While a mid-July blast of heat and humidity makes DeKalb swelter, a group of English…
It’s impossible to watch a newscast this month without seeing coverage of the flood of Syrians trying to make their way to Europe.
Each features at least one interview with a fleeing Syrian – someone whose native tongue is Arabic – answering a reporter’s questions in perfect, albeit accented, English.
Such fluency is probably pleasing to Donald Trump, who suggested Sept. 3 that Jeb Bush “should really set the example by speaking English while in the United States,” and Sarah Palin, who one day later urged immigrants to “speak American.”
But such is the way of the world.
Countries around the globe want as many English speakers as possible among their people because leaders believe that the language spoken in the United States is the new lingua franca – the language of business, politics and, ultimately, power.
No town in Japan is without an English Conversation School. Leaders of foreign governments are bankrolling scholarships for study in the United States. Some people are even snipping the roots of their tongues to improve their pronunciation of English.
“People have a love/hate relationship with the West. They hate our arrogance and our materialism, but they’d love to have what we have,” says James Cohen, assistant professor in the NIU Department of Literacy and Elementary Education (LEED).
“English is clearly the lingua franca. It’s the language of power. It’s the langue of status,” Cohen adds. “Businesses all over the world believe that if you want to improve your status in society, if you want to improve your wealth, you have to know English.”
Mayra Daniel, an associate professor in LEED, offers another consideration.
“English keeps the privilege in the hands of the learners from high socioeconomic status backgrounds around the world. Those more likely to master English in countries such as Guatemala and Ecuador are children whose parents can afford to send them to English schools,” Daniel says.
“This perpetuates the meritocracy and keeps power tightly in the hands of those with money,” she adds. “This does not mean that learning English is a negative, but it is not at all the Band-Aid to the world’s economic woes.”
“Parents in Taiwan spend thousands of dollars on their children hoping their children become fluent English speakers,” Lee says. “Some send their children to bilingual kindergartens or private elementary schools. For those who cannot afford expensive bilingual schools, they send their children to more affordable after-school programs to learn English.”
“People who can speak decent English in Taiwan have a better chance of finding a good job,” she says. “Foreign companies that have offices in Taiwan generally pay more to their employees.”
Daniel is hesitant to make a generalization about the appetite for learning English around the world; she confirms that many residents of foreign countries who can afford “the privilege” of English Language Teaching expect “to gain upward mobility.”
“They think that English is the language of power. I don’t know that English is the language of power. I think Chinese is also the language of power,” she says, “but people want to be able to come to the United States. They want to have access to everything that English offers them economically.”
NIU enjoyed a first-hand glimpse of this concept earlier this year, when Cohen brought 37 Ecuadoran teachers of English to DeKalb for a seven-month immersion in speaking and teaching English.
Dubbed “Go Teacher,” the program clearly illustrates the importance of English to the South American nation.
Ecuador’s president is putting profits from his country’s vast oil resources to fund tuition-free professional development in the United States for thousands of teachers; Cohen secured a $777,000 subsidy from the Ecuadorian Ministry of Education by way of Kansas State University’s grant.
Ruben Jacome, one of those students and a teacher at a rural Ecuadoran school, acknowledges that some of his pupils “don’t want to learn English because they don’t need English in real life. They have no motivation to learn.”
“But if a student learns English, he can get better opportunities to improve and to get a degree,” Jacome says. “Our condition will increase. Outside, there are many opportunities. They can go out to be better, come back and then help each other. This is the most important thing we can teach.”
One coin, many sides
Cohen describes the current fervor for English as a natural progression of the colonialism that began centuries ago when “the sun never set on the British Empire.”
Putting aside the often negative impact of colonialism on people living in the colonies, Cohen says the spread of English “did allow people to interact. A lot was learned despite the arrogance of the colonial powers.”
In the early 1900s, President Theodore Roosevelt called for immigrants to assimilate to U.S. culture: “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language.”
“Linguists have called the United States ‘a linguistic graveyard’ because languages come here to die. It’s really a shame,” Cohen says. “Imagine if languages were esteemed rather than relegated and killed.”
The professor of ESL and bilingual education shakes his head at the K-8 philosophy that “spends years beating other languages out of you” and then flips in high school to telling students that they need to take foreign language classes to graduate and attend college.
“What a waste,” he says. “What a waste of time. What a waste of resources. What a waste of brainpower.”
However, Lee says, the continued proliferation of English does open many doors for U.S. residents. “Americans who go to Asian countries can easily make a living by teaching English,” she says.
Global multilingualism also opens American eyes, she says.
“Due to the fact that everyone else in the world is trying to learn English, American students feel that they don’t need to learn a second language. I think we need to encourage students to learn a second language, whatever it is,” Lee says.
Indeed, she adds, “most of my students took a few years of Spanish in high school, but very few of them can speak Spanish. When I took students studying abroad, they met students in foreign countries and were shocked to find out that most people in the rest of the world can speak at least two languages and American students can only speak one.”
“We have to look at how English is taught around the world,” she says.
Sometimes, she says, “really crucial pieces are left out of the instructional picture. The sociocultural component and the dialogue that ensures new speakers effectively communicate across English-speaking nations.”
Teaching only the vocabulary and sentence structure ignores the subtleties of cultural norms and the markedly diverse traditions and modern ways of life practiced by people who speak English, including Americans, Australians and the British.
“It’s not taught in ways that empower,” Daniel says. “We’re not giving students who want to use the English language effectively the nuances necessary to move abroad for another job or to sell their products. When there isn’t that access to authentic situations, then there are gaps.”
Knowledge of English without the societal substance also cultivates Paulo Freire’s “culture of silence,” she says.
“You don’t feel free to express your opinion, and when you feel that your opinion doesn’t matter, nothing changes. Everything remains the same,” says Daniel, who is applying for a sabbatical to study the steady rise of literacy in her native Cuba over the last 50 years.
Seeking a balance
To anyone who believes that the current – and undeniable – triumph of English is tantamount to the “survival of the fittest,” Cohen has one word.
“No,” he says. “All languages are equal. All languages can communicate. There is no such thing as a better or stronger language.”
Americans content to rest on their laurels while the rest of the world learns English are mistaken to believe there’s no good reason to master other languages, he says.
Echoing Daniel’s observations of Chinese, he confirms that the use and popularity of Mandarin is climbing. In fact, one of his students teaches at a Chinese immersion school in Schaumburg.
Politics and philosophies aside, he adds, there is no downside to the ability to communicate in more than one language.
“Our brains are hardwired to be multilingual,” Cohen says, “and the advantages of being biliterate are amazing. You’re more marketable. You’re more flexible. You understand syntax better. You improve your ability to deal with ambiguity. You understand other people and other cultures. It opens so many doors.”
Conversely, he says, some foreign countries that are racing to adopt English are on the wrong course.
Research shows that children learn better when taught in their native language, he says.
And consider citizens of Sri Lanka, he adds, who are speaking English while they obtain a decent understanding of U.S. customs.
“Some feel that they are learning English at the expense of losing Sri Lankan culture. That would be considered subtractive – a deficit model. Replacing one language with another is negative. Adding one language to another is much more is positive and beneficial,” Cohen says.
“Most countries are doing it the right way,” he adds. “Learning English is a good thing as long as it’s additive.”
Daniel, whose first language is Spanish, says multilingualism enriches lives while it makes the world smaller.
For example, many foreign graduate students at NIU gather for Friday evening meals at a church in DeKalb. Their shared ability to speak English fosters friendship and appreciation of other ways of life.
“People who are monolingual don’t have that access,” she says. “Acquisition of a second language is always a good thing. Language is just something that develops. It builds even if we start in a less-than-ideal classroom, and if that language helps us to communicate, then that language is truly beautiful and beneficial.”