English is as English does

The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language
July 7, 1995

So what is all the fuss about? The world wants to speak English - who doubts it? That makes our national language one of our most valuable assets - conservative estimates make it worth £5 billion a year to the nation - and this does not go unnoticed. The Foreign Office's "Britain in the World" conference in March roundly endorsed the thesis that not only does the world want English but that Britain, and the British Council, should get out and get on with giving it what it wants - the teachers, the methodology, the books; in short, the means of learning it.

Now that, to me, looks remarkably like the paradigm: a demand, a market, a supplier. But not to Alastair Pennycook. He is a man with a mission. Central to the discourse of English as an international language, he maintains, is the view that the spread of English is "natural, neutral and beneficial". This book sets out to show that it is not. The conclusion arrives in unseemly haste. It soon becomes clear that the author's quotation from N. S. Ndebele's paper on the English language and social change in South Africa - "The very concept of an international or world language was an invention of Western imperialism" - is in fact the book's primary thesis.

It is not entirely clear whether we are supposed to believe that it was an accident or a wicked plot. Few would dispute that the spread of English is closely linked with the spread of the colonies and the footprint of the British Empire. But whether this is the same as saying that it is linked with the spread of "capitalism" is a question begged. And to attribute it to development aid is a hypothesis asserted rather than proven. After all, English seems to be spreading rather fast as a second language in Europe unaided.

We are reminded that in the period of Empire, demand for English was fuelled not so much by any insistence on its use by the imperial administration as by popular demand, though the author does not quite put it that way. The masses were educated not in English but in the vernacular, with the inevitable result that the few who were educated in English came to be regarded as an elite group. Thus English became the passport to social and economic prestige, and therefore greater prosperity. A fair enough summary - or, rather, fair up to a point, Lord Copper. Less fair is the suggestion that today people consequently have little choice but to seek access to English presumably across the globe. It is all a bit too simple. Surely we need to know why French and Spanish prospered less and something about the little matters of the United States, mobility, technology, communications, international transport?

There is more to come. English poses a threat, we are told, to the very existence of other languages. That is indeed a serious issue. But the evidence cited is the plight of Chamorro in Guam, where English is supplanting the indigenous language. What we would like to know, but are not informed about, is whether Chamorro-speakers' choice of English is irrational. And why not cite French in Quebec or Welsh in Britain more persuasively? Similarly, we are asked to regret the predominantly widespread choice of English as a second language; but not furnished with the reasons that explain why that choice is almost always made with self-interest in mind.

A surprising amount of space is devoted to quoting from British Council reports with the apparent aim of proving that the council supports the teaching of English in the world in the belief that Britain "gains political, commercial and cultural advantage from the worldwide use of English", a view the council is hardly likely to dispute. But the logic again is wobbly. If true, it does not in any way establish that the learners in any sense suffer thereby. People are not that gullible. The better assumption is that devoted learners are well aware of the benefits that accrue from learning. Come on, Mr Pennycook, what is the real agenda?

Two chapters are devoted to the "worldliness" of English, this being author-speak for the cultural politics of English as an international language. A comparison is drawn between the situation in Singapore, where English has always been the language of administration and of higher education, and the situation in Malaysia where Bahasa-Malay was made the main language of instruction at independence, but where falling standards of English have led to a new emphasis on English teaching. The English teacher should, we read, be acutely conscious of the implications of these two different contexts. True, but hardly an earth-moving insight. A more interesting speculation might be to ask what the relative strengths of English and Chinese will be in that region in, say, 30 years' time.

The author's distaste for the business realities of English language teaching is evident. In fact any reference to the commercial life - "transactions", "exchange", "industry" - provokes a shudder in the prose. Language teaching schools are, it is true, only a little like banks and restaurants; but they are quite a lot like a whole range of other perfectly respectable private-sector education institutions, including correspondence colleges and driving schools, that do not exist unless the bottom line works. Professional standards and commercial success are not mutually exclusive.

It has to be healthy for our comfortable assumptions about English as an international language to be challenged. Yet this book leaves us with an unanswered question: if not English, what? Like it or not, we cannot turn the clock back. Teach the language we must, for English is the international language and there's an end on't.

Sir John Hanson is director-general, the British Council.

The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language

Author - Alastair Pennycook
ISBN - 0 582 23473 5 and 23472 7
Publisher - Longman
Price - £36.00 and £14.99

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