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"Yes, We Want": Who Owns Global English?

A Spanish educational ad campaign using what appears to be "bad English" has University of Illinois linguist Dennis Baron thinking about the spread of international English beyond the Anglophone world.

A 1.8 million euro advertising campaign for Madrid's new Spanish-English public schools is being ridiculed for its slogan "Yes, we want," which critics are calling bad English.

English is what the chanters of "Yes, we want," want to learn, because English is the new global language. The ads, which evoke Barack Obama's "Yes, we can," have appeared on Spanish television, radio, billboards, and buses, prompting complaints that the Education Ministry should be promoting its bilingual public elementary and high schools in correct English if it wants pupils to pick them.

After all, one professional translator sniffed, "any of the students in these schools would be suspended if they repeated this slogan on a test." But a representative of the Ministry of Education insisted  that "Yes, we want," is not a test item, it's a "creative publicity slogan, one of the best in recent years."

Is the slogan really bad English, or is it simply new English? Now that English is a global language, it's taking on a life of its own in non-English-speaking countries, and the question of correctness is taking on a new spin. There are plenty of websites chronicling the depredations of " Engrish," Asian signs and product labels translated into inadvertently funny English.

The proliferation of non-idiomatic English in international settings is hardly new, and it's not confined to East Asia or to former British colonies. Thirty years ago, in a small French city, my daughter's sixth-grade English teacher marked phone number wrong on a test. The correct idiom, Mme la prof told me when I complained, was "number phone," a translation of the French idiom numéro de téléphone. Phone number might be "O.K." in American English, she conceded, but only British English was acceptable in her class. She had been to England, and she had it on good authority that the Queen said "number phone." She didn't change the grade.

While much of the world has joined Spain in chanting, "What do we want? English! When do we want it? Now!" or words to that effect, some governments are trying to stop global English before it undermines their own national language.

Recently a Slovak television station came under fire for three untranslated English sentences uttered on a talk show. A guest, British musician Andy Hillard, a Bratislava resident fairly fluent in Slovak, had trouble understanding a question in Slovak, so the host translated it into English. Hillard automatically answered in English, violating the new official language law requiring that only Slovak be used in public. Someone complained, and the government quickly launched an investigation which could result in a $7,300 fine for "misusing the language." While English is taught in almost every Slovak school, the government doesn't want English on the air.

In another move to combat the spread of English, the Chinese government has ordered its television stations to stop using English abbreviations, including GDP (gross domestic product), CPI (consumer price index), and NBA (National Basketball Association). Supporters of the English ban see it protecting the purity of Chinese, while opponents of the restriction point out that Chinese was never a pure language: up to 30,000 ancient Chinese words, like shijie, 'world,' and zhendi, 'truth,' come from Sanskrit and Pali, while more recent borrowings include gongchandang, 'communist,' which comes from Japanese. Not to mention that, as in Spain, Slovakia, and France, English is the most widely studied foreign language in China.

What's also curious, considering the global status of English, is that some English speakers actually fear that their language is threatened by other languages. Just as Slovakia and France declared their languages official in order to protect them from English, and from the languages of indigenous minorities and immigrants, Anglophones think that making English official will protect it, though it's not clear what protection the global language needs.

In some cases the protectionists go even further, campaigning to get rid of borrowed words in English. So Oliver Kamm complained when the London Times TV critic, reviewing the new actor playing Dr. Who, wrote, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même Doctor Who." Kamm, a Times leader writer, believes that to be correct, the reviewer should have written "le même Dr. Who," since Dr. Who is a male character. But Kamm would prefer no French at all, or any other foreign language, for that matter, since in his view, readers of the Times, who don't attend bilingual schools and aren't very good at languages, won't understand foreignisms unless they're translated (The Times, Mar. 27, 2010, p. 107; leader writer is British for op-ed columnist).

No matter how much we object to "mistakes" in other people's language, there doesn't seem to be much we can do about it. Plus English speakers, who can't effectively control the English of fellow Anglophones, are actually in a much weaker position when trying to control the English of foreigners. And objecting to the English of advertising seems hopeless. To Anglophones, "Yes, we want" may seem funny, and Spanish authorities may even find it embarrassing, but whatever happens to the slogan, its very existence is one more sign that English, now that it's global, is no longer the exclusive property of English-speaking nations.

The ancient Romans may have felt a similar loss of linguistic control as their empire slipped away and Latin started its long segue into Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Romanian, Catalan, and the other romance tongues. For now it doesn't look like English is breaking up the way Latin did. But it could. As the Queen might put it, it's early days yet. And that's British for "it's too soon to tell."

Update: Additional campaign placards like the Madrid subway poster reproduced to the right show more clearly that "Yes, we want" is actually part of a bilingual sentence: "Yes, we want estudiar el próximo curso...." That new information hasn't calmed the Anglophones objecting to what they still regard as irregular English, or the Spanish-speakers who think it's Spanglish, and it has prompted further complaints from purists who object to language mixing. What the campaign does demonstrate is the popularity of English in schools, and the well-known tendency of advertisers to stretch language in order to attract attention to their message.

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday May 4th 2010, 4:35 AM
Comment by: Edmund S. (Bronx, NY)
English is a living language, as such, it must borrow, in order to grow...
Tuesday May 4th 2010, 7:10 AM
Comment by: Joyce S. (White Plains, NY)
Very interesting. I wonder why some people are so vehemently proprietary about language. :) Isn't it all about increased commuication?
Tuesday May 4th 2010, 7:40 AM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
Edmund and Joyce present two grand views that match my views. And further, knowing another languages and its idioms help understanding of the culture and its people.
Tuesday May 4th 2010, 8:07 AM
Comment by: G Thomas F. (Framingham, MA)
I'll bet if we reviewed the comments of purists, we would find only words borrowed from other languages in the distant and not too distant past!
Tuesday May 4th 2010, 8:08 AM
Comment by: Kaitlin M. (Barton City, MI)
Just to throw in my two cents, the word for karaoke in Chinese is a combination of both Chinese characters and romanized letters.


I wonder what they are going to do with that one.
Tuesday May 4th 2010, 8:27 AM
Comment by: Tom W. (New York, NY)
The last word of the article should be "messages," not "message." It's disheartening when a university-level linguist can't use his own language correctly.
Tuesday May 4th 2010, 8:30 AM
Comment by: Srivi
I have been living in Singapore for almost seven years now and still find it difficult to accept the local variation of English called Singlish. To me, it is just bad English. But it so popular in this part of the world that students, teachers, hawkers, taxi drivers and even professionals are heard using this variation. Ugh.
Tuesday May 4th 2010, 8:36 AM
Comment by: Annie G. (Gladwyne, PA)
Just weighing in to endorse the comments of Edmund, Joyce, Herb and G Thomas. Fresh from reading Neil Whitman's article about "Imma" (4/26 on VT), it seems much more thrilling to me to watch the language changing right in front of us than to make fools of ourselves trying to prevent it from changing. I guess I'm old enough, though, that I have a certain tenderness for the people who want everything to be the way it WAS, when they knew (or thought they knew) the rules and could tell easily the bad guys from the good guys.
Tuesday May 4th 2010, 9:42 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Tom, I understood that 'message' to be correct. The 'message' is about learning English, a collective noun in this sense, I think. Messages seems to me to be unnecessary and perhaps confusing, as if the topic were about more messages than the one, having it in school.

The evolution of English, the way it is used in other countries without the finesse of natives, for example in call centers and 'help' desks, can befuddle one who has difficulty hearing and it can cause outright misunderstandings, as I experienced when trying to buy a computer and then trying to get the one I got sorted out a year or so later.

One rather funny tale about learning English in China. We have a young acupuncturist from China. One day with 100 needles poking me, I was chanting the drinking song, 99 bottles on the shelf.

The young lady laughed and said, "We had to sing that in first grade!"

I was a bit surprised, to say the least and said, "but it's a drinking song'.

She said, "they didn't tell us that. It was just to learn the numbers!"

So............ I wonder if 'The Lady in Red' has some academic possibility...

Just kidding!
Tuesday May 4th 2010, 11:23 AM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
I agree with Jane B. about "message."

I write and edit for a global IT services company, and most of my colleagues are not native English speakers. Since the majority of our customers are US companies, however, we use US English in our external communications. I wonder how long that will last, though. It is certainly challenging to be living in an age when the language (alive and always changing, as has been pointed out)is changing so rapidly. The globalization of English will continue to make my job interesting.
Tuesday May 4th 2010, 11:46 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I enjoyed the article, and the whole subject of varieties of English around the world is fascinating, but here's my question: what's wrong with "I want"?

It's a perfectly good English sentence to my ear. Yes, it is a bit unusual to say "I want" without adding what one wants--"I want my Maypo," but still, the plain declaration of an inner state of wanting is grammatical, understandable, and true to life.

In a play, for instance, a character who is always angry and frustrated, when asked, "What's wrong with you?" might answer, "I want, I want, goddamit, I want!"
Tuesday May 4th 2010, 12:06 PM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
It's true that "Yes, I want" seems to limp, but I agree with M. Lydon that it need not be ungrammatical. I think people are being unnecessarily, perhaps jingoistically, harsh because the expression appeared in an ad in Spain. Would people have been in such an uproar if the phrase had been upfront about its informality and had appeared in an ad in, say, Texas?

Besides, there may be a sophisticated wordplay going on: an intransitive "want" meaning "lack" would produce "Yes, I want"--suggesting the lack of English (What do you want/lack? English). And then, when you read on (in Spanish), the verb turns into a perfectly understandable transitive "want" (I want to study English).

The context is also telling: Spain seems to be fighting back decades of linguistic nationalism (dubbing movies, for instance) that left Spaniards in a bad place with regard to today's lingua franca. I've seen mixed-language ads (acutely mixed, jumping from a word in one language to a word or an abbreviation in another) crop up abundantly in Spanish media lately. Such efforts may provide the overlooked context for this specific ad that has drawn disproportionate attention.
Tuesday May 4th 2010, 2:36 PM
Comment by: Roma L. (West Hills, CA)
Michael and Anonymous,

I'm in total agreement with you. If you note in the add, the phrase is not followed by punctuation. Thus, it begs the question, "want what"? In some stylistic forms (such as medical writing, with which I'm the most familiar), it has become preferred that the phrase preceding a bullet list NOT be followed by a colon. Thus as an example, you could correctly state in print:

Yes, I want
to learn English
to understand English
to become fluent in English.

I'd say that the detractors of this phrase do not fully understand modern English usage, and perhaps should not insist that they're the protectors of it! Rather like the French teacher in one comment above, who insisted that she, as a nonnative speaker of English knew how to speak it more correctly than a native speaker (in some instances, this could be true, though). I run into this occasionally with some of my Continental colleagues, who want to correct my native English with translations of idioms that they don't quite understand aren't correct in native English usage. (Sorry -- a bit run on there, but you probably get the idea!)

In any case, our language is fluid and constantly evolving. Just thing of common phrases like "my bad." That would not have been considered "correct" English 5 years ago, and technically, it isn't. But, it's perfectly understood in the vernacular
Tuesday May 4th 2010, 8:33 PM
Comment by: Mattie D.
As a native speaker of English and a DUNCE at learning any other language I am grateful that others choose to learn the language I have spoken and taught for over forty years. I don't mind if they "fracture" it; if they try to communicate in the only language I understand I am happy to listen and learn about them. If they wish to learn from me I shall be glad to try to help them speak it more "correctly" or fluently, but I shall never judge them anymore than I would have tried to teach my grandmother that 'ain't' wasn't an acceptable vocabulary word.
Wednesday May 5th 2010, 8:24 AM
Comment by: Tom W. (New York, NY)
To Jane B and others. I'm sorry but you're absolutely and indisputably wrong. The sentence in question is: "What the campaign does demonstrate is the popularity of English in schools, and the well-known tendency of advertisers to stretch language in order to attract attention to their message."

To say that "message" is correct is to say that all advertisers have the same message. Does General Motors have the same message as say, Kotex? No, of course not.

Thanks for playing. We have some lovely parting gifts for you.
Wednesday May 5th 2010, 9:48 AM
Comment by: Jan K. (London United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
There is no British English. The various peoples of the British Isles speak their own versions of English too, of which English is one.
Sunday May 9th 2010, 10:42 AM
Comment by: Mie F.
I am a Japanese living in Japan and have never heard the word "gongchandang". I can't even imagine how it's written in the Japanese writing system. I think it's a Chinese word meaning "communist party,"not "communist," and it's represented in hanzi as ???. My guess is that what the Chinese government is banning is the representation of the word in Roman alphabet, and not the word itself, to be sure. I might be wrong in my guess, but "gongchandang" is definitely not Japanese.
Monday May 10th 2010, 3:57 AM
Comment by: David D.
I think this article misrepresents the issues confronting the Chinese uses of English and the government's involvement. The main issue with abbreviation is the obvious difference between Chinese script (characters) and the latin alphabet. Though most Chinese people are very familiar with the latin alphabet nowadays because of the necessity of learning pinyin, the inclusion of these abbreviations arguably disrupts the Chinese script. One does not generally write Chinese in the latin alphabet (in pinyin), and furthermore does not usually include latin transcription unless absolutely necessary. Even Western people's names are usually given in semi-phonetic approximations rather than in the latin alphabet. I thought the the China Daily article made this point fairly clearly: to read the three letters "NBA" in the midst of a Chinese sentence would be the equivalent of reading three Chinese characters in the middle of an English sentence. It's not nearly the same as reading something like faux pas in an English sentence.

The second point about the history of "borrowing" (I would say translating) in the Chinese language from other sources isn't wrong, but is also misleading. The fascinating part about this is that because of the nature of Chinese characters meaning consistently trumps sound. Thus, though there was borrowing of ideas, all of the characters (and the associated meanings) were "originally" Chinese and were in a sense actually new translations for modern concepts. Most of the modern words actually took a round trip from Classical Chinese which the Japanese used to translate modern Western ideas (like "science" kexue), and then those same words traveled back to China as modern Chinese translations. This is the beauty of a non-phonetic script. The sounds change but the meaning generally doesn't. Though there are a few semi-phonetic borrowings of foreign words into Chinese like "humor" (youmo) and "modern" (modeng), these are few and far between.

Mie F. : You're right that the word "gongchan dang" is Chinese pinyin for communist party (in English "CCP"), which was brought into China from the Japanese translation of communist party in kanji/hanzi.
Tuesday May 11th 2010, 10:40 AM
Comment by: Mie F.
David D :
I didn't know that the Chinese for "communist party" was one of the "reverse-imported" words. "This is the beauty of a non-phonetic script." Very well said! Thank you.
Tuesday August 3rd 2010, 11:53 AM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
To Tom W.

I disagree. Either plural or singular is grammatically correct, but the use of the singular clarifies that while there may be multiple advertisers ("their"), each typically has a single message.

Re "we want": here I agree with Anonymous and Michael Lydon. If "I want" is incorrect, what might it mean to be left wanting?

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