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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Language myths and the history of English


Before I discuss how the incipient English-as-a-world-language myth of the late nineteenth century was transformed into the present-day ideological discourse of English as the global language, I need to turn the clock back to the eighteenth century and outline, in very general terms, the growth of the British colonial empire. The most salient feature of this growth was the ability of the Royal Navy to protect both Britain’s far-flung colonies and its elaborate global system of trade. The trade network consisted of two major geographical axes, one in the Indian Ocean, the western rim of the Pacific and the South China Sea and the other in the North Atlantic. The former involved the export to Britain by the East India Company of cheap cotton from the Indian subcontinent and the trade in opium to China in exchange for tea, while the latter involved the exportation of slaves from West Africa to provide labour for the profitable sugar plantations in the West Indies. The loss of the American colonies after the American War of Independence in 1782 meant the loss of Britain’s major source of cotton, but this was more than compensated by the trade along the Pacific route.

To secure the markets in all these goods, it became necessary for Britain to assert political control over its various geographical locations and their indigenous inhabitants. This, of course, was nothing new. The Spanish had developed the system of colonisation in the Americas since the end of the fifteenth century, often involving the wholesale extermination of local populations. Asserting colonial control also entangled Britain in a long series of wars throughout the eighteenth century, principally against France, but, in addition, it provided ready-made markets for the exportation of goods manufactured in Britain.

One of the most potent ways of securing the colonies and the markets they offered was to export “British” cultural values, and the most important of these was the English language itself. This, in turn, automatically generated the question of what variety of English should be “exported”. In the North American colonies, which had been colonised as early as the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, waves of settlers had come from different parts of the British Isles creating the ideal conditions for the koi'neisation of dialects in contact. Ireland had been colonised earlier in the sixteenth century, but the number of settlers in Ireland was never enough to guarantee the development of koines.[1] Settlers from Britain continued to immigrate to North America, even after the War of Independence, but the next waves of settlers to the colonies from Britain are not to be found until the early years of the nineteenth century in South Africa, Australia and later in New Zealand. Once again conditions favouring koineisation were created (Britain & Trudgill

1999; Moore 2008; Gordon 2004). With the exception of Kenya and present-day Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia[2]) towards the end of the nineteenth century, the remainder of the British possessions and colonies spread over the world were administered by civil servants sent out from London rather than settled.

The vast majority of colonial administrators were “educated” rather than simply “schooled”, since colonial administration tended to provide a living for the second sons of the gentry and the aristocracy who had been exposed to a system of education in the public schools and universities, in which knowledge of the classical languages Greek and Latin was at a premium. Gramsci (1971: 40) suggests that schooling, which, in eighteenth-century Britain as in pre-Second World War Italy, simply meant a rudimentary training in mathematics and in reading and writing the mother tongue, was part of a hegemonic discourse which aimed at socialising children into the acceptance and maintenance of the status quo. So, in Gramsci’s sense, colonial administrators were given administrative positions to uphold British hegemony in the colonies, not to teach the indigenous population English. Their own English would have been “polite”, or at least aspiring to be “polite”, according to the changing conceptions of politeness in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (cf. chapters 8 and 9).

If the “natives”, as the indigenous population were almost invariably and disrespectfully called, acquired any proficiency in English, it was generally pidginised forms of the language, which were enough to carry out the day-to-day, on-the-spot running of the affairs of the colony but conveniently prevented the “natives” from acquiring a “legitimate”, educated variety of English. “Polite”, “educated” or standard English was reserved for official business involving the indigenous population rather than to effect efficient communication with them. Although moves to “school” the indigenous population of the colonies were not really begun until the latter half of the nineteenth century, the model for that schooling, standard English, was already firmly in place by the end of the eighteenth century. Its prestige and preeminence were enhanced by its acceptance, in the nation-state ideology and amongst the “educated” elite, as the “one” legitimate homogeneous language. In achieving this status, it automatically became the only legitimate language for the purposes of “schooling”.

Before the advent of compulsory schooling, missionary schools focused on educating the indigenous population in their first language, since their primary concern was to convert the local inhabitants to Christianity. This led to a spate of grammars, writing systems and educational materials in the local languages, but retaining first language teaching throughout all levels of the education system was never a viable option once colonial administrative systems had decided to introduce compulsory education. It was convenient for colonial administrators to uphold the distinction between education and schooling and to provide schooling only for the vast majority of the indigenous population. However, the need to employ local administrators from among the local population led to the encouragement of a small number of selected pupils who were willing to go on to the secondary level of education in which English was the language of instruction throughout the curriculum. At that level, teachers, the majority of whom were recruited in Britain, needed to develop more pragmatic methods of teaching than those in use in the public schools and grammar schools, and the teaching of English itself naturally developed matter-of-fact, down-to-earth forms of instruction that were adequate to the task of teaching English. This experience was invaluable when the perceived need to learn English as an instrument of communication rather than as a Kultursprache burgeoned after the Second World War. English had by then indeed become a commodity, a resource that could be bought and sold like any material good.

Teaching English as a “foreign” language in the far-flung British Empire was focused largely on British India from the second half of the nineteenth century through to the end of the Second World War, India taking the place of the American colonies as the “jewel in the crown” of the Empire. It was also the only area in the non-English-speaking colonies in which tertiary education played any significant role in English-language teaching.[3] From the beginning of the twentieth century the so-called direct method of teaching foreign languages, developed in Germany and France around 1900, was adopted for use in extending the teaching of English as a foreign language, and more emphasis was placed on the oral use of language based on conversation and phonetic analysis (cf. Palmer 19215 19245 R. Smith 2003) and, from the mid-1940s on, the major syntactic structures of the language (Fries 1945).

American involvement in foreign-language teaching became most prominent at the time of the Second World War and resulted in the U.S. Army Specialized Training Program. Much of the technology and many new teaching methods used in this programme were taken up after the end of the war and put to great use in the teaching of English as a second language. The involvement of the United States in a market that had been in the hands of the British in the years between the two world wars gave an enormous boost not only to the significance of English throughout the world but also to the exponential growth of the EFL/ESL market. Private English language schools catering to those who wished to acquire English in a first-language-speaking environment sprang up in Britain in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, particularly along the southern coast and in London, to be followed by similar institutions in the United States, Canada, Australia and, at a much later stage, New Zealand. The commodity “English language competence” was

suddenly in great demand; this in turn generated a surge of interest in applied linguistics as a postgraduate course of study at the universities designed to produce experts on second-language teaching, EFL/ESL teachers and course writers; and finally publishers began to cash in on the demand for a wide range of English-language teaching materials. Semi-government organisations operating abroad such as the British Council and the American Field Service realised that English language teaching could be a lucrative addition to the cultural programmes already on offer.

The decolonisation of Africa after 1960 resulted in English being chosen as the official language of the new states (cf. Phillipson 1992), which gave the boom in EFL/ESL a further impetus in experimenting with the new teaching methods and course materials. However, it took some time for these to be adopted or used as models for the teaching of other languages as a second or additional language in state education systems, although it was certainly clear that English as a foreign language in the public school systems of western Europe, then later in Asia, South America and, after 1990, post-communist eastern Europe, would eventually take over these methods and materials. For example, in Switzerland, which will be the locus of a case study on the spread of English and the imminent dangers of that spread in the following section, the introduction of communicative teaching methods in English began to enter the cantonal school systems in the second half of the 1970s. Those teaching methods have by now been adopted almost wholesale for English, but not for the teaching of languages such as French, German, Italian, Spanish or Russian.

Teaching English as a second language has led to a sudden spread of English across the world, but the myth that English is the global language raises a range of problems that I will deal with in section 5. In particular, the costs of favouring English as the first additional language in most nation-states of Europe exceed the ability to produce enough speakers of English to feed the perceived needs of the “global market”. Those costs, as we shall see in section 4, are not only in terms of finance, but also in terms of local cultural values.

  • [1] The first demographically significant wave of settlers to Ireland came (largely but not entirely) fromthe south of Scotland at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
  • [2] Or Southern Rhodesia during the period of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
  • [3] The seminal work on the history of English language teaching is A. P. R. Howatt’s A History ofEnglish Language Teaching (1984), on which the following paragraphs are based.
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