Culture-less English?

by Terence MacNamee

English as a vehicular language is now big business. Countless Asians learn English as their passport to the Western world and all it offers, ignoring the fact that only a part of the Western world speaks English. After all, English functions as a vehicular language far beyond its natural borders. Asians even use it as a vehicular language to communicate with other Asians.

Non-English-speakers who have learned the language will often tell you that English is “no man’s language”, meaning that it is some sort of neutral territory, a language that belongs to no-one in particular and can be used by everyone. Yet the English speaker more than anyone else knows that this is not so. Every language comes with its cultural baggage, and English is no exception. In fact, because English is spoken in a number of countries geographically far apart, it now expresses not just one culture, but several.
Asian English learners are sometimes given cultural instruction about the English-speaking world. But it tends to be an amalgam. It propounds the mistaken idea that there is a uniform English-speaking culture. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. G.B. Shaw once observed that England and America are two countries divided by a common language. What Shaw (who was an Irishman) meant by this joke was, of course, that the two countries have different cultures. The Americans are not like the English, and find it difficult to get along with Australians, who, in turn, cordially detest the English. Irish are different from Scots, Canadians from Americans, and so on. That is why English learners need to learn about the plurality of English-speaking cultures as well as the undoubted elements they have in common.

So much for the English-speaking world. But if you learn only English, you will often be dealing with people in the Western World who do not know English any better than you. When you use English as a “third language”, it may seem like a paradise of international communication, but be aware that you are adding layers of complexity. The other fellow has his own culture; you have your culture; and then there is the cultural baggage that goes with English.