Why English?

Two weeks ago, we talked about the power of English to build new opportunities for people. But every story has two sides, and so this week Comms Intern Maggie Shui from New Zealand asks why English came to be so important, and how we can preserve local cultures in a world where English has become a language of power.

English speakers have won the linguistic lottery. The cultural and economic capital of English is undeniable all across the world. It is the language of diplomacy, of tourism, of business and international commerce. But why English? Why not Arabic or Italian or Quechua? By understanding how English has come to occupy such a large space in the international sphere, we hope to be broad-minded advocates of the language, recognising its place in the world, and its potential in the hands of the disempowered.

Today’s languages are heavily shaped by the history of colonialism, in which languages like English and Spanish rose from empires around the world. But they didn’t rise in order to fill some sort of communication void. In each brave new world that Christopher Columbus totally discovered, societies and civilisations were happily talking, conversing, joking and arguing in all kinds of languages. The Incas weren’t sitting around in an historically awkward silence, waiting for colonialists to come and show them the mystical power of language.

But when the colonialists did come, here in Peru or anywhere else in the world, things changed – and they changed a lot. Language had always been used to empower and disempower. But now, on a world scale, a small number of languages emerged as lords over the others, with English eventually reigning over all.

But what does this mean for smaller languages, and the legitimacy of those that came to dominate? The effects can be profound. In the 1930s, for example, my grandma was a young schoolgirl in northeast China where she was taught Japanese rather than her mother tongue. In my home country of New Zealand, where parliament proceedings are conducted in English, Maori MPs suffered a disadvantage before adapting to become fluent in English by the turn of the 20th century. The Spanish language was introduced in Peru with the conquest of the Inca Empire, which led to the loss of hundreds of indigenous languages.

Knowing the historical use of language as a tool for control and conquest, it is clear the English language has not achieved its global dominance through some inherent superiority, but rather through a system of inequality. It is by being mindful of this historical and contemporary context that today, we can most effectively teach the language as a tool to bridge inequities and empower.

In modern Peru, English is at risk of belonging solely to a group of elites. English language education is prolific among the middle and upper classes who can afford it, and yet the demand for English is universal. It is a powerful tool for bridging inequalities, and yet the exclusivity of its instruction to Peru’s middle and upper classes only serves to deepen inequalities. A survey conducted by the British Council found that among learners and non-learners of English alike, the predominant view is that English is a skill needed for greater employability. The motivation to learn English is high among Peruvians already learning it. However, Peruvians who are not learning English are just as keen to acquire the language. Among these people, the survey found that the most vital barriers to English education were cost and lack of access to government-funded programmes. The desire to learn English seems to be consistent across society, but access to it is not.

Despite the equalising power of English and the high demand to learn it, its globalisation through educational aid has come under criticism. A key concern is that the spread of the English language undermines cultural diversity, and that non-Anglo-American languages and cultures are in danger of being diluted. Learners who are seeking a cross-cultural communication skill are in the process also being taught to assimilate. From this westernisation also emerges a dynamic where native speakers are privileged over non-native speakers. Promotion of English as the key to success has inevitable effects on how non-native speakers view their own language.

What does this all mean for someone who travels to, say, a city in the south of Peru to teach English in a disadvantaged community? We cannot change history and global power dynamics, but we can act with these things in mind. We can teach English with an agenda for preserving cultural diversity. We can demand from ourselves an in-depth knowledge of the culture and language of the learners in the classroom, because how else can we best support their language learning needs? We can teach English, not as a British or American language, but as an international language that belongs to non-native speakers as much as it belongs to native speakers.

In the words of essayist and poet Adrienne Rich, “Frederick Douglass wrote an English purer than Milton’s.” For Douglass, a 19th century African-American social reformer, you could say English was the language of his enslavers; the “oppressor’s language”. But it was also his language, and the language he used in his autobiographies to speak against slavery. Douglass used English as a tool for freedom – not oppression. African Americans would come to reassemble the language into their own vernacular that defied standard or “correct” usage, and became a site for resistance and expression and really good music.

Really, it’s not English (or Spanish, or Japanese, or any other language) that oppresses, but what is done with it. It can be a language of domination and limitation, and it can be a language of empowerment and the breaking of boundaries. The spread of English among non-native speakers may mean it truly becomes a global language. Rather than adopt Anglo-American cultures along with the acquisition of English, non-native speakers can appropriate English as a site for the creation of new cultures and narratives. Rather than homogenise, the English language can diversify.

English is a requirement for access to a vast number of opportunities, for access to information and for participation in activities. For a disenfranchised person, what truly matters is that English is a means to broaden opportunities and acquire a happier, fulfilling life.

Words by Maggie Shui
Photo by Elise Fjordbakk

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