Much of my research over the past decade has involved talking to migrants to Australia and overseas students about their experiences of language learning and settlement. In these conversations, I have often been struck by the strong sense of disappointment that permeates many of these narratives. I’ve never quite known how to understand this pervasive sense of disappointment. When I first encountered it in interviews with overseas students conducted between 2000 and 2004, disappointment seemed to be a result of the fact that many of my interviewees came from far more metropolitan locations than anything Australia has to offer. It seemed reasonable to me that someone coming from Bangkok, Shanghai, or Tokyo might feel disappointed with life in Sydney, which, with all due respect, could be considered a bit provincial by comparison.
As I learnt more about the English fever gripping some Asian countries, my collaborators and I came to interpret the disappointment of overseas students as the result of overblown dreams and unrealistic expectations (Piller & Takahashi 2006; Piller, Takahashi & Watanabe 2010). If you are learning English and coming to Australia expecting to experience a magic life transformation, to discover your “real” cool Western self or to find a White native-speaker Prince Charming to live with happily ever after, there is obviously a good chance that you’ll experience disappointment.
Describing it this way makes the people who experience disappointment with the outcome of investing into English language learning and overseas study sound foolish. However, none of the people who confided their disappointment ever struck me as foolish. Having recently read a fascinating account of how education has transformed life in rural India by Karuna Morarji, I think there might be an explanation for the disappointment I have just described that I and my collaborators have so far overlooked: it could be that disappointment with English language learning and overseas study is entirely reasonable because language learning does not only open doors but also closes doors.
You are probably surprised to read that learning could close doors because the fact that education and learning are always good is such a basic article of our modern faith. However, as Morarji demonstrates with references to primary and secondary education in villages in the Aglar River Valley in Uttarakhand in northern India, where mass formal education only dates from the 1990s, education is a double-edged sword: formal education makes everyone dream of achieving a service sector job. Few actually achieve that dream because competition for service sector jobs is fierce and rural children even with a formal education cannot really compete with their urban peers who enjoy much better opportunities in the competition for waged office work.
However, while education does not really enable these children to join India’s urban middle class, it has the additional pernicious effect of also closing off opportunities to live on the land. School takes children away from being apprenticed into subsistence agriculture or artisan work such as carpentry. Having learnt how to read and write instead, they do not know how to do agricultural or other rural labor and, more crucially, they do no longer WANT to engage in manual, non-waged labor. Many of the villagers interviewed by Morarji argued that while education was good if you got a job, an uneducated person was better off than an educated person without a job. Education is thus not only part of the solution to the problem of rural decline in India but it is also, perversely, part of the problem.
It seems to me that this conundrum is also worth exploring with relation to the global spread of English: we’ve all been conditioned to believe that English proficiency holds many promises, creates opportunities and opens doors – and that is undoubtedly true in some cases. However, we’ve also been conditioned to not even entertain the possibility that learning English might also close doors and make learners who don’t achieve the dream unfit for local lives. Neither here nor there, the door English may have opened may only be towards a marginal position:
Experiences of alienation and disappointment around education illustrate how the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion of a market economy have meant that “becoming a part of the world has frequently entailed becoming marginal to the world” […] (Morarji 2010, p. 58)
Karuna Morarji (2010). Where does the rural educated person fit? Development and social reproduction in contemporary India Contesting Development: Critical Struggles for Social Change (ed. Philip McMichael). Routledge, 50-63