By Tim Scrase
Feature image: IELTS training and the possibility of migration in India
The question of which language should be the medium of instruction in the developing world is a complex and perplexing one. The issue actually goes back well over 100 years when mass education programs were introduced in various countries. Colonial powers like Spain, England and Portugal had a vested interest in ensuring their colonial subjects, especially the middle classes, merchants and elite, be fluent in the colonizer’s language. The language of the colonizer enhanced both their economic and cultural colonization and meant that local and indigenous cultures were subjugated. In post-colonial times, generally from the 1940s to the 1980s, there was ongoing debate as to the most appropriate language of instruction for primary (elementary) and secondary schooling. Should the language of instruction be that of the former colonial power in the respective colonies? What about indigenous or local languages, some of which may have no written form? And what about countries such as India where there are millions of speakers of “local” languages like Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali and so forth?
The rise of English
The emergence and dominance of English globally can be linked directly with the economic globalization of the world economies which occurred in the 1970s. This process was enhanced by what is termed cultural globalization (spread of Western ideas via media, film, popular culture and so forth) (Sklair, 1995). As large, mostly United States-based transnational corporations emerged, seeking to expand their profits, reach and influence, English became the common language for doing international business, uniting the global elites, political classes and captains of global industries. In this way, English emerges as a lingua franca, seen to be a relatively “neutral” linking language between various cultures (Melitz, 2018; Nickerson, 2005).
In the developing world, from the late 1940s to the 1980s, the children (mostly males) of the business and political elites, and some others with excellent school examination results, were often sent abroad for their education in mostly English-speaking countries, the USA and the UK especially (Lee, 2006). Since the 1990s, we see the great expansion of the business of international education among the broader middle classes of the developing world, hoping to take advantage of a Western-style education, a university degree and, importantly, one completed in English. Australia, for instance, emerged as one of the strongest players in international education from that time (Moodie, 2008). In Australia, the many thousands of international students from China, India, Indonesia and Malaysia, to name just a few “source” countries, demonstrates both the appeal of a Western, English language higher education and the opportunities for children from their parents’ “investment”.
The politics of learning English
The rise of English as a global language has not been without controversy. Language disputes were commonly fought out in many postcolonial, developing nations. For instance, there is much ongoing debate as to the official languages of Timor Leste, Portuguese and Tetum in schools and in formal laws and policies, and the role and place of the 15 other minority, local languages. There is also pressure by younger Timorese to become proficient in English (Fernandes, 2021). In another case, in the 1980s in West Bengal, India there was a much-heated dispute when the state government tried to implement a policy of compulsory primary schooling in the mother tongue (Bengali, which is the 6th most spoken language in the world) (Scrase, 2002).
Often the debates over language and the preference for English are led by middle class parents and others with high aspirations for their children. The pragmatic argument they present goes something like this: “… important people and professional jobs have English as a basic necessity; I want my child to have an important, well-paying job; they need to learn English, and the earlier the better”. Enhancing this view is that in innumerable towns and cities across the developing world, English language tuition centres and private coaching colleges have sprung-up offering after-school classes to swathes of children whose parents often sacrifice their somewhat meagre earnings to fulfil a dream of their child being fluent in English, gaining a seat at a college or university, and securing a well-paid, middle class professional job at home or, even better, abroad (Joshi, 2020; Obaidul et.al, 2018).
Image: English tuition colleges in India
But what of the fate of the many poorer students and families who cannot afford the privilege of learning English? If local languages are promoted, are governments condemning vast numbers of the children, more often girls, to a life with limited opportunities for advancement? Or is the realistic goal to see basic literacy and numeracy in the mother tongue language achieved, recognizing that few from the poorer classes will actually be in the position to socially advance due to their lack of economic and cultural resources? Problematically, many local and minority languages have no written form, vocabularies are somewhat limited, and they do not promote a sense of national unity, rather enhance regionalism or division. The conundrum for national educational planners in the developing world is that while education is empowering, the form of education and the language of instruction remains contested and complex (Nunan, 2003).
I have only touched on some of the issues surrounding the rise and importance of English as a global linga franca. While many have reaped the advantages of learning English over the past three decades, many more have not due to significant factors like lack of jobs, limited university places, limited financial means, and the family’s lack of cultural and social power. For teachers, educational planners and politicians in developing nations the fundamental question has been, and still is: will our children be better off in the global era with universal English language proficiency, or are there better outcomes for them, and the nation as a whole, if we concentrate on ensuring the majority of population have basic literacy skills?
Fernandes, Marino (2021) “Learning English in Timor”, https://palms.org.au/2021/04/26/learning-english-in-timor/
Joshi, Priyadarshani (2020) “Private Schooling and Tutoring at Scale in South Asia”, in: Sarangapani P. and Pappu R. (eds) Handbook of Education Systems in South Asia. Global Education Systems, Springer, Singapore: 1-20.
Lee, J.M. (2006) “Commonwealth Students in the United Kingdom, 1940-1960: Student Welfare And World Status”, Minerva, 44 (1): 1-24.
Melitz, Jacques (2018) “English as a Lingua Franca: Facts, Benefits and Costs”, The World Economy, 41 (7): 1-25.
Moodie, Gavin (2008) “Australia: Twenty Years of Higher Education Expansion”, Journal of Access Policy and Practice, 6 (1): 1-28.
Nickerson, Catherine (2005) “English as a lingua franca in international business contexts”, English for Specific Purposes, 24 (4): 367-380.
Nunan, David (2003) “The Impact of English as a Global Language on Educational Policies and Practices in the Asia-Pacific Region”, Tesol Quarterly, 37 (4): 589-613
Obaidul, Hamid M., Khan, Asaduzzaman and M. Monjurul Islam (2018) “The spread of private tutoring in English in developing societies: exploring students’ perceptions”, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 39 (6): 868-886.
Scrase, Timothy J. (2002) “Globalisation and the Cultural Politics of Educational Change: The Controversy Over the Teaching of English in West Bengal, India”, International Review of Education, 48 (5): 361-375.
Sklair, Leslie (1995) The Sociology of the Global System (2nd ed.), Brighton: Harvester Wheatsheaf.