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Is English a form of linguistic imperialism?

By Anne Burns

10 April 2013 - 14:51

Anne Burns of Aston University, Birmingham, and University of New South Wales, Sydney prepares to moderate a discussion on this topic at this year’s International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) Annual Conference.

In 1992 a book appeared in the field of applied linguistics that presented English language teachers with a highly challenging, even shocking, proposition. The author, Robert Phillipson, argued that the global teaching of English was an act of linguistic imperialism.

One of the major arguments in Linguistic Imperialism was that the spread of English, much of which had occurred through its prominence in global language education, has served to undermine the rights of other languages and to marginalise the opportunities that should exist for widespread multilingual education.

Since the 18th century, Phillipson argues, the spread of English has accompanied the political and economic intentions of English-speaking nations to conquer other countries. He claims this endangers their cultural ideals, their ways of life and their indigenous languages.

Collectively, English language teaching and its major agencies, such as the British Council, have been implicated in perpetuating myths about the significance and necessity of learning English and in ensuring that English has outstripped the teaching of other languages worldwide. Phillipson calls for radical change in language policy to redress the balance and to promote the multilingualism that reflects the more natural state of language use around the world.

Phillipson’s arguments have also provoked a number of criticisms, among which are making teachers feel unnecessarily guilty about teaching English, and adopting a patronising attitude towards developing countries by assuming they are incapable of making their own decisions about language choice. It has also been pointed out that a language of itself cannot be imperialistic.

Two decades on from when Phillipson’s book was published, we have another opportunity to debate his provocative questions about linguistic imperialism during this week’s IATEFL conference in Liverpool.

I am very much looking forward to facilitating the conversation among an expert panel of Dr Robert Phillipson himself, now Professor Emeritus at Copenhagen Business School; Dr Rebecca Kapitire Ndjoze-Ojo, former Deputy Minister for Education in Namibia; Dr Sarah Ogbay of the University of Asmara, Eritrea; and Danny Whitehead of the British Council in Indonesia.

The discussion is sure to provoke, challenge and stimulate, but what kinds of questions are likely to emerge? There are some that are still at the very centre of the debate: Are English language teachers promoters of linguistic imperialism? Or do they give learners access to a very important linguistic tool that helps individuals and economies to develop and compete globally? These questions continue to merit very serious consideration.

Moreover, as globalisation spreads and investment in English language learning increases, other questions continue to arise. Does the global spread of the English language threaten local languages, cultures and identities? Do these need to be safeguarded?

What are the forces driving the spread of English? Is the dominance of English online a threat?

We hope to hear your views about these questions, so share your thoughts in the comments, and check back here tomorrow when we will post video of the discussion.

If you’re attending the IATEFL conference, join us for the British Council Signature Event from 15.10 to 16.25 BST on Wednesday 10 April or join the debate on Twitter.

Follow our live coverage of the 47th Annual International IATEFL Conference and Exhibition.

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