Linguistic Imperialism

Everyone! It’s almost March. That’s crazy. I fly back to Seattle in just under 30 days (although I’m not counting I promise!). And yet there is still so much left to do here before I leave. At the end of this week, I’ll be in Hyderabad visiting with some friends and hopefully (????) Andy? Andy, if you’re reading this, I’m probably in Hyderabad. This week I finished my report on a Google grant for ASER 2015, clearing some time for me to concentrate on the Pratham’s Digital Open Classroom, a new digital ops project that will give groups of kids the opportunity to learn different subjects using online tools.

At the beginning of the week, a representative from Delhi came down to Pune and we held meetings with my boss Prajakta, Madhav Chavan, and a U.N. team working on education and technology. We’ve been sitting for hours on the first floor of our building tossing around lots of ideas for the project and I’m pretty excited about it. It’s amazing to be working for an NGO with as many resources as Pratham. For example, I suggested the idea for complementary hard-copy flashcards to accompany the digital environment we are creating. Rather than talk about how many resources this would take, we were able to focus solely on content and how the product would look, which is pretty amazing. Last Thursday, team members traveled to Mumbai to start talk about launching the English learning segment of the project.

Both my evaluation work for ASER and my current project, which is setting up the English learning portion of the Digital Classroom, have got me thinking a lot about English teaching and learning and the concept of linguistic imperialism, which is the topic of this week’s blog.

The phrase “linguistic imperialism” was coined in the early 1990s by Robert Phillipson in his book by the same title. The idea of linguistic imperialism, however, has been around as long as multiple languages have existed. Linguistic Imperialism is the transfer of a dominant language – the idea that language is power. During the rule of the Roman Empire, the imperialistic language was Latin, which was imposed on the rest of Italy and on other parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, displacing previous languages spoken in these areas. Today, one of the largest examples of linguistic imperialism is English, but we could say the same thing about other languages as well. Russian, for example, dominates the region beyond Russia economically, socially, and politically. Put simply, linguistic imperialism means that if you do not have access to the language of the powerful, you don’t have access to power.

Evidence of English language imperialism is easily produced. The majority of the internet is in English, and often sites that offer translation do so ineffectively. Most critical information or data is stored in English. Computer programming languages are overwhelmingly based in English – up to 80%. When I was reviewing data for ASER, though the language my subjects communicated in was Manipuri, the language the information was catalogued in was English. When our ASER report is written and distributed, it will be done so in English.

In terms of native speakers, obviously Chinese rules. Native Chinese speakers out-flank native English speakers by almost three times the amount. However, while the Chinese language has 982 million native speakers to its 1,100 million global speakers, English has 375 native speakers to 1,500 million global speakers. That’s a 1:1.1 versus 1:4 ratio. Studies also find that, while they aren’t nearly as fluent, there are more people in both India and China learning English than there are native English speakers in the U.S.

Here’s a personal example of the power in learning English. In the office, my English is far better than the English of my two fellow Indian interns. One day during work only two weeks into my time here, while the office manager was gone, two Indian-American Pratham donors came to the office to visit. I was the only person in the office at the time with fluent English and, while the donors understood Marathi, they preferred to speak in English. All of us were American too, and so shared this cultural bound and spoke a similar English dialect. I had been there the least amount of time out of all the employees in the office, and yet they only spoke to me. In this situation, I had the power of controlling what information these people received, and as donors, they obviously had the power of money. The thing connecting me with these influential people was not my knowledge, my educational background, or my experience. It was my ability to speak English. My two other interns have been here longer, and I know both are looking to start businesses in India, but a communication block prevented them from access to these donors. I am an idiot and I only speak a few languages poorly, and one with ease. Thankfully for me, that one that comes easily is English. That is a large part of linguistic imperialism.

The privilege peaking English affords me translates to being able to walk into any room in the world, and simply by existing as a native speaker, have my voice open a treasure-trove of opportunity unattainable for millions of people. Privilege means that even when I am a minority, I have power. Similar to the way my white skin carries power in almost every context, my words carry more weight in situations were power is in play only for the fact they are in English.

One of the chief concerns in linguistic imperialism is that other languages will fall out of use. I found this to be a huge problem in Nigeria, where 56% of the population speaks English to the determent of countless local languages. Where languages are threatened, culture is always in danger as well. I find this less of a problem in India, which is firmly a multilingual country with most people being able to speak a local language, a state language, enough Hindi to get by or are fluent, and at least some English if not fluent. Both countries were British colonies, and both have developed languages that combine English and local language – Hingulish, Pigeon, Nigerian-English, etc. In my brief dive into the academic world of linguistics while researching for the post, I found that a lot of researchers believe that these English-local language amalgamations are less harmful to local culture and language than English as monolithic. To me, it makes sense with the size and geographical diversity of India, that local languages might survive better in combination with English under British rule. The history of colonization in Nigeria, however, is of a much more single-handed municipal government – one which punished those attempting to speak anything but English. Another historical point is that the languages of the tribal Nigeria were more fractured before British rule drew random lines around the political entity that is Nigeria today. This may be why we see a stronger hold on Swahili in East Africa, where the region is better united by a single linguistic alternative to English. In short, there is no “Hindi” for Nigeria. Thus it makes sense to me that Pigeon would be more common in Nigeria than local languages, and that language diversity thrived and survived in India. I believe that because of these socio-historical factors, India was better armed to face the pressure that globalization and the rise of capitalism put on the diversity of languages than Nigeria was.

I am beginning to get at the main crux of why people find the teaching and learning of English in these contexts so problematic. While today one might see English as a way to bring people together economically, socially, and politically, we cannot escape the fact that English is so prevalent because of Britain’s colonialism and forced occupation of other nations. I also want to remind everyone who has not recently taken a colonial history class that colonialism was a brutal and violent period in which dominant countries oppressed peoples through war, torture, humiliation, and destruction of culture. English rules because the British prevented the growth of other languages, cultures, and future prospects for their own economic gain.

The theorists Frantz Fanon and Chinua Achebe were some of the first to talk about the “colonized mind.” They call for the rediscovery and resumption of local languages, but beyond that the revolutionary language of recognizing linguistic imperialism. Colonization of the mind is a form of normalization in which the oppressed comes to believe that the oppressor’s reality is the only normal reality and must be assimilated to i.e. learning English is the only way to have power and is right to learn. While, colonization, imperialism, and mind control are huge parts of the history of English’s dominance, it’s not the whole story. English threatens “dominant languages” as well such as German, French, and Chinese for dominance as a global language, so there has to be more going on than a ‘power struggle’ for dominance. David Crystal points out that global interdependence, desire to have a voice in world affairs, and economic actualization are modern drivers of English as a global language as well in addition to it’s colonial beginnings. These points all support the adoption of a functionalist view of English where we can recognize the legacy of colonialism, but emphasize the functional purpose of learning English.

So this brings me to education, and English learning in particular. On one hand, teaching and working to bring English to more people in the world seems like a good thing to me. Higher literacy rates in English correlate with better economic success, political stability, and social change. Take the issue of gender equality, for example. Globally, there is evidence of women gaining access to and challenging male domains through participation in English literacy programs which give women the opportunity to learn the languages of “power”, which were previously only understood by men. For many women, learning English means gaining voice in household discussions. It means ability to speak in the “public” space of class – newspapers, the internet, to the government, etc. Furthermore, English literacy provides a bridge to formal education and vocational training (think hotel services, or owning a business which requires a person to speak in the global English) for women who were previously excluded from school when they were children. 

Beyond economics, if English is a global language, it means connection to the world and global issues. While a Nigerian might not speak Hindi and a Maharashtran might not understand Hausa, if both speak English they can collaborate. I have reviewed a lot of ASER data from principals in schools. In these surveys, principals again and again commented that English should be taught because it is the connection the students have to the outside world, and the vast knowledge contained in it. By limiting oneself to only one language, we effectively cut ourselves off from that world. Simultaneously, because of a brutal and violent history, the language that can connect you to the largest percentage of that world is English. Yes, it’s colonial, but what else are we supposed to speak? We can’t necessarily start from scratch with a new global language, so why not English? If English is power, is teaching English to others not a way to diffuse that power – to give it to more people?

For me, and for Pratham, the question is less if English should be taught to children as it is how it should be taught. First of all, I agree with David Crystal’s line on language as functionality. I further agree with Lysandrou’s comments that attacking English is “to attack the wrong target.” Solutions are more likely to come from radical action in the realm of economic policy (wealth inequality for sure), not language policy. With that said, protecting local languages is important. Rather than blame English, however, after observing ways in which English is taught, I think there is room for change there.

As I was been thinking about linguistic imperialism this week coincidentally, Rukmini Banerjee, the head of ASER, was speaking at Teach English India’s annual conference. One of the comments she made to the audience is that the language landscape in India should be treated as a continuum, voicing concerns that there is too much polarization between English and the language spoken at home or in school. Practically, this means changing the English curriculum so it is not as monolingual and, in a world, difficult for children to keep up with. English shouldn’t be taught in a vacuum. The curriculum should be shifted to realize that children in India are inherently multilingual. Further, it should embrace this fact.

There are a lot of opportunities for American and native-English-speaking students to use their English abroad, be it in teaching or functioning. When I was a freshman I once told a very obnoxious senior that I was thinking about applying for a Fulbright one day. She told me “Well don’t apply for ETA. It’s basically neo-imperialism.” I think she was eliciting a debate without adding really any substance to it. The colonialist history of English is important, absolutely. But what is more important to me is cultural inequality – the idea that English is more important than any other language. If, as a teacher of English or, like me, a strategist of English teaching programs, you can recognize that it English as a language is not more important than any other language, you have an opportunity to diffuse power while simultaneously curbing the imperialist nature of English. Learn the local language if you’re teaching in a classroom and use it in conjunction with English lessons. Language is not a zero-sum game. It is, as Banerjee states, a continuum. Learning multiple languages makes us more emphatic. Even though English may hold economic and political power, us native English speakers close ourselves off from the world as well by not learning other languages. Meanwhile, we can better spend our energy concentrating on the pervasive and imperialistic nature of English through charging the economic, social, and political unequal privilege that lies behind it.

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