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Decolonizing language assumptions

Thursday, December 13, 2012, 13:45 GMT+7

It is undeniable that English is essential to Vietnam’s growing role in the global economy as is the fact that learning English could be an invaluable asset for the Vietnamese working force. However, English-speaking foreigners equating the worth of every Vietnamese professional to his/her English speaking skills is reductionist, to say the least, and carries heavy neo-colonial undertones.

Way too often I hear expats in Vietnam complain of poor English speaking skills either of the country as a whole or of specific people with whom they interact. Tempted as I am to elaborate on the underlying reality that we are in Vietnam and more Vietnamese speak English than long-term expats speak Vietnamese, I will focus on the resulting implications of this attitude in professional interactions.

It is not uncommon to hear expats evaluate the qualifications of Vietnamese workers based on their fluency in English. That would be a valid consideration for English-intensive fields such as English education, customer service companies (catering to foreigners or a mixture of foreigners and locals), international trading companies, import/export businesses or anything else where the English language is a part of the services or products offered or of daily operations/interactions. In this case, an employee with substandard English skills might not be qualified to do the job. However, I’ve witnessed such misplaced valuations to the expense of engineers, artists, physicians (at non-international medical facilities), university professors (who do NOT teach English or anything related to it) and many more. I’m confused as to how knowing English would enable an engineer to build a better building, an artist to create a better work of art, a physician to better cure a disease or a professor to better understand a postulate of modern mathematics.

Are outstanding professionals from France, Germany, Russia or Sweden criticized as harshly when they do not speak perfect English? Just because native English speakers struggle more to learn Vietnamese than say French, the burden should not be transferred unto the Vietnamese. I have met, and worked with, really exceptional Vietnamese native-speakers who, in addition to excelling at their work, are also bi or tri-lingual. Some speak Vietnamese and Khmer, French, Chinese or Russian etc… or a combination of them, often along with some English as well.

Despite this, I have been in countless situations in which a foreigner either directly or indirectly downplayed these individuals’ professional worth based on their “inadequate” English-speaking skills. I find this appalling, especially when those people’s professions do not necessarily require English and/or when the English speaker in question only speaks English. Really what entitles someone who only speaks one language to complain of insufficient foreign language fluency of someone who speaks 2, 3 or even 4 languages? On the other hand, whenever a Vietnamese speaks good English, assertions such as “He/she’s so smart. His/her English is so good” are not uncommon. When did it become acceptable to associate intelligence with the English language?

One instance exemplifies the attitude of many expats I’ve met in Vietnam. I was once comparing travel impressions with an American woman I met during a trip to Vietnam’s remote highlands. Her main complaint was that the people’s English was not really good. She was obviously failing to weigh in the financial, time, energy and effort needed to learn a foreign language (something she never bother to do in spite of having better resources at her disposal) versus the incentive for learning that language. This in turn prevented her from understanding why in an impoverished and disadvantaged community in a remote highland region with hardly any contact with foreigners, let alone related commercial benefits, English-speaking remains scarce. Now this was a woman who travelled throughout the world and lived for extended periods of time in several countries where she was fortunate to receive a full Western-standards salary in addition to the money her employers have paid to countless interpreters because of her unwillingness or inability to ever learn the language of her host countries.

Similarly, many monolingual foreigners in Vietnam earn monthly salaries in the thousands of dollars while living resort life-styles in luxurious gated compounds; yet, they are turned-off by service people such as shop-clerks, waiters, maids or plumbers, earning at most the equivalent of a couple hundred USD/month, for not investing more time/money into learning English.

The fact that in more tourist-intensive areas, like Sapa, visitors often comment on the locals’ exceptional English (or Japanese, Chinese, French etc.), or the fact that even 5 years old street-sellers in HCMC’s backpacking district speak outstanding English, demonstrate that given the right incentive (in the former) and circumstances of need (in the latter), people in Vietnam will make the necessary effort to learn English and do so surprisingly well.

I think that we should look at our ability to speak English as a privilege we were given by either birth or life circumstances/ opportunities and not as a distinguishing quality. Of course there are many English-fluent foreigners in Vietnam working side-by-side with Vietnamese people and entertaining mutually learning relationships. They work hard, value their time here and respect what their host country and people have to offer and teach them. I too have many qualities and skills acquired through a combination of academic dedication, hard work and meaningful life experiences and I don’t need to rely on English as my distinguishing quality.

People who do might want to re-evaluate how unfairly judgmental they are being with their host-country nationals. After all, surprising as it might sound to some, great people who did not speak English have achieved great things. I’m not sure that Leonardo Da Vinci, Nietzsche or Rumi spoke English; nor do I think that publishing in a language other than English has diminished the historical or cultural impact that Gramsci, Rimbaud, Kant, Aristotle or Confucius have had.

In conclusion, English as an internationally-recognized standard language, and as one of the UN official languages, enables our commercial, political and social global interactions. It benefits the individuals who know or learn it and brings strategic advantages to countries where it is commonly spoken. But we need not forget that the incentives need to justify the social and financial investment necessary for individuals to learn it. In the process we need to move past neo-colonial assumptions of individual self-worth and suspend reductionist judgments to find mutually effective means to communicate based on pragmatic calculations and more culturally-relevant assessments.

Thi Bay Miradoli


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