If, as Laurie Anderson sang,language is a virus, then English is the common cold.
By JEFF YANG
Already ubiquitous — English has an estimated 1.5 billion speakers — it’s only growing more so, given its status in fast-growing emerging markets. Especially the fastest-growing and emerging-est market of all, China, where it was estimated last year by the China Daily newspaper that up to 400 million people are currently actively learning English, or nearly a third of the population. (It’s this statistic that led Jon Huntsman, former Ambassador to China and soon-to-be-former GOP presidential candidate, to remark recently that in a few years, China will have more English-speakers than America.)
Of course, the thing about viruses is that they mutate rapidly and randomly, often with bizarre results. Websites like Engrish.com document its comically haphazard use in Asia, such as a warning sign at a lake in Nanjing, China that reads “TAKE THE CHILD, FALL INTO WATER CAREFULLY” or the Shanghai transit security bulletin that helpfully tells tourists “IF YOU ARE STOLEN, CALL THE POLICE AT ONCE.”
Though such bits of found humor are hilarious individually — they power many of the laughs in David Henry Hwang’s just-opened Broadway comedy “Chinglish,” for instance — collectively, they point to a serious issue. Learning English isn’t the same as knowing English, and knowing English isn’t the same as being able to speak good, or even intelligible English.
And with English serving as the lingua franca of trade and diplomacy, not to mention technology — it’s the de facto native tongue of the Internet, and the default language of next-gen interfaces like Apple’s Siri intelligent agent — concern is growing in China and other upwardly mobile markets that having poor English skills may be worse than having none at all, given that limited and halting speakers are increasingly relegated to a permanent second-class global citizen status.
It’s hard to be taken seriously once you’ve given your overseas colleagues a polite warning to “be mindful of the juicy surfaces,” after all. Which is why in China alone, over 50,000 private English schools have sprung up to accommodate professionals and parents skeptical of the quality of the nation’s standardized language education.
Tutorial programs like Wall Street English, not affiliated with this publication, and Disney English, which is affiliated with its namesake media giant, are at the forefront of a burgeoning industry worth over $4.4 billion in 2010 alone, according to China’s National Education Development Statistical Bulletin. Controversial homegrown language guru Li Yang’s massive language boot-camp program “Crazy English” — slogan: Conquer English to Make China Stronger! — has reportedly cranked out over 20 million graduates, with students paying up to $250 to gather in stadiums to engage in shouted English lessons with the charismatic mogul.
The problem is that while deficits in grammar, vocabulary and diction can be addressed with study and rote repetition, one language flaw is nearly impossible to fix with traditional training methods alone: Accent. Even the most fluent classroom-taught student is instantly recognizable as a “non-native speaker.” And as common wisdom has it, the only way to acquire a native accent is to live among natives, for years or even decades —something for which hard-charging emerging aspirationals rarely have the time or patience.
Accent-reduction specialist Andy Krieger begs to differ. “I get a hundred emails a month from China, where they’ve published my book and DVD,” he says. “If some astute business could help me market this thing, some day I’ll be a multimillionaire. None of the teachers there can speak English without an accent. Even Li Yang, I want to tell him, just pay me to teach you to speak perfect English, and you can go teach the other billion Chinese.”
Krieger’s “K Method,” which involves conscious use of particular tongue and lip positions and strategic pacing and pausing to replicate not just native American English, but idealized American English — ”Hollywood English,” he jokes — has made him a man in demand by studios and networks facing a growing influx of performers from the U.K., Australia and farther afield. Until recently, his biggest claim to fame was working with Jackie Chan to prep him for his dialogue-heavy role in the big-budget kids feature “The Forbidden Kingdom.” (“Let’s just say I wish the producers had given me a bit more time with him,” Krieger says.)
Recently, Krieger found himself in the news for one of his less glittery gigs: Providing teachers in the Arizona school system with accent-reduction training to prevent them from being suspended or removed from classrooms due to “poor pronunciation” — which critics and educators targeted by the policy alleged was just a proxy for having a Spanish accent.
“A couple years ago, I got a frantic call from a principal at an elementary school in Phoenix, saying ‘The state of Arizona wants to fire all of my Mexican teachers for having accents!’” he says. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry, I can help you.’ And I went down there and taught 31 teachers, and all of them made it past the state audit.”
It can’t be comforting for foreign students of English to see some places in the nation with the current largest population of its speakers in the world — ours — cracking down on residents, and even citizens, with less than perfect tone and pronunciation. As detailed in “A Community of Contrasts,” a just-released report from the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, 60% of Asians in the U.S. are foreign-born, the highest percentage of any demographic group in the nation, and 71% speak a language other than English at home, trailing only Hispanics at 77%.
“Being limited in English proficiency is a barrier to getting even a living-wage job,” says the organization’s executive director, Karen Narasaki. “You can see a direct correlation between poverty rates and the low levels of English proficiency. But even for white-collar workers, having an accent can add to discrimination. And research has demonstrated that if you’re Asian, people are more likely to think you speak with an accent.”
Subtle bias can lead to substantial economic impact. In particular, having an accent can lead to perceptions of poor communication skills or lack of leadership ability, reducing the chance for advancement. The end result, as multiple studies have shown, is that even fully fluent individuals for whom English is a second language may experience decreased earnings of up to 12% over the course of their careers.
And the mainstreaming of voice-operated interfaces like Apple’s iPhone 4S-based Siri adds another layer of potential complications for those who don’t speak generic-standard English. Apple has promoted Siri as transformational technology, promising to fundamentally change the way people will interact not just with handheld devices, but potentially — if pundits like the New York Times’s Nick Bilton are to be believed — the entire connected home.
But videos showing Siri confounded by foreign accents have gone viral, most notably one shared by Hidenori Satoh, a Japanese journalist present at the iPhone 4S’s Tokyo unveiling. Siri is currently optimized for standard U.S., U.K. and Australian English dialects and, notes Apple, its “suitability rate will be higher for native speakers.”
Does this suggest a future in which non-native English speakers might end up with their homes and devices in Hal 2000-like rebellion, unwilling or unable to respond to their commands? An iPhone 4S-owning friend of mine, Sumin Chou, principal of mobile and web development firm Concentric Studio, offered to host a testing session to find out. I invited a group of individuals with Asian accents varying in both degree and origin to join us for an evening of wine, cheese and Siri.
Surprisingly, Siri performed admirably well (even to accents loosened up with pinot) — responding to most commands with aplomb, and only repeatedly stumbling on the most challenging item on our battery of tests, a request for information: “Who is the president of the United States?” Or, as the evening went on, of the Philippines, North Korea and other more far-flung locales.
Siri thought Chinese-born journalist Yuhan’s request was for the “Wednesday president of the United States”; John’s Pinoy-inflected query for the president of the Philippines brought up a search for the “president of beekeeping”; and Yuna Yang, a charming fashion designer of South Korean origin, managed to get Siri stuck in a series of ever more absurd loops with her simple world leader requests, triggering random Google Map searches and phone calls, and finally causing the poor virtual aide de camp to give up, saying she “I don’t see ‘East Princeton up North Korea’ in your address book.”
Of course, Siri is still in beta, and Apple says that she’s designed to learn and improve. “The more you use Siri, the better it will understand you,” says Apple spokesperson Natalie Harris. “It does this by learning about your accent and other characteristics of your voice. Siri uses voice recognition algorithms to categorize your voice into one of the dialects or accents it understands. And as more people use Siri and it’s exposed to more variations of a language, its overall recognition of dialects and accents will continue to improve, and Siri will work even better.”
And not just in English, either — Siri already speaks French and German, and will add Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Italian next year, with more tongues soon to follow. Which brings up the interesting possibility that, rather than turning language into a handicap, Siri might eventually be the basis of a true universal communicator: Imagine speaking one language into Siri’s ear, and having her transmit another to the person on the other side of the phone, in real-time. In short, Siri’s future may be more Star Trek than 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Or so we can only hope.