May 30, 2017

‘Global English’ – Policy, Politics, and Economy

Exploring English in a global context

English has attained status as a ‘global’ language – a tool for many around the world that is perceived to help them access capital and improve their social and economic status. Technological developments, worldwide organizations, as well as involvement in a connected world, are often seen as requiring populations in the developing world to invest in learning English.

While commonly seen as an essential ‘good,’ English language policies may have benefits and detriments for different populations. This raises important questions surrounding who does (and who doesn’t) benefit, what benefits or costs do different policies have, and whether global English truly advances sustainable and equitable growth in developing countries.

In his edited book, Language Policy and Political Economy:  English in a Global Context (Oxford University Press, 2015), Dr. Tom Ricento brings together a number of essays on language policy and the role of English in the world. The essays present snapshots of language contexts in various countries, with the specific purpose of discussing the impact of English-language policy, politics, and the economy. In his own chapters, Dr. Ricento highlights perspectives of global English, and discusses English as a language of wider communication (LWC), or lingua franca.

The role of English

Discussing global English reveals a number of challenges and complexities related to its use around the world. The recognition that there is no single, ‘universal’ English – that there are many different varieties, used by different people, with varying levels of fluency – is at its core. There is currently no standard English variety spoken worldwide, though scholars have suggested that one could be established or created for this purpose. English is currently the most widely studied foreign language in the EU, and has official status in over 75 territories. Its use in culture (e.g. Hollywood), in global organizations and business, as well as in the field of technology also serves to reinforce its presence.

The perception that fluency in English enhances socioeconomic status also shapes how individuals and governments engage with the language. The potential to help countries and populations to gain access to capital and alleviate economic deficiencies is strongly believed in, and English proficiency can serve as an indicator that individuals are highly educated. Some countries have implemented strong English components in their mandated school curricula in an effort to produce more fluent speakers.

However, while the benefits for the entire population are often emphasized, only those who are able to afford high quality English language education ultimately benefit. This means that for many, there may be little benefit to learning English. While it certainly can have a positive effect for some individuals with advanced education and skills, the vast majority in poorer communities will likely not develop sufficient English to reap meaningful rewards. This means that English may reinforce economic divisions, rather than supporting equity and broad-based socioeconomic development.

Sustainable and equitable

Learning English is not inherently good or bad – it’s an instrument that can be used in a number of ways. It certainly can be very useful, but for the majority of people in the developing world, evidence suggests that mandated English is not the best answer.

Dr. Ricento emphasizes the need for more work supporting literacy and education in national languages. Studies support the widespread use of local languages in a nation, as this correlates positively with economic development. By developing policies and objectives to promote sustainable language development, countries may bolster efforts to protect minority language rights, and build towards equity. Dr. Ricento’s work reinforces the idea that the perspectives and approaches that governments take regarding the teaching and learning of English have important social, economic, and political implications.