English as a Foreign Language: Cultural Imperialism, or Economic Resource? TOM O’REILLY investigates

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 [1986]) suggests that “[l]anguage, any language, has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture” (2009 [1986]: 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 [1986]: 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]

Heller, M. (2003) ‘Globalization, the new economy, and the commodification of language and identity. Journal of Sociolinguistics, Volume 7,4. pp. 473-492 [accessed [02/02/15]

Park, J. and Wee, L. (2012) Markets of English: Linguistic Capital and Language Policy in a Globalizing World. Oxon: Routledge.

Phillipson, R. (1992) Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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.

Thiong’o, N. (2009 [1986]) The Language of African Literature. In Jenkins, J. World Englishes: A Resource Book for Students. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.




DOM D’ANGELILLO explores to what extent English is a ‘killer’ of languages or a global necessity

Eight years ago, I was on a school trip in Germany. Sitting in a city centre café with two of my globetrotting friends, I thought now would be the best time to practice the language I had been learning for two years. I mustered up the courage and confidently asked for ‘drei coca’ (three cokes) and as I settled back into my seat, my order was met with laughter. ‘You want a dry coke?’ The waiter replied ‘you sound like an idiot, why don’t you just speak English’. Now, at the time, I was far too embarrassed to make anything of it, but when I look back as a competent English language student, it begs the question. Is English a threat to languages the world over or a necessity for those inferior nations?

Crystal (2003a:108-109) estimates that there are around 750 million English speakers in the world, acting as an official language in countries ranging from India to Nigeria. Now, while this may seemingly make the world a better place for us British Passport wielding linguists, meaning that we can order nuggets in almost any country, it is not always as easy for those whose languages perish.

African writer Thiong’o (1986:11) states that during his education in Kenya, English ‘was the language, and all others had to bow before it’. The fact is, that after the English colonised Kenya, the very identity of Thiong’o’s native ‘Gikuyu’ was lost, along with ‘the culture of those people’ making Kenya an English speaking hub rather than a proud African Nation (Thiong’o 1986:13). This instance is most certainly not an anomaly either, with Krishnaswamy & Krishnaswamy (2006:109) arguing that the same happened in India, where the educated took control and ‘India, to a large extent used English’, a disturbing thought if not your first language.

It’s not all doom and gloom however, and although broad estimates from the likes of Rymer (2012) in the  National Geographic state that ‘a language dies every 14 days’, the more conservative argue that language death is simply a part of ‘the natural cycle of language’ (Wolfram 2002:764). After all, we have to accept when our beloved pets and family members are no more.

Generally speaking, having English replace languages can help the world be a better, more unified place. Consider politics, business, air travel and safety, all of which see English as the language to use (Crystal 2003b:12-13). Perhaps where once Crystal (2003b:12 ) argued that ‘a lingua franca might be needed for the whole world’ it is more appropriate to say ‘a lingua franca is needed for the whole world’.

So what can we conclude? Whatever way we look at it, English is the global language whether you like it or not. Used in so many influential and important fields, from business to Hollywood, air travel to politics, it has become the norm for a huge percentage of the world. While this is well and good for those of us that speak English, it can be disastrous for those that don’t, losing an identity, pride and a sense of culture, becoming a pawn in an ever-growing English speaking world. Perhaps we should rephrase our initial question, is English the killer, or are smaller languages the more vulnerable prey?

DOM D’ANGELILLO, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Crystal, D. (2003a) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. 2nd Edition. Cambridge: University Press.

Crystal, D. (2003b) English as Global language. 2nd Edition. Cambridge: University Press.

Krishnaswamy, N & Krishnaswamy, L. (2006) The Story of English in India. New Delhi: Manas Saikia.

Rymer, R. (2012)  National Geographic.  [Accessed 18 January 2014]. Available at:  http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/vanishing-languages/rymer-text?rptregcta=reg_free_np&rptregcampaign=20131016_rw_membership_r1p_intl_ot_w#finished

 Thiong’o, N. (1986) Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Nairobi: East African Publishers Ltd.

 Wolfram, W (2002) Language death and dying. In: J. Chambers, P. Trudgill & N. Schilling-Estes (eds.) Handbook of Language Variation and Change. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 764-787.

REBECCA SUTTON asks: ‘Is global English an imperial dictator or an educational saviour?’

The issue of the role of global English is much debated in linguistic circles. It is true that there are some individuals who suffer at the hands of the ever expanding English language. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1986, cited by Jenkins, 2009) argues this through his personal experiences in Kenya. He claims that English came in and forced itself upon a nation which was declared to be in a state of emergency. He describes educational dictators which forced English upon children by punishing any child caught speaking in a native tongue. Even worse, all exams were written in English which meant any child struggling to grasp the language would fail; even if they excelled in other subjects! This is an argument which we need to consider with sensitivity as he states a loss of a native language results in the loss of human rights and culture. It is, without question, a tragedy for a culture to be lost due to an imposing language. The question is whether English was introduced as a form of imperial control or was it in fact an educational tool to help the nation.

Alternatively, many challenge the notion that English really is the bulldozer of the language world. Let’s consider the account of Chinua Achebe (1975, cited by Jenkins, 2009). He claims the introduction of English gave Africa a sense of unity. English allowed people to communicate with a manageable number of languages compared to the previous many strands of African indigenous languages. He argues that English is a worldwide language and believes he should not deny a language he has been given. Schneider (2011) also offers support for global English, claiming that Nigeria introduced it by means of ethnic neutrality as it meant not one ethnic tongue was favoured over another. It seems to me, that English can also offer many rewards to a community by being introduced. If it can provide an answer to problems and bring together people from different communities, is this really a killer act? When considering these arguments global English does not seem all doom and gloom as anticipated.

Ultimately, we must ask ourselves what is the answer to such a delicate issue. Is this debate really one which requires an answer on either side of the fence? I believe the answer lies within the middle ground.  Yes, it is true that English is the language of business and trade (Schneider, 2011). Yes, it is true that English can offer better employment opportunities due to its worldwide fame (Schneider, 2011). However, is this really an all or nothing event? Surely, a native language can thrive alongside an international one. I believe the best result would be to offer English as a second language option in countries such as Nigeria and Kenya. This way we can avoid the tragedy experienced by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1986, cited by Jenkins, 2009) from happening again. It would seem the answer to all of our linguistic problems. By allowing both global English and native languages to live alongside each other, in harmony, people would be able to retain their culture whilst benefitting from the knowledge of this universal language. Unfortunately, this is not a view shared by all. Can a debate like this ever be resolved?

REBECCA SUTTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Jenkins, J. (2009). World Englishes. Oxon: Routledge.

Schneider, E. (2011). English Around the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.