Define and conquer

RogetsWhat is “language”? Here on Speech Events we’ve stated that we’re interested in what people do through language (Saussure’s parole), rather than linguistic form (Saussure’s langue, Chomsky’s grammatical competence, or universal grammar). We pay attention to what language practices do, what they mean socially, ideologically, and politically. Today I find myself asking what is “English language”? Beyond the traditional odd couple of langue and parole, there is a whole wide world of different orientations, definitions, or biases about what language is, or in this case about what English is, as I was reminded by an article on English language learners, “Why are proud Hungarians mastering English? Simple pragmatism” (Sara Miller Lana, May 2, 2015). The article describes and praises the rapid increase of English competency in Hungary, which is contrasted against other European countries with lower levels according to the English Proficiency Index (EPI) of Education First, a for-profit company whose motto is “Opening the world through education” (largely, though not exclusively, through English education). Why are Hungarians so good at learning English? According to Kate Bell, the EPI Analyst at Education First,

“Central Europeans don’t speak [native] languages that have a world position. They are not hindered by that baggage.”

In other words, French, Italian, Spanish, German– languages with a “world position” (Considering that all language use is positioned in the world, presumably this means something like languages that are official in former colonial or current G8 countries?), represent “baggage” that gets in the way of the potential customer/ language learner’s motivation to learn English. In my line of research I’m accustomed to hearing minority or Indigenous languages described as problems or anachronisms that impede progress, but I’m not so accustomed to seeing national languages described as hindrances. In this analysis Poland is described as a “star performer” having revamped its education system from 1,200 English teachers in 1990 to 36,000 in 2000. The author tells us that France, on the other hand, rioted at the proposal of allowing more English-medium higher education in 2013, and “sits at the bottom” of the EPI for Europe. Why are the French disappointingly bad at learning English? Bell comments:

“There is less of a willingness to say English is what it is, and everyone is going to learn it,” as is the case in Scandinavia and increasingly Central Europe, says Bell. But language need not be conflated with culture, she argues. It can simply be viewed as a hard skill, like learning Excel or algebra. “You don’t have to learn it because you like the US or you aspire to live in the UK. You can learn English and not like English-speaking countries at all.”

So the answer to my starting question, according to Bell, turns out to be “English is what it is”, something universal and inevitable that “everyone is going to learn”. It’s neutral, a “hard skill, like learning Excel or algebra”. Excel, as I would define it, is that rather costly computer software that organizes data, most notably quantitative and financial data. Algebra is that subject I barely passed in 7th grade and haven’t thought about since, except when I did some cram studying for the for-profit SAT and GRE tests so I could apply to US higher education. (Those who attend higher education in the UK or many other countries may never, ever have had to think about algebra again.) So I beg to differ with her perspective of universal “hard skills”.

At the same time, I am undeniably a data point in support of her calculation of “everyone”; I speak English because I was born in a place that was colonized by Anglophones a few centuries back, and where after 13 years of mandatory English-only education most people don’t learn the meanings of our Anishinaabe-origin state name or French-origin town name. A place where other immigrant and Indigenous languages continue to be used, but often go unrecognized. There is a long, often dark history behind the production of the contemporary North American English speech community.

What I’m getting at here is that I have a pretty biased perspective on the question of English education and what English is/ means/ does (in particular in the time & place I live in), and it contrasts strongly with the perspective represented in the article. I’m skeptical about who gains power (or money) through certain kinds of language education, I’m concerned about whose languages get censured out of education, and I have a vested interest in the education of languages other than English. We all have vested interests and biased positions– Education First certainly does, as an organization with a long history of teaching English and new investments in testing English proficiency (not to mention yacht racing, training staff at the Olympics, and higher education). I’m not arguing against bias or interest, that’s how the world works, and Education First would not exist with their particular bias if it weren’t for the socio-economic factors driving large numbers of people to want to learn English, thus making their business profitable. They didn’t invent English hegemony (even if they would probably be invited to the celebratory cocktail party by those who did).

What I would like to argue is that it is high time for everyone to own up to their particular bias and interest, as an important step in recognizing, if not legitimating, the diversity of definitions that exist. In this case, the author of the article goes right along with the English-for-all agenda, making the interests of for-profit English companies sound like a global inevitability and a universally desirable outcome. Feigned neutrality, feigned inevitability– now those are scary things, classic tactics for justifying various forms of social inequality and exploitation. From the vantage point of the 21st century, with numerous human rights laws ratified around the world (there’s even a UN declaration on linguistic rights pending approval), I’d like to think that the idea that everyone will have to learn English whether they like it or not, as implied by Bell, no longer has a place in public discourse. I know that’s overly optimistic, and multinational companies like Education First aren’t signatories to human rights protocols anyways (Although we might imagine a future neo-neo-liberal world in which they are– Perhaps a sudden change of heart at the cocktail party?).

In the meantime, it’s important to speak up for different ways of thinking about English (and other languages), and not to forget what it has meant/done in the past, and what language practices are doing/ meaning to different people in different places now. I’ll conclude with a poem by Native American poet Tiffany Midge that expresses another view of what English can mean or do, further illustrating why we need to stop ignoring hidden bias and feigned neutrality. Perhaps Education First might consider adding it to the syllabi of their US-based programs, in order to allow learners to acquire a broader perspective of what English is in this specific place and time.

“Written in Blood” by Tiffany Midge I surrender to Roget’s Pocket Thesaurus. I confess my crime of breaking into this container of words, and slaughtering this poem with meta innuendo. But I needed something. I wanted to gather the dust of 84 warriors & 62 women & children. I robbed from this vault of words, language of the enemy, in hopes I could capture these people, allow their prayers to reach Wovoka in the final hour before I end this poem. I wanted to know that I’m not grieving merely from the guilt of that European blood that separates me from two worlds. I need to know that I can be allowed my grief. Sadly I have failed. This 1961 Cardinal edition thesaurus I depended upon has betrayed me. Betrayed my Indian kin. With this language there are times I feel I’m betraying myself. In my search for synonyms for murder, I find Cain, assassin, barbarian, gunman, brute, hoodlum, killer, executioner, butcher, savage, Apache, redskin.

Midge, T. (1997). Written in Blood. In Harjo, J. & Bird, G (Eds.), Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writings of North America (p. 212). New York: Norton.


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