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 ) suggests that “[l]anguage, any language, has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture” (2009 : 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 : 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]
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.