English: A sought-after commodity

Year after year, graduates from English speaking nations across the globe are lured to far flung Eastern and Middle Eastern locales. On offer: approximately R25 000 a month, including ( in some cases) flights and accommodation. In return, the successful applicants are required to teach young children, teenagers, as well as adults, the English language.

Quite literally, the sky’s the limit when it comes to the earning capacity of the native English speaker, because the English language is prized, appreciated and held as a key component to professional success the world over.

Currently, the South African education system is under intense and deserved scrutiny. Along with many other government-controlled sectors, it is in crisis. This could not be more evident than when interacting with second language English speakers. People in China, Japan and Saudi Arabia are more articulate – in some cases most have had no exposure to English till their teens or even adulthood.

South Africa’s primary language of communication is English and tragically many, if not most, South Africans cannot express themselves adequately. Even Zimbabwean Nationals – who have fled persecution and limited economic prospects – have a better grasp of the language. If a mad-man dictator with an appalling human rights record can manage to educate his masses, why cant we? Surely this is a travesty?

Being unable to express oneself can have a ripple effect into all aspects of life. For example, most doctors in South Africa use English as their primary mode of communication. Thus a patient who cannot understand their dosage instructions – or even what their exact health status is – is at risk of irreparable physical damage, if not death.

Many South Africans find their earning power affected as most jobs require an adequate, if not superior, grasp of English. The result being many employment opportunities are given to those who can speak English – like Zimbabweans. As we have seen, this often leads to social ills characterised by resentment and xenophobia.

The average South African has been given a massive advantage by being born and educated in an English speaking nation. Yet very few get to reap the rewards of such an advantage. The notion that since 1994 only a small minority has benefited financially from initiatives like BEE can possibly be based on that fact – that only a small minority has a good, if not superior, grasp of English. If one is fairly erudite, possibly well connected and educated, and can string an English sentence together, one can become a 50% share-holder in whatever business is lacking BEE points. Very often the only difference between this new share holder and the person cleaning your house is their ability to communicate.

The state of our government education is depressing. It should not be in the state that it’s in, but due to reasons far too numerous to address in a concluding paragraph, it is. We can institute as many National Health initiatives as we want- but if patients cannot communicate, what use is it? One might say that with better salaries nurses will be more compelled to explain complex medical terms or even dosage instructions to patients, but even then there is no guarantee. In light of this, perhaps the government needs to reassess the order of sector overhauls – and education should be first.

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  • amy

    To my knowledge, medical students in SA are required to take additional language courses at varsity (namely: Afrikaans, plus one “native” language that is most used in that geographical area) to accommodate those who aren’t fluent in English. While I understand the need for this, I also think it’s a tad unfair on the med students (as well as being a possible deterrent for future applicants wanting to study medicine but hate linguistics). UCT’s Health Science Faculty has just amended their policy to make language courses compulsory from second year up to sixth, which in my opinion, is the same as treating the symptom and not the cause.
    I don’t think people in China are more articulate (than second language English speaking South Africans for example). Most Chinese people who have taken English classes still struggle with grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. The biggest problem is their fear of speaking (which ties to the social environment). It doesn’t matter how good you are in theory/on paper, if you’re unwilling to speak, then you won’t progress beyond a certain threshold; and most Chinese people are below that threshold.

  • Lauren Stuart

    I agree, by making med students learn a local language is treating the symptom and not the cause. While med students now have to take on even MORE work- this results in the few accomodating the many. What I also noticed- was that many patients felt intimidated my medical personnel ( nurses and doctors) and as a result nerves would also play a role in confusing conversation. What is also interesting is that there is also a social stigma attached to not being able to speak English well, amongst local communities. So one faces even more disadvantages as a result.

    The point I was trying to make with regards to 2nd language English speakers in the East ( Taiwan-where I taught) was merely that many children would study for only 3 years and would have an amazing grasp of English( relative to the time spent studying) and here in South Africa children learn English throughout their schooling- and their grasp isn’t where it should be relative to the time spent studying or being instructed in English.

  • Lauren Stuart

    P.S thanks Amy for leaving a comment! Atleast someone’s reading my stuff! ;) ha ha

  • claire

    Surely the few accomodating the many is *good thing*? Why on earth should the majority of the population learn to speak perfect English (with time and resources they get where?) so that their already privileged doctors don’t have to put in the effort? The standard of language education in the country should be improved (Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu, being more widely spoken than English, would be a great place to start) but there are far bigger problems if access to health services is going to be dependent on speaking perfect English.

    • amy

      I think that going through 6 years of med school plus 1 or 2 years of internship plus more studying after that if you want to become a specialist, is enough effort for a doctor. Yes, doctors are privileged, but they also worked to attain that privilege.

      Personally, I don’t believe being accommodated is a (necessarily) good thing. I think people should strive to achieve a state that is most beneficial to themselves. Knowing English is such a state because it enables you to communicate with more people and be independent (versus the alternative where you are only able to communicate with (and are thus dependent on) the locals and the few that are willing to learn your language).

      I agree language shouldn’t be an obstacle in getting adequate health care, but I also think it makes more sense for people (young and old) to have a better grasp at English than for them to simply expect to be accommodated.

  • Lauren Stuart

    Yes a very valid point! However, if South Africa wants to compete on an international stage- it would be in everyone’s best interests to speak competent English. By making the few learn a local language( which has it’s merits- ofcourse) it let’s the government off the hook in terms of making sure that all have a decent education which involves teaching English( along w
    ith all other subjects).

  • claire

    That’s the logic in Korea, too – that English is needed to be internationally competitive – but the reality is that only a tiny number of Koreans will ever interact with English-speaking foreigners in a business capacity. The rest would be far better off focussing on local or regional languages they’ll be more likely to use.

    South Africans have the advantage in that while most Koreans (with the exception of those currently studying for international tests) cannot string together a coherent English sentence, most South Africans can understand and make themselves understood. I think first language English education needs to be improved a lot, so that those who wish to speak good English are able to learn but I don’t see the need to impose what is an extremely complicated and unpredictable language on anyone else, at least beyond the basics.

  • Lauren Stuart

    A little while back I was knocking around the idea that most professionals whether it be doctors, lawyers or businessmen-should learn a local language ( those that don’t already know one). I shared this idea with a young black woman who I had just met. She promptly informed me ( to my huge surprise) that learning English was a status thing. That the better your English was, the more highly one was regarded. I too had thought that it was high time that everyone countrywide should know atleast one local language for practical purposes if not out of respect. I suppose as a white person I just took it for granted that by imposing English on everyone was a bad thing- but now its taken on a cultural significance that might be hard to shake.

  • Annabel

    I agree there’s an awkwardness of the colonial ghost in insisting we all focus on English and of course we are constitutionally obliged to develop all 11 languages. But I cannot help but insist that it is an indispensible part of equipping people in our country to be competent participants in the global theatre. Just spend some time with the glory kids from rural areas who make it to first year University – kids that have beat great odds from poverty, hunger, lack of resources to absent parents and yet when they come to university their immense talent and intellect frequently fail to translate… simply because of poor linguistic skills.
    Language is a flawed but vital tool to project competence, intelligence, ideas, trade and well just about everything and it just so happens that all over the world (let’s not exclude Europe either) those with better English are at the best advantage. The British Council has predicted that while English is set to be the lingua franca of the future – the majority of English speakers is set to shift to second-language speakers. The mother tongue need not decline at the expense of English – but it seems pretty clear that it is no longer a tool of oppression but one of empowerment.

  • Jacky Steytler Lamer

    I am in total agreement. What’s more is the general disregard or complete ignorance of real English usage. I intentionally avoid the words “proper” or “correct” for obvious reasons. Cases in point are adverts of multinational corporations that contain horrendous mistakes and what upsets me is that these companies have paid thousands for copy writers and proofreaders who should be detecting these mistakes. Nescafe says “everytime” on the label of its instant coffee, Mercedes Benz advert in Sunday Times had “incase” written as one word, and Spar signboard “Welcome’s you”. AAARGH! I am an English teacher and

    appaled by the whole situation.  I will not even mention the working conditions at some schools in the Eastern Cape. We live in the dark ages here!!!

    • ‘appaled’ :) Sorry, I couldn’t resist!