Chapter 8: Language, Nation, World

M Mical Public Seen by 154

Summary and reflections on the chapter

This chapter investigates the relationship between language, culture and identity, and the role of imperialism in shaping these relations. He investigates three aspects of English language teaching: as a second (or additional) language, as a national language, and as a world language.

He moves between the teaching of English as a Second Language in schools in the US and the teaching of English for Speakers of Other Languages abroad. In this chapter the contexts and agencies/aspirations/identities of the different language learners discussed are not always clear.

English as a second language (US)

“One of the most challenging educational issues today: how best to work with students for whom the national language is not their first language”.
“As it now stands, English as a second language classes are taught as if language learning operated outside history” (193) Devoid of social and political aspects.
Proposal: include in language learning the historical context of why the students are now learning English, linked to their story of migration.
Otherwise, “how are students to resist judging people, and themselves, by how well they speak this one language, by how native a speaker of English they can be?” “English today is no less a source of linguistic identification and dislocation than its history has made it in the process of becoming a global phenomenon, and the point of an education in language is primarily to help in understanding that complex process.” (205)
Important for the development of linguistic skills not only for EAL students, but also for native speakers!
The education of language teachers needs to include a critique of method, for example of the habit of many ESL classes to only allow English to be spoken. Conversely, most research on bilingual learners points to the importance of schools' recognising the value of students' mother tongues. While today most students are not explicitly prohibited from using their mother tongues, minority cultures and languages are devalued so their use is informally discouraged.
Method-wise, Willinsky does not discuss how the practice of teaching languages as a set of formal rules that the teacher sets and the students simply need to replicate is a way of teaching submission to authority. We teach English – shaped and re-shaped every day by those who speak it – as something very distant from our students’ experiences, we teach them that their English is not right, is not ‘proper English’.

Standard of language conventionally defined by the “native speaker”. Idea that we are native to one language as we are native to one mother, developed in the European age of nationalisms. However, we know that national tongues were usually born out of the symbolic or literal violence of modern nations: the importance of mother tongues for nations can be seen as another dimension of the European fascination with the division of people. So what is the native speaker? Paikeday, The native speaker is dead! “There is no such thing as a 'native speaker' in the sense of a person being able to claim an inherent hold on the full extent of the language” Rather, social definition, not any native speaker: “The native speaker of English, it appears to be assumed, has been born into a white family or at least a white country.” Distinction between 'standard English' and 'dialects' or 'vernaculars': “Paikeday proposes that Indian English might be only as much of a dialectical entity as Boston English” (195) The ‘standards of language’ protected by native speakers “will be standards that continue to coincide with the maintenance of privileges by nation, race, gender, and class” (196) “linguistic chauvinism embodied in this notion of the native speaker” - stories of English-speaking persons who are not racialised as white turned away from English-teaching jobs abroad because 'customers want someone who looks like a native speaker’
-> Is the ‘native speaker’ indeed best placed to teach a language?

English as a national language

“English is a transnational national language, not strictly native to any place in particular” (198) Due to imperialism. “Since the collapse of the British empire, the English language lives on as its legacy. It stands as a national and schooled language in a good number of countries.” (201) Use of European languages as the official language in former colonies, especially in Africa. Where the borders of nation-states have been drawn arbitrarily by colonialists, European languages dominate over indigenous ones: example of Nigeria, with large Hausa- and Yoruba-speaking communities, but English as the sole official language, although it is not ‘native’ to the majority of its citizens. (203)
Debate: Ngugi wa Thiong’o in the 60s stopped using English in his writings, and refers to imperialism’s “cultural bomb” which can “annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment”. On the other hand, Nigerian scholar Gaurav Desai opposes “any essentialist arguments which attempt to reject English because it is not ‘African’” and says “English is as much an African language as it is a British or American one”. Willisky notes that this position glosses over the fact that ‘African English’ is continuously relegated in the position of a dialect form. (204)

English as a World Language
English is the dominant language worldwide in fields like scientific literature and multinational business. But to what extent is the promotion of English world-wide echoing an imperialist logic? Willinsky: “It is not that I imagine the vast company of English-language educators currently serving around the world as a lost legion of colonial militia, armed with the jingoistic poetry of Kipling. But I do think that these educators need to go into this global language trade with their eyes open to English as a national-imperial language with a history that is not yet fully past but stands to be transformed. This understanding of what it means to teach English, of how teachers regard the multilingual resources that their students bring to class, and of how they encourage their monolingual and multilingual students to think of their own place within the nation, are all part of what follows from these representations of language and nation.” (207) Indeed much ESOL teaching material is very racialised and class-specific: e.g. ‘Mr Smith (obviously white) has left his car at the mechanic and needs to get the bus he is not very happy because it is very crowded’. Alternative is “English for African learners” all about cows and huts, but a) Africa is not all about cows and huts b) many students want to learn English also to acquire the cultural capital to operate in the English-speaking world, so cows and huts are really not helpful. Willinsky proposes “that lessons on languages of greater global currency include the historical forces that have created the unequal exchange value of this global linguistic economy.”

Points of discussion and additional information from the current UK school perspective

In this chapter I found a number of complex issues and intersections conflated in terms of learners and contexts. Even just in the UK a child new to England and English in the school system is in a very different psycho/socio/linguistic position from an adult migrant taking ESOL classes .. from a student at university .. from a young person born in the UK speaking another language at home (or losing that language through compliance or benign neglect) ....

If this language topic is of interest then be aware that the references are somewhat dated. It’s a busy field of enquiry with lots of new research material to pursue.

  1. English as a second language

ESL/E2L is North American terminology. EAL has been used in the UK for school age children since 90s, reflecting both linguistic research and a progressive ideology about language learning in the UK EAL profession, which is embedded in National Strategies 1997-2010.
The naming defines an implicit relationship between English and learner.
‘Second language’ implies a linear path and perhaps suggests the English thus learned is lesser than that of a native speaker.
‘Additional language’ recognises the learner’s prior experience of language. Language learning also positioned within learning the mainstream curriculum – not decontextualised

NB also international uses of EFL(foreign); ESOL (other) used for adults in UK ; ELL and the different implicit positioning/purposing of each

  1. “One of the most challenging educational issues today: how best to work with students for whom the national language is not their first language”.

This is an opinion expressed as fact which problematises multilingualism much as Daily Mail does in UK at the moment. The ‘challenge’ is not pedagogy but ideology.

For an alternative view, Jim Cummins’ work in the Ontario school system both challenges hegemonic global school improvement discourse and ideology AND gets good comparative results

Multilingualism in UK school system is rendered a challenge by lack of knowledge about bilingualism and distracting external accountability pressures within context of xenophobic rhetoric. In UK this rhetoric is also applied to European languages eg Polish. There are observable hierarchies of language within UK school system. MFL valued but not heritage languages.

There is an increasing managerial move towards withdrawal and the teaching of the dominant language seen as an opportunity to school learner into a model of the dominant culture also

Wallace http://research.ioe.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/a-school-of-immigrants(eb52d2e8-bdf7-4955-9c8c-5f487743d805).html

French film The School of Babel http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3552254

  1. DfE figures via the school census in January 2015 show 19.4 % primary school pupils in state-funded schools in the UK speak English as an additional language. 15% in Secondary.
    This is a rise of 0.7% since 2014. There is much variation between and within regions.

These figures are problematic and insecure, along with the language and ethnicity figures. The school census depends on school reporting, itself dependent on school knowledge and understanding and parental disclosure.


Steve Strand research report gives flavour of issues and is very interesting on intersections between language and ethnicity.

  1. Standard of language conventionally defined by the “native speaker”.

This is a hugely contested term and subject to vast body of research in different disciplines/pedagogies.
‘School English’ is alien to most ‘native English speakers’ – standardisation is a class issue too
Accent/dialect prejudice exists alongside language hierarchies.

Correctness/standardisation is also an issue within English. References to linguistic ‘hygiene’ exist back in the 1920s and before. Worth remembering that by the end of the 19C, the grammar and curriculum taught in Grammar Schools were designed to create imperial workforce – proseletysing language alongside religion.

Research has shown that accent of an English language learner is not the dominant factor in intelligibility .. intonation and fluency have more impact.

  1. Global English (applied linguists use this as a technical term - be alert if reading around)

Global Englishes – consider those taught and those emerging (eg Singlish) and their relative status. Not always predictable how this narrative will play out eg English spoken in England not seen as being as good (because it’s less standard and more idiomatic ie native like ! ) as the English taught in India and Taiwan.

Soweto Riots in 1976 rejected Afrikaans in favour of English .. not indigenous languages.

International schools teach curriculum in English so local languages may not be developed to academic fluency... effectively a linguistic colonisation which is big business and a competitive global market. Problematic in that if education doesn’t develop language for academic subjects then it will become ‘lesser’ within global language hierarchy and have less currency at home and abroad. There are also moves by global publishers such as Pearson to standardise international assessment of English fluency.

However British Council recently published a research report stressing the importance of developing heritage language to academic level

The content of Nigerian and Malawian curriculum is increasingly being decolonised but still uses English .. with impact on international literary acceptance of writers and counter narratives. Double edged sword?

Canagarajah disputes that there is any such thing as ‘a native language’ ... boundaries are porous and dependant on social practices of all language users, including those learning English. Unstable and endlessly inventive and subversive. Whatever the ideology, language and language users tend to subvert it!

The field of linguistic ethnography charts complex forces of multilingualism and translanguaging and how these intersect with identity and ideology.

Ofelia Garcia Jim Cummins Alastair Pennycook recommended.

Post script

What about the languages which disappear and die? One every 14 days ... 7000 more will be lost by 22C


What language/languaging profiles/experiences/journeys/practices do we have in the room and what insights into the issues do these offer us?

How to balance economic advantages of becoming ‘Standard English literate’ (in UK schools/globally) against losses of agency and ownership in heritage languages and vernaculars - and all stages in between!

Why don’t English language teachers in the UK accommodate their students' identities by teaching any lexis related to race or faith.


philippe verlinden Sun 21 Jun 2015 11:45AM

Dear Mical,

Thank you for your email and contribution last wednesday.

Also wanted to ask you how to connect with your reading group when I'm signing on Loomio.

Kind regards

Philippe Verlinden