KATHRYN HOLDEN asks: ‘Is it right to promote English as a global product?’

In the current phase of globalisation, according to Gray (in Hewings and Tagg 2012: 138-139), languages which provide their speakers with a competitive edge are promoted in terms of the opportunities that they can bring.

The British Council is one of the main bodies in control of the promotion and distribution of the English Language globally. Gray states that it ‘is government funded’, is a ‘registered charity’ and ‘functions as a business’, its key remit being ‘to promote English Language globally’ often as a form of ‘‘help’ or as a response to a request for ‘help’’ (Hewings and Tagg 2012: 141-142).

Rwanda is a good case study for the pressure for underdeveloped countries to adopt English because of its global status and the role of the ‘help’ provided by institutions such as the British Council.

English replaced French as the medium of education in 2008 after much unrest in the country which would prove problematic as with English having no colonial roots, the majority of teachers and students had little knowledge of it.

So why are the British Council so successful in their remit?

  • Much worldwide trade and Commerce is taking place in English.
  • English = Education. Families want their children to learn English from an early age. English is seen as ‘strong’ and ‘the first step towards a […] white-collar job’ (Williams in Hewings and Tagg 2012: 165).
  • Unifying – in many African countries which have multiple languages, English is deployed as a national language with a one language one nation mentality (Hewings and Tagg 2012: 166).

In Rwanda, the majority of children start school using a foreign language. Children who do not understand teacher and textbook ‘fail to achieve command of English adequate for academic purposes’ (Williams in Hewings and Tagg 2012: 164).

Williams tested 251 year 6 students on their English skills and only two of the 251 (0.77 per cent) ‘could read adequately for their studies’ (Hewings and Tagg 2012: 164). However, Williams found that when a local language is used, students display substantial aptitude. The same 251 students were tested in KinyaRwanda and over 90 per cent of the students ‘could read independently’ (Hewings and Tagg 2012: 165).

There are fears that the ‘English equals education’ sentiment is causing a great ‘under-estimation of African languages’ and is creating a negative impact ‘on national self-esteem’ (Williams in Hewings and Tagg 2012: 168).

Pennycook (1998: 129) uses the idea of ‘self’ and ‘other’ to exemplify this. The colonizer language, culture and political structure are seen as all things positive and the other language is seen as everything otherwise.

Williams suggests that in fact English is not unifying and is acting as a divide. There are those from reasonably well off groups who have good access to it and those poorer communities who do not. This obviously has caused elite groups to form (Hewings and Tagg 2012: 166).

Educationalists have argued over the past hundred years that educating children in a familiar language is key to development and Williams argues that development in these countries is always going to be stunted while current practises are taking place with suggestions that African countries would be much better off with a national language ‘closely related to those spoken by all the learners’ (Hewings and Tagg 2012: 170).

So therefore, I question the British Council’s claim that it provides ‘help’ to countries such as Rwanda and yet ignore the experts who give this advice. Surely the best way to help these countries would be by doing what is best for their language, their development and their future, not trying to make money from families wanting to further their children.

KATHRYN HOLDEN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Gray, J. (2012) English the Industry. In A, Hewings & C, Tagg The Politics of English: Conflict, Competition, Co-existence. Abingdon: Routledge.

Pennycook, A. (1998) English and The Discourses of Colonialism. Oxon: Routledge.


2 thoughts on “KATHRYN HOLDEN asks: ‘Is it right to promote English as a global product?’

  1. Stephanie Jones says:

    Hi Kathryn,

    You have presented some very interesting facts in this blog! Firstly, I find it astonishing that only 2 out of the 251 year 6 pupils in Rwanda could read adequately in English for their studies. As a result of this figure, I am in complete agreement with your point about how English being associated with education is causing negativity among individuals. The idea that in order to be successful you must be competent in English seems unfair despite the fact that you may not even want to study English or pursue a career where English is directly used. In addition to this, it is interesting to consider that in this country if you have not achieved a Grade C in English at GCSE, there are a number of access courses you can take in order to gain a place at a college or at a higher education institution.

    When putting it in context, I cannot imagine how I would feel if another global language was implemented in this country and became the language needed in order to succeed in education or any worthwhile job. Nevertheless I also agree with your point that in countries like Rwanda often a global language can create unity among people due to the fact that there are many different languages spoken in the same country which may result in a divide among different groups of people. However, I can also empathise with the point made about how the introduction of a national language can result in the development of elitist groups in society who have enough money to access the language, in comparison with poorer communities who are unable to do so which is increasing the already evident divide in many of these countries.

    I am in agreement with your final point arguing that the British Council should not try to make money out of communities such as in Rwanda who want to better their chances. I believe that if a fee is charged to learn, or be taught, a skill this should be delivered at a very high standard to ensure that people are actually benefitting from what they are paying for and not just wasting both their time and their precious money.

  2. Hannah Waude says:

    You have some really interesting ideas on the British Council. As a student who spent a year abroad teaching English to primary school students do you think that the council is not just a charity acting as a business, but as a gateway to other cultures for those who would ordinarily not have such opportunities?

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