There is no doubt that the English language has become what Gray describes as a ‘power in itself’ further claiming that ‘English in this way [is] somehow agentive […] [seen as a] powerful [force] propelled by human agents acting on behalf of commercial and governmental organisations […] actively involved in promoting and sustaining the position of English in the world.’ (2012: 162) However the jury’s out as to whether this promotion of English across the world is to aide underdeveloped countries, such as that of post-genocide Rwanda or, alternatively use the promotion of English by ELT organisations as a way of continuing to propel the aims ‘of a multi- billion pound industry’ (Gray, 2012, p.162).
Looking firstly at the British Council ‘a unique semi-state body […] government funded […] [and] a registered charity’ we can see examples of how English is conveyed as helping countries in crisis back on their feet. For example, the annual report of 2009-10 highlights help given to Afghanistan by facilitating ‘10,000 English teachers develop […] skills’ (Gray, 2012, p.141), as well as ‘helping President Kagame’s country, Rwanda, to replace French with English as the medium of Education’ (Gray, 2012, p.142). However, how far can it be claimed that this aide is for the best interests of these countries?
As well as performing the role of a charity, the British Council also ‘functions as a business’ (Gray, 2012,p. 141), and as a result it seems fair to question how far this is a priority for the organisation. In helping President Kagame to establish English as the language of education are they really helping rebuild his country? I would argue that there is some validity to the idea that it is impinging on Rwanda culture. Williams advocates this idea by referring to ‘a small dominant establishment in African countries [which] ensures that they […] have access to high standards of English while inadequate education systems mean that this is largely denied to the majority, [known as the process highlighted by] ‘Myers-Scotton (1990) [as] ‘[e]lite closure’(2011, pp 166- 167). In this way is the ELT industry prioritising our economy over the human needs of poorer, undeveloped countries?
As a result of selling English as a commodity it serves to devalue some countries over others. According to Gray (2012, p.138), ‘Canadian scholar Monica Heller (2002) suggests, languages and language learning are […] viewed in largely economic terms […] [meaning] some languages come to be seen as worth more than others.’ Consequently the English language displays disadvantages which serve to hinder other countries cultures. This is highlighted by writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in 1986 when recounting his experiences of English as the language of education in Africa. He said that ‘[l]iterary education was now determined by the dominant language […] language and literature were taking us further […] from ourselves […], from our world’ (cited in Jenkins, 2009, p. 194). And so English can be seen to be hindering undeveloped countries cultures in this sense.
In more recent times the growth of the ELT industry has led to features of ‘cultural imperialism’ being associated with it, in the respect that as it is viewed as a cultural commodity that dominates much like that of the film and music industry. Advertisements for ELT organisations take advantage of this link incorporating ideas associated with a westernised celebrity culture, with ELT textbooks often adopting celebrity related discourses, known as ‘aspirational content […] [focusing] largely on spectacular and personal […] success, celebrity lifestyles, cosmopolitanism and travel’ (Gray, 2012, p. 87). And so they sell English not only as a skill but as an opportunity to gain a successful way of life, to ‘younger people […] [seeing] it [as] increasingly valuable for personal growth.’ (ICEF, 2015) This is irrespective of where these young students come from; does this not hinder the development and sustainability of other cultures?
I can acknowledge that English does have its advantages in holding the position of lingua franca for the world and being the language of education, in the sense that it unifies to a degree and helps advance the chances of less developed countries and their education systems. Ultimately however these benefits are outweighed by the lack of access to acquire English as a skill across all levels of societies, creating elite groups. As well as this, the current highly commercialised nature of the ELT industry leads me to question who the real winners are here. Are we not impinging on other cultures by selling our own? And is the English as a commodity highlighting that the priority is profit over providing proper aide? The debate continues…
HANNAH ASHWELL, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Gray, J. (2012), “Neolibralism, Celebrity and ‘Aspirational Content’ in English textbooks for the global market” from Block, David, Gray, John and Marnie Holborow, Neoliberalism and applied linguistics. London: Routledge, pp. 86- 113.