April 25, 2003
Global English: Lingua Franca or Hegemony?
The dominance of the English language appears to be indisputable. Yet according to some linguistic scholars, English is a tool of globalization, an agent imposing Western (usually American) cultures and values throughout the world. For others, English is indispensable, but not inflexible, and its spread is not necessarily accompanied by the diminishment of local languages. The cases of Sri Lankan and Dutch acceptance of English offer an opportunity to observe two disparate methods of adapting to Global English, minus the heavy-handed post-colonial posturings of some scholars.
According to these scholars, English serves the process of globalization and further study of this relationship is required. English dominates international politics and commerce, “its privileged role being strengthened through such bodies as the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, and regional groupings such as the North American Free Trade and the European Union” (Phillipson 187). For example, Phillipson objects to the characterization of English as the world language, as the majority of the global populace does not speak the language, as mother tongue or even second language. According to Phillipson, “critical scholarship ought to analyze the strong forces that are at pains to create the impression that English serves all the world’s citizens equally well” (188).
Although Phillipson points to the “6, 000 – 7, 000 spoken languages […] and perhaps equally many sign languages” (188), currently in use, he fears the ideology behind globalization threatens to supplant these languages with English. Phillipson divides the world between the “English-speaking haves who consume 80% of the available resources [and] the non-English-speaking have-nots” (189). Such a broad statement, however, ignores the existence of wealthy élites within both developing and underdeveloped nation-states, as well as the existence of poverty among English-speakers (including the United States and Great Britain).
Phillipson follows this statement with a quote from Lord Macaulay, circa 1835: “I have never found one amongst them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” (189). He devotes the remainder of his paper to “linguistic human rights” (190) as he explores the means by which such organizations as the World Bank promote English language instruction and shape educational policy. Yet he fails to provide concrete examples, save for two: the British Petroleum corporation’s funding of a ‘Science across Europe’ scheme in post-communist European education systems, and a Shell corporation scheme (Phillipson’s word) to upgrade English language education specialists in Bulgaria. The English teaching industry is reportedly worth some 6 billion pounds to the British economy, and the current ‘Blair initiative’ is aimed at attracting more foreign students to British universities, further evidences, apparently, of the global English scheme.
Phillipson concedes that “no simple correlation between the use of English and either British culture or US corporate interests” actually exists, but he points to “hegemonising processes that tend to render the use of English ‘natural’ and ‘normal’” (191) while marginalizing other languages. For Phillipson, “engagement in the modern world means a western-dominated globalisation agenda set by the transnational corporations and the IMF, and the US military intervening, with or without a mandate from the United Nations, whenever ‘vital interests’ are at risk” (192). Returning to linguistics, Phillipson posits two paradigms: The diffusion of English paradigm, and the Ecology of language paradigm. The first represents “the promotion of one language (English) and one culture (the USA’s) at the expense of others, by means of the interlocking of linguistic imperialism with a system of production and ideologies that attempt to justify an economically expansionist and exploitative world order” (193). The second paradigm favours “linguistic and cultural diversity, attempts to ensure equality […] and uses the human rights system as a counterweight to the ‘free’ market” (193). The means to activating this paradigm is simple: “putting language policy higher up on political agendas” (ibid).
Phillipson criticizes the “native speaker ideal” in English language teaching for projecting “a culture-specific worldview” (194). For “the language pedagogy of the textbooks has its origins in a western vision of the world and is irredeemably eurocentric” (ibid). Western lifestyles are to be admired, envied, and desired, thereby belittling other cultures. Ultimately, Phillipson recommends English language instructors commit to learning the native language and culture of their students, to counteract “linguistic and professional imperialism” (197).
Despite his heavy use of jargon, obvious political sympathies, and facile solutions, Phillipson does raise important issues. These issues are better examined by Punchi’s study of Sri Lankan educational policy.
Punchi begins his article with a critique of globalization before addressing the history of language instruction in Sri Lanka: “before the arrivals of Europeans schooling in Sri Lanka was primarily designed for a small elite, mainly the sons of noblemen […] the vast majority of the population was illiterate” (366). After British capture (1815), the British administrative system developed higher status schools, teaching English, and lower status schools, teaching local languages. The English medium schools levied fees and based instruction on western educational traditions. The vernacular schools were free: “The English medium schools were essentially set up to produce white collar workers for numerous clerical positions in the British colonialism system” (367). As a result, greater social inequity existed between English speakers and non-English speakers: “The British colonial regime didn’t want everybody to learn English” (ibid).
From 1945-1960, the Sri Lankan government instituted free education instructed in local languages. The results include a literacy rate of 90 percent, higher life expectancy, a high gross enrolment rate for primary and secondary education, gender equity in education and a recent increase of women in the labour force. Yet English speakers still enjoy advantages: “privitisation and economic liberalisation since 1977 have curtailed state enterprises and thus employment in the state sector” (372). The public sector usually employs graduates of the vernacular schools. Furthermore, the private sector prefers English-speaking employees. Therefore, language policy that is in accordance with Phillipson’s Ecology of language paradigm is defeated by globalisation policies.
English continues to dominate education policy: “many African educators have complained that the World Bank does not promote teaching in vernaculars beyond the primary level” (ibid). A condition of accepting aid from such organisations as the World Bank is the adoption of certain restructuring policies, including changes to education policy, with the goal of modernization and competitiveness in the global marketplace. The prestige of English continues to discriminate against “the vernacularly educated” (373).
Punchi criticizes the foreign “socio and cultural contexts” (376) found in Sri Lankan English language textbooks, but still advocates the instruction of English as a second language in order to access “information at a global level” (377). Additionally, competing with Sri Lankan state schools are private institutions teaching English and preparing students for examinations conducted by the University of London. Private sector employers prefer these graduates. Currently, the state schools have introduced English as an optional medium for science at the upper secondary level. Advocates of such changes insist English is essential for Sri Lankan development. Yet for Norwegians, proficiency in Norwegian is essential for securing employment in the public and private sectors. Iceland continues to use Icelandic at all levels from grade one to university: “Finland, Japan, Mongolia, South Korea and Indonesia are certain other countries that have continued to use their own languages […] as media of instruction […] at the highest levels of education” (375).
For the Dutch, English has become a second language, a compulsory subject for students, and recently introduced to primary schools. According to Booij, however, the Dutch relationship with global English is less strained. Booij points to the existence of bilingual secondary schools intended to provide students with the advantages of an international career. Furthermore, Booij feels “English does not belong to a particular country, is not owned by a particular country” (348).
English is preferred for advertisements because of its “snob appeal” (349). Most doctoral dissertations are written in English. English language television programs are not dubbed but subtitled, and comprise 40-60% of Dutch television programming. Still, the dominant language of education at universities remains Dutch.
The Dutch language borrows heavily (and sometimes playfully) from English. Dutch, according to Booij, is a less “puristic” (349) language than German, illustrated by the use of such words as computer and printer, whereas German equivalents for such words do exist: “English has a very strong position in the Netherlands, but it is part of a structure of multilingualism in which it has its own place and function, leaving ample space for both the national language, other foreign languages and migrant languages” (350). Furthermore, for immigrants, Dutch acquisition remains a necessity, providing access to Dutch culture, society, and history.
Although English affects the lexical stock of Dutch, the existence of Dutch is not threatened. Booij provides a glossary of Dutch verbs, with the traditional infinitive ending of –en unchanged, that represent lexical borrowing, including: “aerobiccen ‘to do aerobics’; afkicken ‘to kick the habit’; blind daten ‘to have a blind date’” (350). All verbs obey Dutch inflectional rules, and certain loanwords provide new meanings: mailen, for example, can only refer to electronic mail. Moreover, a billboard for Sloggy underwear includes the English word billboard, a pun on the Dutch word for buttock, bil. For Booij, such jokes indicate a high level of comfort with bilingualism.
As for English language instruction, Booij advises non-native speakers to “abandon their inferiority complex and […] realize that English now belongs to the world, and not to an élite group [while] the native speaker of English must slowly begin to replace his linguistic chauvinism with an attitude of linguistic tolerance” (352). English instructors must expose students to varieties of English as it is actually spoken, while students should speak English in a wide variety of settings. According to Booij, “Dutch pupils […] overestimate their skills in English [and] do not make enough use of phrases such as please and thank you” (353).
Booij quotes a Japanese executive: “I sincerely believe there exists a cosmopolitan English – a lingua franca […] that is clearly different from what native English speakers use unconsciously in their daily life […] Dear anglo-americans, please show us you are also taking pains to make yourselves understood in an international setting” (ibid). To that end, Booij advocates the development of a global English not connected to any country or culture, including an easily accessible international lexicon, neutralizing the lexical differences between different varieties of English. The first step would be a dictionary of global English. Further steps include abandoning the British RP model of pronunciation. Booij proposes using Randolph Quirk’s Nuclear English, a simplified variant, particularly grammatically. For example, Quirk recommends simplifying all tag questions, notoriously difficult for non-native speakers, to a single is not it (similar to the Dutch is het niet).
International English will not be a rich language, Booij admits, “but it will suffice as a means of international communication [with] a restricted lexicon” (355), allowing for new, “semantically transparent complex words” (ibid).
It is important to acknowledge that the Dutch acceptance of English and simultaneous ability to retain the native language may be a function of two factors: a stronger economy and concurrently, reduced acceptance on such organisations as the IMF and the World Bank, and a similarity and shared heritage between the Dutch and English languages. Whether it is possible to develop a form of English untainted by Anglo-American associations or colonial tinges, and free of Western values, remains to be seen.
Booij, Geert. “English as the lingua franca of Europe: a Dutch perspective”. Lingua e Stile, 36(2), 347-357, August 2001.
Phillipson, Robert. “English for Globalisation or for the World’s People?” International Review of Education, 47(3-4): 185-200, 2001.
Punchi, Lakshman. “Resistance towards the Language of Globalisation – The Case of Sri Lanka”. International Review of Education, 47(3-4): 361-378, 2001.