EFL/ELT and Globalization

Tweet-length abstract: EFL teachers, who love the foreign, find themselves part of a process threatening it with extinction.

Question for teachers of English as a foreign language: When we teach English what are we doing? We each have our personal priorities and concerns: paying the bills, ensuring that students/parents get what they are paying for, perhaps encouraging a little learner autonomy along the way and adding a little ethics (no bullying). But beyond those intentions, are we not part of some larger historical project? What is it?

Suggestion: As things stand at the moment, in the first instance, when we teach English as a foreign language we lend our assistance to the establishment or consolidation of English as the international language. Then if we stand back a little further, don’t we see this as part of a wider project of globalization? When we teach English as a foreign language we find ourselves, in effect, on the front lines of an advancing global process – a very particular and questionable kind of globalization.

Although discussions of EFL tend to be obsessed with the technicalities and practicalities of teaching, surely we ought to spare a thought from time to time for this broader historical project that we are helping to advance, wittingly or unwittingly.

To spare such a thought we need to try to characterise that broader historical project. Obviously, it is not primarily about spreading the English language. Before the children start their English lessons, they will have drunk that great American brand of fizzy drink – a brand that used to advertise itself on TV showing a multi-ethnic group on a sunny hillside singing: “I want to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.”

Coke gives kids their first taste of the commercial world, and it tastes sweet. The brand name is short and simple and written in English, and this helps establish, even in the mind of the child, an association between English and the sweet attractions of the commerce. (See the FT article on the perception of English-language brands.)

Coke English brand

If empire-building in the past began by sending in the military, now it begins by sending in the drinks and the entertainers, backed up by a legion of marketing and PR people. This new empire is one in which the primary activity is selling, and within it the English language functions not only as a facilitator of commerce, but also as something that has now become synonymous with it. The global market needs a common language, and history has decided that, for the time being at least, that language will be English. And so when teaching EFL we are doing our bit to establish and consolidate that global market.

Acknowledgment: Some nice things have already been written connecting EFL/ELT to a phenomenon that might be described as globalization or the New World Order or the latest form of empire. We would refer particularly to Robert Phillipson and his Guardian article on English and empire and his longer article about linguistic imperialism, and Julian Edge’s article on TEFL written in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq.

Statement of our difference of opinion: The work of Robert Phillipson in particular tends to frame the issue as one of a linguistic imperialism that threatens linguistic diversity. That focus on language is, for us, too narrow, since the spread of the language as it is happening now is part of the spread of a broader commercial culture. The more significant threat comes not from linguistic imperialists – supercilious native Anglophones, for instance, who expect all the world to speak their language – but from commercial concerns. The mania for English in China, for instance, is not due to pressures exerted by English aristocrats, nor is it due to the fact that English is the language of things like the internet, academia and air traffic control; rather, we conjecture, it is due to the political decision to open China up to the world market. The demand for English is a product of the demand for wealth. Ultimately it is all about business.

And it is interesting in this respect to see the British Council dropping all the pretensions of the old aristocracy and refashioning itself along business lines as being just another service provider promoting a brand on the international market.

British Council commercialisation of education

Robert Phillipson highlights things like the imperial role of the native speaker and the discrimination against the non-native speaking teacher (NNEST). We would support his arguments against those phenomena, but with the massive caveat that it is not uncommon to find local, non-native English teachers and English language institutions functioning as uncritical purveyors of the prevailing form of globalization. While they might be construed as opponents of one aspect of a narrowly framed linguistic imperialism, they can function perfectly well as lackeys of the broader empire. As one tiny example we would point to Li Yang, who can be seen in this video getting his students to shout out the sentence: “People find it convenient to use credit cards.” (For a thorough analysis of Li Yang’s Crazy English see Rachel Ternan’s MA thesis.)

Other NNEST schools, we are told (see Anne Johnson’s nice article), market themselves with slogans like “Make Your Dreams Come True”, and these are precisely the kind of gold-plated dreams which help to drive the current form of globalization.

ELT EFL dreams

If we focus too narrowly on language, the risk is that we start calling for what would in effect be a multi-lingual and less discriminatory commercialism (in line with what some have termed “capitalism with a human face”), which might be slightly better, but only slightly. And it is interesting to see Coke leading the way here with a multi-lingual ad for the US Superbowl.

The dilemma for teachers: The problem for some of us is this: We got into the business partly out of a love of things foreign. In the days when people still listened to the radio, we may well have been those odd individuals with short-wave radios excited to find amongst the crackle a strange-sounding, barely audible station from some distant unknown land. The lure of the utterly foreign took us abroad, and teaching English was a way of making ends meet while relishing the sheer alterity of somewhere utterly different from home. But then we find ourselves in a school selling what are packaged and seen as passports to financial success, helping to fit people neatly into the homogenising world we thought we had left behind, and it dawns on us that we are aiding a process that is essentially antithetical to the foreign – a process that is, in a word, xenophobic.

Historical note: This problem with the foreign goes back a long way. Consider, for instance, these extracts from Alexander Pope’s poem Essay on Man (1734)

Look round our World; behold the chain of Love
Combining all below and all above.

Nothing is foreign: Parts relate to whole;
One all-extending all-preserving Soul
Connects each being, greatest with the least
Made Best in aid of Man, and Man of Beast;
All serv’d, all serving! nothing stands alone;
The chain holds on, and where it ends, unknown.

“Nothing is foreign.” There is an antithesis here to the foreign, even while expressing the good will to see humanity united. That unity is assumed to be a unity of similarity; not a unity of the foreign – the same xenophobic image of unity seen in the Coke ad that wanted to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

Objection: “In rejecting globalization you are rejecting progress, and trying to turn the clock back to a pre-modern parochial culture declaring what would, in effect, be a form of Jihad on everything that threatens it. Surely there are two options: Either we side with the forces heading for global unity or we side with the forces insisting (often violently) on ethnic fragmentation and separatism. And the choice is obvious, isn’t it?”

Anti-empire imperialism

Reply: No, those are not the only options, and it is possible to reject both on the same grounds. Both commerce-dominated globalization and Jihadi parochialism are xenophobic. Both of the sides currently at war with each other are wrong. It is not a matter of choosing between them, rather what is needed is to find a way beyond this violent conflict.

In theory, at least, it is easy to see what is needed here. We need to find a new articulation of the universal and the particular – the global and the local. That would affirm locality as a universal value so that the affirmation of our independence and integrity goes hand in hand with a celebration of the independence and integrity of other communities who share that open-minded approach to locality. Unlike the prevailing form of globalisation, which spreads an ideology of personal liberty (the liberty, above all, of the shopper) while undermining the bases for popular autonomy, perhaps we ought to be calling for a form of globalisation that promotes the autonomy of communities out of a love of locality that is also a love of what is foreign.

Question: What does this mean for EFL?

It is surprising (or perhaps it isn’t) that EFL teachers, who have a particular interest in things that are foreign, are not at the forefront of a movement protesting against the prevailing form of globalization. There is a surprising silence about the political significance of our work in places like online fora, where, according to the mythology of the digital revolution, there ought to be an outpouring of grassroots political concern. The politics of the EFL business seems to have become something of a self-imposed taboo.

For our part, it is not a question here of being against English, rather it is a matter of resisting and calling into question the larger project of which EFL is a part. The point is to resist the current form of globalization in the name of a form of internationalism that is genuinely xenophilic, not xenophobic.

Inside the classroom, the teacher who is opposed to the general trend of the industry will be on the lookout for things like a cultural inferiority complex among the students, with them dreaming of bright lights in some other world where everyone speaks with an American accent, and turning their back on the riches of their heritage. If it exists, that is something that needs highlighting and discussing in class. Why are the students assuming that the West is the best? Where has that idea come from? What is this West that is supposed to be the best? What image of the world and of the future does this point to? Do these West-worshipping ideas really stand up to scrutiny? If there is something to be learnt from the West, what is it?

West globalisation

Such teachers will also be wary of the materials used in class, avoiding presenting them in a way that might reinforce a sense of cultural inferiority or function as an advert for a culture that promises wealth and an infinite source of distractions. Disney English provides a great model of what to avoid. Then there is the issue of how to present things like hitech activities for kids from a low-tech background who might get the impression that they ought to turn their back on their low-tech past. There is no argument here entailing a rejection of the tech produced by multi-national giants. It is simply a matter of being careful with how things are presented and the effect that they have, either enriching the locality or making it seem hopelessly impoverished.

We would also argue for a certain wariness with regard to things like hip-hop English. It is not a matter of flatly rejecting pop culture, but of selecting things that go against the grain of an overly commercialised culture – choosing things that have a critical edge to them. That doesn’t mean they need to be overtly political. They could simply be expressions of the perceived emptiness of life in a cosmopolitan culture in which Money has become the Supreme Being and life, instead of being cherished, is frittered away in endless distractions. Mainstream life in the West needs to be seen as problematic – as something that we need to go beyond – not as a model for others.

EFL ESL hip hop

It is not unlikely that the desire to learn English as a foreign language will be accompanied by an antipathy to things that are genuinely foreign. English can be associated with success and moving up, and people keen to move up in the world can very readily look down on others who are not part of the same race. That too, if it is present, can be thematised and challenged in class.

The world of commerce that is coming to dominate everything thrives on a means-ends attitude. Bad EFL provides a great support for that mindless instrumentalism. Courses are sold as means to the acquisition of certificates that are themselves viewed as means to the acquisition of something else. Perhaps it seems counter-intuitive, but turning EFL lessons against the prevailing tide of globalization requires cultivating a genuine interest in the English language. There may be no poetry in the exams, but no EFL class should be without its poetry activities. Clearly there is a craft involved in cultivating this genuine interest in the language without uncritically promoting Western lifestyles.

It would be nice if there were a movement in EFL against the mania with certification – a movement calling, perhaps, for a ban on all certification for children under the age of 16. Surely there is no reason why children under the age of 16 need certificates.

A new approach to globalization needs a new respect for and interest in history – a sensitivity to the context to which things belong. In the EFL class we need to take that approach to English itself. The ideas that there is a singular thing called English, and that it exists as some politically neutral international language need to be raised in class, discussed and challenged. Classes in countries that are not former colonies would do well to look at what happens in some of the ex-colonies that were once ruled by the British, where some children are now forced to do their secondary education in what is for them a foreign language. (On post-colonial language injustices see the excellent talk given by Birgit Brock-Utne.) It would also be nice to listen to Winston Churchill speaking in 1943 about the need for TEFL after the war and how convenient it would be if all the world spoke English.

Another problematic idea: that of the native speaker as a near-impossible standard for the foreign learner. Surely it is possible to combine a genuine interest in the language without insisting that the native speaker sets a standard that the foreign speaker must (fail to) meet. In their own productive work as speakers and writers of English, surely other standards should apply. Again, it is vital that EFL lessons don’t become another education in inferiority. This, though, entails resistance to the prevailing system of assessment (dominated by organisations in the UK and the US) that exerts such a powerful backwash effect.

In closing we would like to add a gripe about the ELT/EFL publishing business. The major publishers operate – do they not? – as slaves to the market. Focus groups of target consumers now take the place that could have been occupied by people thinking long and hard about where education ought to be heading, informed by thoughts about where the world ought to be heading. The only thing that matters now is the bottom line – the maximisation of sales. It is a terrible state of affairs when organisations involved in education come to operate along purely commercial lines.

In a world that is not the best of all possible worlds people in education have a critical role to play, holding open a space in which the next generation might come across things that point towards a better future, in this case a less xenophobic future. When everyone in education capitulates to the imperatives of business what happens to that space? The space for critique and for hope shrinks massively when all controversy must be edited out of educational materials because it just might have a negative impact on sales. The result is that the books followed by so many teachers prescribe an utterly conformist education – a sickening affirmation of things as they are.

Conclusion: As it stands, the EFL business is a willing collaborator in the spread of a global system that is fundamentally xenophobic. Far from being an exception, Disney English simply represents one end of a continuum along which the vast majority of EFL businesses lie. Is it really inconceivable that this could change?

written by Torn Halves on May 29, 2014 in education with 8 comments