communicate with Japanese tourists the Thai also learn the Japanese culture, NOT an English speaking culture. In this sense it is clearly shown that the English language is being used as an international form of communication that is separate from its original contexts and cultures. Just take a second to imagine that. A Thai tour guide speaking to a group of Japanese tourists in English while at the same time using traditional and socially accepted Japanese forms of interaction. Do I have any commenters that could give us an example to illustrate how strange this would be to witness as a native english speaker?

But why English? Aside from that fact that English speakers did a very effective job at conquering and colonizing large swaths of the Earth, along with many other reasons of course, English as a form of communication is seen (myth!) to be democratizing. This seems to be especially believed to be true of American English. Throw out that formal language! Call your professor and boss by their first names and don't you dare think about making OUR nouns gender specific!

English can be seen as a simplified language. In some ways this is true. Consider this: there are 11 ways to address someone in Vietnamese. For example you use the suffix Chi when you are addressing a woman who is slightly older than you, Ahn when addressing someone the same age as you and the list goes on. In English we don't have these levels of formality or such a clearly defined hierarchy of respect. In this way English can be very attractive as an international language because it is perceived that everyone is addressed in equal terms. Interestingly English has the largest lexicon of all the languages. By a lot!

But is English really as democratizing as it seems? Are we really as casual, informal and non-hierarchal as our lack of formal titles suggests? I'll delve into this theme of the Myth of English as well as the Myth of America and their cross-section in my next post but I would love to hear some comments! What do you think?


Scissors and Spice said...

Ooh! I just found your blog and I love it! xo!

Lacey said...

Scissors and Spice: Im glad you found me! I fell across YOUR blog a few months back and I love yours too!