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

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
  • Jean Cho

    What a fascinating story! Thanks millions for sharing this. It is very relevant to my studies 🙂

  • Thanks, Ingrid, for this post! It reminded me of a small town in Myanmar I visited a few weeks ago. From what I heard from some locals, private English language schools are a booming business there, but only accessible to middle and upper middle class families. The students (or their parents) pay a lot of money to study English as they aspire to find work in the only thriving local industry, i.e., tourism. There is a sense of concern, though that as more locals acquire English proficiency, the value of English speaking skills may go down (resulting in less salary – we’ve already seen that in many countries including Japan and Korea). But they are bound to this job market – there doesn’t seem to be much incentive in creating other sustainable businesses.

  • “Prince Charming”? Were the students you spoke to overwhelmingly female? If so, then your use of the word “Prince” makes sense, but my experience with overseas students is that they are male and female – and the male students aren’t adverse to finding a “Princess Charming” (or whatever the equivalent to that is).

  • You are right, of course 🙂 I was just referring to Kimie’s study, which was specifically with single Japanese women and which we’ve discussed extensively here on Language-on-the-Move. You can find one published version here.

  • Great article, very thought provoking. It saddens me that so many people have spent so much very hard earned money in attempts to learn English to a good level and have not achieved their goal. Whether it be poor and out if date teaching methods or the fact that English is an aspirational ‘luxury good’ that only a few gave been able to afford to master, there can be no doubt that a lot of learners do not have their expectations met. It is possible to help chronic long time struggling English learners, and it can be done incredibly affordable. My company did some audio case studies with learners using social media as a learning tool. If you go to our website you can hear what happened.

  • As Jason west said people should concentrate in English. Particularly middle class & poor. why because English will play main role in their career, and they need to settle-down in their life.

  • Thanks for your comment, Rebecca! I’m very curious about your male international students wanting to find a “Princess Charming”:-) Can you tell us more?

  • Hi Ingrid,
    Have just posted a link to this on the TEachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check there for comments.



  • Motoko Sugano

    Thank you for posting this thought provoking article. I have been thinking about this issue since I read a while ago. I found the cases in rural India interesting. It is grave indeed if education gives disadvantages to students. While I do not agree with the idea that education should meet what is required in the job market — I sort of believe in humanities teaching –, we should be well aware that education sometimes alienates people from jobs, and maybe from their ideal self. I guess people have ability to live with their disappointment, but that is another issue. There are a lot to think about.

  • Fahmina Naz

    Hi Ingrid
    thank you for this article. it reminds me the condition in my country. people here think that only learning to Speak English will bring opportunities at their door steps but that is not the case in the real world. In fact they waste a lot of time and energy. but i think this is happening because people are just following a trend of learning English blindly without realizing what they want to achieve through it. Learning English may open doors for you if you are clear about your goal.

    thank you again

    Fahmina (Karachi, Pakistan)

  • Magalie Desgrippes

    Thank you very much for this very interesting perspective. It reminds me of the difference between France and Switzerland. In Switzerland, most of the people do a apprentissship and find a well paid job after that, in France, most of the people stay at school, and have the possibility to study, but then they wont find a job, so they have to face that kind of disappointment people suffer from in rural India.

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