‘Linguistic imperialism: still alive and kicking?’ was the topic of a British Council Signature Event at the recent IATEFL Conference and Exhibition in Liverpool. Robert Phillipson, the author of the 1992 book Linguistic Imperialism, stated in his opening comments that ‘English opens doors for some but closes it for many.’ The concern that local languages are often neglected in preference for English was one shared by many attending the session, although Sarah Ogbay (University of Asmara, Eritrea) counteracted that ‘what we usually see is that people want to learn English because it opens the door’ to opportunities rather than it being forced upon them.
The debate over the status of English is one that is surely going to continue for a long time, but in the Language Rich Europe recommendations we address the issue and attempt to move the discussion forward by calling for the position of English to be ‘explicitly acknowledged, in order to propose a new model for the co-existence of languages in Europe.’
The EU’s ‘mother tongue plus two’ policy, for example, in reality usually means ‘mother tongue, plus English, plus one.’ This does not leave much space in curriculums for other languages, particularly for individuals for whom the mother tongue is not the same as the language of schooling or in areas where the regional/minority language is not the same as the national language. The ‘plus one’ is further undermined by the belief that ‘English is enough.’ It is not. For many, at least in Europe, the English language has become a basic skill to be listed on the CV alongside IT and Communication. To put yourself ahead of other candidates in the job market, yes learn English, but you now need other languages as well. The promotion of a ‘linguistic profile’ by the EU would be a less restrictive way of recognising the importance of all languages to an individual and their society.
According to Sarah Ogbay, ‘the spread of English does not undermine the local language as long as the language policy of the country really looks after the language of the local people.’ Research shows that children learn better by learning in their mother tongue and UNESCO promotes ‘mother tongue based multilingual education,’ but during the session many examples were given of children learning in English to the detriment of their native language. Language Rich Europe’s Recommendation 7 calls for ‘Migrant’, ‘Immigrant’, ‘Community’ to be
explicitly recognised through appropriate instruments at European level… the offer of languages other than the national language(s) should be adapted so that all students, regardless of their background have the opportunity to learn the languages of their community, from pre-primary to university education.
This builds on the Council of Europe’s European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which recognises the importance of governmental support and promotion of these languages. Without policies many languages struggle to survive when competing with ‘bigger’ languages.
But it is difficult to know which languages require protection and the extent to which protection is necessary if data has not been collected on languages spoken and used in different communities. Language Rich Europe emphasises the importance of this by placing it right at the start of the recommendations:
Recommendation 1 – steps should be taken to increase current knowledge about the languages spoken and used in different communities and countries throughout Europe, and on the relationships between languages; for example, through data on translations. An initial survey of existing census data should be compiled and relevant authorities should be encouraged to carry out further census/survey work in this area.
Danny Whitehead, British Council, Indonesia, stated at the IATEFL event, ‘English can be and is a very powerful and valuable part of a person’s linguistic repertoire… it provides opportunities for individuals… it is the cornerstone for cultural relations.’
It should be ‘part of a person’s linguistic repertoire’ rather than a way of creating a monolingual individual. In the words of Becky, R.K. Ndjoze-Ojo (former Deputy Minister of Education, Namibia) ‘If English is a global language, which it is, how can it be used to give hope to speakers of thousands of other languages?’
- Read the Language Rich Europe Recommendations on our website
- View the ‘Linguistic imperialism: still alive and kicking?’ event and other IATEFL coverage here.
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