I have recently begun working on my MA thesis on sexuality and second language learning at the Graduate School of English, Assumption University of Thailand, under the supervision of Kimie Takahashi. She has encouraged me to share my experience in developing this project here on Language on the Move. Funny enough, my research topic is often seen as ‘outside the box’ here, but it came quite naturally, so to speak, and here is why.
In 2010, I arrived in Bangkok as an international student from Taiwan, and since then I’ve been introduced to many fashionable gay hubs, such as the glamorous Telephone Bar or The Balcony on Silom Soi 4 or the always-packed DJ Station on Soi 2. The city has always been well-known internationally for its gay-friendliness and sexual diversity (Jackson, 2011), and indeed these places are packed with international couples, especially Asian and Western.
What struck me most about Bangkok’s international gay scene here is that these Asian gay men from non-English-speaking backgrounds, do not only speak good English but also seem very confident and skilful in socialising with Westerners: they so elegantly flirt, joke around and engage in intellectual conversations on the economy, education, globalisation and whatnot, all in English. They definitely don’t fit the image of Asians as deficient or shy speakers of English that is still paramount in the literature that I have been reading since I began my master’s degree in ELT. I’m pretty sure that they’d roll their eyes or be offended if I told them how Asians are talked about as such by researchers.
When I initially started developing an MA thesis project last year, I didn’t know that what I had observed in my daily life could be a research topic. Having read A Passion for English by Ingrid Piller and Kimie Takahashi (2006), I learned that research on the intersection of sexuality and desire in second language learning is actually cutting-edge I then decided to propose a project that would look into the language learning trajectory of gay Asian men in Bangkok, to explore if they were like the Japanese women in their study who developed akogare (desire) for the English language alongside their fantasy for Western masculinity.
Having decided to model my project on Ingrid’s and Kimie’s work, I looked for similar ELT studies with a focus on Asian gay men’s desire for English and the West. My pursuit was rather fruitless. Brian King (2008) explains that although the fields of ELT in general and Second Language Acquisition (SLA) in particular have investigated learner motivation and learner identities since the 1980s, the literature has suffered from heteronormativity. Indeed, doing my literature review has made me wonder what kind of world previous research has been occupying for the last so many decades – certainly not the one occupied by millions of fellow gay and lesbian friends of mine living side by side with fellow heterosexual folks.
As such the fields of ELT and SLA have failed to address why gay learners aspire to learn English or how such aspirations manifest in their linguistic practices and learning or if being gay really matters at all. Similarly, the fields of Sexuality Studies or Sociology seem to have paid little attention to the language learning trajectories of gay Asian men who desire Western men. My study is thus designed t to fill this gap in the literature on Asian gay men’s desire for English and Western men, and how their desires may impact their opportunities to learn and use English in Bangkok.
As part of the requirements for my degree, I defended my proposal, a critical ethnography of Asian gay men’s desire and second language learning in Bangkok, to the proposal committee in April, 2012. One of the comments by an examiner was “This is an interesting project. It’s like thinking outside the box”. I was flattered, of course, as every new research has to be original and innovative. But, at the same time, the metaphor of the ‘box’ seems to index the very problem I’m going to challenge head-on, i.e., heteronormativity. For me, a gay man belonging to the thriving gay community in Bangkok and beyond, what I’m going to look into is pretty much inside the box.
King, B. (2008). “Being Gay Guy, That is the Advantage”: Queer Korean Language Learning and Identity Construction Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 7 (3-4), 230-252 DOI: 10.1080/15348450802237855
Piller, I., & Takahashi, K. (2006). A Passion for English: Desire and the Language Market In A. Pavlenko (Ed.), Bilingual Minds: Emotional Experience, Expression, and Representation: Multilingual Matters, pp. 59–83.