What’s Yann Martel Reading?
I was watching you on Radio-Canada’s Tout le Monde en Parle last Sunday and I heard you say something so grotesque, so stupid and so ignorant that I felt I had to respond.
You said something like: “As far as I’m concerned, all languages are the same.”
So I’m going to do exactly what you are doing to Stephen Harper and send you a couple of books to set you straight. Feel free to pass them along to Steve when you’re done.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m an anglophile. I read and write in English all the time. I read Life of Pi in English. My Dad was raised much like you, speaking French at home but going to English schools. My grand-father was the son of a protestant preacher’s daughter who went to Catholic school with Félix Leclerc.
English is a fine language, Yann, but the one thing it isn’t is a language just like any other.
When I went to China a couple of years ago, young students would stop me on the street and beg me to – please, please mister! -speak English with them for ten minutes. Do you think they behaved like that because they just happened to prefer your books to those of Michel Houellebecq or Lao-Tzu?
Of course not. These students wanted – needed – to master English because it was their only way into the best universities, free economic zones and a decent life. English was the difference between a meaningful career and a lifetime of stamping documents at the Sechuan Ministry of Public Works.
That’s what English is today. It’s the great gatekeeper. Ninety percent of Korean workers have to take English tests all through their careers just to keep their jobs. Do you really thing that English is just another language to them?
Do think that the parents of the 30 000 Korean elementary school students that are sent to study in English-speaking countries every year in this world that confuses English with intelligence feel that it is a language like any other? Elementary school kids, Yann. They’re not even ten years old yet!
How about the citizens of Qatar whose government hired the RAND Corporation in the wake of September 11th to design a new education curriculum that the Washington Post celebrated as More English, Less Islam? I’m sure they got the message that English is just another neutral, international language, freely available for their use, should they be so inclined. As the British scholar Sohail Karmani pointed out: « One need only reflect for a moment on the moral legitimacy of parallel calls for, say, more English and less Buddhism, less Sikhism, or less Judaism—or indeed even more absurdly ‘more Arabic and less Christianity’—to appreciate just how ludicrous and utterly repugnant such formulas are. »
Unlike you and me, Yann, most people in the world didn’t have the privilege of learing educated standard English effortlessly while they were young. Cultivating the illusion that one chooses a language in which to persue a career and bogus theories about the equivalency of cultures and the benign nature of the worldwide spread of English is a luxury most of the world doesn’t have.
It might help you to rationalise the fact that the ability to write in the language of your ancestors has been educated out of you, but you are only kidding yourself.
So here’s a couple of books I think you should read. If you are in a scholarly mood, I suggest Linguistic Imperialism by Robert Phillipson or anything you can pick up by Alastair Pennycook. You might also want to check out Buying Into English, the very interesting book by Catherine Prendergast, an American teacher who witnessed first hand how English transformed from a tool of freedom to a crash course in capitalism in Slovakia.
But the book I’m sending you is Decolonizing the Mind by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, about his rise to international fame in English and his realization the language had only really put him to the service of the English-speaking elite of Europe and America and completely isolated him from Kenya and Africans.
It’s the last book in English he ever wrote.