Approximately 375 million people in the world speak English as their first language (Curtis: 2006: 192). As speakers of English, what rights do we actually have over this globally shared resource? Surely it should be the case that no one speaker has any more or less ownership of a language than any other speaker. However, vast amounts of money are being made from the commercial sale of English on a daily basis.
Gray (2012: 137) introduces the ‘concept of English as a commodity – a term which is normally applied to products that can be bought and sold in the marketplace’. This can be seen as a kind of ‘neoliberalism’, which is based on ‘the belief that an unfettered market economy is the best guarantor of human freedom’ (Gray, 2012: 138). Harvey (2005: 166) explains this as ‘putting a price on things that were never actually produced as commodities’, for example culture, history, heritage and in this case, language. So within this capitalist society, language and language learning are also being viewed in largely economic terms. Heller (2002 cited in Gray, 2012: 13) suggests that because of this, ‘some languages come to be seen as worth more than others’.
Gray (2012) identifies three key areas in which English is operating as a commodity: Commercial English Language Teaching (ELT), English Language Testing and Academic Publishing. Commercial ELT is spread globally via teaching programs and various companies offering educational services. The British Council, a government funded registered charity, also plays a key role in this by offering ‘help’ to struggling countries. English was implemented into Rwanda as the official language of education with the help of the British Council. Many Rwandans welcomed this because of the prestige status of English and the belief that speaking English would lead to better employment opportunities for their children (Gray, 2012: 146). This was heavily criticised as many children failed to grasp teaching in English and teachers did not have adequate English skills to deliver it well. Interestingly, Gray cites the annual turnover of the British Council as £705 million for 2009-10 (2012: 141), which raises questions of the motivations behind these large organisations.
English is marketed globally as being able to offer better job prospects and therefore the chance of earning a better wage. This is evident when looking at the English Language Tests available today. Tests such as the Anglo-Australian International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) often come with high price tags (between $160-£250), which place them firmly out of the reach of many test takers. Despite the high prices, Gray cites figures from the British Council report, which states that over 1.4 million people took the IELTS alone in 2010; an increase from the previous year (2012: 155). This is obviously a very lucrative section of the market.
Perhaps given the role of economic power in maintaining a dominant language (Crystal, 2003), it is not surprising that English itself has become the ultimate commodity. But is English a powerful tool offering great prospects and opportunity to everybody who speaks it? Or is it a highly marketable industry presenting a lot of potential to make money? The answer to these questions is largely dependent on who is answering them, but it would be fair to conclude that it is a combination of both!
JACK THIRLBY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK