You Don’t Speak American

You don’t speak American? Five years ago if any US citizen dared to ask this question they would have probably been laughed out of the staffroom. But these days, American English is all-pervasive.

As an Australian teacher working with English-as-a-Second-Language students in Shanghai, I see the dominance of American English every day. Chinese kids shout out “Oh My Gawd!” in class, when they don’t know an answer, we work with American textbooks with Mum spelt ‘MOM’ and my classes have daily listening tasks that don’t ever have a non-American voice actor.

I have even started to tone down my own Aussie-ness in favor of some sort of international melting pot, replacing my ‘jumper’ for ‘sweater’, my ‘g’day’ for ‘whazzup’.

Why are we teaching American English over other forms? Image Credit: Ben Raynal, Creative Commons.
Why are we teaching American English over other forms?
Image Credit: Ben Raynal, Creative Commons.

As China has only recently opened up to the world and is now beginning to spread its vast influence, it seems strange that one form of English could be so dominant. There are obvious answers for this in the economy and the way international policy is heading but I wanted to focus on the linguistic influence this has on the region and especially how it is affecting other native English speakers.

Why American?

Dr. Yu Lee, a Linguistics specialist and very experienced ESL teacher at the Sino-British College says American English is ‘fairly big’ in China, pointing to the three big ESL training companies: Wall Street, New World and English First, which are all foreign owned. EF is the only non-American (Swedish) and the new kid on the block, while Disney English is the standout for its purely-American stance, only employing American Native English speakers until recently.

It is no surprise America is influencing the world and China too, and not just in the classroom. Most Chinese kids I teach and meet enjoy watching American movies and TV shows and listening to American music. This is sadly dominated by Transformers, Hannah Montanna and Justin Beiber. However, the fact remains they are constantly being exposed to one form of English only. My students constantly ask me questions like, ‘What does Baby, baby Ohhh mean?’ and ‘What does Holla at yo boy mean?” Nobody ever asks me what ‘G’day’ means, even though I say it every day.

Laura Hansen-Just from Edinburgh in Scotland has lived in Shanghai for only a few months but is already noticing a change in the way she speaks. Now an employee of Web International English, which uses American English for its grammar, spelling and listening tasks, she admits she has already stopped using Scottish phrases like ‘wee’ meaning ‘a little’ and has started saying ‘Awesome!’

Is English Really A Global Language?

Approximately two thirds of world’s native English speakers live in the US and many of them decide to travel and teach English. There is also a growing push in the international community to provide the world with a neutral, standard form of English. The term Globish meaning English as a global language was coined by Robert McCrumm. He may have a great theory but I haven’t seen much evidence of this in language centers around Shanghai. Combine that with the growing trend to discuss hit TV programs and films like High School Musical and English doesn’t seem so International anymore. McCrumm’s theory may be more suited to places like Europe where multiple forms of English are more widely heard, taught and accepted. I don’t think it applies here as the big companies and schools are US owned.

Correct English

Dr Lee agrees with McCrumm that English is an international language but says there is no correct form of speaking English.

He says:

There are of course students and parents who will complain about not understanding so and so teacher, or wanting to learn the ‘correct’ form of English, but what these people are doing is really confining themselves and limiting their own possibilities.”

He also adds: “The result of this mindset is an individual who is less competitive in a quickly changing world.” Dr Lee highlighted the need for a variety of forms of English, so maybe there still is room for an Australian ESL teacher in Shanghai.

Just Get Over It

So for us expats who are picking up American English for whatever reason, will we ever regain our true and original accents and pronunciations? Dr Lee suggests that living in a foreign country can have a negative impact on one’s native tongue, but only for a short time. He  mentioned, ‘a native tongue is internalized and that it is very hard, short of a head injury, to actually lose your language abilities’ So I guess the ultimate remedy is a trip back home!

Lee Mavin

Lee J. Mavin is a Japanese language teacher living in Shanghai. He gets up every morning and crams onto the subway with 25 million other sad souls, eager to teach. He sneaks in as much writing he can between lessons. He has already polished off a childrens novel, a collection of poetry and has started a series of stories titled "The Students Sold Us Secrets, Volume One" with ASJ Publishers. He is also kept on his toes by his feisty wife and three year old daughter, both of whom are Chinese. They like to let him know how bad his Chinese is on a daily basis.

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