All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.
For those of us who live and work in an English-speaking world, it is difficult to measure the value of our daily communication tool. We are mostly a monolingual nation where speaking a second language other than English is often an add-on to increase our future potential job opportunities. Unlike, so many non-English speaking countries where learning English is absolutely essential.
Bilingualism, though now recognized as an advantageous “must skill” in the United States, is still not part of the fabric of American culture. We assume that most people around the world will speak “our language” and putting time and effort in learning a second language is a choice, not a priority. Many schools and families see the value in learning a second language but it generally stems from a desire to be more marketable – it does not come from a basic survival need.
English is the lingua franca in the world outside our borders. It is the basic tool to communicate ideas, to become more skilled for employment and to fulfill aspirations. English as an international language is linked to historical, economic and educational goals that are directly tied to “modernity” and the need to be included in the international arena.
It is also the means to a better future. The impact of having the ability to speak English is life changing in countries like Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia. After I concluded my learning experience as a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching recipient, I traveled outside Korea to Vietnam and Cambodia. One of the things I am curious about is how English instruction can become an agent for social change and a source of aspiration and motivation for so many young people in both countries.
The subject of English education in schools and universities is complex and vast but it is framed by one basic underlying principle – the need for betterment to acquire skills that will help young people move out of the farm, literally, and into city life.
In both countries, English instruction is part of the impetus to build more globally competent citizens-a move by the governments to develop a citizenry that can compete in the worldwide economy. However, English education varies greatly between students from wealthy families, who have access to private education and those from modest families who rely on the resources offered at the public school level. Despite the inequality in opportunities between both groups, English is the currency that holds a key to a better future.
During my travels, I asked people at the hotels where I stayed about their school life and what it takes to be part of the lucky group that is enjoying a more prosperous future. They all had the same answer, “I need to learn English to make money – get a good job.” Some went to school and then on to college where they learned marketing, hotel industry and English. Others dropped out in tenth grade but knew that they must work and pay for those private English lessons in order to gain access to better jobs.
Some of them now live in the cities with parents and grandparents, others live alone in a rented room not too far from their jobs. They mostly come from families that still live on their farms – they still eat from their land, are self-sustainable in terms of providing food for their families: rice, vegetables, fruit and fish from the nearby rivers and lakes.
Combined with their knowledge of English and their worldly aspirations is a deep appreciation and understanding of how to survive from the fruits of the land. They have skills that are real “survival skills” and that go beyond academics or school life.
They are part of an “urbanized youth”. They go to school in the city and then go back home to help their families, planting rice that can be harvested twice a year, growing coconut trees that take ten years to bear fruit, or mango trees that will take three years to become fruitful. They know how to live in two opposite landscapes – the traditional farming setting and the fast developing urban setting.
Fishing in the local rivers and ponds is another way to make a living as they know that they can sell their catch to the local markets for as much as five dollars. Once a luxury, these young workers now eat pork and meat more than on a special occasion as a result of their aspiration to learn English to get a good job.
These conversations have validated the importance and necessity of learning the English language. As an educator who teaches English as a second language to immigrant children in an American public school, I am in awe of the power of determination and the weight of English language education.
There is no choice if you want to aspire to more, whether as an English learner in a U.S public school or in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia or any other country that wants to compete in the international world – English is the currency that will buy you your future.