Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Do not insist on English

I watched the video below recently on a TED talk by Patricia Ryan. She is an English teacher teaching English in the Gulf area, starting from Kuwait and is now in Dubai. Her story and observation are highly relevant to Hong Kong who is going through exactly the scenario she describes. She spoke perfect English slowly in the video just like your old English teacher, very easy to understand. This video can be used as a text book demonstration of English conversation.

A few decades ago, the British had a strong influence in the Gulf area. Those countries with the benefit of the oil money, were trying to catch up with the western countries. An English education was mutually beneficial. However, the English language has later on become a massive international business having a severe impact. Just like Hong Kong, the Gulf countries are not English speaking communities. Although the better educated group could have better exposure to English, the majority of the population do not. I read the news on a survey which found that the standard of English in Hong Kong as a city is only mediocre. It came as no surprise as we do not use English in our daily leisure life. Some people may use English in their work but it just stops there.

As an English teacher, Patricia Ryan is fully aware of the benefit of having a global working language, and also the desire of parents wishing their children to have a westernized education. But the insistence on English as a pre-requisite is actually harmful to the development of civilization.

First, the use of English as a preferred language has crowded out some languages. Languages come and go. A classic example is the gradual death of ancient Egyptian hieroglyph, being replaced by Greek when Alexander conquered Egypt. Nowadays, languages are dying at a faster pace. There are now 6000 different languages in the world. It is estimated that one language dies every fourteen days. There will only be 600 languages left in 90 years.

In fact, language is a reflection of how people think. Different languages represent different thought approaches to the same question. Limited number of languages will impose a boundary to our thinking process. Thus it is important that languages be preserved, not just as cultural preservation but also as a way to maintain diversified thinking.

Lastly, and most importantly, the English language requirement has become a barrier to education worldwide. This is happening in Hong Kong. If one does not pass the English language requirement, one cannot get a higher education. The English teachers become the gatekeepers. They can stop people from getting further education. English language proficiency tests pop up everywhere. They include TOEFL, IELTS, TOEIC, etc. Millions of students have to take these tests before there can get into higher education. Many more just fail the language test, or are unable to afford the extra fees. There is a joke. Einstein performed poorly at school. If he needed to pass TOEFL, we would not have this genius. There are many more geniuses who excel in their favourite areas, but are nevertheless deprived of a chance because of our insistence on English as a sign of intelligence.

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