Sunday, February 6, 2011

Some languages are more equal than others

恭喜发财and Happy Year of the Rabbit!

While in Beijing recently I read an article in The China Daily about the dissatisfaction of people who had trained to become teachers of Chinese as a foreign language. A few weeks ago I described Chinese as ‘the other world language’, with over 30 million people learning it around the world and the Chinese government promoting its soft power through language and culture classes at a rapidly growing number of Confucius Institutes. And yet this article claimed that the great majority of people qualified to teach the language to foreigners in China end up doing other jobs, such as doing deskwork in government offices or translating for private companies. The main reason seems to be low pay.

In this occasional blog, based on experiences travelling, working and studying around Asia, I try to emphasise my view that not only all varieties of English, but also all languages, are equally important and valid. However, sometimes I read something or talk to someone and wonder if my view is too idealistic or romantic.

According to the China Daily piece, newly qualified teachers of Chinese can expect to earn only 30 to 40 yuan (about $5) per hour, compared with thosese qualified to teach English, who can get 120 yuan. Despite the apparent boom in demand for the language, the economic value of Chinese thus seems to be only a quarter of that of English! The situation of one qualified teacher is especially poignant: he was earning about 40 yuan an hour to teach Chinese while paying 200 yuan per hour to learn English – from a teacher who was probably less qualified than him.

Of course the value of a language can never be reduced merely to how much money it is worth, but we can guess that the main problem for these teachers is that there are simply far more people in China needing English than Chinese. In a country where speaking Chinese is a matter of course, and where the number of foreigners is still relatively small, this is a matter of simple arithmetic. However, the value of English is augmented by the fact that English-speakers in China, whether they are foreign or Chinese, and whether they use the language as a first, second or foreign language, are generally wealthier than non-English-speakers. The noticeboards in the clubs and community halls of areas of Beijing where foreigners and wealthier Chinese live are targeted by maids, cooks, child-minders, drivers and many other people anxious to advertise their English skills in order to get jobs with a better salary than they could expect from working for people who never use English.

The situation in the rest of Asia is not so different. Whether we like it or not, the fact is that English skills command better salaries than other languages. Some countries, such as Malaysia, have tried to redress this imbalance by requiring government employees to have qualifications in an Asian language; but the result is that many graduates with good English skills ignore the public sector and get jobs in the better-paid private sector.

We cannot assume that English will continue to have the most economic power, however. If the number of people learning the language continues to grow as it has done, some day sooner or later it is likely that most people around the world will speak the language, at least to some extent. Knowing English will become a matter of course. When that happens, it will be the languages that people know in addition to English that will attract the higher salaries. But that day may still be quite far away.