Language Study and the Death of Dreams

by Translation Guy on June 27, 2011

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.


  1. Swajen says:

    Of all the subjects that I study in school, I think that English is the most important subject. It is mainly through the English language that we gain access to the various sources of knowledge.

  2. Ray says:

    Although other languages such as German and Russian are important in the world of Science, it is English that plays the most important role in spreading scientific knowledge. There is in fact no branch of study that has not been communicated in English. The original writings of great scientists, economists, philosophers, psychologists and others who did not speak and write the English language have all been translated into English. Therefore, one who has a good knowledge of English has access to all the sources of information.

  3. Mark Cooper says:

    The myth that college is the *only* way to achieve financial stability in life only serves to exacerbate the problems described above because it drives yet more people into college, even if it’s not what they actually want. There are plenty of vocations that only require a 2 year degree, or a certificate, or an apprenticeship. Now for a foreigner, I would go to English school and forget the Doctorate.

  4. American colleges are overpriced. Americans pretend this is perfect when in reality college works in most countries because it’s cheap.

  5. It’s overrated if the kind of stuff you want to learn can be learned by reading the internet and you don’t need a degree to get the job you want. But if you want a job that requires a degree (like teacher, or nurse, or doctor, or engineer, or scientist, or one of thousands of other jobs) college is not overrated, it’s the only way to go.

  6. Hugh says:

    Knowledge is the key to happiness and success… in any country..

  7. Diana says:

    Overrated in the sense that it will find you a job after you graduate? Yes. Getting a job with 1, 2, even 3 university degrees is terribly difficult in todays world.

  8. Sharon Boyle says:

    Not only is English the golden ticket, but it is one of the simpliest language I’ve ever studied. For instance, you can see that German has multiple verbal conjugation, while English has just one (two with the third person of singular).

  9. for me i say that english language is very important cause where ever you go as long as you can speak English you can survive.Yes some people say that other countries do not speak the language but I still believe that as long us you are equip with this language you can toour around the world.

  10. Renee Day says:

    Sipping a Starbuck’s? You mean serving one, don’t you Ken?

    • Ken says:

      Well said, Renee. I was thinking the dream is to sip. The reality is to serve. But in the global scheme of things, making a lattes at Starbucks is probably more fun then making bricks in the Punjab.

  11. Babykins says:

    I am a Chinese. So i personally think that Chinese is the most widly spoken language in the world. The Chinese language is going to be the world’s spoken language in the future. Any points and views. I also have a view that besides Chinese and English, the other languages in the world are not important at all. It’s no use learning eg Tamil when that language is spoken by so little people.

    • Ken says:

      Chinese is already #1, Babykins for number of speakers. I wonder if there are enough incentives for Non-Chinese speakers to learn to read and write Chinese for Chinese to become a Lingua Franca such as English. Are you thinking that Chinese will speak Chinese to Chinese and English to everyone else? I’m skeptical, since those non-Chinese foreigners come in several linguistic flavors, and the major commercial languages seem to be holding their own.

    • Will the Chinese language be a significant language for trade outside China? Very, very doubtful. China will very likely continue to grow in influence, but its influence abroad will be in other languages.

      • Ken says:

        If Standard Chinese ever does become the lingua franca, it will be a much different language in so many ways than it is now. Interesting to think about.

  12. Education will give you a leg up on the competition in the short term. However, it is no replacement for dedication and hard work. Many people have been successful without a post secondary education.

    Of course, some things are very difficult without the proper education. For example it would be impossible to be a doctor without a lenghty post secondary education.

    I am of the opinion that if you can afford it and have the motivation to get through it, you should pursue a post secondary education unless you are pursuing a trade.

  13. Lynn Prince says:

    For most people, college is meant to be a ticket to financial success. Not all majors lend themselves to that goal. Generally, anything that involves money, math or some sciences will be most valuable in the job market. So, if your passion in life is Medieval Literature or something…good luck.

  14. Only if you plan on flipping burgers the rest of your life.

  15. All airline pilots and air traffic controllers have to speak English. They have to learn a precise and specific vocabulary. If pilots and controllers would speak different languages, international air travel would be very dangerous, if not impossible.

    In many countries, the citizens have different tribal languages. Even though English is not a native language, the governments select Engilsh as an adopted national language. There are several reasons for this. 1) no one tribe will have a political advantage over the others; 2) a common language will enable people of different tribes to communicate with each other without them having to learn all the other tribal languages; 3) the government documents and laws written in English will be less subject to interpretation than if they had to be written separately in every tribal language; 4) an English-speaking population will attract International trade and foreign tourists; 5) the young people who speak English will be able to travel, study and work abroad more easily and 6) it will be easier for them to adopt new technologies, as well as to get the technologies that they develop exported around the world.

    Many groups of people want to influence world politics. They want to ask for help, explain their situation, or argue their position. If they use a language that is not understood by people around the world, they will not have a possibility of getting what they want.

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