Is teaching English a form of linguistic imperialism?

English Imperialism

I teach English, because I want to help people learn to communicate better with one another. English is the language of international communication, by and large, and I want my students to be able to join in that culture. At the same time, I realize that English has a privileged position in the world, and that this position was not necessarily won on the merits of the language or the kind nature of its speakers. A lot of blood has been spilled, and a lot of cultures have been lost in the process of bringing English to every corner of the globe. In doing this, am I building up my own language and culture at the expense of others? People all over the world want to learn English, but in teaching them, am I helping to maintain the dominant power dynamic?

Am I a dick?

Although I teach English, and I’m going through a degree program to get better at that, I don’t think this is an easy question to answer. Some language teaching really does weaken other languages. Languages really are dying out, and ways of knowing the world are being lost in the process. In order to examine this question, I think we need to differentiate English language education types.

Current literature describes very different teaching techniques for different environments. In an additive environment, students are in no particular danger of losing their first language. They are surrounded every day by their native language, and instruction in the second language couldn’t possibly make a dent. English teaching in Japan, where I live, is in an additive environment; the students are not going to lose their Japanese, and the importance of Japanese is constantly reinforced all around them. Students at Katou Gakuen receive around half of their instruction in English, with no detriment to their Japanese skills, academic skills, or identity as Japanese. In fact, their figures show that students in their bilingual education program have a greater sense of Japanese identity as well as greater intercultural sensitivity.

subtractive environment is very different: Cantonese speaking kids who move to Michigan will have almost no chance to use their first language or develop higher-level cognitive faculties in their first language, which seems to slow their overall academic progress. For these students, it’s absolutely essential that they receive some form of instruction in their native language, even as they develop conversational fluency in the L2. Techniques like submersion (often wrongly called immersion), in which the student is given no opportunity to use the L1, are hugely detrimental to students’ cognitive abilities, language development, and self-image.

Teaching English in Japan, Taiwan, or Korea isn’t going to endanger anyone’s first language. But even though sending a Japanese kid to Eikaiwa won’t ruin his Japanese language skills, there are certainly cultural concerns. It’s vital that teachers treat the students’ L1 with respect, and value the student as a bilingual speaker of the language. Teachers should hold up fluent non-native speakers as role-models, and hold up English not as the language of native speakers, but as a common lingua franca. Dialects such as Singlish should be valued in the classroom. A teacher, in sharing culture, needs to avoid making normative claims about what should or should notbe, but must also be prepared to present information about the cultural practices of their own and other countries.

To put it on a more personal level, I approach teaching English to Japanese people with a few ideas in mind. First, code-switching and code-mixing are normal, near-universal languaging processes. I use Japanese very occasionally as a support, and I allow my students to ask me questions in Japanese if necessary. I try to teach them how to talk about and explain their culture in English, including how to introduce Japanese words into an English conversation. I tell them about American cultures, how they differ, and how they can navigate life abroad while maintaining a Japanese identity. I teach them what it means to be Japanese in Europe, or the US, or Canada, based on conversations I’ve had with Japanese returnees from abroad. I teach them that their English, though different from mine, has value, and can be used to communicate. I hold up non-native fluent speakers of English, like those returnees, as role-models. I ask my students to teach me about Japan using their English, because I want them to develop the skills necessary to express their culture in English.

TL;DR English doesn’t belong to native speakers anymore. Modern English teaching should hold up non-native English as valuable and worthy, and respect the cultures and languages of students. It is the teacher’s job to provide students with English education that helps them fulfill their goals and become more aware of their own culture.

If you’re interested in reading more about these issues, I highly recommend:


English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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Posted in Language and Society
One comment on “Is teaching English a form of linguistic imperialism?
  1. bomnvc says:

    hahaha I think I’m in the second case you mentioned.
    One of our English tutors could sometimes say, as quoted “English is better! Chinese letters are $%$T!” lol

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