Guest blog entry by Robert Derbyshire, Technical Writer and TermWiki Commandant.
Foreign language skills are not the forte of most native English speakers. I remember speaking to a guy from Norway a few years ago about the languages he studied at school. He said Swedish, German and French. I asked him “what about English?” He replied in passing, “Oh, we’re expected to be fluent in that by middle school.”
He failed to mention that they were expected to be fluent in a foreign language by age of 15. In the UK, foreign languages have been in retreat for years. Six years ago, after the government made language study optional after age 14, language uptake at GCSE level (age 15-16) has dropped by a third.
While I’d love to flex my British blogging wings and have a good old moan about life, the universe and everything, for the moment I’d like to explore some of the unusual moral dilemmas that an English native speaker faces when he or she actually decides to walk upstream and try to learn a foreign language.
I live and work in China, where the level of English is generally fairly low, apart from that of the university-educated elite. As you might expect, it’s mostly this group I come across at work. Many of my coworkers have received education abroad or have perfected their English at university; fluency in English is a standard entry requirement at most global companies in China, and CSOFT is no exception.
Within this environment—and even more so when I was a university student here—there is a strange battle which takes place whenever I meet a new Chinese person who can speak English. It is the exact opposite of the battle which arises in areas where a language-speaking group feels threatened by another. (A phenomenon that Caroline Mikolajczyk talks about in a recent post on Bloglingua, these tensions or “battles” born of the language divide in Belgium, and how they’ve.)
What happens in China is this: I start the conversation in Chinese. The other person replies in English. Then I reply back in Chinese. This continues for as long as either party holds out; usually, I’m the one who caves first.
It’s funny—we appear to be having a conversation, but it’s really a battle of one party’s dominance over the other. And these battles really put my back up. I mean, surely if I started the conversation in the other person’s language, it means I want to speak that language and am capable of speaking that language, so wouldn’t it only be polite to reply in that language?
In these instances, I get into such a flurry of indignation that I definitely don’t want to speak to that person again. It’s funny, though, because I have absolutely no qualms about speaking English to, say, Koreans, whose language I can’t speak.
It’s scary to see how far this desire to speak the other person’s language permeates into my feelings. For example, if a previous ‘enemy’ decides out of the blue to speak Chinese to me, I will instantly start to like that person. I will think I must have been wrong about that person all along. And I absolutely adore, from the start, those I call ‘angels’—people with high levels of English, but who are prepared to speak Chinese with me to support my study.
Even though I have personally benefited from the generosity of the latter group, I’m not sure I could ever be one of them. My main doubt is that if I always support others to speak English, my own language ability will never improve. English will become our default language in most conversations, meaning my Chinese will get worse. And anyway, I studied Chinese at university. I’m living in China. Why should I speak English?
This logic holds just as long as I don’t think about the other party. The honest truth is, they have also studied the language for many years, but (unlike me) they don’t have much opportunity to practice. For such people, it takes a lot of courage to try talking with a native speaker. Is it right to knock such people back, selfishly maintaining the conversation in their language?
To take this a bit too deep for a corporate blog, I realize that these language battles actually have at their root the fundamental dilemma which Plato discussed all those millennia ago in the Republic: should one be selfless, or pursue self interest? Which is more advantageous—being the just or the unjust man?
In the case of language, it isn’t illegal nor wrong in anyone’s understanding to speak a foreign tongue. No one will smear you in the press. It’s just a tiny, almost unnoticeable selfish act, but the potential gain from doing so is not insignificant. The party who ‘wins’ will have the opportunity to use that language at work, every day. One party’s foreign language skills will improve, whereas the other’s will regress.
What should one do? Be like an angel, unconditionally supporting everyone with their study? Or fight to create a situation where your own language skills can improve? And which is more beneficial in the long run?
Rather than try to form my own half-baked conclusions to all these issues—because this is a genuine dilemma for me, something that I deal with every day—I’d like to pass it over to our readers.
What is your experience with this? And have you found a resolution?
Robert Derbyshire decided to escape the cow pats and boredom of his home village in rural England to come to Beijing, which he mostly loves and occasionally hates. When he isn’t writing blogs about his moral dilemmas, Robert is an active member of the TermWiki development team. He is a self-styled “TermWiki Commandant,” which means that what he says, TermWiki does. In his free time, Robert can be counted among those strange, deranged creatures who love playing Ultimate Frisbee, among other “real” sports.