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Language Study and the Death of Dreams
June 27, 2011 - By: - In: Language - 19 comments

Studying a foreign language can change your life, especially if you are learning English out in the boondocks of some middle-income country. So for an ambitious kid whose idea of seeing the world doesn’t include the view from the back end of a water buffalo, English is the tuk-tuk ticket out of town to a life of cool internationalista glamour and excitement. And a chance at the brass ring on life’s merry-go-round: a great job in a high-income country.

Immigrants dream of streets paved with gold, and start paving the streets with tar instead.  This is the phenomenon that Aussie researcher Ingrid Piller sees among disappointed immigrants Down Under.

She writes in her article Learning to be marginal, “As I learnt more about the English fever gripping some Asian countries, my collaborators and I came to interpret the disappointment of overseas students as the result of overblown dreams and unrealistic expectations (Piller & Takahashi 2006; Piller, Takahashi & Watanabe 2010). If you are learning English and coming to Australia expecting to experience a magic life transformation, to discover your ‛real’ cool Western self or to find a White native-speaker Prince Charming to live with happily ever after, there is obviously a good chance that you’ll experience disappointment.”

Surely castles in the clouds are the universal rights of youth no matter what language they learn, but Piller is concerned that all that English study is doubly disappointing for rural Asian kids drawn to big city English lights.

Citing Karuna Morarji’s work on rural India, “Education is a double-edged sword: formal education makes everyone dream of achieving a service sector job. Few actually achieve that dream…”

Worse yet, formal education has “the additional pernicious effect of also closing off opportunities to live on the land. School takes children away from being apprenticed into subsistence agriculture or artisan work such as carpentry. Having learnt how to read and write instead, they do not know how to do agricultural or other rural labor and, more crucially, they do no longer WANT to engage in manual, non-waged labor.”

Same with all those English students. “We’ve all been conditioned to believe that English proficiency holds many promises, creates opportunities and opens doors—and that is undoubtedly true in some cases. However, we’ve also been conditioned to not even entertain the possibility that learning English might also close doors and make learners who don’t achieve the dream unfit for local lives.

But how do you keep the kids down on the farm once they’ve seen the city lights? Who wants to haul bricks or hoe a row when you could be drinking Latte at Starbucks? Who can blame them? Who can blame us?

I find nothing more heartbreaking than job interviews, especially with the kids. The gap between the expectations of what they want to do and what they can do is breathtaking. The gap between delusion and determination is razor-thin. Oh, that all their dreams may come true, but not here, and not on my watch.  Another brick in the wall.

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