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English (Spanish, Chinese…) as a Magical Language

english phonetic pretty womanBilingual motivations have evolved, as foreign languages became more and more mainstream things to do and use. With some languages, though, curious side effects can be seen. This post is a curious look at the role of certain languages in cultures – and an invitation to discuss some polyglots’ more esoteric approaches. Don’t take it fully seriously – but do join in if you’ve got inspired by it!

1. How it all started: a photo from a Polish wedding

As with so many things on Facebook nowadays, it’s hard to tell whether this is genuine. I’m betting it is. You see, I’ve been to a few Polish weddings and the quality of English pronunciation with a few wedding band singers was, well…similar to what you can imagine from this photograph (click it to enlarge).
This is a page from a wedding singer’s songbook – where the song lyrics are transcribed into Polish-English pronunciation. No translation, no original lyrics – just what needs to be sung. See if you can guess the song (click here to check if you were right).
So what is the big deal here? A person writes up a (badly mangled) phonetic version of a song – and it ends up as a caricature of poor language learning habits. Is this all? No, actually, there’s something more.

2. EPP – English for Prestigious Purposes

The story above is, for me, a symptom of something bigger. As with so many things in linguistics these days, it’s hard to describe it in one sentence. Let me give you a quick list of examples before I try:

– Certain hit songs are expected to be sung in English at Polish weddings.
Language proficiency tests are rumoured to become part of an offer for Duolingo.
– When UBS (Union Bank of Switzerland) wanted to create a prestigious advert series, they used English poems
– but crucially (and with quite some foresight), also Chinese ones. No translations.

This has always been the case: English opens doors (see David Crystal for more on this). But what’s easy to miss is that it’s not just English here – and you don’t need to speak it well at all!

3. Magical Language

There is a difference between using the language thoroughly well, and pretending to use it. It starts with learning, and permeates all the way up to producing a piece of language.
I remember “Pretty Woman” being included as a song activity in a low-level English coursebook. The lyrics came with a glossary, a gap-fill exercise, a lot of pronunciation focus on rhymes, and so on. The students could learn a lot, ask about the meaning of words, and spend good time on this.
Or – you could type the words up and pretend to know them. The thing is – this is English as well. And higher-stakes English – singing at a wedding must be a lot more stressful than listening to a song in class!
It’s not limited to low levels or songs. And not to English either. Academic vocabulary which you decide to use may denote that you’re an expert in your field – or simply mask your inadequacies. Your everyday speaking skills could be flexible enough to deal with most areas – or they could rely on strategies that direct everyone’s attention to where you feel confident.

4. Are you learning a magical language? A beginning of a checklist

Let’s not get into details – this will be different for everyone. Here’s just a few starting points to consider – saying “yes” to any of these is more likely to confer a “magical” status onto the way you learn and use your language.

– The language I’m learning opens doors. More doors than I can think of.
– When I tell my friends which language I learn, I get more kudos.
– There’s a lot of popular culture associated with the language I learn.
– People who speak this language are perceived as “cooler” or more modern.
– There are areas of my society where this language is desired or expected.

5. What about you?

This is a bundle of ideas about language learning. Not a full-on philosophy. What do you think?


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