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.