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TALKING IN TONGUES
English is the New French

Is your life dull and lacking a certain je ne c’est quoi? Do you long to win friends and influence people? Are you yearning to climb the social ladder and become a hit with the opposite sex? Try new, improved English! English is cool. English is hot. Goddammit. English is SEXY!!!

French may once have been known as the language of love, but to the new marketing fashionistas of Thailand, it’s so last year. Just as English replaced French as the language of diplomacy and then cemented its place as the de facto language of international business and the Internet, it looks like it’s just stolen the amorous thunder of its long-time Gallic adversary.

If ever there had been any possible doubts in my mind about the universal appeal of the English language, they exist no more. As with all profound epiphanies, it came to me at the least expected of moments.

It was a typical early morning scene. I was enjoying my morning coffee and reading the paper while my son was fighting imaginary monsters and my wife was watching the news on a Thai TV channel. At such times, I have become accustomed to blocking out the background noise to savour in solitude the ritualised awakening of my brain. Since the birth of my son, my brain wakes up a good hour or so after my body and only catches up after a fix of caffeine and cryptic crosswords.

Nevertheless, something caused me to look up from my paper and glance at the TV, where a lengthy advertisement for yet another soulless condominium development was playing. I had noticed that when my son was about one year old, he would stop playing as soon as the commercials came on and stare transfixed at the TV until they finished, at which time he would resume his game as if suddenly released from a trance. It didn’t matter what was being advertised: dog food, make-up, cars or life insurance; something was calling him.

It called to me now. In a single movement, it hooked and dragged me deftly away from my sacred morning ritual, something that not even my boisterous son could manage without initiating a physical assault. I stared expressionless at the slick graphics as the silky-voiced narrator exalted the virtues of the latest concrete monstrosity. It was, admittedly, a very well-produced advertisement – but for just another big tree in the sprawling concrete jungle.

With his sales spiel over, the narrator’s voice was replaced by a soft and familiar melody. A sweetly innocent voice began to sing in English:
“On and on and on and on.”
She continued with just the faintest hint of admonishment creeping subtly into her dulcet tones:
“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
And then came the kicker:
“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

The irony was certainly not lost on me. A wry smile crawled across my face and I was, in an instant, snapped out of my trance. The spell was not just broken. It was shattered.

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot, indeed. But, you see, it didn’t matter that a song mocking urban development was being used to promote urban development. It didn’t matter because it was in English, and English is classy. Forget sex. English sells. It says, “I am sexy. Buy me.”

English is more than classy; it’s chic. What? “Chic” is a French word you say? Well so is a sizeable proportion of this mongrel tongue that we speak. The Celts, the Saxons, the Vikings and the Romans, to name but a few, have all contributed to the linguistic version of one of those punches you find at teenage parties where everyone brings a bottle and pours it into a bucket.

Yet despite this, or maybe even because of it, English is sexy; at least it is in Thailand anyway. It’s as exotic to the Thais as mushy peas.

Even though the lyrics on the condo advert were about as appropriate as a ladyboy at a red-shirt rally, it didn’t matter. It’s a case of form over substance in Thailand.

Thai companies spend billions of baht hiring PR companies, marketing companies, graphic designers and architects to develop and present their slick corporate image. They often incorporate English into this image, regardless of who their prospective clientele are. Their glossy websites, brochures and advertising campaigns will look beautiful at a glance, but take a moment to read the mangled attempts at English and the professional image they have tried so hard to create disappears like a cheap optical illusion.

But Thais don’t see this as a problem. It looks good, they say. It’s in English, and English is sexy. It doesn’t matter if it’s riddled with grammatical, syntactical or lexical mistakes. It’s English.

Yes, Thai companies spend billions of baht hiring PR companies, marketing companies, graphic designers and architects to develop and present their slick corporate image, but they refuse to spend an extra couple of thousand to have their websites or brochures edited.

Form over substance. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s English – even bad English or inappropriate English. I wonder whether the sweet-looking young girls I see wandering around Siam Square in 1970s punk-style t-shirts emblazoned with the legend, “F**k off W*****s” know or care what is on their chest.

English is slowly but surely creeping into every facet of Thai life. This alien invasion recently prompted the Ministry of Culture into trying to get all Thais to answer the phone with the traditional Sawaat dii instead of the increasingly common drawn-out English helloooooo.

There are countless other English words that have been assimilated into the Thai language so well that they have assumed new identities and gained Thai citizenship. When I first started to learn Thai, my teacher taught me the word burr for number and then proceeded to tell me it was actually an English word. She saw my bemused look and qualified her statement by saying in a heavily Thai accented rising final tone, “You know: numBURR”.

Goddamit. English is sexy. Right, I’m just going to buy a condo…

Paul Snowdon – March 1, 2009

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