Is There a Right Kind of English?

When English was first introduced to Thailand in the mid 1800s, it was dubbed the “language of the invader,” but nowadays, many Thai professionals seem to wholeheartedly embrace it. Dr. Adcharawan Buripakdi, a professor at Walaik University in Thailand, interviewed twenty Thai professional writers across various disciplines to gather their opinions on the necessity of  English in the workplace and analyzed their responses in a paper called “On Professional Writing: Thai Writers’ Views on their English.” In Buripakdi’s article, she states that the interviewees generally adopted one of the five categories of English:

  1. Queen’s English: a belief in standardized English with strict grammar rules as it is used in the west
  2. Instrumental English: the belief that the English language is merely a communication tool that should be used in the clearest way possible which is usually standard English
  3. Cosmopolitan English: a multicultural approach to English and the belief that the language can be molded to fit the needs of different cultures 
  4. Glocal English: the belief in an equal balance between standard English and local, cultural influences
  5. Thai English: the belief that the English used in Thailand is a distinct, valid dialect with its own cultural conventions 

One participant, a textbook writer named Chat, staunchly embraced Thai English. Chat took pride in incorporating his culture into his work by using Thai names instead of English ones in examples, as well as including proverbs and expressions from his country. The remaining nineteen participants each chose one of the other four categories of English, but none of them recognized the validity of Thai English as a formal language, viewing it only as a politically charged oral tradition. Instead, the majority of them espoused the most rigid form of English, Queen’s English. 

The age of the internet has created a global culture primarily centered around the English language. Countries all over the globe are constantly exposed to English through pop culture, the media, and the professional world. Thus, it has become a necessity for many people in non-predominantly English speaking countries to learn the language, but the ramifications of this need are seldom acknowledged. 

As the interviewees demonstrated, many people in non-English speaking countries have grown to view English as the superior language and the western cultures that use English as superior cultures, to the point where many of the writers felt that “being incapable of speaking perfect English was a marker of lower intelligence and prestige” (Buripakdi). Although many of the writers still valued their culture, they felt that it would be unprofessional to display their roots in their work, thus reinforcing the idea that Thai traditions are inferior and should be hidden away. 

Buripakdi’s paper concludes that many writers had adopted the colonial celebratory perspective, which embodies the idea that “English is intrinsically and extrinsically a superior language” and that western culture alone represents modernity, civilization, and progress. Thus, the article introduces an interesting dilemma– how can this belief be unlearned when those who hold it see no reason to?

In recent years, there has been a growing push in the west to highlight non-western cultures and to de-center Anglocentric perspectives. While this effort is well-intentioned, it doesn’t always end up being productive. Many times, discussions about cultural sensitivity are dominated by white leaders who, whether consciously or unconsciously, turn the conversation towards the acceptability of their own behavior as allies. Thus, the dialogue once again centers Anglocentric viewpoints rather than minority ones. 

Situations like this are all too common. When I took a technical writing course in college, taught by a white professor, many of the assignments felt clearly tailored towards the white students. For example, everyone in the class–the white students, the American-born POC students, and the international students who learned English as a second language–all had to write about how to use our privilege to look out for minority colleagues, despite many of us being those minorities ourselves. It was evident that the exercise, like many other exercises in the class, was catered to the white students and it aimed to get them thinking about how they could be more racially. The professor had good intentions, but it still ultimately sent the message that this class was meant for them, not for me and so many others. 

The era of colonialism has permanently changed the world, resulting in many people across the globe internalizing western ideals. Although recent years have brought a growing awareness to this problem and a desire to rectify it, attempts to do so are often ineffective. Non-western cultures should be welcome in the workplace, but it should be up to the people who belong to those cultures to decide how that happens. As Dr. Buripakdi’s paper proved, many minority writers have internalized colonial celebratory rhetoric and do not wish to carry their culture into the professional world. This mindset is hard to reject and minority professionals need to be given the freedom to do so without having to listen to non-minorities who think they know best. 

Viewpoint Written by Jennifer Tso, University of California Davis (UC Davis)

Edited by Grace Larner, Texas State University

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