The Post-Colonial Folly of ESL Theorists

December 2010

In the early 1990s, a movement emerged which stressed that the teaching of English as a foreign language is essentially an imperialist exercise; an extension of empire and subjugation of peoples this time via a different, more insidious form of control: linguistic imperialism. The most vocal proponent of this view is Robert Phillipson, professor of English at Copenhagen Business School. In Linguistic Imperialism (1992) he begins his argument around what he considers to be five fallacies concerning ESL instruction worldwide. These are, in order of importance:

1. That English is best taught monolingually
2. That the ideal teacher is a native speaker
3. That the earlier English is taught, the better the results
4. The more English is taught, the better the results
5. That if other languages are used much, standards of English will drop

My beliefs on these polemical views are as follows:

1. English is best taught monolingually for the reasons stated in the following chapters: 26. The ‘No First Language’ Axiom and 37. Effective Whiteboard Technique.

2. The fact that native speakers are the best teachers is not disputed by local students. In fact they demand native-speaking teachers because they know the standard of English teaching among non-natives generally leaves a lot to be desired.[1] Furthermore, educated native speakers know their own language better than a non-native does and thus native teachers can usually explain grammatical rules better, especially if they are experienced in doing so. To suggest that someone who has studied English as a second language learner is in a better position to explain grammar rules (which teachers should not be doing much of anyway) is a fallacy. Non-native teachers forget the whys and wherefores of the language too. You learn by teaching and if an educated native-speaker has been teaching his / her own language for several years, there is no reason why any non-native teacher should have a better understanding of the workings of it than he or she.

One thing people forget is that the native-speaking teacher is in a unique position to be an authentic listening source, which means sometimes he / she does not modify or explain language but instead demonstrates and immerses students in a just-below-normal-speed session of realistic language use, so that even if students miss parts, they can develop strategies for predicting meaning (e.g. via context), which makes them more independent learners in the long run. This type of implicit instruction is easier for a native-speaking teacher to perform.

Furthermore, non-natives at every level inevitably make grammatical and pronunciation errors and regularly need to double-check word definitions. Native speaking-teachers should not be making errors (although everyone makes some mistakes[2]). Importantly, natives are also familiar with the cultural nuances of the language including idioms and usage norms, which are central to any language. Lastly, natives have a larger vocabulary. Of course there are exceptions that prove the rule and non-native teachers are useful because they are more cost-effective, they serve as an important role model, and they are efficient at the very lowest levels. But to suggest the advantages of an educated and experienced native-speaker aren’t preferable is a quite ludicrous notion.

3. I don’t think anyone seriously disputes this. Without wanting to sound facetious, surely this is why people go to school when they are children and not when they are adults. Children learn so quickly. Although adults do have certain advantages in terms of ready knowledge, attitude, and cerebral ability, to suggest that older people learn language skills better than young people is absolutely ludicrous, especially to anyone with experience of teaching both.

4. It is true that quality is more important than quantity, to an extent. When a semester, syllabus, or lesson is broken down into smaller units, less is often more and slow is often fast. The adage of ‘little and often’ is certainly more productive than concentrating your study within long tedious sessions. But to apply a ‘less is more’ approach to the whole study of a language is preposterous. Language learning is a lifetime commitment and failure to apply oneself to long term continued study results in failure to acquire proficiency. Like most things, true mastery requires a more is more approach.

5. Of these so-called fallacies, in my opinion the only one with any substance is the last one and this is one reason I recommend that students learn some French if they can. Because French and English share so many words, learning French will naturally improve a person’s English. But regardless of that, this fallacy in itself is a straw man because the active discouragement of other languages in preference to English is not a common concern in modern-language education. The overwhelming preference for English over other languages is a natural occurrence arising out of economics, not policy on the part of educators. It’s a demand-led phenomenon – as it has to be.

To operate a school by adhering to Phillipson’s ideas would be downright suicidal educationally, as well as being a serious waste of time and resources.

1. See TEFL101 chapter 79. Language Concepts

2. See TEFL101 chapter 27. The Accuracy / Fluency Dichotomy

Separating the Inseparable

The crux of Phillipson’s argument is that in order to teach the language, teachers inevitably immerse students in an Anglo-Saxon cultural orientation which indoctrinates and brainwashes people with an ideal of foreign cultural superiority, modernity, advancement, and correctness. This post-colonialist view has been latched on to by many theorists, course designers, and teachers who insist on promoting a strain of ‘International English’ containing no irrelevancies, cultural references or associations. It is the belief that we should not teach culture at all in an ESL context. It is the belief that students around the world do not need to know anything about western festivals, dining culture, and the meaning of idioms. People simply need to learn the language, not the culture. What’s the point in an Asian person learning all that extra stuff about foreign ways, foreign history and foreign thinking?

Well there is a point. Not only is this a very sterile and boring way to approach language teaching, it is also clearly flawed — as anyone who has learned another language or lived abroad knows. Language and culture cannot simply be separated like this; the two are intertwined and inseparable.[3] In the words of the seminal Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein:

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. All I know is what I have words for…. If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.”

As true educators, I believe we should seek ways to simultaneously teach English while widening and deepening students’ knowledge of the world, engendering sophisticated thinking, to embrace travel and appreciate the diversity and identity of cultures.

3. See TEFL101 chapters: 77. Language, Culture and Thought,
74. Piaget and Constructivism

Ignorance of China’s Significance in ESL and Globalisation

To me it is quite obvious that Robert Phillipson, like many theoretical linguists, has never taught English as a second language and has probably never spent much time in an ESL classroom. His discourse is defined with loaded language while being na´ve and demonstrating a willful misunderstanding of language learning, economics, history, and linguistic and political reality.

As practitioners of this alleged exercise in linguistic imperialism, we don’t put a gun to anyone’s head to make them learn English. On the contrary, demand is overwhelming. In China learning English is a pragmatic pursuit for doubling your salary. In China there are more people learning English than there are native English-speaking people in the world and therefore it is unlikely that there will ever be enough native-speaking teachers to satisfy China’s demand. But this trend arises out of cold-headed economics not hot-blooded colonialism. The need to learn English worldwide is a demand-pull phenomenon, not a supply-push one. The language is not a soul-destroying addictive narcotic used to suppress people, but a practical tool for self-actualisation and financial independence. Thus because learning English empowers so many people and facilitates so much global trade and personal gain at the expense of no one in particular, it cannot be described as imperialistic or exploitative. English makes the world smaller and the world economy more efficient. If people communicate and do business with each other, they don’t go to war. It really is as simple as that.

Another point of concern is the emergence of a global monoculture in light of English as a global lingua franca. To this I suggest Philipson and his ilk go and ask Chinese people if they think the world is converging into one dominant culture. 99 percent will disagree with him because they know better. Chinese culture has existed for 5,000 years and it will most likely still be here in 5,000 years time. No amount of American cultural hegemony is going to change that, not the language, not the people, not the thinking, not anything. China is the only ancient culture which has survived into the modern world. That’s because China is such a deep cultural space that it absorbs foreign influences very easily. It always has done, from Buddhism to Marxism, from Kublai Khan to the Hong Kong handover. To Chinese people, a 1984-style global uniculture is unthinkable because they naturally understand how far-fetched and impractical it would be for everyone to think and behave and eat like Americans and likewise how difficult, problematic and regrettable it would be for everyone to become Chinese in their language, culture and ways. Aspiring to an American standard of living does not mean aspiring to be an American nor does using western systems, principles and methods to achieve an end make one a westerner. Naturally enough, Chinese people know this.

Unfortunately, Phillipson does not recognise any of the arguments against his theory. As such, he comes across as King Canute trying to hold back the tide of globalisation. He doesn’t realise that in China people aren’t even questioning whether English is imperialistic in its dominance. Rather, they are thinking: how can I get on in life? Suggesting that Chinese are victims of some clandestine imperialist strategy for world domination is patronising, simplistic, and completely out of touch with economic reality in the world today which is why his views have rightly been rejected by linguists and policy makers alike.