The Trials of Learning a Dominant Language

In Linguistics and Language Learning on November 13, 2008 at 3:34 pm

Or, The Trials of the Dominant Language Learner
By Antonio Graceffo

Why is it that foreigners (non-native English speakers) can speak the worst (or most creative) English imaginable, and we, native-speakers, understand them, but although you’ve studied French or Thai for fifty years, only people who really love you understand what you are saying?

Linguists define dominant languages as: a set of very unforgiving languages, which demand that learners speak perfectly. With dominant languages, it’s my way or the highway.

In this sense, French and Thai are dominant languages. English and Italian are not. You are free to speak English as badly as you desire. And as for Italian, if you speak any at all, Italians are happy to chat with you.

Sociologists would definition a dominant language as, a majority language which pushes out or drives minority languages to extinction. The example would be the way English replaced Native American or Hawaiian languages in the US, or the way Vietnamese, Chinese, Khmer, or any number of other official languages stomped out the local tribal languages. In some countries, the “dominant” or official language was imported, such as in Taiwan, or it was an artificial language, such as Filipino, which was constructed for the purpose of standardizing communication between the many language groups in the country. In countries such as Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, and Philippines, nearly all classes at university are taught in English. So, these countries would appear on the second list, as countries of “high English use,” regardless of the political choice to list or not list English as an official language.

By this second definition, English would probably qualify as the most dominant language on the planet. According to Wikipedia, there are 25 countries which use English as their official language. But, when we extend the definition to include countries where English is the second official language, or is widely spoken, such as Philippines or Singapore, the list grows to over 100 countries. Disclaimer: I am using the word “country” very loosely. Some of these “countries” may only qualify as nations or territories. Puerto Rico and American Samoa were counted separately from the USA. Hong Kong was count ed separately from China.

The second list also becomes more problematic because it is arguable if Creole and pigeon count as English.

However you count countries and English usage, more than one hundred countries is a lot. Most bodies who give recognition to countries agree that there are less than 200 countries in the world. The UN recognizes 192 and the US recognizes 194. So, nearly half the countries have English as either a first, second or official language for business or education.

Does this evidence prove that English is a linguistically dominant language? No. In fact, the wide use of English and the large number of dialects, for example Singapore, Scotland, Nigeria and Arkansas: demonstrates how non-dominant English is. English, while being one of the more complex languages in the world, is also one of the most malleable and most forgiving to learners or non-traditional native speakers.

Take any kid growing up in London or New York and ask him to imitate a French guy speaking English or a Chinese, German, or Indian accent, and he could do it. Being an urban, native speaker of English you have grown up hearing recent immigrants speaking your language your whole life, and yet you understand them.

Ask a Chinese teacher to tell you which problems a French native speaker has vs. a German native speaker, and they couldn’t tell you. If they did give you an answer, it would be based on a sampling of one, instead of a sampling of hundreds. Ask an ESL teacher in a summer ESL intensive program in England or Australia, what problems Japanese learners face vs. Germans, and they could talk all day. Even if they hadn’t made the observations themselves, the information would be readily available on the internet.

The countries which are considered as the major English speaking countries, those countries who nationals are granted teaching visas by most Asian governments, include: England, USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. (Most of the legislation doesn’t specifically cite the Republic of Ireland, but Irish national are also granted native-speaker visas and considered by all to be standard native speakers.)

In addition to being countries whose native tongue is English, one more similarity between these countries is that they are countries of high immigration. According to The Ellis Island Foundation, who compile current and historic data on immigration, 60% of New Yorkers are themselves immigrants or the children of immigrants.
What this means, in terms of English language usage is, most of us grew up hearing non-native speakers speaking English our whole lives. From my personal experience, when my family moved to Tennessee, one of the first things I noticed was that all of my new school friends had parents and grandparents who spoke English. In New York, we just sort of accepted that we couldn’t talk to our friends’ grandparents, because they all spoke another language.

How does the concept of linguistic dominance effect the language learner?

First off, it has been said that English is one of the hardest languages to learn. On some easily measured parameters, this is true. English has an extremely difficult grammar and the single largest vocabulary of any language on the planet. Fifteen years ago, a statistic came out which said that American English had hit the million word mark. Today, it must be even larger.

These two facts would suggest that English is hard to learn. Chinese, for example, has very little grammar, and a vocabulary of composed syllables, meaning once learn all of the base root words, the rest are more or less just combinations. But, because of the social dominance of English, there are very few people on the planet who aren’t exposed to some English, everyday of their lives.

Every computer user, every movie goer, every business or technology student, and most pop music enthusiasts, world wide, are exposed to English.

Before moving to Taiwan and studying Chinese, how much Chinese was the average westerner exposed to? For most of us the answer is zero. You can ask a Korean, a Chinese, a Russian…about Harrison Ford, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Schrek and they would know who that was.

And nearly every educated person in the world can read the Latin alphabet. Even in China, one of the largest countries in the world which uses a different writing system, the Latin alphabet is used to teach Chinese children how to pronounce Chinese characters. The Latin alphabet is also used for alphabetical order, since Chinese lacks the concept of alphabetical order. In reading a history of China, I discovered that the reason librarians were monks, was not only because they could read, but also because librarians to be people who would never marry, and just remain inside of the library their whole lives. This was necessary because the librarians committed to memory the location of every book in the library.

Do speakers of dominant languages find it more difficult to learn new languages?

In the case of English native speakers, the constant availability of English language movies, TV, newspaper and books, takes away the impetus to learn a foreign language. In my own case, I find that during periods of heavy foreign language study, I fall behind in my knowledge of world affairs, because I stop watching CNN. In Germany, I knew that learning German would make German books and libraries open to me, and I could gain all sorts of additional knowledge, apart from the language. In countries such as Thailand or Cambodia, the quantity and quality of the information available, the information waiting for me once I master the language, is extremely poor.

You could live a lifetime, watching Deutsche Welle TV news, and stay on top of world affairs. But watching Khmer or Thai news, wouldn’t be particularly enlightening.

Another issue with speaking, THE dominant language, is that everyone, in everyone country wants to practice English with you, robbing you of any opportunity or necessity to learn the local language.

Perhaps worse than English native speakers, French and Thai speakers seem to be terrible language learners, on the whole. When I lived in Cambodia, however, I found that among the foreign community, the French tended to be better Khmer speakers. Khmers and French attributed this to the shared history between the two countries, Cambodia used to be a French colony. Some French attributed this to the fact that Americans are stupid.

One night, at a party, I noticed that the Germans, Russians, Spanish, Malaysians, Indonesians, Americans, Australians and every other nationality of foreigners huddled in small groups, speaking English to one another. The French sat apart, speaking French. An Italian friend of mine, had been taking English lessons in Phnom Penh and was struggling to communicate with the other foreigners. What I later surmised was that, like my Italian friend, upon arriving in Cambodia, a Frenchman, whose English was notoriously poor, was hit with a choice, improve his English, or learn Khmer. A higher percentage of the French chose to learn Khmer. It made sense. We were, after all in Cambodia, so it made sense to learn Khmer in order to talk to Khmers. English was less important to them, since they would mainly socialize with other French.

With the one exception of French in Cambodia, in general, my experience has been that French and Thais are terrible language learners.

If you talk to international ESL teachers, or the Thai teachers in Bangkok, where I studied, they would all agree that Koreans and Japanese are also terrible language learners. But with Koreans and Japanese, the problem may be more cultural than linguistic.

The Chinese culture countries: China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea are countries whose culture does not promote individuality, and where making a mistake, even in a foreign language, is unforgivable. Loosing face is the single most motivating factor in their behavior. These are cultural issues which could hamper one’s ability to learn a foreign language.

Interestingly, the major English speaking countries are countries where risk taking and individuality are encouraged. This is a major aid in learning a foreign language. What may prevent some English native speakers from moving from interpersonal fluency to actual academic fluency is a belief that “good enough, is good enough.” We grew up hearing people speak “bad” English. So, we don’t understand why it’s not Ok for us to speak “bad” Thai or Chinese.

So many English native speakers approach Asian languages saying, “don’t bog me down with grammar and details. Just give me nouns and verbs, and I can communicate.”

David Long, head of the Thai program at AUA Bangkok had this to say about the cultural vs. linguistic challenges to language learning.

“To me this is a very interesting question. As we know we can’t really separate culture from language, perhaps language with culture makes it easier. Would this suggest that it would be more difficult for speakers of dominant cultures to learn foreign cultures because of…’ I think that the two examples of this that come to my mind may help provide an answer.”

“ The US and Japan: In the US and Japan we find the general populace with some of the worst second language ability (I don’t have any research on this so perhaps my impressions are not correct here?) of any people on earth! Why? Is it not that because for so long they’ve been on the ‘top’ as it were, they felt that they were the best – so there has been no real incentive for them to learn a second language.”

“Though we might look for linguistic reasons, my gut tells me that it’s a social mechanism at work here.’

In his ALG writing and lecturing, David Long often states that culture, rather than linguistics is at the core of language acquisition.

The conclusion I can draw is that cultural dominance is perhaps a more important factor in language learning than is linguistic dominance. Yes, it’s hard for English native speakers to master Thai or French, but it is also hard for them to master Chinese, which is not nearly as demanding. It is hard for Thai to learn English, possibly because they are coming from a linguistically dominant background, but Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese have difficulty learning English simply because they are afraid to make mistakes.

And as for the French? I don’t know what I can say about the French, which they haven’t already said about themselves. If the Japanese hadn’t bombed Pearl Harbor, the French would be speaking German, and thus easier to communicate with and to teach.
Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, is available at See his vieos on youtub.

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