language acquisition and resisting hegemony


Some nights are quiet and others are filled with randomness: dinner with friends from different parts of the world–conversations about similarities and differences. I found out from a Tanzanian friend that they watch a lot of Filipino movies here. Growing up, he appreciated being able to see “slums” there: “There are no slums in America…how is it that other places around the world have them?” Perhaps mutual suffering brings empathy of sorts. And with empathy, we can begin to understand how to help each other.

We also talked about language acquisition, the futile resistance to succumb to the hegemony of the west. Here, Tanzanians are not taught phonics (how words sound and are pronounced) until A-Level, which is at 18 years old. While English is enforced in secondary (11 years old), students are not really “taught.” It’s usually rote memorization.

“What is an ‘adjective’?” shared one British teacher who recently began teaching at a local school. The kids would reply back: “AD-JEC-TIVE!” but not understand what it is. Other techniques employed by local teachers include reading a lesson in English (but not really understand it themselves) and leaving the classroom. After, the students would try to figure out the lesson by themselves.

“I hate English. I hate that I need it,” my Tanzanian friend said. He then told a story when he was in early secondary (12 or so). His friend needed to use the restroom but the teacher would not acknowledge his request because he said it in Kiswahili. So he asked my friend how to say it in English, but by the time the boy made it to the teacher’s desk again, he had forgotten the phrase. Eventually, the boy urinated on himself, in front of everyone.

I shared a story about when I was 3, and a cousin around my same age was visiting from the States. I told my family, “I don’t care if she turns blue, I’m not speaking to her in English,” as my family had suggested. I didn’t know English, besides from what I heard in songs on the radio. Why was she so important anyway, that everyone made such a big deal about her coming to visit us from America?

By the time I entered elementary school, I noticed more discrepancies. I asked my father once, “Why do I have to learn English? Do kids learn Tagalog in America?”

A discussion ensues, about resistance to western influence: “Tanzania can’t survive without participating in the global market. There’s a reason why Kenyans get hired over Tanzanians here: they can speak English.” (Kenyans begin to learn English earlier in school, as a Kenyan friend told me, and phonics is the emphasis in the beginning. A friend from Finland said the same thing.)

“But the Chinese don’t need to speak English, and they still compete.”

“The economic structure is completely different between Tanzania and China. They don’t manufacture here, things that the rest of the world needs to have. And besides, China is trying to participate even more–thousands of Americans get shipped there to teach English.”

But I understand my friend’s point: the struggle in keeping our identities when the world is bent on diluting it, or worse, erasing it all together. Filipinos, after all, know this idea very well since millions work service jobs abroad to send money home because there are very few options otherwise. “We’re the Mexicans of the world,” I used to joke with my friends, but the damage this has done to generations of Filipinos–and other nationalities who export their people–is immeasurable.

Perhaps the inequities are leveling out–that everyone now gets to compete in a global market. Some Europeans friends had mentioned the unemployment rate in the 20 percent range in their country. It could have been their field (most of them are architects), but that’s a staggering figure. The world is not sustainable yet, but maybe we’re shifting priorities.

We have riveting conversations about other things: for instance, how, if everyone in the world had a western-style toilet, we wouldn’t have enough freshwater to survive or how we refer to urination in our home countries (pee vs wee, apparently is the difference between American and Australian English). We talk about politics, adventures during our travels, our idealisms; but mostly, all of us are happy just to be where we are, sharing our lives.


–O. Ayes