REBECCA SUTTON asks: ‘Is global English an imperial dictator or an educational saviour?’

The issue of the role of global English is much debated in linguistic circles. It is true that there are some individuals who suffer at the hands of the ever expanding English language. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1986, cited by Jenkins, 2009) argues this through his personal experiences in Kenya. He claims that English came in and forced itself upon a nation which was declared to be in a state of emergency. He describes educational dictators which forced English upon children by punishing any child caught speaking in a native tongue. Even worse, all exams were written in English which meant any child struggling to grasp the language would fail; even if they excelled in other subjects! This is an argument which we need to consider with sensitivity as he states a loss of a native language results in the loss of human rights and culture. It is, without question, a tragedy for a culture to be lost due to an imposing language. The question is whether English was introduced as a form of imperial control or was it in fact an educational tool to help the nation.

Alternatively, many challenge the notion that English really is the bulldozer of the language world. Let’s consider the account of Chinua Achebe (1975, cited by Jenkins, 2009). He claims the introduction of English gave Africa a sense of unity. English allowed people to communicate with a manageable number of languages compared to the previous many strands of African indigenous languages. He argues that English is a worldwide language and believes he should not deny a language he has been given. Schneider (2011) also offers support for global English, claiming that Nigeria introduced it by means of ethnic neutrality as it meant not one ethnic tongue was favoured over another. It seems to me, that English can also offer many rewards to a community by being introduced. If it can provide an answer to problems and bring together people from different communities, is this really a killer act? When considering these arguments global English does not seem all doom and gloom as anticipated.

Ultimately, we must ask ourselves what is the answer to such a delicate issue. Is this debate really one which requires an answer on either side of the fence? I believe the answer lies within the middle ground.  Yes, it is true that English is the language of business and trade (Schneider, 2011). Yes, it is true that English can offer better employment opportunities due to its worldwide fame (Schneider, 2011). However, is this really an all or nothing event? Surely, a native language can thrive alongside an international one. I believe the best result would be to offer English as a second language option in countries such as Nigeria and Kenya. This way we can avoid the tragedy experienced by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1986, cited by Jenkins, 2009) from happening again. It would seem the answer to all of our linguistic problems. By allowing both global English and native languages to live alongside each other, in harmony, people would be able to retain their culture whilst benefitting from the knowledge of this universal language. Unfortunately, this is not a view shared by all. Can a debate like this ever be resolved?

REBECCA SUTTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Jenkins, J. (2009). World Englishes. Oxon: Routledge.

Schneider, E. (2011). English Around the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



One thought on “REBECCA SUTTON asks: ‘Is global English an imperial dictator or an educational saviour?’

  1. Lisa Spence says:

    In answer to your question: no, I don’t think that a debate like this can ever be solved. Language tends to be a sensitive issue and people are always going to disagree about different usage. We see it all the time, even within a language itself. People ridicule certain dialects as being ‘inferior’, so it’s not surprising that whole languages have come to viewed in the same way.

    I agree that it’s not necessary to fall on one side of the fence in this debate. While I understand the need for mutual intelligibility (and even support it to an extent), I don’t think that this should mean losing a person’s native language. Nobody should be force to speak English if they don’t want to, and their native language should be allowed to thrive alongside it. A language helps to give a sense of identity, as does culture, and while I don’t think that language necessarily equals culture, it’s definitely an important part of it.

    Ultimately, I think it should come down to personal choice. If a person wants to speak English, then by all means they should be encouraged to do so, but they should be given the same support if they choose their native language instead. That’s not to say I think the two are mutually exclusive; I agree with both you and Achebe that it’s possible to use them interchangeably and that both languages can co-exist harmoniously.

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