Language is the grounds on which communities converge in a common mode of communication and relation. However, over the course of history, it has shown itself to be more than a means of expression but also, a means of oppression, as exemplified in the colonial expansion period. Between the 17th to mid-20th centuries, the British Empire spread the English language among its colonies, establishing its status as a dominant political influence – an influence extending to the 21st century in which English dominates the realms of business, entertainment, and diplomacy. The spread of English has been condemned for posing limitations on the flourishing of a multilingual reality in certain countries and the world at large. The question thus becomes a matter of whether the dominance of English advances or instead, depletes global relations, reserving its utility to elitist Anglophones who serve to propagate colonial dynamics. Does the expansion of English arrive at the cost of depreciating other valuable socio-linguistic expressions, giving rise to what critics call a reality of “linguistic imperialism”?
English is spoken by 1.6 billion people around the world, constituting a third of the world population. It is the native tongue of 138 million people, a statistic that speaks to the geographical mileage of the language. English is the official language of the European Union, multiple Commonwealth countries and the United Nations, the World Bank and more – powerful international institutions that tend to delimit the rules of global dynamics. Further solidifying its influence, international companies frequently demand that their employees speak English in order to position their objectives for an expanded global, prosperous impact. The dominance of English even penetrates private spheres, such as the internet, which pose as global platforms – English is the language of 80% of the content on the internet in spite of the fact that 44% of online users use a different language in their households. In the 21st century, English continues to assert its status as a pre-requisite to acquiring power, money and status.
The term “linguistic imperialism” was pegged by linguist Robert Phillipson in reference to the oppressive effect of the English language as a carrier of dominant, Western oriented ideology. According to Phillipson, in the global decolonization period of the 1950s, Western influences and investments were sustained through the development of English Language Training programs and applied linguistics departments. The key tenets of British ELT include the encouragement of monolingualism, the native speaker as the topmost qualified instructor and early childhood education in English, collectively reinforcing what Phillipson declares “linguistic imperialism”. In an article for The Guardian, Phillipson criticizes a decision of the US State Department in November 2011 to join up with TESOL International Association, which seeks to introduce reforms to respond to the global demand for English by working in tandem with business companies, universities and ELT investors to facilitate the international spread of English. Phillipson points out that the US’ plan was cast according to the success of the British Council in expanding British influence on a global scale, sustaining a relationship of dominance-dependence between Britain and non-English speaking countries akin to colonialism. ELT is thus charged with sustaining the asymmetry of power from the colonial context, which grants power to Anglophone elitists.
In the case of Namibia, the selection of English as the primary language of education lead to lacklustre test scores due to instructors’ poor proficiency levels in English. In 1990, following its independence from South Africa, the Namibian government selected English as the primary language for education in spite of the statistical dominance of Afrikaans speakers in the nation. At least 30 languages are spoken in Namibia, 14 of which boast full, orthographical use, but English was selected to avoid local tension and to promote the nation’s global transition.
However, recent studies found that 98% of the country’s English instructors are not fully proficient in speaking or teaching the language. According to government tests, a whopping 98% of teachers required further training in teaching basic English.In examining the cases of South Africa and Botswana, Namibia’s neighbours, higher education rates reign and, as critics insist, are largely credited to their loyalty to and mastery of the indigenous languages. The Namibian case indicates how an inclination towards English, as an idealized springboard of prosperity, fails under a lack of intellectual resources. In the meantime, the local language of Namibia is neglected as a potential form of power and intellect in itself.
Similarly, in the case of Pakistan, English is widely posited as the key to gaining prosperity, a myth circulated by government policymakers in order to comply to their elitist bias. Pakistan is host to at least eight major languages that compete in an effort to seize supremacy. In the scramble for supremacy, English is perceived in Pakistan as a "neutral" language, lifted above the complications of local clash. Pakistan nonetheless faces increasing pressure to integrate into the international community and market by teaching its citizens English. In the meantime, public-sector schools are made responsible for tending to the preservation of indigenous languages as the language of instruction. The gap between government and education sector objectives has given rise to a national crisis of linguistic disorder as the government retreats from its involvement with the education sector, giving rise to a crippled performance rate. The demand for English instruction, a trend offset by the privileged elite, has put Pakistani schools under pressure to teach the language where the supply of capable instructors simply falls short.
Amidst these criticisms and cautionary case studies, it is nonetheless important to acknowledge the contemporary reality of English as a fundamentally useful language by which people across geographical boundaries are empowered to connect and relate. Trade, tourism, communication and several other institutions rely heavily on English as a means of forging global relations and diplomacy, previously complicated or disabled by linguistic barriers. Thus, for its colonial, imperial or commercial connotations, English has doubtlessly furthered the globalization movement, facilitating communication at broader rates than ever before. In certain cases, English can be perceived as a diplomatic, peace facilitating language, such as the case in India. In the mid-1960s, the Indian government attempted to establish Hindi, the primary language of Northern India, as the national language of the government and educational institutes. The mandate was perceived by many as a necessary rebuff of the bureaucratic legacy of the Raj. However, the linguistic measure provoked fervent rioting in the southern state of Tamil Nadu where the employment of Hindi as a national language was perceived as a gesture of regional domination by the North, aligning itself with “linguistic imperialism”. As in the case in Pakistan, English was perceived as the politically neutral language – the language of diplomacy, a status casting a shadow of irony given the violent, colonial connotations of English in India. The case of India shows that attitudes towards English are more complicated and conflicted than the dominance-dependence duality that Phillipson declares upon the contemporary global reality. For one, Phillipson affords little credit to the autonomy of the developing, “dependent” countries to assert their own linguistic preferences and parameters. Furthermore, English and the faculty of language itself are not static but ever changing modes of communication, which are subject to shift and re-define themselves across a range of different contexts. Thus, to reduce the complexity of the function of the English language to pure “imperialism”, as Phillipson’s critique insists, discredits the manifold meanings that language accumulates across different contexts. In its contemporary reality, English is equally capable of both re-dressing itself in and shedding the connotations of its colonial past.
A concern that Phillipson’s argument raises is whether it is fair to consider language as possessing political ideology or national self-interest. Does language itself possess agency – a motive that surpasses mere, often arbitrary, translation methods? Has English internalized the oppressive effects that it wielded on its colonial subjects only a century ago? Critics argue that teaching English informs its students how to perceive and conceptualize the world through a Western perspective. Such criticisms imply that language is an intrinsic vehicle for cultural values through which meaning is not merely translated but socio-culturally mediated and transformed. “Linguistic imperialism” is thus bound up in questions of language as a form of agency unto itself, existing outside of the select, dictionary designated definition of individual words.
The claim that the spread of English encourages the absorption of a new set of culturally founded values that singularly dominate is a simplistic statement. Every language is host to its own multilingual society, commonly branded members rendered foreign to each other in their language. It can then be argued that English itself is subject to evolution and socio-cultural manipulating, denying any rigid descriptions of the language as intrinsically imperialistic. Who is to claim that Western ideals of democracy and international trade and interaction cannot flourish in any language but English? “Linguistic imperialism” might be too severe a term to describe the power dynamics of language, after all.
The discourse on linguistic dominance should be shifted to examine and encourage multilingualism, asking what is comprised in crushing the flourishing of socio-linguistic identities as they gather together in a global arena. It might further be beneficial to ask what is to be gained when languages influence and lend from each other, commingling to generate playful results. The fixation on English at the heart of the discourse of “linguistic imperialism” must expand its scope, addressing the ways in which many languages around the world are used as political weapons and oppressive devices that shut out valuable and unique voices in want and need of being heard. By shifting the discourse away from the dominance of English, people can be led to contemplate multilingualism as the means of showcasing the potential of all languages as they travel on a global circuit, encouraging a broader community of relation and understanding.