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Friday, February 24, 2012

The Linguistic Hegemony of English

I recently returned from a short trip to Peru to visit my extended family.  While Peru has much to offer in terms of tourist attractions, my visit only took me to Huancayo, the small mountain city where my grandfather lives.  It’s been 15 years since the last time I stepped foot on Peruvian soil and what I saw surprised me.

English was everywhere.

While few people actually spoke it fluently, you could hear English words spoken in thick Spanish accents scattered liberally throughout conversations.  English was even more prevalent in written form, covering billboards, merchandise, and even store names.

I was surprised because Peru is not bordered by any English speaking countries yet much of its attention is focused on what is occurring in English speaking countries, particularly the U.S.  As far from the United States as the country is, news of Whitney Houston’s death made the front page of several local newspapers.  Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s were two American fast food chains that had franchises even in the remote city of Hunacayo.  Finding restaurants that served authentic Peruvian cuisine like pachamanca, cau-cau, or anticuchos was harder than it should have been when deep in the Andes mountains. 

An English teacher at heart, I couldn’t help but notice and be touched by how many people wanted so desperately to learn how to speak English.  From hastily scrawled graffiti on walls to native songs on the radio that inserted random words here and there, English was being used to the best of people’s abilities.  I saw no less than 5 different advertisements for English classes.  In a country where the faucets only have one setting – cold – because heating water costs too much, people don’t have disposable income.  You can be sure anyone fortunate enough to be able to afford those classes is trying to squeeze as much out of them as possible.

Native speakers of English have no excuse for not being fluent.

If you live in an English speaking country, you are exposed to English from birth.  You have been born into a life full of advantages others can only dream of.  Not only do you receive schooling in English for 18 years of your life (not counting any post-secondary schooling you pursue), if you feel you are not being educated well enough by your school district you have the opportunity to search for help outside school or even teach yourself through books or the Internet.  The desire to better yourself is all the motivation you need to get up and find resources available to you regardless of your socioeconomic status.

Unless your house is located on the side of a mountain and you have to hike up to it every day, you should have the time to devote to educating yourself.  To do anything else is to squander the intelligence you’ve been given, not to mention the resources and opportunities other people can only dream of having.