English in the Global Village

Yangshuo's West Street (Source: chinatravelca)

Yangshuo’s West Street (Source: chinatravelca)

Tourism has been found to be beneficial for minority language maintenance in a number of contexts from around the world. For instance, Anand Torrents Alcaraz has recently shown here on Language on the Move that the growing tourism industry in the Pallars Sobirà region of the Spanish Pyrenees extends the range of uses of Pallarès, the local dialect of Catalan, beyond its traditional rural-agricultural domains. Similarly, PhD research by Yang Hongyan has demonstrated that the award of World Heritage status to the city of Lijiang in Yunnan province in China has provided a significant boost for the maintenance of the Naxi language (Yang 2013). However, it is not always the case that the local minority language benefits from the development of tourism in a minority area, as a fascinating case study of West Street in Yangshuo Town in the Guilin district of Guangxi Province in China demonstrates (Gao 2012).

Yangshuo was one of the first backpacker destinations to emerge in China and the frequency with which Yangshuo is featured in English-language travel reports is out of all proportion to its small size, as Xiaoxiao Chen found in her study of representations of Chinese people and languages in English-language newspaper travel writing (Chen 2013). Yangshuo is typically represented as “easy,” “accessible” and “English-speaking” to English-language audiences, as in the following example (quoted in Chen 2013, p. 207):

[Yangshuo] is the most accessible destination in China for independent foreign travelers, offering accommodation across all ranges, an eclectic array of restaurants with English menus and English-speaking tourism service providers.

However, catering to the international tourist market through the provision of English-language services is only one part of the success story of Yangshuo. Capitalising on its popularity with international tourists, Yangshuo began to strategically associate itself with English-speaking visitors in its marketing efforts directed at domestic tourists, as in the following strategy paper (quoted in Gao 2012, p. 343):

We should fully explore the opportunities of mixing Chinese with western cultures by strategically integrating more western elements into local Yangshuo culture.

As a consequence of this branding strategy, part of the attraction of Yangshuo for domestic tourists now is the presence of English in the linguistic landscape, as a tourism site points out (quoted in Gao 2012, p. 336f.):

Yangshuo has picturesque scenery and rich cultural heritage. The most famous is the ancient stone street, West Street, which has many craft shops, calligraphy and painting shops, hostels, cafés, bars, and Chinese kung fu houses. It is also the gathering place for the largest number of foreigners – more than twenty businesses are owned by foreigners. So the place is called the ‘Foreigner Street’. And since all the locals can speak foreign languages, it is also called the ‘Global Village’. Another attraction is the study and exchange of Chinese and foreign languages and cultures. Chinese people teach their foreign friends Chinese cultures including its language, calligraphy, taiji, cooking, chess; at the same time foreigners teach Chinese people their languages and cultures, so that both finish their ‘study abroad’ within a short time.

The presence of English in the local linguistic landscape is continuously stressed in marketing materials, such as this one from the Yangshuo Tourism Bureau (quoted in Gao 2012, p. 345f.):

Yangshuo is a good place to cure your ‘dumb English’ and ‘deaf English’. At West Street, you can always see West Street people talking in fluent English with western travelers for business or just having small talk. Even old grannies in their 70s or teenage kids can chat [Chinese original: 拉呱 lā guǎ] with ‘laowai’ [foreigners] in English. Many western travelers say they just feel no foreignness here. West Street is the largest ‘English Corner’ in China now.

One could assume that in this ‘culture- and language-rich’ tourist destination, local languages are also being strategically incorporated, particularly as Yangshuo is located in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, the home of the Zhuang ethnic minority. However, this is not the case. In contrast to the ubiquitous focus on English, the local language, Zhuang, the local dialect of Chinese, and other local minority languages present in Yangshuo (Yao, Hui, Miao, Tibetan, Dong and others) are systematically erased: their existence is simply never even mentioned in tourism materials about the area.

Even if the local dialect is mentioned, as in this blog post by a visitor to Yangshuo (quoted in Gao 2012, p. 348f.), it is to be denigrated as not locally appropriate:

You must hold a CET-4 certificate, with relatively fluent spoken English, because at West Street, or just at countryside farmhouses of Yangshuo, even an old grandma or an egg-seller from a rural family could surprise you with their amazing English and at least another foreign language. Next of course you should know Cantonese, kind of an official language here, ‘cause more than half of the xiăozī [=cool person; yuppie] are from Guangdong. The third comes Putonghua, better with Beijing accent. The local dialect just does not work there.

In contrast to Pallars Sobirà or Lijiang, in Yangshuo tourism has done nothing to improve the status of local minority languages. On the contrary, as English takes on the function of indexing not only the global but also the local identity of Yangshuo, it is English that becomes a marker of local authenticity in the global village.

ResearchBlogging.org References

Chen, Xiaoxiao. (2013). Opening China to the Tourist Gaze: Representations of Chinese People and Languages in Newspaper Travel Writing since the 1980s. PhD, Macquarie University.

Gao, Shuang (2012). Commodification of place, consumption of identity: The sociolinguistic construction of a ‘global village’ in rural China Journal of Sociolinguistics, 16 (3), 336-357 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9841.2012.00534.x

Yang, Hongyan. (2012). Naxi, Chinese and English: Multilingualism in Lijiang. PhD, Macquarie University.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Alexandra Grey

    What a timely post, Ingrid! I’m doing field work in Guangxi this month. In interviews, I have been asking Zhuang speakers about the prospects for using their language as a tourist attraction or in jobs related to the Guilin-Yangshuo region’s tourism. I suggest the use of Naxi in Linjiang as an example. But people consistently say that has not happened in Guilin-Yangshuo (as you note) and that it is unlikely to happen in the future, for two reasons. 1) The idea of using language in tourism is not strongly developed in Guangxi and 2) the Guilin-Yangshuo region is not predominantly a Zhuang-speaking area. Rather, Cantonese and Mandarin dialects are the home languages. The visitor quoted in Gao (2012), saying “the local dialect just does not work there” may not be referring to Zhuang language at all, but to these dialects. So Zhuang language is even less ‘on the radar’, not even getting an indirect mention.

    Guangxi Gov appears to have tried to emulate the minority ethnicity attraction of neighbouring Yunnan with the new Museum of Nationalities. But it’s not hugely popular. Hard to get to except in organised tour groups, as it’s on the outskirts of Nanning and poorly serviced by buses/taxis. While Zhuang technology and history is well explained, neither modern spoke Zhuang language nor the unique, historic written Zhuang were made into visitor attractions. Spoke with a few staff, Zhuang language is not a job requirement or used at work, even in the museum’s mock ethnic village.

  • Alexandra Grey

    Also, I have been to the Yangshuo region myself, including West Street. While I loved the physical landscapes of the region, the linguistic landscape did not jump out at me. I would not say I “just felt no foreignness” or heard lots of fluent English conversations between Chinese and non-Chinese people. Tourist brochure hype!

    But the idea of English linguistic landscapes within China being attractive travel sights for Chinese people is really interesting and could use further investigation!

  • Shuang Gao

    Thanks, Ingrid, for featuring my research here, and thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to read it.

    Thank you Alexandra for your comments. It’s interesting to hear your stories.

    In Yangshuo, Zhuang and Mandarin are the two official languages, as everywhere else in Guangxi. And the most widely used Chinese language in Yangshuo is Yangshuo dialect, according to the local statistics in 2003. As to the Zhuang language, its vitality (note that there are different varieties of Zhuang) is debatable and research findings are mixed partly due to its uneven geographical distribution and linguistic diversity. So, what happens in West Street, Yangshuo, is basically re-invention of lingusitic authenticity through appropriating English. But it’s also worth noting that in Yangshuo, Mandarin and other local languages are trying to find their way into the market as well. It’s yet to be seen how exactly…

    Thanks again for sharing your stories in the field. Best of luck!

  • Li Jia

    I remember when I did my BA in Xi’an in the mid 1990s, we had the annual internship working as the English tourist guides at the Emperor Qinshihuang’s Terracotta Warriors and Horses . Every day, thousands of tourists from home and abroad came to visit this Eighth World Wonder. Along with the craze of tourists for the world heritage, a group of local farmers earnestly showed their hospitality selling their products to white faces in English. Now I assume the popularity of English there must be much more prominent than before, and probably those language amateurs also acquire many other foreign languages like the ‘Moon Grannie’ in Yangshuo who could speak 7 foreign languages.

    Different from Yangshuo, I’ve been to some tourist destinations in Muse and Namkam at Myanmar-border, Chinese instead of English becomes more profitable language attracting the neighbouring tourists from China and sadly, similar to the destiny of the ethnic languages in Yangshuo, the main ethnic language, Shan, has just disappeared out of the tourist sites even though Muse and Namkam belong to the state of Shan. Based on my observation from field work, the devalued status of ethnic languages in Myanmar is much more severe than that in China.

  • Having read Ingrid’s post, I had to read the original article by Shuang:-) Indeed a fascinating study, and I found the analysis of Brother Big Horse’s data as subversive parodies really, really interesting. On the surface English always seems to be wholeheartedly accepted in many parts of Asia, but it’s never really the case. Btw, it’d have been interesting to read about what the WS business owners had to say in the interviews – maybe in the next paper:-)

  • Hi, Kimie, thanks very much! I also had much fun analyzing this ‘anti-tourist’.

    Business owners are another focus of my research – I learnt so much from them about how their lives and businesses changed during the past three decades. I actually have one whole chapter about them in my thesis. Hope to share with you very soon:)

  • James

    Tourism can be a great way to keep a language alive locally. A city with more than one language needs a reason for both languages to exist there. There is a little chance that the native language will die out but the cities second language can be in danger to die out unless there is a need for it. Tourism can be a huge source of revenue so it is clearly important to a city. This is the reason the second language doesn’t die out. It has an important purpose.

  • Xiaoxiao Chen

    Thanks to Ingrid for sharing this very interesting post! I assume Yangshuo’s case is not rare in global tourism. I’m afraid tourism can hardly promote the use of local ethnic or minority languages in most cases, as observed in my own PhD search. Even if some local languages have been revived by tourism, they are mostly used for authenticating touristic experiences and they are rarely used beyond the sphere of tourism. So, at best, tourism may help preserving local languages to some extent, but it can never play a major role in maintaining and developing local languages. Meanwhile, Yangshuo’s case is also rare in that it is English that becomes “a marker of local authenticity”. Probably that’s where the charm of Yangshuo lies!

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