English for sophistication

Native speakers of English don’t automatically associate their language with connotations of style. In New Zealand, for example, linguistic landscape research has found French & Italian associated with cafés and restaurants, American English with fast food outlets.

It was a surprise, then, to be in Balikpapan, Indonesia – a place where English does not have an obvious presence – drinking a takeaway coffee and to notice the languages on the plastic safety cover. English, French, and Italian speakers were all warned that the contents were hot. Monolingual speakers of Bahasa Indonesia, presumably, could scald themselves!IMG_20151018_170355

This prompted me to look more closely at the rest of the packaging – the cardboard cup, its corrugated cardboard wrapper, the paper napkin in which a complimentary doughnut had been wrapped. Only English.

A heart-shaped emblem on the cup proved to be made up of European symbols, the Leaning Tower of Pisa among them.

But what to make of this?

It would be interesting to know whether these artefacts were produced in Indonesia for this Indonesian coffee chain, or the homogenised products of a huge factory (probably in China) serving the global market.

But whether locally or globally produced, the language choice remains interesting. It seems English is being associated with style and sophistication here.

Unless, I suppose, one views takeaway coffee as an extension of the fast food industry!


John Macalister

John Macalister’s research interests include second language reading and writing, issues in language learning and New Zealand English. He teaches courses in language teaching methodology (reading and writing), and curriculum design.

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