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Diverting the Main Stream

Why Bother Learning English?

with 3 comments

I stumbled on a WordPress blog by a blogger from Sri Lanka containing a short article on the importance of learning English. It made me want to write about a subject I think about every once in awhile, the role of English as an international language and why people around the world feel so pressured to learn it.

It is true that English is useful because knowing English allows a traveler to communicate with people (at least people in the tourism and service industry) around the world. English isn’t a bad choice as a Western international language; its combination of Latin word origin and German usage makes it fairly easy to learn for people who speak various European languages. What’s interesting is that it’s also the international language pretty much everywhere in the world. It’s commonly used when a Chinese and a Japanese person wish to communicate. I saw a documentary featuring an Israeli and a Palestinian family meeting to talk about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and their children communicated using the English they were learning in school.

 In a way, it’s a good thing to have an international language. They tried it with Esperanto, but that obviously wasn’t going anywhere. The language of diplomacy was French in the past, and Spanish might make more sense, but the international language is now doubtlessly English. This is true despite the fact that the worst English speakers in the world are in the United States, where a lack of decent public education leaves many people barely able to speak, read, or write in their own language. American English and international English are very different.

 The reason for this has partly to do with outsourced customer service work, but also has to do with the fact that the U.S. now mostly exports ideas. Computers are programmed to work in various languages, but error messages pop up in English. No nation spends as much money developing media, movies, music, and television, and no nation exports these products like the U.S., spreading a sort of illusion, not only that the U.S. is a universally prosperous place, but that anybody who’s anybody speaks English. There’s also a stereotype, which may be true considering our lack of language education, that U.S. tourists are less willing to learn other languages, even just enough for vacationing, and demand that the places they go to spend their tourist dollars provide English-speaking service.

 The dark side to all this is that there’s kind of a misconception that learning English opens doors to all these amazing opportunities and will allow you to get great jobs and make a good living and travel and be able to communicate with anyone in the world and so on and so forth. This illusion is so strong that people consider it charitable work to teach English to poor people. But it’s just not as simple as that.

 Outsourced call centers which hire customer service representatives and telemarketers in foreign countries are not trying to do any kind of charity work. Politicians do endless favors to these businesses because they’re desperate to keep unemployment numbers down, and if you need an example of what final effect this has on the people and cities involved, just look at the rust belt. Here in Buenos Aires, which I can use as an anecdotal example because I live here, this is what happens with these businesses. They do not pay enough for people to live, but at the same time, they get this image of being a good place to work because they pay slightly more than other employers. In other sectors, knowing English becomes a prerequisite for employment whether the job really requires it or not. So rather than becoming an opportunity to excel, knowing English is a necessity to compete.

Outsourcers become the employment standard in places where they are common, and instead of other employers raising wages to compete with call centers, they lower their wages. The attitude is that if a wealthy, multinational corporation is only willing to pay a certain amount, a smaller business trying to make ends meet shouldn’t be expected to even come close. But the multinationals have come to Argentina in the first place precisely because they can take advantage of a populace with plenty of decent English speakers without having to pay a good wage. Buenos Aires is just as expensive to live in as any midsize city or large town in the U.S. and the cost of living is rising fast, but an English-speaking call center employee is unlikely to make more than $500 per month, with little possibility for advancement.

 So how can this continue? How can a person work who can’t afford to eat? Buenos Aires is a perfect candidate for call center exploitation because there is a remnant of the times of relative posperity following the international rise of the middle class which pays the expenses of the new generation of workers. For now, this is a perfect situation for the call centers. Some of these kids are noticing that they do not have a future in what they’re doing now, and are starting to realize that in this nation, they may never find a job which pays their cost of living. As a matter of fact, a lot of them are leaving, hoping things will be easier in Europe. But there remain enough workers who live with their parents or with their parents’ money, who are willing to work at call centers for midlength periods of time in order to pay for iPods, clothing, alcohol, and other recreational items to keep these call centers stocked until they drain the resources of their employees’ parents and move on to another nation.

 The illusion of the prosperity that can come with learning English, and the harsh reality that, with so many people learning it, knowing English is becoming a requirement for even the most basic jobs, is making English education a huge business here. But that doesn’t mean much help for the English-speaking population. Multinational English institutes are paying their teachers, whose skill is what makes their business viable, less than half a percent of what they charge and well below a living wage. When they send teachers to homes or businesses for private classes, they pay the taxi driver more for transporting them than they pay the teachers themselves.

 So why bother learning English?


Written by Alex (Capitalocracy)

March 10, 2008 at 3:08 am

3 Responses

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  1. I really can’t Alex get away with the comment “They tried it with Esperanto, but that obviously wasn’t going anywhere.” Esperanto is doing very nicely, thankyou. In a quiet way, ordinary people have been using Esperanto for over a century.

    I’ve used Esperanto in speech and writing for forty years – with people who don’t speak English. I recommend it as a unique combination of the idealistic and the practical.

    Bill Chapman

    March 10, 2008 at 11:30 am

  2. Well, good for you Mr. Chapman… Here is what though… I truely wonder why have you used ENGLISH while posting the reply above and not Esperanto?????…….Hmm…Let me guess… BC English is the global languge maybe !!


    September 12, 2008 at 5:21 pm

  3. Good writing Alex. I’m living in BsAs too, and I feel this pressure and illusion about English.


    March 30, 2009 at 3:44 pm

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