Thursday, 7 July 2011

English lessons

I know these days everyone is talking about how Chinese is the language you need to learn and I’m sure there’s some truth in that. However, whether you like it or not, English remains the language of international dealing, certainly in our part of the world and also in those regions where we have the closest historical ties. It’s certainly the language of the internet and despite things like the Google home page and Microsoft Office both being available in Setswana, a knowledge of basic English is essential for navigating the web.

That’s one of the reasons why I oppose anything that gets between a kid and his or her command of English. Of course there are people who will argue that local, cultural language is an essential part of a person’s heritage and I’m not going to deny that but, at the risk of seeming like I disagree with our founding President while knowledge of one’s culture is important, it’s not as important as having a job.

There’s also the lemming-like anti-globalisation campaigners that oppose anything that even looks like greater freedom of movement of goods, services and people and also language. However I’m quite happy to leave people who would rather live in the Middle Ages, up to their necks in pestilence and death, where they want to be.

As well as the technological world our legal world is dominated by the English language. What language is it that’s used in most advertisements, all contracts and in the court cases that follow when things go wrong? English again. That’s another reason why I think a good command of English is critically important. I’d even say that it’s more important than Maths as a tool for consumer survival.

Unfortunately there are people out there that will shamelessly exploit people’s less than complete command of English. I’ve mentioned before a scheme that included in it’s contract a clause that declared the contract “irrevocable”. That’s a word rarely used in common speech and it takes a moment of thought to understand it. It means not revocable. It means it can’t be cancelled. Ever. Of course nobody draws the victim’s attention to this when the scheme is being sold. They wouldn’t, would they?

Unfortunately very often the English that we need most of all to see is the English we’re not shown, or at least not encouraged to consider. Read this, from a furniture store contract that a consumer was required to sign a few years ago when making a purchase:
“I have examined the goods and [company name] has made no representation and no warranty to me including this sale. The goods have been sold as seen, inspected and approved by me.”
Let me remind you. The customer signed this agreement at the time they bought the goods and before they had been delivered. Nevertheless they were required to sign a document saying they’d seen them already and had approved them. The agreement suggested that the goods could be as faulty as the store liked and the consumer has no right to get them fixed.

Later on in the same agreement, the customer was required to confirm that:
“I have fully understood the terms and conditions of this sale which have been fully explained to me and I undertake not to contend to the contrary.”
In other words, even if they hadn’t understood the contract, nobody had tried to explain it to them and they don’t know what the word “contend” means, they promise never ever to say so.

This is extremely slippery. So slippery in fact that I suspect any court would throw it out for being plain deceptive.

In principle we’re protected from this sort of deception. Section 17 (1) (g) of the Consumer Protection Regulations says it’s an unfair business practice to take:
“advantage of a consumer's inability reasonably to protect his interests by reason of disability, illiteracy or inability to understand the language of an agreement presented by the other party to the transaction who knows or reasonably should know of the consumer's inability”
However when did you last hear of anyone being prosecuted for this? (Clue: never.)

Bad quality English is, however, sometimes very useful. It’s particularly good at helping you spot a scam. Last week we saw a scam email that went as follows (I haven’t made any changes to the spelling).
“Hello , We regret to inform you that your credt card was used for Gambling, deposit 450.USD, that`s not normal for your credit card transactions. Our ip santinel detected that your ip adress is outside from your contry Our afliates suggested a refund , if u wasn`t the person that used the credit card apply now for a refund at this link. Thank you, Jhon Power, Costumer Support”
Clearly the author does not have the benefit of a good education in English and for once I’m not going to complain. However this scam is so stupid that even if it was written perfectly, you’d see through it, wouldn’t you? (Please tell me you would?)

So far, almost all the scams I’ve seen have included at least one clue that the author isn’t either a native English speaker, or someone with a good grasp of the language. I think it’s safe to assume that a banker or lawyer who communicated with you out of the blue about a serious financial transaction would have fairly good English, don’t you?

I wonder if I should start offering classes in English For Scammers? I’m sure they must realise that it’s an area where they need to improve and, for an astonishingly high fee, I’m prepared to step in and help.

No comments: