In case you missed it, yesterday the U.S. State Department and Peace Corps announced the launch of “English For All”, a new program that will highlight the U.S. government’s commitment to helping people around the world learn English.
Upon seeing tweets about the announcement, I was a bit conflicted. I personally have taught English abroad and am aware of the so called “benefits” it can provide to students and communities. But, I’m also acutely aware of the ways that the spread of Eurocentric languages has contributed to or even caused the loss of local dialects, cultures, and customs. During the colonial era, language was a tool of the oppressor. Students in colonial schools were taught the language of their colonizer. It’s important to note that the British, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and other colonizers were not asking the peoples they colonized if they wanted to learn their language. It was forced on them because their language was a tool colonizers could use to extend their domination and exploitation of the colony.
Students in colonial schools were taught enough English, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese to benefit their oppressor. Enough to enable them to serve in low-level bureaucratic positions that would provide manpower behind the colonial occupation. But, they were not taught enough of the language to advance beyond a very low glass-ceiling. In effect, this language education, that promised and promises to provide opportunities for advancement, left colonized states and communities without an identity or with an identity that was constructed somewhere in-between their indigenous ideals and the colonizer’s beliefs about them.
This history is why I am wary of this new push for #EnglishForAll. I cannot deny that speaking English might increase an individuals chance to study in the US or get a “good” job. But, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that the pervasiveness and spread of Eurocentric languages because of colonialism and conquest by European powers before World War II and U.S. imperialism since, created the “need” for English around the world in the first place.
— Rick Stengel (@stengel) September 8, 2016
English is only the “language of innovation” because Eurocentrism and the belief that West is right, are the dominant socio-political ideologies of the day. But, what good is the spread of English, as a way to unite humanity if it costs us indigenous knowledge, language, and culture? Who is really benefitting and are we willing to cut our losses?
As an American and a graduate student in the field of International Educational Development, I have benefitted from the spread of the English language. It makes it easier for me to travel abroad and profess that I am a “global citizen.” But, we’ve had 60 years of development and centuries of the spreading of English and other Eurocentric languages, to what end? Is the world any better than we found it? Have we ended poverty and eradicated HIV/AIDS? Are more girls able to simply learn?
None of these are questions I personally have the answer to. But, I think we, especially Americans, should all commit ourselves to making sure that history does not repeat itself — that we are not simply neo-colonialsts or neo-imperialists. And that in our efforts to engage with the world around us to create ties that bind our shared humanity, we still allow for a globally connected society that leaves space for people to keep the language and culture that is their own.