Have you ever thought of English being seen as a commodity? A market worth over £3 billion? (British council, 2010, p. 8) Or a language which is encouraged to be spoken by those who don’t? If your answer to these questions is ‘no’, then you will be surprised to learn that this is the way English is spreading across the world today and is becoming a “power in itself”. So-called ‘linguistic imperialism’ can be described as “the intentional destruction of a powerless language by a powerful one” (Spolsky, 2004, p. 79), which is currently happening to smaller languages across the world today. But before putting blame for oppression of minority languages on languages like English, we have to consider why it has reached this state and dig a little deeper into the British Council.
Originally, the British Council was created to almost reinvent Britain after a threat to British prosperity, especially with the great depression in 1929 and the rise of Hitler in 1933. But now the British Council is a worldwide organisation used to promote the English language to those that see it as an opportunity for better lives and a branch to work across the world.
The British Council aim to “create friendly knowledge and understanding between the people of the UK and other countries” (https://www.britishcouncil.org/organisation). Not only do they promote the English language through TEFL courses and studying in the UK, they work with the education system in other countries and arts programmes and culture of the world (British Council). For them, it is all about the links they create with other countries to make life easier for the UK and international relations. The British Council state “[w]e do this by making a positive contribution to the UK and the countries we work with – changing lives by creating opportunities, building connections and engendering trust” (British Council).
Today, the British Council promote themselves with pictures of people from different nationalities looking happy, the UK countryside and children playing. But is that just a front to mask the profit they make each year from English? The British Council “is a unique semi-state body” (Gray, 2012, p. 141) which is a registered charity and operates as a business (Gray, 2012, p. 141). By operating as a business, a profit is made and in the case of the British Council, their profit is on a rather larger scale. The annual turnover for the 2009/2010 year was £705 million and to put into context of how much that could increase by each year, the profit increased by £60 million from 2008/2009 (Gray, 2010, p. 141).
Although the British Council plays a big role in promoting English, can the governments of countries also be to blame for the rise of English? Well, yes! Governments of certain countries have made the decision to make English their national language over their original language. This means children who have never spoken English before will suddenly start having all their lessons at school in English. Ouane and Glanz state “Africa is the only continent where the majority of children start school using a foreign language” (2010).
A good example of this language change is the African country of Rwanda, where KinyaRwanda was replaced by English in schools (Williams, 2011, p. 165). The main reason behind this cultural modification is the way English is viewed in African countries. They see it as “the first step towards the coveted white-collar job” (Williams, 2011, p. 165) and provides them with opportunities for careers outside their small communities. By choosing English in schools over their country’s indigenous languages, they have potentially chosen to lose their identity and culture to improve their relations with wealthier countries.
A greater understanding of the role of the British Council allows us to consider the need for a lingua franca across the world. This need, which has been filled with English, not only aids communication but also helps businesses, science and technology, society and international relations (Galloway & Heath, 2015, pp. 54-57). We have to weigh up these advantages and disadvantages to decide if English is the cause of linguistic imperialism.
With all work the British Council do, they realised there was a need for a global lingua franca and helped to fill that gap by promoting English. People will always argue when language changes and, on a scale like this, it can cause global debates. It will be a debate that is always ongoing and there will only ever be opinions for and against English, just like every dispute. But you have to ask yourself, is English really that bad?
KATIE BROOMHEAD, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Williams E. (2012). Reading A: Language policy, politics and development in Africa. In A. Hewings & C. Tagg (Eds.). The Politics of English: Conflict, competition, co-existence (pp.164-171). Abingdon: Routledge.