LEWIS CARTER discusses ‘Language for Sale: English the Industry’

The phrase ‘English the industry’ might conjure up the mental image of a huge factory somewhere, full of uniformed  workers at assembly lines, fixing together letters and words, bagging them up, and shipping them out as ‘100% genuine English – suitable for ages one and up’. While it’s not quite that fantastically literal, it does mean that English is operating in the same way a business would: something is being supplied in exchange for cash. That this ‘something’ isn’t assembled and packaged doesn’t stop it being treated in the same way as something else that is.

Taking the Neoliberal view that anything can be sold, and should be, as ‘an unfettered market economy is the best guarantor of human freedom’ (Gray 2012:138), everything can be seen as a commodity. That includes putting prices on intangible things like heritage, culture and, of course, language. As the OED defines a commodity as ‘a thing of use or advantage to mankind’ (OED, 2012), language surely fits the term. However, treating languages as such can mean that ‘some languages come to be seen as worth more than others’ (Heller, 2002, cited by Gray, 2012). And just how is the cost of a language calculated anyway?

As in business, it seems to be a case of supply and demand. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu had the view that ‘language functions as a form of capital in the modern economy’ (1991, cited by Gray, 2012). Since English has such a high status as a language, it has a large capital and high demand, and so the prices to learn it reflect this. Just considering the area of English Language testing, it’s obviously a very lucrative business. IELTS (Anglo-Australian International English Language Testing System) had a set fee of £125 for its 2012 test, while the North American equivalent, TOEFL (Test of English for International Communication), had a varying fee, dependent on location, ranging from £100 – £160 (figures cited by Gray, 2012:156).  It is fair to say those prices are not exactly cheap. Consider then how expensive someone from a developing country such as Rwanda might find them, and with failing meaning re-paying to re-take, how much pressure they must feel to pass.

You might think that would result in not many being willing to sit them, yet there has been a huge rise in the amount of people taking tests: from 800,000 in 2008, to 1.4 million in 2010 – an increase of 75% (figures cited by Gray, 2012:155) Why? As Gray puts it, there is a ‘pressure to adopt English because of its global status’ (Gray, 2012:142).

However, don’t forget, these tests are enabling takers the ability to communicate in the most widely spoken language in the world, and with that, access to a huge range of potential careers and business opportunities, meaning much higher wages. So, while they are expensive, the tests basically act as an investment, a one-off payment in exchange for a revered commodity that creates a realm of possibility.
It is all about perspective: language learning can be seen as an invaluable, enriching enterprise; or it can be seen as a valuable enterprise for people to get rich. Or, perhaps, it can be viewed as both these things.

Either way, they should really put a ‘CAUTION’ label on the packaging.

LEWIS CARTER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity.

“commodity, n.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/37205?redirectedFrom=commodity [ACCESSED: 28th January 2013]

Gray, J. (2012) ‘English the industry’. In: Hewings, A & Tagg, C (eds.) (2012) The Politics of English: Conflict, Competition and Co-existence. Milton Keynes: The Open University/Routledge.
Heller, M. (2002) ‘Globalization and the commodification of bilingualism on Canada’. In: Block, D. & Cameron, D. (eds.) Globalization and Language Teaching. London: Routledge.


2 thoughts on “LEWIS CARTER discusses ‘Language for Sale: English the Industry’

  1. Vanessa Sharp says:

    I agree with the point that taking either of the two tests would provide a significant advantage for a none English speaker, in terms of being able to communicate for business purposes. However, this test relies heavily on pre-existing financial assets which means a person who is quite capable of speaking English, maybe even more so than someone who can afford the test, will not be able to get this recognition, meaning that they will not have the same opportunities as those who are financially viable.
    Also, there is an issue of what they are being tested on, sure the test will account for business interactions and other professional uses of standard English, but how far does the test account for real world applications of English such as colloquialism and how applicable is it for social interactions. So, technically they would be able to get their point across during a formal situation, for example a board meeting, yet, be unable to fully understand those who use English as a first language during social situations.
    Furthermore, regional dialects could pose as a problem, as the different inflects used in these various dialects could cause confusion, for example those from more northern parts of England do not pronounce ‘the’ as [ð], instead the ‘t’ sound is softened to become [t]. Similarly, people from certain regions use different terms for things, e.g. I come from Lancashire and would call a bread roll a barm cake, whereas someone from Birmingham would call it a cob.
    To clarify, I do agree that these tests can be advantageous, but people need to take these things into consideration before paying for them.

  2. Hannah Waude says:

    I really like the way you have written this Lewis. I find that perspectives are one of the most important factors when discussing any of the issues involved in language debates

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