Writers Talk About Writing
"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."
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.
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.