English, do you speak it?

That title was just so I can throw this classic out here. Best use of 6.5 minutes ever.

Back to the topic at hand. If you travel a fair amount, you notice a wide range of English ability around the world. Some countries are a breeze to get around in with just English, while in others you’re stuck pointing a lot and learning the tricks of the mime trade. I’m amazed that there isn’t some more universal standard to measure this, and that every guidebook ever written sticks to saying something to the tune of “English is growing in popularity among young people” to summarize the state of English in every country, but I digress.  What I’m most interested in is what causes this variation.

The answer is much more complicated than GDP and education. Japan is rich and has an excellent education system, and yet outside of youngish people in Tokyo, it was hard to find people who can string a sentence together. English ability is better than in China, but not a lot better, which is pretty damning, given how bad China is (and at least Chinese restaurants try to Google translate their menus, which is worth something). Contrast that to Mongolia, which is poor and not renowned for its educational opportunities, but where it’s very easy to get around on English. Vietnam is also, compared to China and Japan, a haven for English.*

In my not scientific experience, countries that have been very hard to get around in have been China, Japan, Russia and most of Latin America. India, Mongolia, Vietnam and Thailand fall on the other side of the spectrum. Clearly, money is not the difference between those groups. Neither is size, since India is huge and many Latin American nations are small. Neither is ethnic language homogeneity – each of those countries has a pervasive national language, except India, and maybe China. It’s hard to disprove that different countries have different returns for learning English, but I find it hard to believe that learning English in India is more valuable than learning it in China is (if anything, I would imagine that low English acquisition levels in China should make English all the more valuable there)

While I thought about this, I was reminded of an econ paper, I think by Acemoglu and Johnson, about economic growth of post-colonial nations and the level of “extractiveness” of the colonial economy. The premise is pretty simple – if the economy of a colony was based strictly on highly extractive industries, like mining or logging, which needed a lot of labor (often slave labor) and not a lot of administrative support or an educated populace, the economic structures left behind after the colonizer left would not be conducive to developing a stable, sustainable modern economy. If I remember right, it’s a really well done paper, but anyway, it turned out that the premise was correct.

It’s a bit of a leap, but I wonder if some kind of different but parallel mechanism has impacted current day English acquisition outcomes. Let’s start with an uncontroversial premise – places were English was, during colonialism, important, from both the colonizers’ and the colonized’s point-of-view, will have a higher level of English acquisition. This explains the difference between China and India. In the latter, the British took the time to build a somewhat meritocratic local administration system where speaking English was highly valued. In the former, no such thing happened. So it could be a matter of historical artifact.

This, however, doesn’t explain, for instance, Mongolia. Here’s the somewhat more controversial premise: places were any secondary language was valuable at some point in history will be more likely to have stronger English acquisition today. Mongolia was never colonized, but throughout much of the Cold War was a Soviet satellite state where, to be a part of the government, which I imagine at the time was the only employer, knowing Russian was really helpful. Vietnam was exposed to French and in fact a fair amount of Russian as well. It takes a bit of a stretch to make this argument for Thailand, but it certainly works the other way around. Latin America, Russia, China and Japan were never colonized and never had a lot of incentive for any language other than their own.

I’m sure there’s a ton of nuance to be added in, especially in terms of how much locals had a chance to enter into local administrations and businesses (and therefore how much value learning a language had), but I think the premise as it stands, that colonial legacies leave a general “learning other languages is important” footprint in countries, might be useful. Anybody else care to add their travel observations to my skimpy dataset?

* I guess it’s worth clarifying what I’m thinking about. I don’t think it’s as simple as the percentage of people in a country who speak English. I’m having a little trouble putting this into words, which usually means there’s something specious about my reasoning, but I think it’s more to do with people who, in their jobs, would benefit from learning English (because, at least from the context I’m observing from, they run into tourists), but who don’t seem to know any anyway. I’m sure Vietnamese English instruction is not somehow miles ahead of Chinese English instruction, it’s just that in places where you’re liable to go as a tourist, there are more people who have taken the time to learn enough English to make things go (relatively) smoothly. Not sure if that makes sense.

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6 Responses to “English, do you speak it?”


  1. 1 M May 26, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    I think there’s a lot to dissect her in terms of imposition versus incentive.

    1) Soviet Russia was basically an imperial power itself; an interesting test case would be to look not at central Russian cities but at former and current Russian republics. How good are those people at English today? According to your theory, they should be really good. However, potentially complicating this (and possibly refining your theory) is that in the Soviet era, teaching of native languages were outlawed and Russian imposed. Is this historical imposition of the secondary language rather than having the language as an incentive a relevant variable? I somewhat suspect only incentives lead to better overall secondary language acquisition, whereas imposition doesn’t. Then, as far as I understand, the independent states have now reverted back to their native languages (although many people still speak Russian); is there still an “incentive” to learn Russian there, or is it all English, and in either case how has the change from secondary language imposition versus incentive affected acquisition? We could look at this by asking, is there a difference in English ability between republics still within Russia (where I assume Russian is still imposed), and independent republics? I know one of our classmates is in Kazakhstan teaching English, I don’t know if you know her but if you do she’d be an interesting person to ask.
    2) China is also, in a sense, an imperial power, although most significant centralizing impositions took place two millennia ago under the Qin emperor. However, today we could examine, how is the English of Tibetans or Uyghurs? This is similar to a discussion of incentive vs imposition of Russian republic, as places like Tibet are having their native language outlawed and abolished (through disallowed teaching it in schools in favor of exclusive Mandarin). What about Hong Kong, how is English there? Not only was it a former British colony until quite recently, but also as far as I understand, while people there primarily speak Cantonese, many speak Mandarin as well. According to both parts of your theory (administratively integrated colonization and any background of secondary language acquisition), Hong Kongese should be really good at English. My supervisor is actually there now, I’ll ask her.
    3) “Latin American was never colonized;” obviously Latin America is the product of colonization (there wasn’t any “Latin” in the western hemisphere before the Spanish and Portuguese) so I assume you mean after independence (and while it was never subsequently colonized as a whole, I think it’s still important to remember Puerto Rico, and things like Panama plus countless more clandestine neo-imperialist ventures). But the existence of Spanish and Portuguese is still ultimately a case of imposition, lending support to the idea that historical secondary language imposition (that wipes out indigenous languages) doesn’t work, while incentives that allow for the preservation of extant languages do.

    But a history of incentives towards secondary language acquisition isn’t a complete explanation. Are the same Vietnamese who learned French or Russian (or the children of those who learned French or Russian) the ones who are learning English? Similarly, is it the Mongolians who learned Russian or their descendants who are speaking English well? Or is it a matter of experience in setting up institutions and curricula for teaching foreign languages (for example, from what I’ve heard, Korean English education is terrible, focused completely on rote memorization and not at all on actual usage)? Is it a cultural element that values the learning of other languages? I’d also suggest considering the type of language (as in, how similar is it, according to linguistic measures, to English), but Spanish and Portuguese being relatively similar to English and yet Latin America not being ahead in knowing English discounts such a link.

    A comment about your timeframe. Mongolia’s historical incentivized secondary language acquisition of Russia was only in the 20th century; it was during the same time that Japan was occupied by the U.S., presumably leading to similar incentives. And if not then, certainly subsequent economic ties provided an incentive.

    One alternative/extended line of reasoning I’ll propose is where the markets lie from which incentives come, rather than who colonized a given place. Latin America has a huge Iberophonic market (while I name thusly because I like Ibero-America better than Latin America) to trade with (namely, itself), unlike Vietnam or Thailand, whose national languages are restricted to their respective home countries. China, Russia, and Japan have large internal markets. Russia also has a limited Russian-speaking world outside as a relic of the Soviet era, and China has ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia with which to communicate. These three nations also have people outside the nation who have learned the language in order to communicate; now that you have examples like Kevin Rudd speaking Chinese, you can see that the incentive to speak Chinese is inverting. Just like how, during the 80s, lots (dunno how significantly, though) of American business people were learning Japanese. Or, during the Cold War, there were espionage and trade reasons to learn Russian. Historically and today, these economically large and dominating nations could afford to not learn other languages but rather have speakers of other languages come to them.

    Oh! Another thing: what are the level of the contacts? With Russia, Japan, China, you can get away with one or two management links speaking a common language, who can then translate for all workers beneath them on either side. This is unlike India, wherein call centers, each worker needs to know English (although the existence of this market is probably a result of widespread English rather than a cause of it; to incorporate your theory, the historical British administrative links were pervasive and not just at the top level). Thailand, too, if we consider the markets that sprung up around U.S. military bases (especially the sex industry which, last I checked, is $4 billion a year), we see that those markets would not work through a few management links. Vietnam, I’m not sure the exact circumstances would work out; it seems like a few management links would be sufficient, but you’d know more than I do and maybe you can explain that there are more pervasive links. Hmm, still overall, the level of links seem like a consequence rather than a cause of how widespread skillful foreign language acquisition is.

    This idea of market reach would also explain why, in places like Japan where English is enormously prestigious yet people are not very skilled (have you gotten a load of the shirts with English text people there wear? It’s incredible Dada, except it’s completely sincere and unintentional. I’ve also seen wedding albums where all the text for cheesy photo captions is in terrible English, which nobody can read and obviously one person could barely even write, just because it’s stylish and prestigious). Actually, your idea of historical population-wide secondary language acquisition would explain this too. Either way, Japan’s a hoot when it comes to Engrish (or more accurately, Ingurishu, イングリシュ. Well, that would be the Japanese pronunciation of the English word for “English,” they do have a Japanese word for English, 英語, “Eigo.” Although England is “Igirisu,” and most languages are “country of origin”+”-go,” i.e. French is “Furansugo” and Japanese [Nihon] is “Nihongo.” Go figure.).

    I’d also be curious, what’s the level of English ability like in Francophone countries? I’m only guessing at Iberophonic markets, and I have no idea about the extent of Francophonic markets. I’d guess that Francophonic markets aren’t as extensive; there’s really only France, a string of countries in Africa but that don’t have the economic power of Latin America as a whole, and Haiti. If that’s the case, based on both your ideas and my offered extensions, English should be relatively good in those countries (perhaps beginning to replace French). Ah, that leads to another interesting question; can there be only one secondarily acquired language at a time? Now that English comes in, does Russian/French/whatever go out? And is that functional (people cannot handle that many secondary languages) or situational (the incentives to learn the previous language are no longer there, replaced by incentives to learn English)?

    Overall, I really like your basic idea about developing an index of “how good people are at English,” both the idea of an index and the idea of measuring now how many people speak English but how good the people are. That’s not the easiest thing to quantify, but it’s not impossible either; you could have native English speakers rate intelligibility, or you could rate markers such as pronoun usage, correct grammar and verb conjugation, pronunciation of certain sounds not native to a given language. Not as a judgmental measure (although business would likely use it that way for selecting places most favorable to set up business) or an assumption that everybody should learn English and a corresponding normative question about how to make a population learn English better (although many pedagogues would likely use it that way), but as a sociological question about what leads to the people of a country adopting a trade language more skillfully or less skillfully. This would be the type of thing I can imagine the Economist would pick up on, it reminds me of the Big Mac index as a sort of clever indirect measure.

    • 2 JSC7 May 26, 2010 at 10:46 pm

      All good points. I like bringing in the idea of imposition rather than just incentivizing, but I think it’s pretty fluid gap between the two. I guess the extreme of incentivizing is what we have today (it’s good to learn English in a foreign country, but you never have to) and the extreme of imposition would be active -sification campaigns (like Russification during the USSR, where not learning Russian could lead to punishment), although an economist would probably suggest that the imposition route just creates a stronger, more immediate incentive.

      But it is still interesting to see what the breaking point is. I didn’t give much thought to indigenous Native American languages because they became so marginalized by the Iberian cultural influx that they became irrelevant to shaping modern Latin America (except Paraguay and maybe Bolivia). The languages of Eastern Europe, on the other hand, have been very relevant to shaping those countries (and, side note, yes, compared to Russia, Eastern Europe’s English is vastly superior, though I wonder how much of that is explained by incentives to join the E.U.). I guess somewhere on the scale of pushing one culture onto the other, the weaker one will break down, probably once smallpox and genocide enters the equation. And, more generally with regards to your thoughts on Russia and China, I think the takeaway is that empire builders don’t care fuck-all for learning other languages (British and American obstinacy in this regard is a great example).

      Market links I think are very important, but my gut tells me (for whatever irrational reason) local markets are more influential than international commerce. China does a ton of business with America, and yet… Vietnam and Thailand, on the other hand, both had very active local military-catering markets.

      Side note: your comments are consistently longer than my posts. If there’s ever a sure sign for starting your own blog…

  2. 3 Claire N May 26, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    You bet, pet! You forgot to mention how the French are excellent in English.

  3. 4 clementia May 27, 2010 at 9:39 am

    or you can look more into the difference between “logogram” and “Phonogram”.

    usually While Europeans could master several languages without any efforts, Chinese and Japanese are pretty struggling with one foreign language.

  4. 5 sam September 12, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    u stock me?!? oh wow! who am i?

  5. 6 English schools Dublin July 16, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    Thanks for finally talking about >English, do you speak it?
    | Joint Stock Company <Loved it!


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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