English: a global language, but a language nonetheless

A language laboratory in Huaihua College's Western Campus in Huaihua, Hunan, China. The rigid teaching of English in some Asian nations is hampering learners' abilities to make creative use of the language, thus harming cross-cultural communicationA language laboratory in Huaihua College's Western Campus in Huaihua, Hunan, China. The rigid teaching of English in some Asian nations is hampering learners' abilities to make creative use of the language, thus harming cross-cultural communication (Source: Robert Baxter)

In the occasional but ever-growing English language fancies of South Korean TV, there is an instructional approach to answering the question “How are you?” A celebrity on a variety quiz show, a reporter interviewing an American musician or a TV character traveling through Sydney will answer all the same, verbatim, in a monotone, “I am fine, thank you. And you?” The rehearsed answer, spewed time and time again, has morphed into something of a running national inside joke. Parodied by Korean comedians and by the everyday student of self-deprecation, the conversation opener has become a metonym for the mechanical English language abilities of a population obsessed with the challenge of learning English, but ultimately disappointed by the results.

Among countries in Asia that adopt compulsory English-language education, South Korea is not alone in its disappointment. In recent years, students in countries such as Japan, China, Vietnam and Taiwan have failed to meet the language-learning expectations initially envisioned by hopeful ministries of education. National rankings on English skills for such countries reach “moderate proficiency” levels, at best, on international language surveys, such as those conducted by Education First (EF). But the more concerning issue lies precisely in the types of goals expected by such ministries. English language education policies have, since their introduction, been overly focused on broad aims at increasing national competitiveness as opposed to exploring the potentials of a “global language” in increasing intercultural interaction.

The countries in Asia belonging to what one influential sociolinguistic study calls the third or ‘expanding’ concentric circle of world Englishes have encouraged English learning in direct recognition of English as the international language of modern times. In a circle outside of countries that are traditional bases of English and countries that underwent institutionalisation of English in periods of colonisation, countries in the expanding circle have fashioned their own relation to the language.

Often, however, they have done so as kneejerk reactions to national opportunities on the international stage, such as South Korea hosting the Olympics in 1988 and China joining the World Trade Organization in 2001. They haven’t asked themselves: ‘‘What is a global language, and how should one be treated?”

Certainly, English has secured its place as the global language because of the historic rise, economically and politically, of Anglophone nations. For countries in the expanding circle facing globalising trends in the late 20th century, there seems little choice on the matter. After all, there was no nomination process for which language might be the mutual tool for global communication. Still, the decision to pursue English-language curricula can be as much an active affirmation of the importance of having a global language as it is a reaction to having one. In that regard, there is ample room for choice on influencing what a global language can be.

If indeed it continues to be treated as a professional skill in the international marketplace, with a document from Taiwan’s Ministry of Education stating the need to “give individuals confidence in communicating in the global area…[to] thus [improve] the nation’s competitiveness”. Analogously, South Korea’s Ministry of Education seeks to tailor an education system to student’s capabilities, aptitudes and career development – then its uses are limited to the business arena. Language thus becomes a tool for the career-minded, a dimensionless add-on to a CV. But grasping a language, unlike learning to use more and more advanced technologies, demands more from its users. A language demands recognition as a dynamic mode of expression and, if taught creatively with multicultural pedagogies in mind, a medium for increased human connection.

The broad economic goals of compulsory English-language education are best represented in the approach to teaching English in countries such as Japan, China and Vietnam. A strong emphasis is placed on vocabulary, grammar and reading, and the treatment of English as a subject discipline has resulted in the exam-oriented teaching of the language. Increasingly, English proficiency tests have been instituted as required components of university entrances. Despite the exam-oriented nature of education in East Asian countries in general, the notion of English as important to academic and professional success has spurred a competitive and ultra-stressful environment towards attaining “proficiency”.

This eclipses genuine and flexible ability in the language. In Japanese classrooms, English is rarely spoken or practiced in preference for a style of teaching that emphasises one-for-one translation of English into Katakana phonetics. Similarly, a study on English-learning among Vietnamese students has identified large vocabulary demands and boring ways of conveying knowledge as demotivating factors to effective language learning.

A revision of the current approach to English-language education policies should first and foremost bring into question the necessity of making such programmes compulsory. If indeed governments treat emerging data on the correlation between higher levels of English skills and higher levels of per capita income and quality of life as possible grounds of causation, then any country’s investment in English-language education should be cognisant of untapped potentialities in current approaches to compulsory education. Furthermore, the compulsory nature of the programs has room to encourage English as a true lingua franca, not merely as the cultural cache of the economic elite, as was the case a few generations ago.

The answer is not, as so many governments have recently believed, inherent in lowering the age of introduction of English-language education. Rather, it is inherent in an approach to English that recognises it as not just another means to development, but as a particularly dynamic means. What exactly would treating English with the fullness of treating any other foreign language look like? Perhaps, there would be an emphasis in training programmes for teachers of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) on the ontological facets and creative capacities of a language. Instead of flattening the expansiveness of expressions in language, there would be an explicit recognition of style in English-language syllabi. This is not an ideal hope, for the industry of EFL professionals is burgeoning (especially in China) and such treatment of language learning would doubtless be as interesting to teachers as it would to students.

On a trickier note, there is also a need to strike a balance between using English for global purposes and identifying the particularities of English as one of many languages. One of the strengths of learning a language that is as far-reaching as English has become is being able to mould the language for use in multiple situations. Over the last few decades, English – at least in its use outside of traditional bases of the language – has undergone a distinct apoliticisation. In South Asia, for example, Marxist Communists, Hindu rightists and factions of the Congress Party alike have used English to achieve disparate political aims. There is value in the increasing plasticity of English and in positively recognising that users of English in the third circle might creatively modify the standard conventions of English in ways that writers in the second circle have already done.

Still, policymakers must highlight the notion that learning English as the current global language is a distinct project from learning whatever else might become the global language of the future – say, Chinese. No student can just transfer a general linguistic skill set from English to Chinese, as if learning generalisable test-taking skills. In other words, English’s global quality can never completely neutralise its particularities as a language. The peculiarities of expression are too unique, and recognising this is part of affirming English as the current global language in any compulsory education programme.

What, if anything, should change if the English language is treated more fluidly in East and Southeast Asian classrooms? For one, an emphasis away from professional benefits and towards expressive benefits would in any case increase effective communication in professional spheres. Being trained in the creative uses of a language can undoubtedly help a Chinese businessman to foster deeper relationships with an American or Indian businessman. Still, perhaps, the greater hope for a young generation pressured into learning a foreign tongue might be that they learn in a way that allows them to find joy in doing so – such that one day if they meet a Saudi Arabian, Greek or Zimbabwean they are able to leave aside hand gestures and art – those other universal languages – and answer “How are you?” with a fuller expression of the sorrows or joys of their experiences that day.