Cornell University Press

Eric Henry on the Globalization of the English Language

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We asked author Eric Henry three questions about his new book, The Future Conditional, and his research on the significance of the English language in Northeast China.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

I once sat in a classroom with a group of Chinese high school students writing a practice version of their college entrance examination’s English portion, and I decided to write it with them. I breezed through the multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions but continually found myself stopping and puzzling over questions. I had to untangle the meaning of a sample sentence or I felt that two or more of the potential answers were correct. Despite being a native speaker, I only scored eighty-five percent—not good enough to get into a top university English program.

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

When I started writing this book, I thought I was studying the role of English as a global language in China. But as I started putting the pieces together, I realized the book is not about language—it is about time. A lot of people in Shenyang feel like their opportunities are limited, that they are being left behind or trapped in the past. Learning English is like time-travel; it is believed to have the potential to propel people into the future, to be at the cutting-edge of the social and economic changes affecting Shenyang.

3. How do you wish you could change your field of study?

Linguistic anthropology is part of a broader field which, as a whole, often does not pay as much attention to language as it should, and in particular the kinds of language people use to accomplish everyday interactions or to narrate their lives. A lot of times we present our data as if everyone were actually speaking perfect English. I argue that the field has to pay attention to the choices people make about their language: what words do they choose (or not choose) to use, how do they blend languages together, and how do they sound local or global?

Featured photo: Shenyang, China. Credit: Eric Qu.

Eric S. Henry is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax. He has been published in City & Society, Language in SocietyAnthropological Quarterly, and Anthropologica.

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