By Jim Jensen
Back in the days before the Internet connected us all 24/7, I found myself in Bangkok, Thailand, with no money. I was lucky to get a job hawking jewelry on the street, but it lasted less than a month. The problem was that the more I understood of what my boss, Mr. Don, said the less I liked it. He seemed to imply that I was the boss, that the goods were from America, and that he was just helping me sell them. He also guaranteed everything for six months, but I doubted they would last that long.
My growing discontent came to a head one evening when a young couple bought a small necklace and returned about a half hour later with a broken clasp. I was about to offer them a big necklace in exchange and Mr. Don tried to stop me. He didn’t like my generosity. I told him to take it out of my pay, but it didn’t matter. He told me not to give them a big one. I did anyway.
Things I didn’t understand may have been in play. Maybe I was breaking an unwritten law of the street. Perhaps it had to do with losing face, or his reputation, or some cultural more I couldn’t have guessed, but after the couple walked away we argued, and I too walked away. Wondering if I could find it, I left for his apartment, where I was staying. Once there, I felt awkward because his wife was so kind, but I simply said thank you and good-bye. Not sure what I was going to do, I went to one of the city’s cheapest hotels.
Without enough money to travel, I’d given up an income and free accommodations, scruples – but no brains. The next few days were anxious ones, but then I got some timely information. Someone told me about a small English school that might hire me. I paid the owner a visit and got a part-time job teaching English; something I was neither experienced at, qualified for, nor I feared, capable of.
This fortunate turn of events was possible because I’m lucky to be a native English-speaker. Two hundred years of British and American colonial, commercial, industrial, scientific, and economic power has made English the latest lingua franca – the language of international communication. It’s the world’s most important language, and people want to learn it.
That the world has such a language isn’t a new phenomenon. People who need to communicate with each other find a way to do so, and throughout history, a number of lingua francadeveloped: Latin in the medieval world, French for several centuries in the West, and Swahili in many parts of Africa. Today, diplomats, business people, scientists, tourists and the services that cater to them need a means of efficient communication, and to my good fortune, they use English. There is, quite naturally, a demand to study such an important language and a multi-billion dollar industry has grown up. Native speakers in the right place at the right time, like I happened to be, can get jobs teaching. That is the good news. There are some other implications of a lingua franca, however.
One of the biggest problems with a universal language is that its words tend to seep into other languages. This has always been the case, but because of modern telecommunications, it’s happening at a rate and a scope that is setting off alarms. Recently, Language Purification Laws, implicitly if not directly aimed at English, have been discussed in Germany, Spain, and Brazil. The French have long institutionalized their resentment of foreign words entering their language, and the number of English words finding their way into the French vocabulary is creating an uproar, which frankly, needs to be put into perspective.
Estimates of the number of English words in French are put at as much as five percent. English is over thirty percent French/Latin! Granted, things are changing at an unprecedented rate – English dominates the Internet, for example – but I think people are over-reacting; after all, linguistic purity, in the long term, is as bad for a language as genetic purity is for a group of people.
There are people here in Japan, as well, who are fussing about the number of English words entering their language. They are missing an important point: English is a mongrel. It never balks at picking up new words from other languages, and that might account for its vibrancy. Hunky-dory, for crying out loud, comes from Japanese. Coined by the sailors who followed Perry, dorimeans street, and “hunky” is a phonetic bastardization of the word hontsu, the name of the street that ran from the port to the center of Yokohama. Baffled by the narrow streets with their incomprehensible names, sailors had a hard time finding their way back to their ships. Once they got to hontsu-dori, though, they knew the way. They followed it to the port and the word came to mean that everything is OK.
The point is, languages mix, lingua francas are necessary, and always influence other languages. People should be aware of their language but not overly protective, unless they want to speak a language that doesn’t respond to the real world, a language too inflexible for innovation. I understand why not everybody welcomes the invasion of English into their vocabulary, but if they realize that English’s variety and adaptability comes from the way it takes words from other languages, perhaps they would be more tolerant; less likely to let pride get in the way of language growth.
Of course, in some places language resentment is built on feelings that run deeper than mere pride. Another sticky aspect of the lingua franca is colonialism. Language is intricately intertwined with who we are. Like fish swim, people talk, and if language is one of the fundamental elements of a culture, learning a language becomes a process of cultural transmission. If languages have different ways of describing the way the world is, as you learn a language, the way you perceive the world, and your place in it, changes.
English, and other European languages as well, are the languages of colonial power, so while they offer access to the global economy, they also carry the baggage of post-colonialism, and for much of the world they represent the “non-traditional.” Their roles are ambivalent. People often feel anger when forced to use a European language, and if you think I’m exaggerating, read from an essay called The Language of African Literature, by the Kenyan, Ngugi wa Thiongo’o:
The real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth…(but) economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others. For colonialism, this involved two aspects of the same process: the destruction or the deliberate undervaluing of a people’s culture, their art, dances, religions, history, geography, education, oratory and literature, and the conscious elevation of the language of the coloniser. The domination of a people’s language by the languages of the colonising nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonised.
I’m sure you get his point.
Little did I know that in giving up a questionable position as jewelry salesman to become an English teacher I was becoming a neo-colonializer. The fact is, I didn’t find out until it was too late.
Another problem, quite frankly, is that English is a poor choice for the common language. It’s too difficult. Certain consonants are unique and there are too many vowels. There are also irregular verbs, articles, idioms, and two-part verbs. The spelling – well, enuf haz bin sed.
In short, there are a multitude of reasons why English shouldn’t be the universal language. It’s not a matter of choice, though. English is the lingua franca, as I said, because of two hundred years of British and American power, not because it’s inherently suited for the role, or overwhelmingly attractive to speakers of other languages.
The most reasonable solution would be an artificial language, one without all the grammatical complications and baggage. Fortunately, for me, but unfortunately for those who want to communicate across language barriers, no artificial language has taken hold, English is the way to go, and for that reason I was blessed with a job I was wholly unqualified for.
Bangkok had a gray sameness that devoured me, and the traffic might have been the worst in the world. Walking was often faster than the bus. It wasn’t an easy place to adjust to but I figured out the best way to get to work, and how long it would take. I observed a couple classes, was told how to use the text, and then let loose on the students. To my surprise, I enjoyed it. I was horribly nervous the first few days, but soon settled into a classroom routine. I enjoyed the students and two in particular still stand out in my mind. One was a university-aged girl, the other a boy still in high school.
They were not, in many ways, average Thais. They were both private students. I taught them one-on-one, they were not a part of a class. They were both able to communicate in English, from wealthy families, and on their way to America to study. In other ways, though, they were normal kids and through them I learned of their world and how they viewed mine.
Benji was a bright young girl who was going to study at an American university. Teaching her was a pleasure. She wanted to learn and was interested in history and literature. I actually learned as much from her as she did from me. One day, though, she embarrassed me when she asked me about the places in America where we put old people.
A little confused, I asked what she meant.
“I heard that in America there are special places for old people.”
I thought for a moment and realized she meant ‘old-folks’ homes. “Yes,” I answered,
“There are special homes where some old people live.”
She didn’t like the idea. “Isn’t that sad?”
“They are very nice places,” I explained. “The people get good food, have friends, and get medical attention.”
She was aghast. In Thailand, two or three generations live together. Having an old person in the house is considered an honor, and essential to have near young children. “Are old people not placed in honor?”
It’s easy, as an American, to feel superior to the people of poorer and weaker countries. It’s easy to patronize others, to see them as backwards or funny. I was humbled.
Sadet was a high school student with a character much different than Benji’s. He didn’t like to study, wasn’t interested in history, literature, or anything else academic. So with permission from the office, I took him to the eating stalls behind the school, and there we would drink coffee and chat. He was very modern, stylish, up-to-date on the latest music and had a grin as wide as his face. I was surprised, then, when he asked if there were ghosts in Oklahoma, his destination in the US.
I thought about it, considered the Indians in Oklahoma who may believe in spirits, and said, “Maybe, but they won’t harm you.”
“How do you know?” When his grin turned upside down, it could be very serious.
“I just think so. Are there ghosts in Thailand?”
“Oh, yes,” he said without a trace of doubt. “As tall as the coconut trees,” he added and quickly sketched a tree with an equally tall female spirit floating next to it.
“Have you seen it?”
“No, I haven’t seen it, but I know it lives in the rice fields.”
As I pondered the sketch, he sat silently. “Maybe ghosts in Oklahoma,” he finally said, interrupting a thoughtful silence.
“Maybe,” I said.
Then, after another moment of serious contemplation, he asked “What about Draculas?”
Teaching was not only fun and interesting, but I was good at it. Not because I could actually explain things, but because I was good at dodging explanations. One day a student asked why we say, “If I were you…” not “If I am you…”
This was something I, in my pre-teacher days, never gave much thought. I didn’t know, so I faked it. A hand shot up in the back of the classroom.
“Isn’t that an example of the subjunctive?” a university student asked.
The subjunctive, the subjunctive, I’d heard the word, maybe I studied it at some point, but I had no idea what it was. It sounded good, though.
“Yes,” I agreed, contradicting what I’d just said. “This is an example of the subjunctive. Very good. And it is very important,” I said with a concerned look on my face. I then glanced at my notebook, rubbed my cheek, and said, “We really have a lot to do today. Would you save that question until next time?”
“OK,” he answered.
“Don’t forget,” I said. “It’s important, but we just don’t have time to go into it right now,” I continued in my sincerest tone, and the student seemed convinced I would have explained but was pressed for time. After class, the first thing I did was look the subjunctive up in a grammar book. I spoke somewhat knowledgeably about it the following class.
I was a natural. Being shifty, able to lie so openly and not feel ashamed, I knew I was cut out to be a teacher or a politician, and since a palm reader I had met in Malaysia said I should not be a politician, teaching English struck me as a good way to make a living. When I returned home, I went back to the university, got the education necessary to be a real teacher and have been doing it for over twenty years now. And, it is still as fun and interesting as ever.