English and development aid work

An East Timorese girl speaking Bunak, Tetum, Fataluku and Portuguese (Source: Wikipedia)

An East Timorese girl speaking Bunak, Tetum, Fataluku and Portuguese (Source: Wikipedia)

A response to Alexandra Grey, “We do aid, not English”

In my experience English is often promoted by aid organisations as part of a package and served up with very little consultation of recipients and not much concern for the local language ecology or the consequences of promoting English. In East Timor, where I have done a lot of research, monolingual English-speaking aid workers often expect their local counterparts to use English and even select them on the basis of their ability to speak it. Native English-speakers have earned a reputation for insensitivity to the constitutional provisions for language and flout them regularly, e.g., by using the fact that English is a working language as a get-out clause, circulating official documents in English and making no real effort to learn the official languages. Ten years after independence, English-speakers still criticise the decision to officialise  Portuguese and Tetum. These two languages are embedded in East Timorese history, culture and national identity and yet the tedious, ethnocentric, Anglophone narrative about how foolish the Timorese were to officialise these languages persists.  In his witty and critical travelogue Beloved Land, Gordon Peake takes aim at well-meaning foreigners who don’t even trouble to learn the local language and would much rather talk to each other than to the people they are trying to help.

My study of the linguistic landscape in downtown Dili (Taylor-Leech, 2012) showed how English is increasingly visible in the commercial, urban landscape, if not yet in the official one. This process contributes to a kind of double diglossia which also reflects the growing social divide that has sprung up in the wake of the aid industry. There are already Portuguese-speaking elites, a hangover from the country’s days as a Portuguese colony but now there are also English-speaking elites with the linguistic capital to make careers in the aid industry, while those who lack the capital to break out of unemployment or low-paid jobs get little opportunity to progress.

I think aid workers need to show sensitivity to local language situations and be aware of how they can promote the hegemony of English to the detriment of local language(s) and culture. I’d go further and say that if aid workers are paid to do development aid work then that indeed is what they should do. If the outcomes of development aid projects are to outlast the lifetime of the (usually short-term) project, it seems to me doubly important that aid workers build lasting relationships and do so by endeavouring to understand the local linguaculture. Capacity-building, like teaching, is not a one-way street and should build on local skills, traditions and knowledge. How is that done effectively in a dominant foreign language? There are lots of irritations that flow from being an elite foreign worker in a poor country but they are minor compared to the humiliations that aid recipients suffer from high-handed “experts” who don’t speak their language.

When I taught English in Mozambique, Mozambicans would frequently ask me how I could help them obtain status symbols like blue jeans or luxury food items. To them people like me seemed impossibly rich, although I was not on a high salary. I would count informal English lessons as a similar sort of status symbol. And be wary that people are not befriending you for those sorts of reasons, which can lead to heartbreak and cynicism. I say get engaged in local culture and local ways of knowing. Let English take a back seat and a low profile, unless you are an English teacher but even or especially then, tread lightly and carefully though the local language ecology.

A shining example of this approach can be seen in the work of one-time Portuguese teacher and now Tetum-Portuguese interpreter and author João Paulo T. Esperança. The photo above was used as illustration in a Portuguese language course in Tetum; lessons were published weekly in the East Timorese newspaper Lia Foun (New Words). João is also the author of the Tetum version of the much loved children’s story Liurai Oan Ki’ik , known in English as The little Prince.
ResearchBlogging.org Taylor-Leech, Kerry (2012). Language choice as an index of identity: Linguistic landscape in Dili, Timor-Leste International Journal of Multilingualism, 9 (1), 15-34 DOI: 10.1080/14790718.2011.583654

Author Kerry Taylor-Leech

Kerry Taylor-Leech is a senior lecturer in Applied Linguistics, TESOL and the teaching of second languages. She is based in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science at Griffith University. Her research is sociolinguistic, ethnographic and interdisciplinary in nature and explores language policy and planning, identity, education and literacy practices in multilingual settings. She has strong interests in all aspects of language and identity, especially in immigrant and postcolonial contexts. She is a co-editor of the international journal Current Issues in Language Planning. Visit ktlweb.wordpress.com for more.

More posts by Kerry Taylor-Leech
  • Alexandra Grey

    Thanks, Kerry, these details of the East Timorese context are very interesting and illustrate well the need for aid workers coming into a country to learn a language used in that country. I don’t disagree with that at all, and my article doesn’t argue for monolingual English aid workers by any means. The situation you’ve described is exactly why I think aid workers I have encountered have become very wary of language imperialism. Nevertheless, you can learn your colleagues’ language at the same time as using your English in ways your colleagues want, rather than avoiding “English work”.