The Rambling American: The English Language Sweatshop

Language isn’t a product, but that fact certainly doesn’t stop people from trying to sell it. Locke McKenzie confronts the subject of “Business English,” a bastardization of language teaching that dodges the political and cultural features of English.

The Goldener Oktober is now in full swing here in Northern Germany, and the sun shines on my face as I traipse down the main shopping street in search of a new pair of shoes. Today is Saturday. Today is my day off—my day to relax—and what better way to celebrate than checking out the fresh new Nike’s displayed in the store windows?

I go into what looks to be a fashionable store, try on a pair, and admire the fine stitching that could only be produced by the small hands of a ten-year-old. The white of the leather glares up into my eyes, yet I avoid thinking about how those little girls managed to keep the color so pure, even with their fingers bleeding after their twelfth straight hour in a hot room where a man beats a drum to keep pace.

To loosely quote Karl Marx, this is the industrial age. We have no reason to understand the work that goes into the things we buy. We as people and consumers have become alienated from the process of creation. We arrive at the store to find goods shrink-wrapped and ready to be sold. As far as I’m concerned, the shoes, chairs, and fruit I buy simply dropped out of the sky, price tag included.

I don’t anticipate having to make my own shoes, and therefore, I do not need to understand how a shoe is made. That is the beauty of commodities in the post-industrialized world: I need understand nothing about them. All I need to know is how they are going to help me.

Yes, this is one of the fine results of capitalism. Buy, buy, buy. Consume, consume, consume. Don’t ask questions, just make yourself happy. In the world of eBay, Consumer Reports, and internet shopping, one can purchase just about anything, tangible or intangible. One can even purchase languages.

Language, however—like newborn babies, donated organs, and the already worn underpants of celebrities—is a good that has such strong ties to its creation that it is unethical to consume it without understanding its origin.

But this is exactly what’s happening in Europe today.

At some point on the European continent, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists spotted an unusual and untapped market ripe for commodification: teaching English to businesspeople. At this point, I imagine that these cigar-chewing hob nobbers went into their smoke filled rooms, and the monster that is Business English came into being. Now, language institutions that promise their customers the magical skill of Business English line the streets of Hamburg and many other major cities of Europe.

Teaching people how to speak English should be a good thing, right? Sharing one’s culture with those around oneself. Providing people with the opportunity to learn a skill that will pull them out of their insular German-speaking or French-speaking bubble and into the global community. How could these things be bad?

What I have come to learn through my experiences as a Business English teacher, however, is that the enterprise itself—much like most capitalistic endeavors—is morally bankrupt. This problem is twofold: 1) In order to sell the English language to businesses, these institutes had to turn it into a product—a product that, in fact, does not really exist. 2) In doing so, they encourage a socially irresponsible mentality amongst their students.

Let me explain what I mean by “Business English.” This is something of a catchphrase in Germany (and I’m assuming greater European society). The term purports to train business people how to have phone conversations in error-free English, write dazzlingly fluent emails to clients, and win negotiations against native speakers. In effect, it promises to teach English within the vacuum of the business setting.

But Business English is also a myth. As one of my employers once said, ” I don’t really care what you do with them to make them learn English, but at least make them think that they are learning Business English. We’ve got to sell it to them as Business English, so at least try to convince them that that’s what they’re actually learning.”

The more we try to sell my mother language to them as Business English, the more these consumers become convinced that they need it. I even have students who ask for it by name. The more they become convinced that Business English is the answer to their language problems, the more their focus narrows, and the less interested they become in the actual components that make up a language, like its people, politics, and stories.

This ideology is not only unrealistic. It’s socially irresponsible. You can’t learn to be perfect at negotiating and not know how to chat someone up at a bar. You can’t flawlessly advise someone on his/her financial portfolio and not understand half the words in a short story. It is simply impossible.

To develop proficiency in a language, you to talk about things that do not occur within your everyday life. You have to relate to the culture that exists around the language. If I lived in Hamburg, yet knew nothing about the city or the TV programs or the soccer teams, I wouldn’t be able to understand or participate in most of the conversations that take place.

The entire point of language is to be able to connect across cultures. Yes, it can be about doing business as well, but first and foremost, you need to have respect for the people you’re dealing with. When we transform something like a language into a commodity, and then advertise it as such, we perpetuate the notion that it’s something that we can just buy and sell. Use and throw away.

Just like those Nikes.

With their €145 price tag, the Nikes ended up being a bit too expensive for me, but I did look at them longingly one last time before I left. In that moment the sun glinted in at a perfect angle, and I suddenly saw my face reflected in the fine stitching of the white leather surface. There I saw the small Indonesian child waving back at me with bloody fingers.

I frowned, suddenly feeling the weight of my empty wallet, and started thinking about how I’m going to get back home.


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Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.