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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

September 14, 2012

English as Imperialism- beating a dead horse with ELF

I don’t expect English speakers to look or sound like me. After all, that guy in front of me in the security line at Seoul's Incheon Airport last week- where was he from? I’d guess Romania or Bulgaria. Hungary perhaps. And he was speaking English to the Korean official. And at the plane entrance there was a woman I’d identify as Thai or Indochinese discussing some matter with the Turkish purser. In English of course.

All the English I heard was ‘accented’ (a loaded term, I know) and offered up the occasional missed article or misplaced pronoun-- but all the speakers were competent in communicating their needs. It was both efficient and successful.

It probably comes as no surprise to most readers that non-native speakers of English outnumber native speakers and that business, politics, art, academia, sport, and even words of love are carried out the world over by Lithuanians talking to Brazilians, Zaireans to Vietnamese… in English. This implies that new standards and norms arise. International intelligibility replaces native-like competency as a learning goal. Tony Blair and Barack Obama need not be your language role models.

A new, paradoxical reality

I’ve blogged about the emergence of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) here before, as well as in the Daily Yomiuri. This is not new stuff. But as English becomes woven indelibly into the fabric of international communication a new, rather paradoxical, reality emerges:
The old discourse about English as an agent of imperialism is a dead horse.

How's that, you ask? Isn’t the fact that all these non-native English speakers are compelled to communicate in a foreign tongue a perfect example of linguistic hegemony?

Not really. First keep in mind that these common, widespread examples are NNS-NNS interactions. There is no power differential here, as there may be in an NS-NNS exchange. They are on equal, neutral ground. Second, this emerging new ELF belongs to them. They create and negotiate this language. They are now its owners. I have my little piece of English property (North American variety) and they have their own English territory too. I won’t pee on their linguistic lawns.

The old paradigm- Anglos and ownership of English

The old paradigm of English as an agent of imperialism assumed the NS-NNS dimension as normative. It is ironic that Phillipson or Pennycook (the auto-quote sources when it comes to the ‘imperialism’ school) seem to implicitly assume that Anglo-Americans own the language and by way of financial, military, or political power and influence, foist it upon others.

OK, the fact that English has emerged as the international go-to language as a by-product of imperialism, hard version or soft, is beyond historical doubt-- but now that linguistic play dough is putty in the hands of others. It’s not our toy anymore and we can’t take it home with us. It’s like the train system that the British established in India-- that’s Indian state-owned railway now. End of story.

The flight I referred to earlier took me to an international English studies conference in Istanbul. There, several hundred specialists, academicians, and linguists engaged in seminars, lectures, hands-on sessions and the like. I’d estimate that Anglo-Americans made up about, oh, 2% of all attendees. Macedonians argued with Italians, Egyptians held discussions with Danes, Croats lectured to a potpourri of other continental nationals. In English. In their own way, not like a newsreader from Minneapolis or Bristol. As hard as I looked I didn’t see a lot of ‘imperalizin’ goin’ down. What I saw was a variety of ideas and ideologies being shared and expressed. Assuming that Japanese people in Japan are somehow obliged to speak to me in English would be imperialistic. A Japanese footballer giving tactical advice to a Slovenian teammate in the same tongue is hardly so. You can see the difference.

World Englishes- the polar opposite of ELF

Let me shift gears here a little now to clarify something about the World Englishes debate. You’ve all likely heard of the movement to accept and preserve local varieties of English, that Philippine English, Pastikani English, Singaporean English, and Caribbean English are all perfectly legitimate and intelligible language systems, often infused with local colour. Well, ELF is not about that. The World Englishes meme is all about accepting and recognizing differences. ELF, on the other hand, is about developing a unified form, a standard that makes disparate L1 speakers mutually intelligible, just not one based upon the Anglo-American model.

In other words, World Englishes is about legitimizing local disparity, whereas ELF is all about cross-national communication, defined by its speakers. Singlish (Singaporean English) speakers using their local patois when addressing, say, Belizeans are not likely to succeed—which is precisely what is implied by the term ‘local variety’-- its utility is limited, insular. But if there is some common ground, preferably one that doesn’t force them to sound like Jeremy Irons, communication will be more successful.

Fanciful notions of language as a moral agent

I have another bone to pick here too. I have always been bothered by how the ‘English as a tool of Imperialism’ forces have often mischaracterized language, perhaps willfully so. What I am referring to here is the fanciful, and scientifically absurd, notion that by learning English you also automatically absorb some of its foundational cultural values—that language means (or is somehow 'identifiable' with) ideology, culture, and belief systems. Besides the monolithic view that cultures have set 'values', there are so many problems with this simplistic association that it’s hard to know where to start.

I suppose the biggest fallacy is anthropomorphism, assuming that an entity such as a language has motives and intentions, that it is a de facto moral agent. Only animate objects, and perhaps viruses, can be said to have these qualities. All languages can express a wide variety of beliefs and ideas. It’s self-evidently far from true that every English speaker has the socio-political slant of a Mitt Romney. Virulent anti-Western, anti-Imperialist, anti-Capitalist scribes have been penned in English around the globe. It’s not like there is something indigenous to the language that somehow forces you to shop at Walmarts or invest in hedge funds. Saying so would be akin to believing that eating Chinese food in Dublin will somehow make the eater more sympathetic to the Chinese Communist party. In fact, this entire ‘viral’ view of language reminds me of Monty Python’s Deadly Joke sketch (the one that causes readers to die laughing), in which it is stated that a police officer happened to see a few words of the joke, leading him to spend several days in hospital.

Magical incantations and Potter-esque spells

It also imbues language with magical, incantational qualities. There’s something Harry Potter-esque about the notion that mastering verb declensions or relative clauses in English leads to imparting certain modes of thought. Chant the magic spell and presto, you too will become a middle class Caucasian complete with his or her big sack o’ values.

The fact that English entrenches itself deeper as a true ELF with each passing day attests to the absurdity of the view that the global use of English serves as a subtle conduit for Home County or Midwestern values. So does the fact that local Englishes worldwide absorb and reflect the local culture, not that of, say, Portland.

Reflection or creator of cultures and ideas?

Ah ha! the critic might say at this point. If I admit that language reflects the local culture, doesn’t English then reflect the values of its dominant culture (Anglo-American)? The answer is a qualified yes. Anglo-American English reflects Anglo-American culture. The specific, local language is certainly derived from the surrounding local culture. But it doesn't create that culture.

For example, Japanese keigo (honorific/respect forms) reflects a social hierarchy that is less evident in Anglo-American culture. Hence, Japanese employs terms like kacho, bucho, shacho (all types of ‘bosses’) who, in turn, require certain verbal inflections and address forms when spoken to. But while may one use these within the Japanese language/cultural milieu it doesn’t automatically make the speaker more respectful or humble or somehow create a sense of honouring thy superior. Hey, I use the forms too in Japanese-- in many cases towards people that I feel are cretins (and I can assure that almost all Japanese do the same).

We can discuss certain Anglo-American cultural benchmarks in Anglo-American English clearly because our variety has evolved to reflect that which is socially or culturally pertinent (as does any language). And you know what? We can trash and critique and scoff at those cultural benchmarks in our English too because the language, any language, allows you to do so! Being able to reference it (shared culture) doesn't mean you buy into it (shared ideas, values, beliefs). The ability to identify or define doesn't imply a value statement. And when English is used in Jamaica or Hong Kong or Malta it will reflect the foundations of those cultures too.

Why? Because the language I use belongs to me, I don’t belong to it. And when Yuki, Consuelo, and Mehmet communicate across borders in English, it belongs to them too. ELF- it’s very democratic. Everyone can be an owner.

« Let's laugh and point at those lowlife English teachers! | Main | What's Wrong With Language Death? »


Nice work Mike. As always.

Thanks Rob.

It's good to know that you drop by and read these. Hope to see you in Seoul next month.

Why? Because the language I use belongs to me, I don’t belong to it. And when Yuki, Consuelo, and Mehmet communicate across borders in English, it belongs to them too. ELF- it’s very democratic. Everyone can be an owner.

Love the finish...

I would rather you did not use words like pee, urinate, or micturate. Considering you teach English, I am rather, perhaps, needlessly appalled to think of the English your students would end up learning...

Armarnath, you're correct, you are needlessly appalled.

Hi Mike,

A wonderfully cavalier and engaging article, but unfortunately cavalier in both senses: swashbuckling, yet also arrogantly dismissive. You misrepresent many of the valid criticisms of imperialism which are levelled at English (and completely ignore others). You ignore large bodies of research into language and identity, and by doing so you also blind yourself to the legitimate questions that are asked of the English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) movement – questions such as: why English? A lingua franca for whom? And for what purposes?

The conclusions that you draw from the anecdotal story of the exchanges at Incheon Airport don’t follow from the example you gave.

Firstly, I don’t think Phillipson, Pennycook, or anyone else would ever argue against the utility of languages of wider communication in facilitating international travel or communication, but the key question here is why that language should be English, and why there should be just one language of wider communication. I’m sure the purser on a Turkish Airlines flight could probably speak Arabic, and maybe even Chinese. Why do we assume that English should be the de facto language of wider communication? It’s unarguably useful in some areas, but wouldn’t Chinese have been equally useful in Incheon Airport? And have you ever tried travelling through Central Africa without a knowledge of French or any of the local languages of wider communication? There are many parts of the world where other languages of wider communication than English are more useful.

Essentially what you’re saying in your article is that for certain people (international travellers, or people engaged in global business – in other words, the top 1% of the world’s population as measured by wealth) English is a useful language of wider communication. And I wouldn’t disagree. But for some other members of that 1% group, other languages (Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian, Hindi … the list is only limited by the area you want to consider) are equally, if not more useful.

And for the other 99% of the world’s population, the resources going into promoting and teaching English (whether as a ‘lingua franca’, a second language, or a foreign language, or whatever way you want to sell it) are often – but not always – disproportionate to the benefit for the students (and, contrary to what speakers at international ELF fora might have you believe, the majority of the world’s population isn’t ‘connected’ to the net, and the minority that are would benefit much more from developing skills which empower them to generate greater content in their own languages than simply to consume content in English written by an alien elite) . Worse still, that ubiquitous focus on English takes away much needed resources which could be spent on developing literacy in mother tongue, or in developing real systems of mother-tongue based multi-lingual education which would have a far greater benefit for individuals, communities, states… To give you an example from Indonesia: a twelve year old student in north Sulawesi is forced to learn English for no reason other than it’s on the national curriculum (that’s hegemony for you, despite your offhand dismissal of the concept), but she hasn’t developed real literacy in her own mother tongue because there are no resources allocated to it, which has had the knock-on effect of inhibiting development of her literacy skills in her second language, the local language of wider communication (Bahasa Indonesia)…

You talk of NNS, but let’s be accurate for a second, and call these people what they are, which non-native speakers of English – or NNSE. There’s no such thing as a ‘non-native speaker’ – it’s oxymoronic. And while an NNSE-NNSE may be an equal exchange, it’s unequal to any exchanges which involve native speakers of English, and by pushing ELF, you reinforce and legitimise that inequality.

“Don’t pick me up on a small part of terminology,” I can hear you say. “I was just using common shorthand,” you might add, or “labels mean nothing”. But you’d be wrong, just as you’re wrong to ignore large bodies of research into language and identity and cultural hegemony inherent in language (and labels) which you charmingly (and, yes, wittily!) cutlass through with breathtaking (wilful?) ignorance or contempt by casting it as ‘magical’ and ‘fanciful’. Whorf may have gone through a period where his ideas were discredited, but there’s a wealth of rich research from the last ten years which has given new credence to his ideas, greatly developed them, and developed our understanding of the interaction of language, culture, and identity.

But you don’t need to take academics’ word for it – I find it difficult to believe that anyone who has a good command of more than one language (i.e., most of the world’s population, save those in Anglophone countries – and this isn’t meant to be a criticism of you, I obviously have no idea how multilingual you are) would be able to dismiss the notion that language and culture are inherently in a state of mutual support and flux. Or consult your students – try ‘translation’ activities and explore areas of grey, or look at idioms in different languages with them, or with speakers of languages which aren’t Indo-European examine the dichotomous nature of relationships in English which other languages don’t have…

I also have a different understanding of the arguments around promoting World Englishes than you. I see the promotion of varieties of English (as opposed to one monolithic English, whether that be Home Counties British English, Mitt Romney’s English, or, indeed ‘English as a Lingua Franca’…) as something which encourages local ownership of the language to combat hegemony, not as something which is aimed at facilitating international communication. To criticise it on those terms seems to misunderstand the point.

In effect, I’m saying there’s no reason English should be a global ‘lingua franca’. By pushing (yes, pushing) English as a global lingua franca, you ignore the fact that the reason English is in the position it is now is because of a concerted intentional effort (an ‘imperialist’ effort, if you will) to support the power structures which favour the Anglophone capitalist elite. It is not just a means to a neutral end – the ‘end’ here is the reinforcement, entrenchment, and legitimisation of existing inequalities at a local, regional, and international level.

Promoting English as a Lingua Franca, despite its surface similarities with Esperantist initiatives, is just as imperialist an idea as the promotion of any other English where it is not promoted as an additive language and not at the expense of other languages. Conferences on English as a Lingua Franca tend to be opportunities for ELFphiles to preach to the choir on a very wide scale. Criticising the imperialist promotion of English in certain circumstances is not flogging a dead horse, but, to continue the equestrian theme, English as a lingua franca is certainly a Trojan horse.

And note the ‘in certain circumstances’ in that last paragraph. I’m not saying that English is an inherently imperial language, or that English teaching is always imperialist in nature (nor, I think, do Phillipson or Pennycook, if you read their work). English is clearly of great value to many NNSEs, and deserves to be taught as such. What I’m saying is that if English is treated as an additive language, and is taught to those that need it, and not at the expense of the teaching or promotion of other languages, it can be a very useful part of one’s linguistic repertoire (as with other languages of wider international communication).

To paraphrase (or rip-off, depending which way you look at it!) your last paragraph:

Languages are powerful tools of identity, and have many uses. Because the languages I use belong to me, I don’t belong to them. And when Yuki, Consuelo, and Mehmet communicate with their families and communities in their mother tongue, with their national peers in the national language of wider communication, and across borders in international languages of wider communication, those languages belong to them too. Languages shouldn’t be forced upon people, even when those doing the forcing think they are doing it for the benefit of the subaltern (that’s hegemony). Mother-tongue based multilingual education - it’s very democratic. Everyone can be – and is – an equal, a co-owner, a creator, and a citizen.

All the best,

(A fellow swashbuckler)


Thanks for taking the time and thought to write such a challenging, and erudite, post.

There are a lot of points to respond to. Allow me to do it in three or so posts, divided thematically, rather than just one looong Russian-novel of a response. Let me begin with some general observations.

I was initially baffled by some of your claims and questions until it dawned on me that you had either misunderstood, or grossly mischaracterized, the ELF movement. You seem to equate it with the notion of English as a unified global language, in which English is wilfully promoted, propagated, and disseminated-- often with an Anglo-American model as a standard. Such movements are prescriptivist.

This is very different from ELF. The people at the forefront of ELF are non-native speakers of English. Almost all decry the hegemonistic, uniform notion of one standard global English. I suggest you read a short bit by Dr. Barbara Seidlhofer or look at the work/rationale behind the VOICE project (Google is your friend!) to get a clearer idea.

ELF is wholly descriptive and corpus-based. In other words, its proponents are aware that English has emerged as a de facto lingua franca and are attempting to describe it on its own terms and, in doing so, find new standards and norms. In other words, they recognize the fact that it is by far the most common second-language in most of world (which is a fact that no wishing away will do)but wish to 'co-opt' it for their own communicative purposes.

What this implies is that your 'should' questions or 'Why English' quearies are moot. The inescapable fact is that English is the go-to language across an enormous number of borders. We are not standing at a linguistic year zero in which we can somehow choose another language to carry the torch.

And that's why the scenes at Incheon (in Korea by the way) I described were carried out in English, because those people had a wish to communicate and, in such cases, it is statistically far, far more likely that they will be mutually intelligible in English, rather than in Korean or Arabic or in their mother tongues. This is, again, a statement of logical expectation, not one of the superior moral fitness of English or any such thing.

I can speak Japanese fine, so, when I boarded Turkish Airlines in Korea I actually had a choice of two languages at my disposal. I chose English. Why not Japanese? Why should it be English? Well because, frankly speaking, it would be daft for me to expect Turkish FAs to understand Japanese but I would expect (statistically, logically) that they would understand English. This echoes the language choice made by the non-native speakers of English I described in my piece. Nothing more, nothing less.

I should add here that ELF does not take the position that 15 year old farmers' sons in rural Japan should be obligated to master English as a means of joining the greater world. Not even close. What ELF does say is that for those who do, or plan to, interact with other NNSE in English there is a new norm or standard that serves as a better learning model or target than the old 'become like a native speaker' model.

Let me know if this leads to a shift in your position.

More when I get the chance,

Hi Mike,

Thanks for responding – and particularly good idea to respond with a Chekovian length response rather than Tolstoyian!

That ELF is better than the old ‘become like a native speaker model’ might be fair enough, but it’s not nearly enough; a little better than terrible does not equal good. It’s great that proponents of ELF look critically at certain ingrained aspects of ELT across the world, but the conclusions, claims, and suggestions that ELFphiles make remain very problematic for me, for the following reasons:

1. The ELF claims, conclusions, and suggestions are based on the fallacy that English is the global ‘lingua franca’. Search for ELF, or English as an International Language on Google or other online journal resource and I bet every article includes a sentence to the effect ‘It is widely acknowledged that English is the global lingua franca’, or ‘Globalisation has led to English being the global lingua franca’ (often with no definition of that oft used yet little defined term ‘globalisation’). Seidlhofer is frequently guilty, for example: “it cannot be denied that English functions as a global lingua franca” (2005, p339) – er, yes, actually it can. Better writers than I have explained how using the term ‘lingua franca’ to describe English is pernicious (as communication using it is asymmetrical), misleading (as it is not disconnected from its culture, uses, and purposes), and false (see for example Phillipson, 2008). Yes, English is very useful as an additional language for many, many people (in which cases it should be taught as such, as an additive language), as are other languages of wider communication – English is not the global lingua franca at all, it is one of a number of languages of wider international communication which serve certain purposes (positive and negative) in international trade, travel, commerce, and other domains. But too often its promotion and teaching (and that of other languages of wider communication) leads to the neglect of other languages, the damaging of people and cultures and communities, and to the legitimization and reinforcement of inequalities – and ELF fails to address that.
2. Just because the leaders of the ELF movement are NNSEs, that does not mean that it gives the movement carte blanche to ignore the valid criticisms leveled at it: that while English is a useful tool for many, too often (and promoting ELF as a form of ELT doesn’t address these issues, it just sidesteps them) it takes valuable resources away from mother tongue based multilingual education initiatives and has a hugely negative effect on ethnolinguistic minorities, the act of promoting and teaching the language is NOT to promote equity but rather to reinforce inequality, and it ignores the links between language, culture, and identity (and the negative effects that promoting English can have on speakers of other languages). Non-native speakers of English are still speakers of English, which clearly places them in a certain position in the power hierarchy in their own countries, and in the international arena. Many working class people in America support Mitt Romney, even though by doing so they are supporting policies which are hugely detrimental to themselves – that’s hegemony for you.
3. There’s inherent hypocrisy in a movement which claims to be ‘descriptivist’ but in the same breath (or, at least a few breaths later) talks about ‘a new norm or standard that serves as a better learning model or target’. The fact that ELF/EIL is based on corpus doesn’t make it democratic (tyranny of the majority?) – the fact that it’s an external ‘standard’ or a ‘norm’ which you suggest be promoted to NNSEs means that it undermines any creative co-opting of the language that individuals or communities might be doing themselves (and the fact that these new standards and norms were designed/researched/promoted by NNSEs doesn’t make one jot of difference). The real power of the world Englishes movement can be seen in the break from standards and norms and in taking ownership of the language (as chance would have it, there’s a really interesting article in today’s Guardian on Nigerian Pidgin, for example), and ELF seems to undermine this. “The old standards are imperialist and flawed, so up with the new standards! The King is dead, long live the King!”
4. ELF is totally unnecessary. Varieties of English have existed as long as the language/s has/have existed. Singaporeans have been communicating with Spaniards, and Japanese have been communicating with Romanians successfully for decades (if not longer) without the help of Jenkins, Seidlhofer, et al (and often, though some wouldn’t have you believe it, in languages other than English!). ELF/EIL is still a standard, whichever way you look at it, and an unnecessary one at that. More than anything, it serves as a tool to sell more books and secure more paid plenary presentations by Jennifer Jenkins and Barbara Seidlhofer (and other leading NNSE proponents of ELF), and to sell more textbooks based on those ‘new’ principles for the benefit of Macmillan, OUP, CUP, etc.
5. To promote ELF is to promote an idealist fantasy; languages are living amorphous beasts, and no sooner have you established a standard then a variety evolves. That’s natural and unavoidable. The corollary of promoting ELF is that you will immediately be faced with varieties of ELF… which is a great opportunity for a leading group of NNSELF to set up a new movement, using corpus of ELF to identify new standards within ELF, which maybe we could call ELFLF, from which varieties would develop again, etc. etc. ad infinitum (which sounds very lucrative for the theorists and conference circuit!).

We could argue the toss on points 4 and 5 and not get anywhere – in the end those two points probably come down to opinion (and yes, I’m being too harsh on Jenkins and Seidlhofer for the sake of the genre of this post; from what work of theirs I’ve read, while I don’t agree I always find them committed and honest, and not cash-following pseudo-academics like some others we could mention).

To wrap this up before I get too Dostoevskian in length, I don’t see ELF as addressing many of the root criticisms that are leveled at ELT. Sure, it is slightly better than the norm, as you say, but it’s well short of what it could be. English is a very valuable and useful tool to many people in the world, and should be taught as an additive language where appropriate. But it isn’t the global ‘lingua franca’ – it’s one of a large number of languages of wider communication which too often are resourced and taught to the detriment of other languages – and by extension, to the detriment of other people, communities, and cultures.

If the ELF movement were saying ‘hey, this is a new simplified standard we’ve come up with which we think will support international communication in English where it is appropriate to use that language and where the language is taught as an additive language’, then my only problem would be that I thought it was unnecessary and impossibly idealist (my points four and five above).

But promoting ‘English as a lingua franca’ – and, in many cases, describing it as THE global lingua franca – is damaging and dangerous, because it encourages the continued neglect of mother tongues and mother tongue based multilingual education by governments across the world, and legitimizes and reinforces inequalities under the misleading veneer of a false ‘democratic’ base.

All the best,


PS – I know Incheon’s in Korea, I was just suggesting Chinese might be an appropriate language of wider communication given the geographical proximity and the historical links between the two countries
PPS – The two referenced texts are: Seidlhofer, B. (2005), ‘English as a lingua franca’, ELT Journal V59/4, pp339-341; and Phillipson, R. (2008), ‘Lingua franca or lingua frankenstinia? English in European integration and globalisation’, World Englishes V27/2, pp 250 – 284.

Hi again Danny and all.

I'd like to respond to a few more points from Danny's original message here.

The first is a quibble with the numbers, specifically the 'elite 1%'. Estimates about English speakers range from about 500 million to over a billion worldwide. It is further estimated that NNSE outrank NSE by more than three to one (from Crystal, I believe). English is the only language with anything near this type of NNS high level of distribution. This is precisely what makes ELF a more accurate measure of how English is used worldwide (meaning 'wide distribution' not 'everywhere') as a tool of communication. We're looking at about 15% globally.

Now, it is true that the elite (and many of that 15% are decidedly NOT elite) usually are also English speakers because almost all professions, arts, sciences, academics utilize English as a Lingua Franca (again, meaning the 'common language', not the 'only' one). Doesn't it make sense then to recognize this and thereby equip people so that they can partake in this elite- meaning becoming scientists, doctors, pilots etc? Sure, in some ideal, egalitarian way it would be pleasant if people could become world class scientists or statesmen using only Huron, Berber, or Sundanese. But it's just not realistic.

I should add too that I very much avoid presenting my Japanese students the false model of the 'rest of the world' speaking English and that they 'need' it to be gobal citizens. Many will not need it (although I teach Medical students so...). I also believe that for the academic or hobby interest of learning a foreign language, any other language is equally worthy. Just less useful.

More pertinent here perhaps is your mention of the 12 year old in Sulawesi and the impact of English L2 on mother tongue. First, you *seem* to be saying that the acquisition of a second language negatively impacts the L1. This is a a canard often employed by nationalists but has almost no research or academic support. I sense an apple in that orange.

Second I don't accept the model of English in an education curriculum somehow necessarily taking away from the mother tongue courses. It's very a zero-sum and static model, and assumes that the educational output will mirror the budget and time input. If this were the case I could claim that the 10% of my high school years studying French took 10% away from my English classes and thereby must have stunted the development of my mother tongue. This would be absurd of course. With a static model we can always claim that X must necessarily be taking away from Y but I don't think we can treat mother tongue literacy using such a static model.

Third, would a Sulawesian's (?) mother tongue not be Bahasa Indonesian but Buginese, Mandar or Toraja etc? So, advocating the teaching of Bahasa Indonesia, as you appear to, to such a child serves what purpose? Well, it would equip her to have more opportunities in her country (which parallels my argument about English) and allows her to communicate with other Sulawesis outside of her own L1 group. Bahasa Indonesia is thus acting as a lingua franca- which is a good thing. Again, this parallels what I have said regarding English.

A last point for this post-- you mention that French acts as an LF for much of Western and Central Africa. True. And I have no trouble with people recognizing that fact and thus researching, teaching, and shifting (taking ownership of) FLF (French as a Lingua Franca) in their region. Again, I am not claiming that everyone does, or should, come under the English diaspora. But realistically, for those who do want to open more doors it carries the greatest degree of utility. Current ELF research is based in Europe where this is certainly the case, and Asia (ditto). Chinese as a possible LF is limited to written script in NE Asia only.

I'll write a bit on identity and Neo-Whorfianism after I catch my breath and maybe some sleep.


Hi Mike,

Before I clarify a misunderstanding on additive language and mother tongue based multilingual education, can I just say how much I'm enjoying this exchange. You're challenging, witty, you know your stuff, and you obviously care about your (our) profession. I miss this, working in a profession where real professionals are thin on the ground. And I hope other people will come in to comment, too!

Anyway, back to my clarification...

The canard that you sense in my orange (a duck a l'orange?) isn't a duck at all (a bombay duck, perhaps) but just me not explaining myself well enough. I certainly wasn't suggesting that learning a second language inhibits first language learning - that is, as you say, untrue. The point I was trying to make was with regard to literacy - if a child doesn't develop literacy in his/her mother tongue, this inhibits development of literacy in the second or additional languages (you'll note I specifically mention literacy in my first post - and I can provide a huge amount of research literature references to support this contention if you like, but I'm sure you agree, and just missed my reference to literacy, not language). My point isn't that introducing additional languages to the curriculum inhibits the learning of mother tongue (that is absurd, as you rightly say - if it is done well), but that the enormity of introducing irrelevant and non-useful languages too early, and to an already stretched curriculum in under resourced countries is magnified by false, damaging, and spurious claims to the necessity of learning that language 'for everyone in the world' because it is a/the 'global lingua franca'.

To clarify my example, my hypothetical Sulawesian student, as you rightly say, will most likely speak as a mother tongue one of the many languages which are spoken on the island (and I'm very impressed by your on-the-spot research skills! Also as a side note, many of those languages have alphabets and rich literature in which to develop literacy). Unfortunately, the language policy in Indonesia states that at public education institutions the language of instruction must be Bahasa Indonesia (there's a movement, the RSBI schools, to push English as a medium of instruction ... you can Google some of my other writing on this subject, and writing of many friends and colleagues, especially Hywel Coleman ... don't even get me started!), so (if you're still following me after all these parentheses, it's a habit I really should break...) that means that our hypothetical student will most likely enter a school at age 5 or 6 where s/he doesn't understand the language the teacher is speaking, and will not be able to develop literacy skills for many years in any language as they will spend many years learning a new language. SIL, who may well be a questionable organization in some ways due to their sectarian and proselytizing activities in some countries, have done some interesting research in Indonesia which claims that over 80% of children in the country grow up in homes that do not speak Bahasa Indonesia as a mother tongue; that's the scale of the problem! So, our student will spend several years learning the new language (the real L2, Bahasa Indonesia) before even being able to start developing literacy in any language. As noted above, many, many research projects demonstrate that developing literacy in mother tongue first accelerates development of ALL literacy (L1, L2, and L+) and other language skills at schools by a HUGE amount. Check out UNESCO's work, Helen Pinnock's stuff being very accessible and readable as a good example and intro.

But what makes it worse for our (ok, my, but if you've read this far through the post, I think we can justifiably share our hypothetical student!) Sulawesian student is that the national education act (or one part of it, at least) pays lip-service to promoting minority languages, but puts the responsibility with provincial governments, whose senior staff (part of the elite) are so taken in by claims that English is a 'global lingua franca' that they take even the pithy two hours a week which could be used for this purpose to instead teach English in addition to the normal slot that English gets (in most cases, despite their great efforts and enthusiasm and remarkable commitment, the English is not particularly well taught, as in the vast majority the teachers are poorly equipped and trained), with imported materials from alien cultures, and without any conscience for why they are doing it.

In addition, our Sulawesian student's national curriculum says that s/he will study English from junior secondary onwards. Across a country of 240m people, how many of those children will ever benefit from that part of the curriculum? Very, very few. But how many would would benefit from the resources which are being pumped into 'making English a part of the national curriculum for all' being rerouted into developing policies, materials, and support for mother tongue based multilingual education? Almost all of them! Well, ok, over 80% of them, according to SIL.

You mentioned a 15 year old farmer's son in Japan in your first post. I have no idea what the language policy is in Japan, but the twin demons of Google and Wikipedia tell me that the Japanese national curriculum was changed in 2011 to make English compulsory from Elementary school onwards. If this is right, then your example student (assuming he studies at a public school) would HAVE to study English, despite its total lack of use for him. That's not a good use of his school time. Or a good use of the funds spent on preparing that curriculum for him and millions of his peers. So why does the Japanese government still do that?

Why does the national government in Indonesia not recognise and promote minority languages, or promote teaching of the national language or other curriculum subjects where English is not really that usefu, despite the weight of research showing its utility? Politics (too much to discuss for this post, and also off topic). But a movement that promotes 'English as a lingua franca' is part of it.

Why do individuals (probably including the parents of our hypothetical Sulawesian student) still demand English at schools, and shun their mother tongues? Ill-informed asprations built upon false and pernicious claims to English being a global lingua franca, reinforced by cultural hegemony. The same could be said for your fifteen year old on the Japanese farm. And it IS a zero sum game when budgets are concerned, particularly where budgets are tight and there are far higher priorities in the education sector than international languages of wider communication. And a movement that promotes 'English as a lingua franca' is part of it.

(I know nothing about Japan, but the situation in Indonesia seems more complex, it being a more multilingual society - but the principles still apply to Japan, too)

And as I've said before, I don't think that teaching English is inherently imperialist, or a bad thing, for those that will actually benefit from it, and when it is taught as an additive aspect of a multilingual education. The sad thing is that ELT rarely comes with considerations or sensitivities of whether it is additive or whether it is negatively affecting cultural diversity, general pluralism, ethnolinguistic minorities, and therefore the cultural richness of the world.

To bring it back again to ELF, the very fact that there is a movement which claims that English is a global lingua franca is itself the problem: it isn't a global lingua franca, but the promotion of it as such suits a certain elite, and ends up being a self-fulfilling mechanism which generates consent (yes, I'll bang that drum again: hegemony, the organisation of consent, even when it is not in the interests of the subaltern).

By promoting English as a/the 'lingua franca' you fuel the fires which burn under all those projects promoting mother-tongue based multilingual education because you support the reductivist notion that there is such a 'global lingua franca' (there isn't) and that teaching through the medium of languages of wider communication at an early age is a better way to educate than through early years mother tongue based multilingual education (it isn't). You say that you're not saying that English is the global lingua franca, but you regale Seidlhofer, who does. And I've never heard of a French as a Lingua Franca movement (perhaps they're too cognizant of the etymology of the term and more aware of the crusader / imperialist tones it has! On which... nah, let's save that for another post, because that relates to labels and historical baggage in language not being 'innocent' or ignorable, as ELFphiles seem to think, and which the upcoming promise of discussions of neo-Whorfianism may lead!). I've never heard of a Spanish as a Lingua Franca movement (maybe they too are more sensitive to the baggage in the term?) or a Chinese as a Lingua Franca movement. It's only English speakers (NSE and NNSE) who would be so outrageous in claiming that a language that (by the estimations of an esteemed academic, ad quoted by yourself) approximately 15% of the world were learning, and (not denigrating its usefulness for those that do) far, far less actually used.

The sad thing is that choruses of people chanting that English is a global lingua franca actually make it more likely to become so - to the detriment of non-Anglophone people, communities, and cultures across the world. But that's an agenda which has been being pursued for a long time, and the ELF movement is just one of the current examples.

English is useful to many people in the world, as are many other languages of wider communication. Pushing English as a 'global lingua franca', no matter how well intentioned, is wrong, damaging, unnecessary, and pointless (see posts above).

All the best,


PS - on numbers, I didn't explain my 1% well enough I guess. I'm sure you're right (especially if the statistic comes from the Rt. Rev. David Crystal!) that 15% of the world's population can be classed as trying to learn English. However, my 1% referred to those who would actually use it on a regular basis - essentially the international elite or the service industry built around serving them.
PPS - the international medical community obviously benefits from a language of wider communication, and I applaud your work in Japan for that reason. But what would you do if your university asked you to do some English teacher training for primary school teachers who were working in rural areas on northern Japan teaching solely the sons and daughters of farmers? As a principled educator, what would your response be?

I'm enjoying this exchange too Danny. It's certainly stimulating my cerebral cortex.

We may be crossing over each others' messages but in this novelette I'm going to outline my opposition to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that the forms and limitations of languages influence or determine of cognition and consciousness, particularly in terms of how it is often adopted into the English as Imperialism position.

1. Phillipson talks about how certain dominant culture beliefs (obviously those seen as endorsing an imperial mindset) are embedded into the very syntax and lexis of English. Funny then that he writes and presents his views to people all over the world... in English. The last time I looked he was using syntax and lexis as well. Someone MUST have pointed out this irony.
(edit- I take this back. It has been pointed out to me that Phillipson is multi-lingual and actively involved in polyglot research/academia. I thought the irony was too rich!)

2. Whorfians regularly commit category errors. For example the undeniable mutual causal relationship between language and thought in general becomes twisted into languageS (plural) and individual thoughtS (ditto). The human capacity for language and thought in general is a completely different animal from Spanish, Tagalog, Korean et al and he individual thoughts, beliefs, behaviours etc. that humans manifest. Their qualities and features and not transferable.

3. Whorfians confuse correlation with causation. The fact that descriptions of current capital systems are founded in English and are adopted as loan words in other languages and/or is referenced across the business world (correlation between language and practice) hardly implies that using that language legitimizes or endorses all the pracices found therein (causation- that the language causes the belief or value system). This fallacy occurs so often that my desk has a little dent from me hitting my head on it.

4. There is a nasty inconsistency in the application of the hypothesis. Most 'English as Imperialist' fans (rightly) decry the old notions propagated by agents of the empire, that English somehow embedded higher, nobler thought, that it enabled science, progress, democracy. But the same people do believe however that English enables pernicious Anglo-American military-industrial values to be transmitted. English, it seems, is a conduit only for the values they oppose. Strange. What this looks like to me is politics masquerading as linguistics, with the politics taking priority and linguistics unsurprisingly 'uncovering' examples that suit their agenda.

5. Sapir-Whorf is a Pandora's Box for prejudices and bigots. You know, “You can’t negotiate with Arabs because they have no word for compromise and are therefore incapable of grasping the concept”. That sort of thing. We get this sometimes in Japan, linguistic nationalists that non-Japanese couldn’t possibly grasp a concept that doesn’t have a single lexical cognate in English.

6. I agree with Steven Pinker’s famous debunking of Sapir-Whorf as being tautological, that basically one finds what one is looking for in that ‘exotic’ language because one has already assumed the existence of the causal arrows. This is one of the main reasons it is not taken very seriously in linguistics these days.

Related stuff:

7. Having read Phillipson’s “ELF as a LinguaFranca or Frankenstinia” a few years back it struck me how monolithic and amorphic his notion of English was. ‘English does this, English does that’, ‘English’ always being that monolithic entity created and controlled by Anglo-Americans (the subtitle should have been, “How the American Military-Industrial Complex Uses Adverbs To Control Your Thoughts”). He seems to have no concept of other peoples possibly appropriating English to their own ends and local purposes and thereby taking ownership of it. English, for Phillipson, is Wal-Mart. This, of course, takes us back to my initial post.

8. I find many popular notions of language identity and hegemonic threats by English against mother tongues to be neo-colonialist. Why do so many assume that people who speak less common languages are so psychologically frail? They are so delicate that the appearance of English will apparently aid in socio-psychological collapse.

As an Anglo-Saxon, my acquiring another language is generally viewed as an expansion or as an addition to my identity—not a threat to it, but for these apparently weaker people this addition will somehow be traumatic. This chivalrous attitude is reminiscent of how gentlemen treated ladies in the Victorian era. I find it somewhat insulting to the resilience to those people and, unsurprisingly, assumes the white man’s burden—that it is we who make or break these simple, delicate people.

9. In the same vein, why treat speakers of less common languages who want to master English to further their opportunities in life as if they don’t know what’s good for themselves, as if they are hapless dupes? Again, neo-colonialism.

I'll have to read your latest post in more depth Danny and will try to respond to that soon.

See the discussion on the IATEFL GISIG forum (ur[ above) in the run up to last years Glasgow conference where I said:
I think it is actually rather sad that Phillipson keeps on beating the same old drum (I think your reference to dead horses is a much more graphic way of saying the same thing!) when life has moved on. Those countries where English is the former colonial language almost without exception see its importance as the global language of international communication. Countries like Argentina, where Spanish is the national language and you could argue only has this status because the Spanish colonists wiped out indigenous languages such as Guarani) value English as a global language. It makes no sense in the 21st century to romanticise a non existent nirvana where everyone speaks Esperanto. But it does make a lot of sense to sound a note of caution when we see countries starting to teach English at primary level when children are still not literate in their mother tongue. By overstating his case, Phillipson distracts attention from the real issues, which are to do with the death of minority indigenous languages - currently dying out at the rate of several hundred each year - with huge and irreversible implications for linguistic diversity, and misguided language policies in an ever increasing number of countries which seek to introduce English very early on in primary school before children are literate in their mother tongue.
Christopher Minton replied:
I agree with Paul that life has moved on. Countries, families and children around the world see the value in learning English. There seems to be little hard evidence that starting English early is particularly helpful. Is there any evidence that it is harmful to mother-tongues, or should we seek a pluralinguistic world? Very interested in the discussion, both as a teacher and father of a young boy growing up in Japan
Phillipson took issue with my views and retorted,
"I have taught English for 45 years. I have not written anywhere that people should not learn English to the highest level possible. What I have argued against is the misuses to which English is put in many contexts, and the lack of relevant qualifications (linguistic, cultural, or pedagogical) of much of what is done in British ELT. Study of linguistic imperialism, and the structures and ideologies that underpin and perpetuate it, is part of a diagnostic effort to remedy injustices. Implementing change is possible through efforts to strengthen linguistic human rights (on which I have written extensively, and edited several books with contributors from all over the world). Mother-tongue based multilingual education (see books that I have recently edited with scholars from India and Finland/Denmark) is taking off in many parts of the world, and proving very successful. It can contribute to counteracting the belief that English is all that matters in the modern world (a British Council mantra) and to hindering the extinction of minority languages. For details of many publications, some of which can be downloaded, see my website, If my ideas were really as misguided as Paul Woods thinks, it is unlikely that I would have been awarded the UNESCO Linguapax prize in 2010.

I tried to post a comment along these lines yesterday but your ISP thought it was a hacking attempt! I havent had a chance to digest Dannys lengthy post and your various replies but I think we are all basically on the same hymn sheet.

My British Council colleague here in Argentina, Claudia Ferradas, is doing some really interesting work on the cultural aspects of ELT and how English and artefacts in English are reinterpreted to fit local and national perspectives in the Argentina context.

Hi Mike,

A cracking piece of sabre-rattling against neo-Whorfism! But my neo-Whorfism is mild and based on links between language and identity rather than grammar and syntax and lexical cognates. Somebody writing in the Economist a year or so ago put it nicely: 'it isn't the structure of the language that helps shape our judgements, but rather the cultural cues stemming from a particular tongue.' (Having said that, Lera Boroditsky's work in the last few years is really very interesting - she publishes a lot of stuff online, and it's well, well, worth a look).

This is just a quick post so as to get the topic back on to ELF, but I really must correct you on your completely unfair and unfounded criticism of Robert Phillipson when you castigate him for communicating in English. He's a real polyglot, and delivers presentations, operates professionally, and writes articles in several languages - just earlier this summer he delivered a plenary in France in French. His work with (and for) non-Anglophone academics and organisations is exemplary. To criticise him for being born with English as his mother tongue (which is essentially what you are doing) is clearly wrong, unjust, and unfair.

And quickly on your points 8 and 9, it's not that speakers of minority languages are somehow psychologically frail - that's a gross misrepresentation. The hegemony of more powerful languages (not just English) and the dominant power structures that they inhabit generates consent for the sidelining and decay of mother tongues.

And to argue for linguistic human rights, and for better education (which mother tongue based multilingual education categorically is) is absolutely not neo-colonialism!

Thanks Paul for your comment - I'd love to hear more about Claudia Ferradas' research!
All the best

@Phil Woods
Thanks for that interesting exchange Phil. I'll be writing some thoughts on Language Death very soon on this blog but I should forewarn you that I plan to be a bit iconoclastic ;-)


Hi once again Danny. First, I capitulate on the Phillipson comment (and I have added an edit to the original remark). I am actually quite happy to hear that he is 'true to his word' so to speak. I still do find the fact that many monolingual English speakers give speeches on the evils of English Imperialism to groups of NNSE in their homelands ironic though.

My modest degree of knowledge about Sulawesi stems from the fact that I was an intrepid backpacker in a previous existence. Yes, I did the obligatory Toraja funeral thing too. Actually, having had this experience lends me some insight into your position. I can easily understand how in a developing country that's already a linguistic cauldron, with isolated peoples who are far removed from the 'international set', the introduction of English education might be viewed as unnecessary. Coupled with that, the 'mission' model that underscores the British Council (you are/were with them I believe?) and sloppy implementation, methods and materials (no the fault of the language though) can easily serve to justify your perspective.

But I'd like you to contrast this with my own situation. In Japan people are not really isolated, most work in professions in which English is established as the international linguistic nexus, and the country is linguistically unified. Moreover, I work at a national university administered (duh!) by Japanese people. Our strongest connections are with other Asian countries, a shift that is representative of Japan as a whole. But the lingua franca is still English.

And this is where ELF comes in. Traditionally, Japanese have viewed English as being the Anglo-American model alone which has led to an inferiority complex-- an unattainable goal held up as an ideal. With the advent of an Asian ELF though, where English competency is defined differently, the psychological gap isn't nearly as great.

This point dovetails with something I'd like to say about ELF conferences and literaure. In the few years I've been focusing upon ELF, although some people may overestimate the scope and utility of the language globally, I have never noticed any sense of ELF being used as a rallying cry or as a promotional mission. Rather, it observes a fact-- that English is quite widely used as a lingua franca in certain regions, and asks two questions- 1) What is the nature of this beast? and 2) Does it represent a standard that is self-contained and thus can be wrested away from the dominant Anglo-American model (answer: yes).

It's important to remember that Seidlhofer/VOICE's scope is Europe where English does serve as by far the most common 2nd language and serves as the official or de facto lingo of just about every profession. About 80% of the population of the northern countries can conduct affairs in English, and in fact they often do so. In Asia, the scope of interest is also limited to this region-- English is used across borders here more than any other language and is in fact increasingly so. So, what does his emerging Asian animal look like?

(I should also point out here that I find it somewhat paradoxical that you would argue that the scope and utlity of English is quite limited and yet decry its hegemonic effects)

Finally, to answer your two questions regarding Japan:
I am not a big fan of the government's recent decision to introduce English into primary schools. But many readers of this blog are-- and perhaps some will chime in here. Regardless, the stated goal is not the formal introduction of English studies-- there will be no tests or national curriculum-- but something more akin to a friendly 'let's get a feeling for English' session.

The real motivation behind this though is a worry that as a nation, Japan will fall behind China and S. Korea in terms of international competetiveness, especially as those countries introduce English into their primary schools. The fact that young Chinese and Koreans can generally conduct business, academia, research, travel and diplomacy etc. in English with more proficiency than Japanese young people has lead to some hand-wringing (or tooth-sucking in Japan).

(I might add here that I'm glad to see that materials used in Japan introduce Luis from the Philippines or Lin from Singapore these days moreso than the generic Mr. Brown from New York.)

As for the hypothetical about teaching some farmer's kids from the countryside English? Yes- I would ask what's the point? But if forced to do so I would first try to make that class an elective. Second, my focus would be more on just showing and displaying the language rather than attempting to set any lexico-grammatical pathway to lead them to eventual mastery. I'd simply try to open a door that they can choose to go through or not. And I would certainly steer them away from the delibitating notion that English somehow belongs to white Anglo-Saxons, which is what ELF has been at pains to point out.


Hey Mike

Just wanted to say that I really dig your style, and you inspire me to become a great English Teacher.

Keep doing what you do!

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