English is not a Foreign Language

In Linguistics and Language Learning on February 11, 2009 at 4:42 pm

dsc08482By Antonio Graceffo

No matter what your native tongue, no matter where you come from, or what rock in a remote cave you crawled out from under, you have been exposed to English your whole life.

Riding my motorcycle down a tiny side street, in the fourth largest city, of a small Chinese speaking country, I count no less than eight businesses with signboards written in both Chinese and English. English is not the second official language of Taiwan. In fact, if they had a second official language it would probably be Taiwanese. This particular street didn’t cater to foreigners. So, the English writing wasn’t there to assist tourists. It was there, simply because it was there.

In a small village in Cambodia residents gather in a tea house, where they sit on blue plastic lawn chairs and huddle around a portable TV and DVD machine, powered by a gasoline generator. They are watching the movie, “The Fantastic Four” in English. It doesn’t even have Khmer subtitles.

Singer Robbie Williams is a bigger star in Asia than he ever was in the United States. Nearly all Japanese, Korean, and Chinese pop groups have English names, written in Latin script, which are then exported across Asia. Even in the Taklamakan desert, in the province of Xinjiang, Uyghur teenagers were wearing T-shirts displaying the image of then popular Taiwanese pop group, F-4. Tribal kids in the border region between Burma and Thailand were wearing WWE T-shirts and knew the names of all of the top pro-wrestlers.

And of course, every person on the planet knows the name of the American president Barak Obama. Even people living in isolated villages, where they would have to walk eight miles barefoot to the nearest TV, were watching the run up to the US election. As budgets are lacking in many of these countries, there is often no way to translate breaking news fast enough, so it is broadcast in English, with subtitles.

In Taiwan, with exception of Disney cartoons, all foreign movies are shown in English with Chinese subtitles. In Korea and Thailand, it’s about half and half. The movie theatre will tell you witch showings are in English and which are in the local language, and they are both popular.

Every country I have ever lived in or visited had several English language channels on their cable system. BBC, CNN, HBO…I watched “The Sopranos” in Cambodia and “Sex and the City” in Vietnam.

Unlike nearly any other foreign language, English is taught, everywhere in the world, by native speakers. Just as an exercise, open a google screen right now and google the words “teach English Central Asia.” You will find countless job ads and placement companies who will help you obtain a job teaching English in any of the “Stan” countries, which before 1989 were completely unknown to outsiders.

English is now the most widely taught language in the world. In China alone, there are 300,000,000 people attending English classes. Said another way, if every qualified English teacher in the world moved to China tomorrow, there would still be job vacancies.

When I took high school French class, my teacher was from Tennessee. He had only visited France a few times, taking students on a one-week tour of fourteen countries. We didn’t have a French cable channel to watch. We didn’t know or care who the prime minister, president, king, or Shah of France was. My school didn’t have any French movies. The schools that did were forced to watch depressing, slow moving black-and-white French films from the 1950s which depicted the tragic lives of people with one-percent body fat in such classics as “The Red Balloon “ and “The Clown of Sadness.”

French kids learning English get to watch “The Simpsons.” It just doesn’t seem fair.

McDonalds has locations in 110 countries. Coke is sold in 200. And Wrigley’s gum claims to be sold in EVERY single country in the world. There are no French products, and the town where I went to high school, in Tennessee, didn’t have a single French restaurant. When I moved back to New York, yes, we had French restaurants, but they were extremely expensive and you only ate in them once a year, or less in my case. So, they didn’t have much influence on my use of French language.

Every computer in the world has the capability to use the Latin keyboard and Latin script. Drop down menus, even in Asian computers, are often written in English. All email addresses, everywhere in the world, are written in English or at least use Latin letters.

China, Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, Lao and several other Asian countries have their own numbers, but they also use western (Arabic) numbers on a daily basis. Nearly all Asian countries have their own calendar with the year being dramatically different than the western one, but they all use the western calendar on a daily basis. They all have their own weights and measure but commonly use the metric system.

Even in China and Taiwan the Latin alphabet is used to organize data or books in a library because Chinese language lacks the ability to do alphabetical order. And in China, small Chinese kids, learning to write Chinese characters learn the pronunciation by writing the Latin alphabet.

That is right! Even Chinese native speakers use the western alphabet to learn to pronounce Chinese characters.

No matter what country I have been in, when I am told, “This is a beginner class. They don’t know any English at all.” Adults would generally know at least the alphabet, because it is nearly impossible to use a computer if you don’t. Adults and children, complete beginners with no prior English at all, would know how to count, and basic words and phrases like hello, good by, and my name is.

Back in Tennessee, when the freshman walked into their first French lesson they knew absolutely nothing. Arguably, English has about 25% cognates with French, borrowed words and words of Latin origin. So, maybe the kids studying French knew something. But when we walked into our first Russian class or Chinese class we didn’t know anything at all. That almost can’t happen for learners of English.

When I was studying French, some of us had a nebulous plan to someday, somehow come up money to go on a one-week fourteen-country tour of Europe, including France. None of us were planning or hoping to move there. Neither did we know anyone who had. In every English class, anywhere in the world, I always ask, “who has a friend or relative already in the US or other English speaking country?” and “who is planning to work, study or immigrate to the USA?” In the Philippines, nearly 100% of Filipino families have a relative in the States. In Taiwan and Korea the number is also extremely high.

For Americans learning a foreign language, the answered would often be zero, particularly for the immigration question. Americans may go work overseas indefinitely, but very few Americans actually immigrate to another country.

Many linguists maintain that personal motivation is the single most powerful force which leads to success in language learning. For a significant percentage of people sitting in ESL classrooms, their job and income depends on them learning English.

To be a civil servant in many countries in the world you must pass an English exam. In Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, India, much of the Arab world, and many, many other countries, nearly all higher education is taught in English. In some countries entire faculties, such as medicine, computer science or aviation are only taught in English.

Getting the job you want is a good motivator.

According to data published by the FBI, in 2007, they had only 40 field agents who were fluent in Arabic. Apparently, knowing you can keep your job as an FBI agent without learning Arabic takes away the motivation factor. I bet all of the Arab secret police guys speak English.

A lot of westerners living overseas say things like, “People from that country (pick a country) are all so smart. They all speak English.” In my opinion, they speak English because they aren’t stupid, not because they are smart. They speak English because they have to. They speak English because they are forced to. They speak English because they don’t want to work as a street sweeper.

In your country, is everyone over the level of street sweeper smart?

Westerners say, “If my Chinese was half as good as his English…”

First of all, English native speakers have grown up listening to people speaking our language with a foreign language. We are good at understanding them. If you spoke Chinese half as well as he spoke English, no one would understand you. Westerners attribute their inability to be understood in a foreign language to their own inability to learn. Sometimes this is the case. But actually a significant factor is the superhuman ability of English native speakers to understand people with horrible accents and grammar. Asians lack the experience of hearing non-native speakers speak their language, and so lack the ability to understand them.

Another pet peeve is when westerners say, “The people of that country (pick a country) are really gifted language learners. They all speak English so well.” Or “They all speak both of the official languages of their home country and speak English so well.”

First off, if you are raised with two languages, you speak two languages. If you are raised with three languages you speak three languages. Most of my Shan friends were raised with Shan, Thai, Burmese and one more tribal language. And yet, this doesn’t have any bearing on or give any indication of whether they are good language learners or not. In fact, I would imagine they would not do very well in a Japanese class or in my French class in Tennessee.

You don’t “learn” your mother tongue or tongues. Or maybe we should say, they aren’t taught, so we don’t know if you are capable of learning a taught language or not.

As for English, it’s not a foreign language. People everywhere are exposed to significant quantities of English and western/American culture from the time they are born. For most foreign nations, English is becoming a de-facto second language.

So, if you are struggling to learn a foreign language, don’t judge yourself too harshly. You have had months or a few years to do what “they” did over the course of a lifetime.

Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His areas of expertise are applied linguistics and second language acquisition. See is video on “Picture Story” applications on
His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, and all of his books are available at See his martial arts and adventure videos on youtube.

His website is
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Antonio is currently seeking admission to and a scholarship for MA/PHD studies in Asian linguistics or a related field. If you can help, or know someone who can, please contact Antonio: Feel free to forward this story to anyone who might be interested.
Language,acquisition,theory,linguistic,automatic,growth,alg,esl,tesol,efl,second, language,EFL,TESOL,ALG,Antonio,Graceffo,linguist,martial,Taiwan,teaching

  1. here is an interesting tip, have a look of learning Chinese:

  2. There are a handful of posts within similar areas to this one online today, have you come across any others yourself?

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