Linguistic Imperialism

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The Linguistic imperialism of Robert Phillipson

1. Linguistic Imperialism

1.1 The spread of English

The stated aim of Phillipson’s 1992 book Linguistic Imperialism was to set out how English became so dominant and why, and to examine the role ELT pedagogy had in contributing to it becoming “the international language par excellence in which the fate of most of the worlds millions is decided.” (Phillipson 1992 p.6) While many writers had tackled the question before no one had done so from the type of critical, socio-linguistic standpoint taken by Phillipson. Whereas for David Crystal, and other commentators, the rise of English is a largely neutral phenomenon, achieved “by repeatedly finding itself at the right place at the right time” (Crystal 1997, p.110) for Phillipson, the spread of English is no happy accident and his book is no dispassionate examination of the natural evolution of a language. According to Phillipson the English language has been, and continues to be, propelled by the deliberate manipulation of economic, political, intellectual and social forces in order to “legitimate, effectuate and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources.” (Phillipson 1992 p.47) and create a culture of what Phillipson calls, linguistic imperialism.

For Phillipson the ELT industry and ELT pedagogy are not innocent bystanders in the rise of English language hegemony but are complicit in a neo-colonial agenda that he sees as driving English to its current position. He contends that the popular view of the spread of English as ‘an incontrovertible boon’ is misplaced and that the discourse that currently ties learning English to ‘progress and prosperity’ is in fact ‘scientifically fallacious’ (ibid p.8). While accepting that English is no longer imposed by force as it was in colonial times he is deeply suspicious of the popular view that the demand for English is governed by such benign forces as “the state of the market (‘demand’) and force of argument (rational planning in light of the facts).” (ibid p.8) For Phillipson imperialist control need no longer come from the barrel of a gun and “the progression from one type of imperialist control to another parallels the way power can be asserted by means of sticks, carrots and ideas” (ibid p.53) For Phillipson the spread of English is still implicitly connected to the imperialist urges of colonial times and recent ELT policy and practice has been deliberately directed towards maintaining the domination of Western centre countries over those in the developing periphery. “English serves to consolidate the interests of the powerful globally and locally and to maintain an imbalanced exploitative world order, to disenfranchise speakers of other languages.” (2008 p.6)

Far from the ideas of some commentators that the global spread of English “presents us with unprecedented ideas for mutual understanding” (Crystal p.266) or that “the world needs a global language and English is the best candidate” (Quirk, 1990 p.105) for Phillipson “the tension between English as an invasive, imperialist language and the promises that it holds out is not straightforward.” and “arguments in favour of expanding the use of English must be weighed against concern about educational and social inequality deriving from continued use of English.” (2008 p.10) The question then is whether English will “continue to spread as a second language the world over as a benevolent bonus or creeping cancer of modernity” (ibid p.11) For Phillipson the answer is clear.

1.2 A definition of Linguistic Imperialism

According to Phillipson, linguistic imperialism “refers to a particular theory for analysing relations between dominant and dominated cultures and specifically the way English language learning has been promoted.” (ibid p.15) For Phillipson language is one of many structures by which communities can be categorised and discriminated against, similar to gender, age and race, and while language...
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