English as a Foreign Language: Cultural Imperialism, or Economic Resource? TOM O’REILLY investigates

The power of the English language globally is undeniable, with Coleman stating that “English undoubtedly plays a major role in various aspects of development” (2010: 16). As more countries such as Rwanda make English their official language, a debate continues to rage over a key issue surrounding the loss of native languages in the face of English; does the loss of a native language mean a loss of national and cultural identity?

Phillipson (1992) suggests that the current spread of English is a form of ‘linguistic imperialism’. He defines linguistic imperialism as “a primary component of cultural imperialism, though it must be remembered that cultural dissemination can also take non-linguistic forms […]. Linguistic imperialism is also central to social imperialism, which relates to the transmission of the norms and behaviour of a model social structure, and these are embedded in language” (1992: 54). This embedding of social and cultural ‘norms’ through language would suggest that when a language is imposed on a peoples, so are the customs, culture and societal expectations of the culture the language stems from.

This is quite a general analysis of the issue however. For an analysis with more context, Thiong’o (2009 [1986]) suggests that “[l]anguage, any language, has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture” (2009 [1986]: 195). Thiong’o grew up in Kenya in a time where the English language was promoted as a lingua franca, and essential for many higher educational programs and for professions with higher incomes. As a school child he was subjected to corporal punishment whenever he spoke his mother tongue at school.

Thiong’o’s view is that if a language is imposed upon people by a government then it is detrimental to that nation’s culture, with people being forced to embrace something that they didn’t necessarily want or need. In his words, “it is the final triumph of a system of domination when the dominated start singing its virtues” (2006 [1986]: 198).

Despite these assertions, Park and Wee posit that for English to become a global language there has been “…a transformation in the relationship between language and identity; while in the past, language [was] supposed to be a reflection or marker of one’s social identity and therefore not something subject to exchange, under commodification, language loses this association, which opens up the possibility of treating language as an economic resource” (2012: 125).

This point of view is supported by Heller who believes in “…a shift from understanding language as being primarily a marker of ethnonational identity to understanding language as being a marketable commodity on its own, distinct from identity” (2003: 474).

With these later two distinctions in place, an issue arises. If language, in particular English language, is being stripped of identity (seen only as an economic resource with no association with social or ethnonational identity) then why should it have any effect on the cultural and social norms of the group it is introduced to? In the case of Thiong’o, it may have been that the method by which it was oppressively introduced into the school systems was the damaging factor in this case rather than simply the introduction of the English language itself. In more recent cases, Tembe and Norton note that contrary to the way Thiong’o was taught, “…it is clear that parents and communities need convincing evidence that instruction in local languages will not compromise desires for global citizenship” (2011: 131). If this is successful then there is hope that there will be a move towards multi-lingualism, reducing the chances of English ‘dominating’.

There is unfortunately no conclusive answer to this debate. However, as Coleman points out, in these times of English being a huge entity for speakers of all languages, “it is important that we should not exaggerate the importance of English nor should we undervalue the importance of other languages. We must temper our enthusiasm for English with a sense of responsibility towards those who do not have easy access to it” (2010: 16).

 TOM O’REILLY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Coleman, H. (2010) The English Language in Development. Online [accessed 03/02/15]

Heller, M. (2003) ‘Globalization, the new economy, and the commodification of language and identity. Journal of Sociolinguistics, Volume 7,4. pp. 473-492 [accessed [02/02/15]

Park, J. and Wee, L. (2012) Markets of English: Linguistic Capital and Language Policy in a Globalizing World. Oxon: Routledge.

Phillipson, R. (1992) Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tembe, J. & Norton, B. (2011) English Education, Local Languages and Community Perspectives in Uganda. In H. Coleman (ed.) Dreams and Realities: Developing Countries and the English Language. London: British Council, Teaching English Series. Pp. 114- 136.

Thiong’o, N. (2009 [1986]) The Language of African Literature. In Jenkins, J. World Englishes: A Resource Book for Students. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.




2 thoughts on “English as a Foreign Language: Cultural Imperialism, or Economic Resource? TOM O’REILLY investigates

  1. Andrew Roach says:

    Hi Tom,

    I personally believe that the loss of a language does in fact result in a loss of cultural identity. One of the ways in which humans can be categorised is the language which they speak and if somebody’s language dies surely a part of their identity would die as well. If English died right now I would certainly feel bereaved for my mother tongue.

    I also agree with the idea that you will acquire cultural influences when a new language is seemingly ‘forced upon you’. If the majority of the British public were forced to use French as their first language then would we also have to familiarise ourselves with the usage of ‘tu’ and ‘vous’. If British people were forced to use ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ in daily life then this would also mean that we would have to categorize each person’s social status who we meet and in turn this would result in our language effecting our thought.The quote which you used from Thiongo’o in that languages ‘are not only a means of communication, but also a carrier of culture’ is very true.

    Ultimately, I’m not sure if the English language is a form of ‘linguistic imperialism’ as Phillipson suggests. I believe that the vast spread of the English language has solely down to English being at the right place, at the right time.

  2. Cinzia Warburton says:

    In order to have an opinion in this debate, I find it easier to put myself in the shoes of somebody who’s first language is not English. I try to imagine that I have been brought up speaking a language and then as soon as I am put into a school environment which is already unfamiliar, I am forced to speak a language that is also quite unfamiliar to me. I concluded that this would also give me a strong aversion to this language, especially if the harsh punishment is included.

    I feel that English should be taught in other countries because I do not think that there is wrong with a language being an economic resource, as long as that is not all that it is. I think that there is a more light-hearted way of teaching English to children as a second language and maybe they can benefit from this in the future.

    I believe that English should never be seen as more important than someone else’s mother tongue, more as just another skill to learn. I feel that English speakers can praise the English language and think of it as important because it is part of our heritage and culture, but it is not fair for us to push that onto anyone else.

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