Asia’s Chronic English Disease

Asia’s Chronic English Disease - Tutor ABC

Asia’s Chronic English Disease

The promotion of English in Asia is a frequent topic here on Language on the Move. Striving for global competitiveness and internationalization, states across Asia strongly promote English. Additionally, on the personal level, English is supposed to broaden an individual’s perspective and to enable upward mobility. Across Asia, English has come to assume the mantle of magic!

The converse of all this hype is that lack of English has come to be equated with deficiency. So much so, that lack of English is now a chronic disease endemic in Taiwan, as I’ve recently discovered when watching this TV commercial for a private English language school. Here, English is presented as a disease that needs to be cured. The ad features a white male doctor with an Asian female patient. The white doctor, the only character in the ad to speak, delivers his lines in Taiwanese and says:

Tutor ABC cares about your chronic English illness. Chronic English illness causes you tears of sorrow when reading English, and canker sores, sore throat, and cold feet when speaking English. If you suffer from these symptoms, please call our toll-free number 0800-66-66-80, 0800-66-66-80 [my translation]

For Taiwanese, the ad is hilarious. Not because of the content of the language doctor’s message but because it imitates another famous Taiwanese commercial advertising for sciatica treatment, which started to run more than a decade ago. In that commercial, the main character, a doctor, seriously delivered a message about sciatica treatment. Unexpectedly, the commercial caused a sensation through its unintended comic effect arising from the amusing contrast between the serious message delivered by the doctor with his earnest facial expression and attitude, and the childish, catchy rhymes and rhythm, particularly in the case of the phone number with its repetition. Despite its status as a budget ad, the clinic became famous overnight and the commercial continues to run on Taiwanese TV, recently with the addition of another character, a foreign blond female model. The doctor’s message has remained unchanged in more than a decade:

Jian-sheng Chinese medicine clinic cares about your sciatica. Sciatica is a lumbar disc displacement or lumbar intervertebral disc disorder, resulting in low back pain or limb pain. If you suffer from these symptoms, please call our toll-free number 0800-092-000, 0800-092-000. [my translation]

The intertextuality between the two ads serves to reinforce the notion in the language ad that English is a disease: a disease in need of a doctor and a cure. In the process, the majority of Taiwanese who don’t use English comfortably are constructed as patients. The doctor they can turn to is, of course, white but, at the same time, an approachable speaker of Taiwanese.

Constructing lack of English as an illness and language learners as patients seems an extremely manipulative way of promoting English. Presenting English as a cure to all kinds of social and personal problems and lack of English as a disease suggests that English is inscribed in the body and ties in with language ideologies that make the acquisition of the right linguistic capital a personal responsibility.

There really is a chronic English disease raging in Asia but it’s not the lack of English that is the disease; it’s the ravages caused by the blind faith in the miracle powers of English.

Author Grace Chu-Lin Chang

Receiving a 2011 Endeavour PhD Postgraduate Award from the Australian Government to fund her research, Grace now holds a PhD degree in Linguistics from Macquarie University in Sydney. Building upon her experiences in student services as an English teacher, a student affairs coordinator, a translator and a researcher, Grace devotes herself to cross-cultural communication and social participation of transnationals.

More posts by Grace Chu-Lin Chang
  • I think there is a need to identify the factors that can lead to successful English language learning before more and more new techniques are tried in Asia as well as in other countries around the world. In my opinion, these factors are not only related to language teaching methodology, but they extend far beyond that. Social, economic, ecological and other factors that extend beyond the classroom must be taken into consideration before we can determine whether English can be really mastered to a satisfactory level.

    There is also a need to determine whether the need for English is real, or just created by the discourse about globalization and internationalization. And if it’s real, then for whom? Of course, we are not talking about limiting access to English here, but we can’t ask everyone to learn English just in case they might need to use it one day, and then describe them as patients suffering from a chronic disease if they fail to master the language.

  • Isbah

    The question ‘for whom’ is valid. Do we want everyone to learn English, like farmers and masons, based on 1% chance that they come across a native speaker. If not, we are limiting the access to English. In Asian countries English is not the first language but is a gate keeper. Social segregation increases when English remains accessible to a few; still a determining factor in social mobility. Jobs in corporate sector and higher education require English. Do we need to decide at an early age who should go for mobility or everyone should get a fair chance?

    I am not commenting on the system and the demand of English as that is another Pandora box.

    Enjoy the weekend

    • Thanks for your comment, Isbah. I’m not sure who you are referring to when you say ‘we’ but you seem to suggest that universalized English language learning from an early age would make the world a fairer place. This assumption seems to be implicit in much of the hype about English language teaching and learning but I have yet to see a shred of evidence that suggests there is any rational basis to this belief. If learning English is not accompanied by acquiring other useful skills and qualifications, it can be worse than not learning English as Niño-Murcia (2003) demonstrated in her study of English learning in Peru.

      Furthermore, it seems to me that the story that English is essential to success is exactly that: a story that the proponents of global English tell to make it come true and to shape the future. One of the most striking features of Japanese-on-the-Move are the stories of successful migrant businessmen to Australia, who speak about their business success as independent of English and achieved without English. So, there is a real world out there where people succeed without English …

      Niño-Murcia, M. (2003). “English is like the dollar”: hard currency ideology and the status of English in Peru. World Englishes 22(2): 121-141.

      • I think I agree to a large extent with what Ingrid said. Many people who speak English but do not possess other skills know that English is not necessarily the ticket to riches.

        People who work in call centers know this very well. It is true that in countries like India and the Philippines they earn above-average salaries, but it is difficult for them, regardless of how good their English is, to make a career if they do not have the right qualifications.

        Even English teachers need more than English to make a career in teaching. That’s why being a native speaker of a language is never enough to teach it.

  • Alia Amir

    Interesting post about the spread of English in Asia and perceived success attached to English language learning. It has left me pondering about English in Asian contexts as well as kept me reconsider decades of research on teaching the foreign language or not.
    Coming back to the original post here and the comments that followed the post, I agree with Ingrid when she says: “If learning English is not accompanied by acquiring other useful skills and qualifications, it can be worse than not learning English as Niño-Murcia (2003) demonstrated in her study of English learning in Peru. “I also agree with Isbah when she says: “Social segregation increases when English remains accessible to a few.”
    If we step aside from the notion of English as a disease and take the stance of “an ecology of local language practices” (Pennycook, 2010:15) (for each individual country of Asia) then we can come to grips with which kind of English (or rather any language) is a disease for a certain context. Also, if we consider Pennycook’s call to rethink language and practices by “viewing language as a local practice points to the ways in which locality is a discursive creation” then we can identify whether English in a certain context is a disease or not. Generalising the disease to all over Asia or to the world is problematic. According to Pennycook (2010:15): “…languages are part of human endeavours to create new worlds”, and agree with this or not, English (es) have been created in certain contexts (including Asia).
    In the same vein, If we consider re- thinking the word “Asia” in the original post as it not only negates the situated nature of English (es) in Asia as well as generalises ‘English’ in Asia. What I mean by this is that various regions such as the Far East, South Asia and Middle East have had the presence of English since different historic times and in different spheres of people’s lives. Take the case of South Asia for instance; the English language has been present since the British East India Company started its trade there. Since then, in each independent country of the then British India (Now Pakistan, India and Bangladesh mainly), English has developed as an independent variation (or rather varieties of English have developed in each country).
    Let’s take the case of Pakistan where 70 plus living languages are spoken, local Pakistani English is not even considered a local language even though it has been used for more than 100 years in higher education and other sorts of communication (and in specific contexts) like several other languages of Pakistan. In a country where several local languages are not even written languages, considering all languages to have equal status is misleading. What local English/es do in these contexts is complement the local languages. In this regard, I agree with Alastair Pennycook’s stance of “ecology of local languages” and believe thatconsidering a local and bottom-up approach to understanding the practices of a local language ecologically can help us understand this (perceived) ‘disease’ in Asia better.

  • Annamarie

    ”There really is a chronic English disease raging in Asia but it’s not the lack of English that is the disease; it’s the ravages caused by the blind faith in the miracle powers of English.”

    Great line.

    I teach English in Japan and have long been curious about this blind faith in English’s magical door-opening abilities. Lately, here in Tokyo more Japanese businesses have been pushing their employees to get TOEIC qualifications. I have the (totally subjective and unsubstantiated) sense that this blind faith in the miracle financial powers of English seems to be on the rise among Japanese while-collar workers.

    On the other hand, there is an interesting ad for a computer school currently running on the Yamanote train line that circles central Tokyo. A young Japanese woman who looks like a clerical worker in an office works up the nerve to talk to her white male boss about her job duties. “I would like to use my English!” she says. The boss frowns sternly, then says (I’m paraphrasing) “But can you use Excel?” I wonder if the ad is tapping into a sense among English-speaking Japanese workers that English alone is not as career-magical as it was once thought to be.

    Anyway, this was a really interesting article. I’m curious now about looking at English school marketing in Japan.

  • Suzanne Mead

    Annamarie’s observation about the businesses now pushing for TOEIC qualifications is interesting in that the objective may not be to encourage employee language development. It is sometimes the case that IELTS, TOEIC or similar proficiency test results are used to confirm perceived employee deficiencies, to serve as gatekeeper to promotion, or in a worst case scenario, justify dismissal. Something to consider at least when asked to ‘test’ rather than teach English.

  • Frances Giampapa

    I find this a very fascinating discussion and one that will continue to raise questions and bring out different opinions. These are the types of issues that my students and I discuss on a course I run called Globalisation and the Politics of English in TESOL. This is an MSC TESOL unit and all students are involved in the English language industry in one way or another – mainly teachers of English. We are all connected in the production of discourses and ideologies of language, in this case English. What we try to understand is the dominance of English, the processes that have lead to this and the underlying discourses that are reproduced to maintain social inequality. I’m not suprised to see the view expressed in the posting – as some students come with these ideas – but they certainly don’t leave with them or at least what we try to do in the unit is open up new ways of thinking and new possibilities.

    One of the articles we read is Nino-Murcia and i woud have to agree with Ingrid in her comment that the storyline around English as the key to success is just that a story. Too many of my students come to the UK in the hope of perfecting their English, of becoming a ‘native speaker’ – many in the end find that this isn’t the case. I do understand the strong desire and social expectations tied to learning English for many of my students. But i remind them also of their own social class privilege and other factors that has put them in the position to study abroad.