Does global English empower speakers or erase national identity? BRIGITTA KOVACS investigates.

We all know that the English language has a global impact and many people have heard of the British Council, but what is their connection? What impact has the English language had where English is not the indigenous language and what is the role of the British Council?

The British Council is an international organisation with many aims including the promotion of English language education all around the world. They claim to work with over 100 countries, reach over 65 million people directly and even more through the media and publications. They have some charitable status, however they earn over 75% of their annual turnover from services which customers pay for, and less than 25% of their turnover comes from government grants.

The British Council advertises the English language as a product for sale that will make people’s lives better and give them freedom. Many countries in Africa have introduced English as the language of education with the hope of improving the economy and gain advantage of business opportunities. The most recent example is Rwanda, where following devastating civil war and major political upheaval, in 2009  legislation was introduced to anglicise Rwanda. In other countries where there was no common language – for example, in Nigeria – English was introduced as the language of unification. It was not the case in Rwanda where they already had a common language called Kinyarwanda. They introduced English in the hope of development, but they haven’t achieved the expected outcome. Africa is the only continent where the majority of children start school in a foreign language.

Williams (2012) explored the consequences of changing the language of education from Kinyarwandan to English arguing that this language policy contributes to the lack of development and questioning the presence of ‘effective’ education. I have interviewed two people from Nigeria asking them about their native languages and the impact of the English language on their culture. They told me that they can still understand their indigenous language but they can’t speak it anymore as in education and in the workplace only English is used. They expressed their concerns that in one or two generations their indigineous language will disappear and they will permanently lose important parts of their culture and identity. They claimed, that they already have significantly less knowledge about their own culture than their grandparents do, but they also consider speaking English a passport to freedom, and for them personally, speaking English gave the opportunity to study in the UK.

Most of the highest ranking universities of the world are in English speaking countries and English is currently the lingua franca of academia. Students who come to the UK, from all around the world, contribute about £2 billion a year to the economy, through tuition fees and by living here while they form relationships with people and organisations which will continue when they receive leadership positions in their countries. It creates trading opportunities between countries, an easier environment in which the UK can do business, and boosts the English teaching industry, with most of the earning going directly to the UK. It is not a coincidence that from all the world’s ‘Englishes’ British Council promotes British English as the original and natural English from the country with the longest English speaking history. Teaching British English encourages people to visit and study in the UK, although, by now non-native speakers far outnumber native speakers. With regards to the number of people who speak English globally, I would like to point out an interesting thought mentioned in The English Effect published by the British Council. It explores the disadvantage caused by English language becoming a global language, i.e. that “the real casualty from the global spread of English may actually be the native speaker: The rest of the world will have access to everything s/he does, but s/he will have access to little or nothing beyond the edges of his own tongue.” They urge English native speakers to learn a second language in order to keep the linguistic leverage.

Although, the idea of living in a world where everyone can understand each other seems very alluring, with the promise of development, employability, education, freedom, economy and business, speaking English in a country where it is not the indigenous language can erase national identity, decimate the culture, and with ineffective education techniques, slow down development.

BRIGITTA KOVACS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

 

Advertisements

Who benefits from the global marketing of English. SOPHIE HELPS explores the pros and cons of the domination of one language

The English language has become the world’s most significant lingua franca and in many respects is the language of universal communication. According to some, many of the most celebrated literary texts in the world’s literary canon have been written in English and later translated.  Crystal (1987, p.358) claims that “[o]ver two-thirds of the world’s scientists write in English,” thus making English a global force to be reckoned with, because as medical advancements increase in popularity, so does the expansion of English. So it is often alleged that more and more people are choosing to learn English, as its influence continues to expand.
So is this popularity based on an inherent ‘superiority’? Why is English often considered to be superior to others? Pennycook cites and critiques the triumphalist views early 20th century linguists such as Jespersen who claim “there is perhaps no language in the civilized world that stands so high as English” (1998, p.136). Due to the correlations between English being considered ‘civilized’, it is held in high political, legal and scientific respect.
One of the market forces behind the increasing spread of English, is undoubtedly, the British Council. Their job is to encourage the expansion of English. According to Gray (2012b, p.97), the British Council’s textbook industry is “worth £3-4 billion year to the British economy” and this industry “makes the case for English as a language worth learning in terms of the economic benefits it can bring to countries and to individual speakers” (Gray, 2012b, p.97). Other countries require training in order to teach the English language so they ultimately rely on the council’s services to educate them. Some consider this to be a an example of English being a kind of ‘cultural capital’ which is sold like any other commodity and can lead to a kind of cultural or ‘linguistic imperialism’ whereby ultimately the English economy grows through profiting from the success of English. English is exploited as a marketable commodity which is: “putting a price on things never actually produced as commodities” (Harvey, 2005, p. 166) making English a “killer language” (Price 1984; Nettle & Romaine 2000). As English grows, fewer people choose to learn other languages such as French and German.
English has recently become more firmly established in countries where traditionally it played little role. For instance, in Rwanda, following a devastating civil war which led to a cut in diplomatic ties with France, English replaced French as an institutional lingua franca, including being the language used in schools at quite an early age, replacing the indigenous Kinyarwanda. Some critics argue the British Council are the biggest benefactors.

So, does this mean the spread of English has had a provable, positive effect? Not necessarily. Unfortunately, some Marxist theorists are still able to argue that the financial aspect of English has been exploited, as the richest elite in Rwanda have an unfair advantage. Many Rwandans are still struggling to incorporate English into their vernacular. Families from more affluent backgrounds are able to spend extra money on tutorials and resources which grants them a faster and more in depth knowledge of English. Essentially countries adopt the “neoliberalistic ideology in favour of greater economical advantages” (Gray, 2012a, pp.137-138). But not everybody gains.
Nonetheless the World Bank’s Its Doing Business report 2010 noted that Rwanda is “the world’s top reformer of business regulation” marking “the first time a Sub-Saharan African economy is [in] the top reformer[‘s list]” (The World Bank, 2009). So although there are some who would argue the spread of English only benefits the rich, this report states it is actually easier for the locals to start a successful business.
English is a marketable commodity, and as many of the world’s top businesses communicate through the medium of English, it is understandable that in using English you are more likely to achieve global, financial success. So by exploiting the language, not just the British economy benefits. As the Rwandan case study highlights it can have success elsewhere around the globe. It is safe to say, the discussion of whether or not English currently being the ‘global language’ is a positive phenomenon, is not going to be resolved anytime soon.

SOPHIE HELPS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Gray, J. (2012a). English the industry. In A. Hewings & C. Tagg (Eds.). The Politics of English: Conflict, competition, co-existence (pp.137-163). Abingdon: Routledge. 

Gray, J. (2012b). Neoliberalism, celebrity and aspirational content in English language teaching textbooks for the global market. In D. Block., J. Gray & M. Holborow (Eds.) (2012), Neoliberalism and applied linguistics (pp. 86-113). London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Nettle, D. &  Romaine,S. (2000). Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pennycook, A. (1998). English and the discourses of colonialism. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Global English: who benefits? HOLLY ROYLE explores the celebration and demonisation of the world’s dominant lingua franca

The English language is of significant importance around the globe. Graddol states that “English is seen in many countries, at an individual, institutional or national level, as representing the key to economic opportunity” (2007, p. 258). English is continuing to spread, in part through promotion by organisations such as the British Council. In previous historical periods English has not always been so positively encouraged. The language has been previously forced onto other cultures under the justification of it being superior and more civilised. What damage has this done? The negative enforcement of the language and more modern encouragement create a difficult contrast. With this in mind, is the demonisation of global English justified?

The British Council “is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities […] – changing lives by creating opportunities, building connections and engendering trust” (British Council). The organisation plays an important role in encouraging the learning of English across the globe. In their annual report for 2016/17 they state that the organisation “engaged directly with 65 million people” (p. 6), so they evidently have a wide spread of influence. The British Council organise events such as Shakespeare Lives, the promotion of which involved Sir Ian McKellen visiting China for the event. They claim that the “[s]ocial media content reached 12.5 million people” (2017, p. 12). No doubt the celebrity presence would have contributed to this. These large figures show the extent of the influence the British Council has through social media alone. A significant part of their reasoning for encouraging the learning of English as a second language is that it is a skill that can increase career prospects. The organisation highlights that “English is essential if you want to get ahead in today’s fast-paced global economy” and that with the British Council, “the chances of success are much higher” (British Council). However, it raises the question of what is the benefit for the British Council? The organisation publishes their financial figures in their annual report, showing that the business side to the organisation is significant in their operations. For the year 2016/17 “[t]he British Council achieved almost ten per cent growth in total income to £1,076.9 million” (2017, p. 54). This shows that the expansion of the organisation and English language teaching (ELT) across the globe does ultimately provide a large financial gain. Whether the benefit to the organisation outweighs the good it brings to individuals is not certain.

The English language has not always been so positively presented to other cultures. Issues of English being forced onto populations where English was not the indigenous language cannot be overlooked. For example, according to Martin (2012, p. 249), “[t]hroughout the American colonial period, [American] English was systematically promoted as the language that would ‘civilize’ the Filipinos”. ELT was enforced on the basis that English was essential for learning other subjects. Martin claims that an argument used to justify the enforcement of English is that “English proficiency is critical in learning as other key subjects such as Science and Mathematics use English in textbooks and other reference materials” (2012, p. 258). This suggests that American English was viewed as superior to the Filipino languages and in order to maintain it, falsities were fabricated. This was incredibly detrimental to children in the education system at this time, as they were having to learn all subjects in English which was not their first language. English was, and continues to be presented as a means to guarantee success in order “[t]o be sure, a good command of English is beneficial in employment situations where the language is used. However, language proficiency alone may not ensure economic success.” (p. 256). This idea of learning English, whether it be American English or another variety, as a guarantee of work appears more as a justification for ELT rather than a benefit to those learning English. This also raises the question of whether having English as a skill can truly guarantee better employment opportunities.

It is easy to see why the global spread of the English language is demonised when it is forced onto other populations such as the Filipinos. The current promotion techniques used by the British Council may be harder to categorise. Ultimately the British Council has a high financial gain from ELT and it has a significant influence in countries around the world. However, the organisation could potentially change lives to an extent as learning the English language could increase career opportunities. Is the demonisation of global English justified? This depends on perspective as it can have benefits and be detrimental to other cultures.

HOLLY ROYLE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

British Council. Our organisation.

British Council. English for the workplace. 

British Council. (2017). Annual Report and Accounts 2016-17

Graddol, D. (2007). Global English, global culture? In S. Goodman, D. Graddol, & T. Lillis (Eds), Redesigning English, (pp. 243-279). Abingdon: Taylor & Francis Ltd.

Martin, I. P. (2012). Periphery ELT: The politics and practice of teaching English in the Philippines. In A. Kirkpatrick (Ed) The Routledge handbook of world Englishes (pp. 247-264). Abingdon & New York: Routledge.