Testing times: CHARLOTTE GRIMES-THOMAS weighs up the costs of English as a global commodity

According to David Crystal, it is now estimated that 1.5 billion people use English either as a first, second or foreign language (2000, p. 3). With many people speaking the language, it is undeniable that English is powerful and plays an important role in the development of individuals (Coleman, 2010, p. 16). English can be considered as a ‘lingua franca’ – it is the global language of business, academic research, space, scientific discovery, entertainment and diplomacy. English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) can also be a useful contact language, as it allows people who don’t share a common native tongue to communicate (Firth, 1996, p. 240 as cited in Park and Wee, 2012, p. 44). Therefore, learning the language could offer individuals better opportunities in the future if they are able to speak English, whether it is to gain a qualification or being able to speak to someone from a different country. However, is the price tag too high for people who want to learn English?

It seems that English is now being sold as a commodity to people globally. The idea that a language can be sold can be related to neoliberalism, as corporations are putting a price on something that should not be a commodity. Gray explains that neoliberalism ‘is based on the belief that an unfettered market economy is the best guarantor of human freedom and that the role of the government is primarily to guarantee and extend the reach of the market’ (2012, p. 138). Gray concurs with Bourdieu who states that ‘language functions as a form of capital in the modern economy’ (1991, cited by Gray, 2012).

Gray has outlined three areas through which English is being marketed –  English Language Teaching, Testing products and Academic Publishing. Large corporations such as TOEFL are attempting to make profits by selling the English language as a product. They are marketing the language by stating it will provide learners with better prospects and opportunities. These testing companies usually have a high price tag, for example TOEFL charge $160 to $235 just for registration. Due to these high fees, many learners are unable to afford the test; so it can be argued that corporations are using English as a commodity. English is also marketed globally through academic publishing. The Department for Business Innovations & Skills estimated the UK education exports in 2008 and 2009 to be £14.1 billion (2011). It has been found that 3.7 million English books have been sent to Africa (Books for Africa, 2013), even though some of these countries do not have many English speakers. It is apparent that just through testing products and academic publishing alone, the English language is being marketed on a substantial global scale.

Following the mass genocide in Rwanda, relations deteriorated between the Rwandan government and France. The Rwandan government severed ties with France and as a result President Kagame named English the language of education in 2008. Due to the prestige status of English, many Rwandans welcomed the language and believed it would eventually help the next generation acquire better jobs and a higher wage (Gray, 2012, p. 146). For instance, a receptionist that cannot speak English will only earn $110 per month, in comparison to $310 if they were able to speak English. Olzacki also trusts that the move to English was correct as it is ‘preparing Rwanda’s children to perform global work, increase capacity and embrace business alliances as an equal partner and desired commodity. If French had remained the language of instruction, […] this would prevent future success’ (2015). However, the influence of English isn’t completely progressive. There have been negative aspects, such as social and political ramifications following the deterioration in relations between France and Rwanda. It has also alleged that out of the 31,000 primary school teachers, only 4,700 have been trained to teach English in Rwanda (McGreal, 2009,  cited in Polonski, Teferra & Brady, 2013). Due to the lack of adequate teachers, only half of the children move past primary school.

As a result of the globalisation of English, there is no doubt that language is now a commodity. It is evident that the marketing of the English Language has its distinct pros and cons. I believe that neither outweighs the other. It is just an inevitability that we have to accept, as everything these days has a price tag attached.

CHARLOTTE GRIMES-THOMAS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Crystal, D. (2000). Emerging Englishes. English teaching professional. Retrieved January 18, 2016.

Coleman, H. (2010). The English Language in Development. Retrieved January 26th, 2016

Department of Business Innovations & Skills. (2011). Estimating the Value to the UK of Education Exports, BIS research paper 46. Retrieved January 22, 2016.

Gray, J. (2012), English the industry. In: A. Hewings and C. Tagg (ed.) The Politics of English: Conflict, Competition, Co-existence. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 139-163.

Olzacki, J. (2015). Why Rwanda’s move to English? Retrieved January 21, 2016.

Park, J. S., & Wee, L. (2012). Is there a market for English as a Lingua Franca? London: Routledge.

Plonski, P., Teferra, A., & Brady, R. (2013). Why Are More African Countries Adopting English as an Official Language? Retrieved January 22, 2016.


One thought on “Testing times: CHARLOTTE GRIMES-THOMAS weighs up the costs of English as a global commodity

  1. Megan Bates says:

    Whilst I agree that the main cause for such a significant increase of the use of English worldwide is the market for business, I cannot help but think there is more to it than this. There is no disputing the fact that English has become the lingua franca of the world, but there must be an influence on its growth, now, from the ease at which most people speak the language – ie. now that it has become the most used language for business, education, and political aspects of the world, the globalisation of English has morphed into a state of being, rather than a state of ease.

    I am also interested to know what your thoughts on the decline of other, less well known languages – such as Welsh. Do you think this is purely as a result of the globalisation of English as a language phenomenon, or do you think there are other factors at play? Surely there must be factors such as simpler grammatical bases and more direct semantic relevance at play for English to have become the most used language in the world.

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