Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Professional Improvisation

Many countries around the world, including Taiwan, are striving to make English a semi-official, or downright official, second language. What these countries hope is that by thus empowering the new and future generations of students, it will be easier for them to develop business links at the international level. The strategy is a sound one, and the difference in language skills between older generations and the new ones is already noticeable.

With this enthusiasm for English came business opportunities. Cram schools, after-school schools and specialized schools have proliferated all over the cities, and numerous specialized magazines have appeared on the newsstands. This, of course, created a second business opportunity, this time for foreigners, who poured into those countries with the expectation of finding well-paying jobs with little difficulty.

The problem, however, is that many of the expatriates who joined the linguistic gold rush are not properly trained, or do not have the necessary credentials, to operate in fields such as teaching, editing, and writing. While I am not in a position to directly speak to the quality of the education that is being provided by the foreigners, I can, however, comment on the quality of the so-called writers and editors who are hired by the local magazines and newspapers.

Consider this: in a recent issue of a magazine which I shall refrain from naming, young Taiwanese readers are being taught to avoid certain words and expressions which are now considered politically incorrect. So far, there is nothing wrong with the endeavor, and students should indeed avoid calling physically- or mentally-challenged individuals "handicapped" or "retarded," respectively, or Asians "Orientals."

Everything goes down the drain, however, when the factoid in which other examples are provided informs the reader that non-native people living in a country (yours truly, for example) should not be called foreigners, but rather ex-patriots. Hapless is the kid who absorbs the material and, perhaps years later, uses this hard-earned knowledge during an entry examination at some university abroad. Asked to describe how he sees himself, said student proudly recalls the lesson on political correctness and, intent on impressing his would-be future tutors with his command of English, he retrieves the secret weapon, the "ex-patriot."

The English vocabulary isn't colorful enough to describe the student's sense of existential angst when, upon receiving his exam results, he realizes that points were taken off for his use of "ex-patriot." What's wrong with this word, he asks around. It is a word, right? Well, it's a compound, alright, consisting of a prefix (ex-) and a noun (patriot). The problem, though, is that the magazine whose information the eager student faithfully swallowed many years ago had confused ex-patriot—meaning someone who no longer feels a sense of duty towards his country—with expatriate, the word used to describe someone who resides in a country other than that of his birth or of which he is a citizen. Though they sound alike, the twain clearly mean something different.

Now, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with mixing words; it happens to the ablest, most experienced editors. What is unpardonable, however, is for a magazine to publish so blatant an error when, in theory at least, no article appearing in a magazine goes to print without first going through a handful of editors for primary checks, proofreads, and final checks. For an error like this one to find its way into print, it means that it slipped through the hands of three or four editors, if not more—unless, that is, the editorial process was obviated, which would represent yet another case of professional irresponsibility.

But this example is but one lurid one among many. In the past months, I have seen 120-word articles employing as many as eighteen exclamation marks—the entire text had been taken over by an army of vertical lines and dots, as if the intent of the article were no other than to exercise the muscles associated with raising one's eyebrows. Like too much of a good thing, the result was that the sense of elation that usually accompanies an exclamation mark had lost all meaning, like a speedboat without an engine. Clumsy, run-on, illogical, redundant and just plain wrong sentences abound, both before and, sadly, after print.

There are many individuals working as writers here who would never manage to find similar work in their home country. I have come upon more than my share of articles written by freelancers who had better find another line of work soon lest they be ordered by the state never to come close to a pen or a word processor again, or else.

It is becoming increasingly clear that many expatriates are improvising themselves as writers and editors. Sadly, this implies that rather than receiving the skills that should given them a clear advantage at the global scale, entire generations of non-English-speakers are being exposed to amputated or deformed writing styles, poor grammar, and fitful syntax (I'd never thought that commas, columns and semi-columns could mystify such a number of people). Another consequence of this irresponsible act of improvisation is that it gives a bad name to those individuals out there who are professional editors who take their profession seriously.

In theory, there are mechanisms by which the bona fide writers and editors can be separated from the impostors. To take Taiwan's example, no foreigner can, in theory, obtain his work permit as an editor without having either a Master's Degree and/or a minimum of three years' experience working as an editor, with proven references. Unfortunately, employers have found a way round this requirement and simply obtain work permits through the far-less stringent system by which cram school teachers are employed. Once that permit has been obtained, the foreigner (I am being politically incorrect here) never sets foot in a school but instead is hired as an editor. Why? Too few qualified professional writers and editors are being attracted to the region; as a result, magazine publishers have no choice but to make do with unqualified personnel.

This, in a nutshell, accounts for the generally-poor or uneven-quality English-language magazines that one will find throughout East Asia and, I suspect, elsewhere. No one in his right mind would ever hire unqualified nurses or doctors. Why should it be different for those individuals who are entrusted with the ever-so-important responsibility of teaching people how to express themselves logically and eloquently?

The remedy—and there are signs that it is on its way, at least in Taiwan—is a government crackdown on companies that hire people who are illegitimate writers and editors. Absent such drastic measures, the future leaders of those countries will approach the outside world with great confidence, only to realize, rather painfully, as our imaginary student in the above scenario did, that the tools they were given were defective.

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