When I heard the news that 138,000 people living in England and Wales can’t speak any English, my immediate reaction was “Is that all?” The notion that everybody from Newcastle to Newquay might be expected to understand each other is, in historical terms, relatively new, and a product of mass media and widespread literacy.
In any case, I’d guess that a country where over 99% of the population have some vague grasp of the lingua franca looks like a model of homogeneity compared to some other places. Take Thailand, for example. And I’m not just talking about the various foreigners who order their beers in combinations of sign language and shouting – hey, don’t look at me, I can ask for a plate of som tam as well, and get a taxi home without a phrasebook. There are also illegal Burmese maids and Cambodian construction workers and Russian gangsters, not to mention those stateless, paperless refugees and people from various hill tribes whose links to the modern world, let alone the Thai nation, are tenuous at best.
And I’ve also noticed another group, that on the face of it is by no means on the margins of Thai society. It consists of well-heeled young Thai people, often – but by no means exclusively – luk kreung or mixed-race, whose education has been a mixture of international schools in Thailand and universities in the US and/or UK. They speak Thai when needs be, when communicating with maids or shop assistants, although English is their lingua franca. But it’s a strange, mid-Atlantic English, with idioms all of its own and stresses in all the wrong places; an English that is better used to communicate with other cosmopolitan offspring of jetsetters and diplomats than with anyone who grew up in a conventional English-speaking environment. I suspect this phenomenon exists in other places as well; a highly educated (or, to be more precise, highly qualified) cadre of young people who aren’t actually fluent in any known language.
Which is, I admit, a pretty lame excuse to present this, without comment:
PS: After pressure from the Thai government, it appears that YouTube has agreed to ditch the above clip, although as far as I can see it’s mocking US sex tourists rather than Thai people. But in its brief life it did provoke some delightful invective; my favourite comment was “Your brain is not in the heads. it's in your penis so, that's why it's so tiny and your sketch is just a crap of dogs.” I’ll be using that sometime soon, I know.
PPS: Oh, right – it’s just blocked in Thailand. So people are still mocking Thai culture, but Thai people can’t see it happening. So that’s OK then. I think.
PPPS: And the final word...