Hà Nội Scribbles: COVID-19 edition

Travel & Living in Hanoi, Vietnam

The real reason we speak English

English is the language of the sea, the air, commerce and the closest thing we have to an international communication standard.

But why are we speaking English? Why aren’t people around the world all speaking or learning, say, Italian, Portuguese or Vietnamese?

Union Jack aka The Buther's Apron

The Butcher’s Apron

The simple answer is that Britain is the world-beater in invading other countries. Research published in 2012 showed that all but 22 of the world’s countries have had an uninvited visit by the British Army. Of the near 200 countries recognised by the United Nations, nine out of ten have been taken at some point or other in history by Great Britain.

Among the countries that that group of islands on the edge of Europe has not got around to marching into yet are Andorra, Luxembourg, and the Marshall Islands.

By comparison, America, with a little over 200 years as a nation admittedly, are real slackers having only occupied 75 countries. Vietnam, meanwhile, has had a few international excursions but generally have been fully occupied kicking the butts of various foreign invaders.

While it is well known that Great Britain once had an empire that covered a quarter of the globe, what historian Stuart Laycock’s book* starkly demonstrates is the true extent of that country’s military adventures around the world. And it is a bloody history to boot. It is estimated that the British Empire killed over 100 million people in its lust for resources, power and influence. Not for no reason is the Union Jack known as ‘The Butcher’s Apron’.

A by-product of this global carnage is that English became the lingua franca by default. The British arrived and demanded that all the locals spoke English. Usually by shouting if they weren’t understood. Today, as a result, English is the official language of 57 countries. And also explains why, broadly speaking, people from the UK are rubbish at learning foreign languages.

What the British Empire was good at over the centuries was acquiring words from other languages and then claiming them as their own. Not content with stealing their country, GB also had the audacity to pilfer words they liked the sound of. For example, restaurant, passport, admiral, pyjamas, etc. The list goes on and on.

The point of all of this then is the importance of gaining exposure to spoken English from as many parts of the world as possible. In the real world it is not just Americans and BBC newsreaders you will encounter. There will be at least 57 different accents – typically the UK has four-plus regional accents to contend with – in addition to non-native English speakers from as far afield as Norway and Singapore.

Hoan Kiem is a good place to go ‘foreigner hunting’. While CNN and the BBC may give you a good start with listening skills, there is really nothing to beat the rich diversity of accents you will hear down by the Sword Lake and other places where foreign tourists tend to congregate.

Most foreigners, I would say, are willing to help out with English practice. But it does get slightly repetitive when you are asked the same questions over and over: how long have you been in Vietnam, what foods do you like, where have you visited in Vietnam and so on.

I guess this has a lot to do with the curriculum but once you are getting comfortable communicating with foreigners – and I know this can be a big step for a learner – try thinking up some new, thought-provoking questions that will perhaps catch people off-guard. Nothing too personal of course such as how much do you earn or have you ever made love in a cupboard?

The one question that sticks in my mind was when I was asked, Is it important to love yourself?

That got a deep, non-literal and meaningful discussion going.

Talking of questions, a friend posted on Facebook that for 48 hours she would truthfully answer any question, no matter how crazy. All I could come up with was, “In a fight where they could only use handbags, who would win – MC Bang Kieu or Bich Phuong?”

After I explained who Bang Kieu is, she opted for him over the sad love song balladeer. I disagreed. I bet that Bich Phuong is a dirty fighter. It is all sweetness, longing and unrequited love one minute; Vâng anh đi đi and then here’s a knuckle sandwich when she goes all ‘con hổ’.

We will probably never know for sure. Certainly, they won’t be swearing at one another in English.

* All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To. Website

Countries so far evading the attention of the British military:

Central African Republic
Ivory Coast
Marshall Islands
Sao Tome and Principe
Vatican City

5 comments on “The real reason we speak English

  1. Pingback: Thanks, Angus B | Hà Nội Scribbles

  2. Loving Language
    October 4, 2016

    I’ve written about how there is no such thing as language “loss,” that languages disappear under the pressure of violence and shame. Language destruction. The British and her children are the cause of much of that so-called loss. Your article gives some good perspective on the “rise” of English over other languages: by cutting the others off at the knees!


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