English really is a global second language. At least, in SE Asia, in every country it is the lingua franca. It’s assumed that if you’re a tourist, actually if you’re white, then you’ll speak English. And fluently. If you’re a French or a German independent traveller then you really have no choice; learning even basic English is such good value that you’d be foolish not to.
In Cambodia, the local people are desperate to learn the language. This wasn’t as obvious in Myanmar, but it was still the case. In Thailand the whole process is formalised as in France, so you don’t know that people are learning English, they’re kind of shy about it. It’s only that all people working in the tourist industry speak it which reveals the truth. In Cambodia on every street corner, on the steps of every ancient temple, in monastries, at the tables of exhibitions… Everywhere, people are lurking to practice their English on you. “Where do you come from?” “How old are you?” “Are you married?” It’s their ticket to wealth, to knowledge.
I feel like a strange, itinerant English teacher, wondering aimlessly round Cambodia talking to anyone who’ll listen. An intelligent monk asked me back later in the day to give a lesson to his English class. A tuk-tuk (motorbike powered trishaw thing) driver on a street corner engaged me in conversation, and asked complex details about vocabulary. What is the difference between “fit” and “enough”, they are the same word in Khmer? (It takes a while – think about it – to realise what a similar meaning they have, that they could be one word). When is it a “hill” and when a “mountain”? (Tricky, as the abrupt lumps of earth sticking out of the Cambodian plains aren’t tall enough to be mountains or anonymous enough to be hills) By going round casually teaching people English, am I just expanding the American empire?
Part of me had hoped to need to speak a bit of French when in Cambodia, as it was a French colony – make me feel less guilty for not knowing foreign languages. But only a lucky few here speak French, the old people who were taught it at school. Once there were many, but as they were also the intelligentsia, the Khmer Rouge murdered them. The new young educated all learn English.
Two final pieces of evidence clinched it for English being a global language. ASEAN, the SE Asian equivalent of the EU, speaks English as its working language. Thinking about it this makes sense, how else could Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indonesian and Malaysian people talk to each other? Secondly, an independent tourist who has just been in China told me the other day that even there everyone is learning English. I had thought Chinese stood up alone, but it appears not. They even have a national TV quiz show to find the best speaking English student in the country – that you’d like to see!
I’m not ashamed any more that I don’t speak a second language fluently. What would be the point? It’s easy if your native language is anything other than English, you learn English. If I’d known that at every tourist place in the world I could talk in French then I’d have been motivated to take evening classes, and the yearly practice on holiday would have at least kept me in reasonably good shape. Instead of guilt, I have a more hostile feeling. My native tongue, my ethnic language, is stolen away from me. English is no longer mine. I have no language, my first language is a second language. The only recourse to rescue would be by using lots of those infuriating English phrasal verbs which contain a preposition – “to put up with”, “to crack down on”, or perhaps lapse into cockney rhyming slang or a Scottish accent.
Even that isn’t safe. My moto driver the other day was a hoot, as he showed off American, Australian, and even Cockney imitations and phrases that I couldn’t understand…