Foreign language Skills and the Dilemma of Mankind

Robert DerbyshireGuest 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 manifested themselves in children’s football.)

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.

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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?

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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.

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  1. Easy solution: Up your vocabulary. When I run into this problem I just slightly raise the vocabulary above their level. I keep it up even when they tell me they don’t understand. Eventually they will go back to speaking in Chinese.

  2. Thanks to everyone for your replies – I feel we’ve covered all the strategies, guilt trips and victories that learning a foreign language entails. Simon, I also had a friend who employed the ‘I-don’t-speak-English’ card – I think he pretended he was from Romania. I never had the guts to do that, in case they found out the truth!

    I found in Taiwan when I did a trip there that people’s English wasn’t great – they managed a few words, then we swapped into Chinese. Saying that, the majority of people I met were filling up my scooter with petrol!

    I wish you all the best with your Welsh study – can’t be an easy one, that…

  3. I had the same problem in Taiwan – when I first went there my Mandarin was far from fluent and many people were keen to practise their English with me. At first I was happy to speak English with them, but as my Mandarin improved I tried to speak it as much as possible and sought out people who didn’t speak English – e.g older Taiwanese people, and Japanese and Korean students. Sometimes I also pretended that I was French or German and didn’t speak English.

    I now live in North Wales in an area where the majority of people speak Welsh as a first language, and when I speak Welsh to people in shops they usually reply in English. I just carry on in Welsh.

  4. Spot on! I remember being in Damascus and finding myself raging at friendly, English-learning Syrians who wanted to practise with me. Rage, then a feeling of guilt and vague self-hatred. Ah, those were the days. Another problem was that I would be so desperate to prove my fluency with my first sentence, thus minimising the chance that whoever I was talking to would reply in English, that when it worked (after minutes of rehearsing my first line in my head) my interlocutor would be so convinced of the flawlessness of my Arabic that they would rattle off a super-fast, super-colloquial monologue. I would quickly lose track of the sense of what they were saying but, proud, and intent on hiding the fact that I wasn’t as good as they thought and that a bit of English might actually be quite helpful, I would just nod along, feigning total comprehension. All my efforts would then go into keeping up the illusion of understanding and fluency, so that I would then have to cut off the conversation in order not to give myself away as the fraudster I really was. A sure-fire way of making minimal linguistic improvement! Great!

  5. As an American now living in Sweden, I too, have lost many “battles”. But I say, Game On!! It’s a very sweet victory to be one few native English speakers with another language skill. Now to just get working on the third and fourth :-0

  6. You hit the proverbial nail on the head! As a Brit living in Sweden I enrolled in a Swedish language course and the teacher encouraged us to head to Saluhallen (the big indoor food market in Gothenburg) to practice our Swedish skills, ‘Please may I have some carrots’ etc.

    I always went to the same fruit and vegetable lady and would always attempt my best Swedish when asking for my veggies. The lady behind the counter, (who instantly recognized my English accent, despite my best attempts to sound as Swedish as possible) would always speak back to me in English and my heart would always sink-do I really sound so foreign and do I really speak such bad Swedish that she feels like she has no alternative but to switch to English?

    This carried on for months but I didn’t give in and then one glorious day we carried out our whole exchange in Swedish- SUCCESS!

    I think it’s easy to forget that the Swedes, who are generically a very polite bunch, think they are doing you a favor by switching to English as let’s face it, they all speak annoyingly good English from a young age. Maybe they don’t realize just how proud us Brits feel when we manage to master even the very basics of a foreign language because let’s face it, it’s not something we are famous for :-)

  7. This is so true! I have participated to so many dinners and drinks when Foreigners are trying to speak Chinese with Chinese people but finally giving up and them communicating in English….
    In my case, I have 2 advantages I guess… being Asian looking and being French (which makes me speaking English with a accent they can’t always understand). Therefore, I have the chance to communicate in Chinese with them.
    Rob, maybe you should try with Japanese or Korean people. They usually speak good Chinese and not a word a English…even for the high educated persons.

  8. Gaijin, it sounds like you had a worse time in Japan than we have in China! Infuriating.

    And Marisa, I think it is time we both take a stand.

    Thanks for the feedback guys!

  9. So true! Unfortunately, I always took the polite route and never pushed my language agenda on anyone who replied back in English. And, for that, I now have reached a steady plateau of barely passable Chinese. Argh. :)

  10. Great Read on verbal jousting! – same thing happened to me in Japan…people with horrific English refused to speak Japanese to me despite the fact that I was quite fluent. Conversations took 10x longer while they searched their dictionaries for the perfect word which were often barely decipherable. I guess it’s understandable given that they were paying 10,000+ yen (~$100) an hour to learn English!