English and the Discourses of Colonialism

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One of the most obvious features of English-language teaching outside the English-speaking world is that two major groups constitute the majority of teachers: young graduates out to see the world for awhile, and third- through fifth-raters who were not sufficiently competent to get a job back at from wherever they came.

Alastair Pennycook

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Tuesday, June 8 1999, 11:24 PM

One of the most obvious features of English-language teaching outside the English-speaking world is that two major groups constitute the majority of teachers: young graduates out to see the world for awhile, and third-through fifth-raters who were not sufficiently competent to get a job back at from wherever they came. The former can be pleasant; the latter are appalling. Among the English teachers who I have seen in eastern Europe, alcoholism and other major personality problems were common. It is fairly common to find religious missionaries well represented in the ranks of overseas English language teachers: salvation and English come bundled.

Not unsurprisingly, this late twentieth-century generalization concerning overseas English language instructors closely resembles the outlines of colonialism's agents and educators in the last century. Imperial English is the neo-colonial global project of our day. And quite like those Asian and African natives silently watching Victorian English colonizers, today's non-Anglophones needing fluent English instruction frequently have an accurate estimate of the teachers they face. Given economic weakness, they have little choice in teaching personnel and must largely accept the odd drifters they attract, people whose major life accomplishment lies in having chosen the right birth language. English language teaching becomes the profession of those who have no other, while it has become a necessity for non-Anglophone students who want to gain a professional education and distinguish themselves from the failures who are their teachers.

English is the same colonial language accomplishment that it was in the last century. It is even more so today. Globalist economic ideologies have pronounced English a key element in creating technical labor forces that meet their investment specifications, and national ministries of education have uniformly complied with these ideological demands by stacking their pedagogical chips on More English. Teachers colleges churn out more and more English teachers, quite frequently women in search of a skill in a labor market that they cannot enter in other capacities due to cultural and family constraints. Other language teachers, particularly Russian, face declining or near-extinct professional demand. Even as the representation of English-speakers as a percentage of the global population declines, the symbolic value of English continues to soar.

As Bruce Sterling phrased the contemporary situation at a conference in San Marino last month, "My own native language is English, which is the great, globalized language primarily responsible for crushing all the other languages. English crushes those languages under its feet, like grapes in a global tub." Although Sterling does not endorse language hegemony -- and points out that other major languages crush smaller regional languages -- there are many who embrace English triumphalism. Far more passively accept English as an educational necessity that will shape their lives for better.

Between contemporary reiterations of old-style Imperial English and a neo-colonial ideological internalization of English as a global economic imperative, the political features of ELT bear a grim aspect. Under the paradigms of neo-liberalism, a preference to speak languages other than English -- or worse, outright refusal to learn English -- represent suicidal personal and political choices, although there is no rational correspondence between command of a specific foreign language and earning potential or social justice. When English becomes the sole gateway for accomplishment, ELT classes become an injustice.

English department faculties typically have little or no interest in investigating English language neo-colonialism. They have a difficult time understanding why anyone should not wish to learn English. Questioning the function of English becomes professional existential self-negation, although raising such questions is necessary in educational systems where diverse populations perforce require multilingualism. Beginning in the 1970s with Ngugi wa Thiong'o's analysis of the position of English in Africa vis-à-vis local and regional languages, culminating in his Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), a small body of counter-theory has arisen in response to English language domination. This literature has almost entirely remained in the realm of journal articles and book chapters, with only a few notable larger-scale efforts to describe and analyze this crucial nexus of English and globalism.

Alastair Pennycook is one of the most perceptive, trenchant and hardworking critics of English as a global system. English and the Discourses of Colonialism is a major contribution to the discussion of the politics of English. The summary command of historical detail and sharpness of argument in this volume are truly impressive.

Many of the originally colonial debates that continue to characterize the present-day politics of English found their first expression in India. Pennycook's chapter on 'Anglicism, Orientalism and Colonial Language Policy' contains a very lucid historical review and exposition of the development of language policy in India. Using primary sources and minutes from the Bureau of Education, he traces the various positions in the argument between colonial policymakers who advocated the use of English to various degrees in the educational system (Anglicists) and those who preferred to establish that same system upon vernacular languages (Orientalists). This kind of methodological reliance on colonial files carries an inherent danger of reproducing the original discourse terms, but Pennycook maintains the critical distance that allows him to point out the internal contradictions of both argumentative positions and the permutations ranging between them.

Pennycook argues persuasively that Macauley's famous Minute of 1835, commonly cited as the source of Anglicist language policy, was not nearly as influential on nineteenth-century debate as commonly believed. Macauley asserted that English "stands pre-eminent even among the languages of the West...Whoever knows that language has ready access to all the vast intellectual wealth which all the wisest nations of the earth have created and hoarded in the course of ninety generations. It may safely be asserted that the literature now extant in that language is of greater value than all the literature which three hundred years was extant in all the languages of the world together." This blatant Anglocentrism, Pennycook suggests, was less influential in the short-term towards the formulation of practical policy than it was in the cumulative long-term towards the enunciation of a colonial ethos. The Minute provided a convenient political target for later liberals and progressives to vent against as a stereotypical formation of old-style colonialist opinion, whereas it had little or no real effect. Rather, the Minute has acquired far more significance and practical import as the means to disseminate English increased. The line of inheritance leads not as much from Macauley to Mountbatten, but far more from Macauley to Hollywood films and the Internet's cyber-english. With an Internet that overwhelmingly operates in English, Anglophone triumphalism has achieved a peak that Macauley could never have dreamed of.

The position that came to dominate Indian education, as expressed in the Despatch of 1854 was "a pragmatic Orientalism, that on the one hand acknowledged the superiority of English and Western knowledge, but on the other sought to develop and control India" through the use of vernacular education. This policy was to have profound consequences in shaping the educational systems of British colonial societies in Asia and --- not discussed in this book --- Africa and the Levant. Having elaborated the case of English in India, Pennycook -- who once worked as an English teacher in Hong Kong -- returns with his argumentative narrative to that former colony in order to examine how the political discourses of Indian English played out elsewhere. In disparate locales of the British Empire -- Malaysia, Hong Kong, and later Palestine -- the example of English education in India was continually cited negatively, for it was believed to produce half-educated and pretentious colonial subjects who did not know their place. One of the constant complaints against English education was that it unfitted the natives for hard labor: a babu class arose. Thus British colonialism found itself in a language dilemma of its own making.

Pennycook provides an excellent discussion of the encounter between Chinese and English education in a chapter entitled 'Hong Kong: Opium and Riots, English and Chinese,' with a prolonged tracing of policy history in that colony. One of the points he raises all too briefly, one which I have not seen discussed elsewhere, concerns the presence of Western male desire and the shaping of Chinese femininity through English language education for women. In subsequent chapters Pennycook examines how cultural projections and representational 'fixity' inhabit narrative choices concerning 'the Orient,' and how such fixities shape English language education. A central lesson drawn by the end of this book lies in how deeply colonial language policies of the nineteenth century continue to mold today's educational practices; indeed, they have shaped much of the debate between cultural particularism and universalism.

"We need to work in and against English to find cultural alternatives to the cultural constructs of colonialism; we desperately need something different," Pennycook concludes. The profound dislikes and rebellion created by forced ELT studies will work to ensure that momentum builds towards that end.

In the meantime we live under a regime of mandatory English. No longer is the issue of English limited to elite internationalized financial and professional classes, and to the collective culture that they represent. English has become the language that enforces the global order: it is the new international battle language. The June 5th edition of The Washington Post reports the thoughts of Lt. Col. David Goldfein, commander of the USAF 555th Fighter Squadron. As he hovered over a battlefield on the Albanian-Kosovo border guiding Canadian, Spanish and French warplanes to devastating effect against Yugoslav troops on the ground below: "As he returned to base, Goldfein thought about how extraordinary the international air campaign looked from his cockpit. The accented English spoken by some pilots was the only distinction in the otherwise seamless air operation he flew that day." The vision of a Star Wars dogfight, with swirling fighter pilots of different origins calling out in English, has arrived: Star Wars futurism is a mirror of the linguistic present. A transnational battle English has become as critical a command-and-control component as the avionics equipment.

The success of British imperialism could never be accounted for by military force alone. It needed accompanying myths of cultural accomplishment, uplift and efficiency. For a worldwide set of elites, English served as an entrance to that cultural mythography, as it continues to do today. When the forces of neo-colonialism assemble themselves, whether as an IMF economic assessment team or as a multinational Anglophone gendarmerie, ELT classes will have provided both language and ideology.

New York: Routledge, 1999 

Copyright © 1999 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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