English propaganda creates blind spots

"Imported Teacher", the British Council's new PR campaign in Thailand

“Imported Teacher”, the British Council’s new campaign in Thailand

As a language educator in Thailand my in-box is always full of invitations to conferences devoted to ASEAN and English language teaching. At such conferences, keynote speakers from the UK or the US make similar, if not identical, arguments for the importance of English as a lingua franca in the linguistically diverse ASEAN region. Their trump card is normally the economic value of English.

For example, at a seminar I attended recently in Bangkok, an American TESOL celebrity told an audience of Thai English teachers that: “English-speakers earn THREE times more than non-English speakers” [capitalization original to her Powerpoint slide]. This was a fact, she assured us, by referring to a report about English in the Middle East and North Africa. Commissioned by the British Council, the report claims that English-speaking receptionists in a city such as Bagdad in Iraq can earn three times more than their non-English-speaking counterparts. It’s impossible to determine the sample size but the results are based on 50 job ads for all kinds of professions. Only receptionists have a three-fold earning differential. To generalize on the basis of a handful of job ads for receptionists in Baghdad to a global assertion is, well, problematic, to put it mildly …

Propaganda such as this result in a single-minded wave of English fever. Of course, this is not unique to Thailand – Japan, South Korea and many other Asian nations also have their hearts set firmly for English. But it is important to ask ourselves if such a narrowly focused belief in the power of English – based as it is on questionable data and assumptions – is a good thing for Thailand and for its ASEAN project. The reality of ASEAN nations today are the ever-increasing flows of people and businesses from various linguistic and cultural backgrounds; in such a fluid transnational space, chances are that languages other than English are more useful or more realistic choices.

Let me illustrate this point by an example of a major Japanese company in Thailand. This company is considering providing English lessons for their Thai drivers, whose job it is to drive expat Japanese employees and their families stationed in Bangkok. Most of these Thai drivers speak poor English. As many of the Japanese employees and their families themselves have limited English proficiency, communication between the two parties is rather constrained.

A Japanese expat wife, whose husband works for this company, told me that she was scared of asking the driver to drive her and her children to their school in the morning. Because they don’t have a language in common, a number of failed communications have led to mistrust between them. Funded by her husband’s company, she’s learning English at a school in Bangkok, but with only a one-hour lesson per week she’s making little progress. Frustrated, her family’s decision to solve this problem with the driver was rather unique – they moved next to their children’s school.

The ideology of English as ‘useful’ is obviously implicit in the company’s consideration of providing English lessons for their drivers. It seems to keep the company from considering a more efficient option: teaching Japanese to the Thai drivers and Thai to the Japanese expats. In addition to such lessons where they can learn basics, both groups will get many daily practice opportunities with each other.

Increasing numbers of Japanese restaurants are opening in Bangkok

Despite last year’s flooding that affected over 450 Japanese companies in Thailand, more Japanese companies are planning to launch their business here. According to Teikoku Data Bank (2011), 3,133 Japanese companies are registered in Thailand, and approximately 37,000 expats (plus approx. 13,000 non-company worker Japanese) are sent from Japan to work in this country. According to some Japanese expats and business owners I’ve met, they need not English-speaking but Japanese-speaking Thais or Japanese-Thai translators. While they also pay lip-service to the importance of English and are often forced to use English, they would actually prefer to use Japanese in business negotiations and feel much more at ease in the presence of Japanese-speaking Thai interpreters. According to one consulting company, the demand for Thai-Japanese interpreters is on the rise. However, they are difficult to find. Actually, Japanese-Thai interpreters can easily earn much higher salaries than English-Thai interpreters!

For instance, a newly opened Japanese restaurant hired a Japanese-speaking Thai waiter and his starting salary is 40,000 baht – four times more than his non-Japanese speaking co-workers, twice as much as that of my English-speaking Thai friend working for an international education firm in Bangkok, and close to that of a foreign lecturer with a PhD at a reputable university in Bangkok.

Furthermore, one Japanese expat working for a major Japanese company told me that English is often not the preferred choice of language among their increasing number of Korean and Chinese clients operating in Thailand. For instance, a Japanese expat, Ken, whom I met recently, had a meeting with a Korean expat businessman in Bangkok. Ken began his meeting by greeting in Korean (Ken is Japan-born Korean with basic Korean proficiency) and mostly used Thai and sometimes English during the meeting as his Korean client speaks good Thai but cannot speak English. He had a Thai secretary who translated Ken’s ‘no-so-perfect Thai’ into ‘proper’ Thai to her Thai-speaking Korean boss.

For Thailand to be competitive in ASEAN and the global economy, English will continue to be of importance, of course. However, it seems short-sighted and dangerous to ignore other languages. As Thailand prepares for the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 and as it strives to attract foreign investments from ASEAN Plus Three nations Japan, China and South Korea, the importance of a workforce that speaks their languages is paramount.

The need for more diverse language education and its link to employment needs to be based on empirical research evidence of the emerging language needs of international employers actually operating in Thailand in order to achieve positive policy change. Currently, this evidence doesn’t exist – a blind spot created by the relentless propaganda for English.

Author Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江

高橋 君江 is Visiting Associate Professor at International Christian University, Tokyo. Before joining ICU in 2014, she was Lecturer at the Graduate School of English at Assumption University of Thailand (2011 – 2014) and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Macquarie University, Australia (2007 and 2011). Kimie is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Linguistics, and continues to co-supervise several PhD students with Ingrid Piller at Macquarie University.

More posts by Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江
  • Thanks, Kimie! You are absolutely right and it’s also intriguing to see that the promotion of English directly results in other-language shortages. Jie Zhang‘s research provides a good example (available here). This researcher shows that the central imposition of English in China for national development can be locally disempowering, as it is in Heilongjiang Province in Northern China, where everyone has to learn English in school despite the fact that Russian is much more useful there for cross-border trade with Russia.
    Iran provides another intriguing example where English is ideologically favoured over more practical languages.
    At the same time, it’s also important to bear in mind that policies are never static and ‘money talks’ in many languages. In German media, I nowadays sometimes see gloating opinion pieces about how German learning is increasing in the more crisis-affected Eurozone countries … in my view, ultimately, there is no way around the European model of trilingualism through schooling: national language + English + another language

  • Kimie,
    Great piece. It’s fascinating and thought-provoking, and I think it underscores the highly problematic nature of claims out there — both explicit and implicit (usually the latter) — that English’s global spread isn’t having a significant effect on other languages. It’s clear that this is untrue, especially in terms of both formal, macro decisions made about language learning and teaching, that inevitably tend to favor English (even in Europe, where it seems to me that English still gets more time/investment/prestige than that “third” language) over other languages. And, of course, there’s the question of what the approach is — different from what it should be — in English dominant countries such as the United States, where that “other” language often completely falls off the cliff. I’d submit that this is at least in part due to the sense — rather accurate, unfortunately — that in a world dominated by English all but a small minority of English MT users don’t need another language, they’ll just roam the world relying on others to the work of learning that other language, English, for them.

  • I’m afraid there is plenty of English propaganda about, leading to a false view that “they all speak English”.

    I would like to argue the case for wider use of Esperanto. It is a planned language which, imp[ortantly, belongs to no one country or group of states. Will anyone be courageous enough to promote it?

    • Thanks, Bill! That false view is resulting in a somewhat problematic mission-like attitude “let’s teach English to everyone everywhere no matter what the costs are” around the globe. If they don’t succeed in learning, they are considered as backwards, uneducated, unprofessional. Unfortunately that seems to work as an excuse for condescending, patronizing and arrogant attitudes towards non-English speakers – it’s always amazing to read reviews on hotels in non-English speaking parts of the world in which reviewers expect 2 star hotel staff’ to speak perfect English… Once I attended a paper by two Japanese women professors at an international conference in Japan. In the Q & A time, a male participant stood up and said, “Great talk! Where did you lean English?! Your English is perfect!”

      Bill, have you read this one?

  • Archie

    Bill, I like your idea about using Esperanto, and Kimie, I’ve enjoyed your essays since discovering the one you wrote at the start of Thailand’s “English Speaking Year 2012.” At Webster U where I teach, we have students from half a dozen or more countries in any given class–and English fluency varies widely in academic as well as ESL courses. I’ve been reading, thinking, talking & scribbling a lot lately about the challenge of figuring fair standards for one & all. Also, we’re hosting a workshop for English teachers in Thailand later this fall, and I’m thinking of doing a session on Ogden & Richards’ Basic English from way back when. Only thing is I’m still getting my own head around the system! Any thoughts on or experience with it (or its Simplified or VOA kin), either of you?

  • Saluton, a good piece of write up. I am in line with Bill for Esperanto. Many still think, as the false publicity and the hardheaded of the principals in the school. The TESL sector in Thailand, the native speaker earns 35k thai baht but the Filipino gets 17k. The true fact is 75% of the people in the world do not speak a word of English according to BBC report http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/guide/languages.shtml

    By the way, Esperanto is seemed to be very vital for the children.

  • Michael

    I don’t know… I rather think that Esperanto is a myth that has already deceased

    • Michael, would you like to take a look of the international Esperanto commerce group page to acertain your thought.


      When one does not read Esperanto,one does not know how active the Esperanto is.

  • Khan

    Great post. In my examination of the implemented models of bilingual education in Pakistan, I came to the conclusion that it is not ” English” that matters but the specific communicative skills valued by corporate jungle which matters. we also have English mafia in Pakistan. I find it very interesting to engage with them on the validity of their source of information. Imagine without putting in time and efforts to understand the specificity of the context, they want us nod on their manufactured truths.

  • burungmarah

    Lately, stories like this have led me into thinking that this English craze in Asia may have gone to the point where it has overheated and, like an economic bubble, will eventually burst. I wrote this elsewhere a few times: How many more around the world can we teach English before the resources – learning material and teachers’ salaries – run out? We have 7 billion people here, not that many are fluent in English and not that many can teach!

    By the way, I’ve learnt Japanese before and found that Japanese grammar is far more regular than that of English. Take the past tense for example: ‘eat’ becomes ‘ate’, ‘swim’ becomes ‘swam’, ‘run’ becomes ‘ran’; about 200 of such words do not use the standard ‘-ed’ suffix, they just morph. In Japanese the equivalent words clearly have something in common – tabemashita, oyogimashita, hashirimashita. It’s all mashita, mashita, mashita – no exceptions!

    Now we see what people expect from a lingua franca – ease of learning, which sadly English doesn’t seem to have. No language is easy to learn, perhaps other than Esperanto, but for the Thais in this scoop, Japanese seems to be far easier to learn than English, I guess, despite having to learn kanji and such.