Free language choice?

Pretty much everyone I know wants to learn English or improve their English – with the exception of those who consider themselves native speakers, obviously. What is more, everyone I know knows that everyone else wants to learn English (the pretense of conservative politicians that they are combating an imaginary resistance movement to English notwithstanding). Additionally, most people think that choice is a good thing and so the fact that pretty much everyone on this globe wants to learn English becomes a good thing by implication. The fact that so many people clamor for English is particularly convenient for the TESOL industry because it allows us to collectively pretend that English teaching is not just a job or, heaven forbid, that we are actually little cogs serving the advancement of corporate imperialism. On the contrary, we like to think that TESOL is actually helping people to learn the language of their choice, and thus to achieve all the goodies that are supposed to come with it, be it democracy or development.

Because I know all of this, I was not surprised to learn (in Clayton 2008) that the good people of Cambodia, too, want to learn English; nor was I surprised that the good people of the West are doing their best to help them to exert that choice. In the mid-1990s, for instance, one British and two Australian aid agencies alone devoted around USD12 million to provide English language teaching aid for Cambodia so as to enable Cambodians to exert the choice for English.

But then I saw another figure and was surprised: during the same period the funds devoted by ALL external aid agencies to support basic literacy in Cambodia were USD5 million. Seeing that two thirds of the adult Cambodian population are functionally illiterate, USD12mio for English teaching from only three agencies against USD5mio for literacy from all external agencies is an interesting difference in spending priorities. It is this conundrum that is at the heart of Stephen Clayton’s exploration of the meaning of “choice” when it comes to language policy and, specifically, English language spread in Cambodia.

Clayton’s central argument is that “choice” is not free and that the demand for English in Cambodia has been constructed by international aid agencies, including those operating in refugee camps and the United Nations Transitional Authority. All these set up English as a way to lead Cambodia out of international isolation (an isolation which was, incidentally, forced upon Cambodia by the UN in its 1979 decision not to recognize the Heng Samrin government), as a way to access international aid, and thus the means for reconstruction and development. The need for English in Cambodia has thus been largely constructed by external agencies and is based on an external orientation to development.

Does it matter how a particular choice was structured and created in evaluating the choice? It could be argued that, no matter how, why and by who the demand for English was created, now it’s there and Cambodians need English to be able to access aid, to participate in the emerging tourist economy, to develop and to become integrated into the global economy. If all Cambodians today had an equal chance to become fluent in English and to access all those supposed or real benefits, one would have to agree. However, the external orientation (to aid, tourism, the global) inscribed into English benefits only a tiny Cambodian elite. Those with proficiency in English can access external aid agencies and the model of externally driven “development” becomes entrenched.

At the same time, the external development model has been failing the majority of Cambodians, the rural and urban poor. Additionally, for all the rhetoric of choice, English is out of their reach. For instance, in the export trade, on an average garment worker’s wage of USD45 per month, even English lessons at 2cents per hour as provided by some aid agencies are unaffordable. Not to mention that these workers probably have little time and energy left for English study. The vast majority of Cambodians are mired in poverty to such a degree that learning English is not a feasible choice for them – an impossible dream maybe. What is more, the development model of “free” global markets into which English is inscribed has actually removed another choice from the reach of most of these people: the choice to become literate in their own language.

Choice is a marker of privilege. For all the neoliberal cult of personal responsibility, choice is only for those who are beyond the constraints of economic necessity. As Clayton shows, the choice of English in Cambodia was structured on the basis of external and internal socio-economic inequalities in the first place and the privileging of English within the free market model further widened those inequalities as an effect of the restructuring of local labour markets.

If “everyone” wants to learn English, it is not because English is so wonderful but because too many of us have no other choice. Clayton, S. (2008). The problem of ‘choice’ and the construction of the demand for English in Cambodia Language Policy, 7 (2), 143-164 DOI: 10.1007/s10993-008-9084-9

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Nice post 🙂

    best regard from me…

    Is there any else reason beside “choice” ?

  • Dariush Izadi

    Dear Ingrid
    Thanks for the excellent post.
    It seems like learning English is the best ‘choice’ even a lot better than becoming literate in one’s own language! How amazing!

  • Khan

    ‘ little cogs serving the advancement of corporate imperialism’. Very reflective stance on our own practices.I have my own experieneces of good people of west and the transnational aid agencies out everywhere to address wider socio-economic inequality through even distribution of linguistic resources!.
    During my fieldwork in a school at Pakistan-Afghan boarder, a respondent said, ‘ I can not understand my civil court proceedings. I can not understand my doctor’s advice. I can not read the medicine leaflet of my medicine which I am supposed to use because they are all in English’. He asked me whether these practices are logical.
    I agree that demands are createda and things are often pretty structured.
    Thanks for such an enlightening post.
    Best wishes

  • Sun

    This relates to my research questions. I think we know that we cannot be native speakers but we can be non-native speakers who have English proficiency. As the ASEAN Community issue coming, Thai English teachers have to improve themselves because they have no choice to deny that English is the language which the Community percepts as a lingua franca. So, English is like a passport for getting in a good job and opportunity for people in ASEAN. I also want to know how this issue really effect to our country, how does the government demand for improving our skills. This may be similar to other countries which are in ASEAN Community as well.

  • 000

    The first line of this article is so relatable! “Pretty much everyone I know wants to learn English or improve their English”, has been in the back of my mind for a while now. All the people I know who are non-native speakers, but highly proficient in English, were all forced to learn English, whether it was by their parents or the education system. Their motivation to learn was mostly to pass exams or to have access to better employment opportunities. I heard one story in a country I shall not name, where the older generation would get fired if they could not reach certain levels of proficiency in English and thus, get replaced by a younger person who probably received a bilingual education from a young age.

    Globalisation means that the world is gaining more opportunities than ever before, but it also means that the older generation, or those who are not lucky enough to have access to certain resources like education, miss out on this.

    Just like the Cambodians mentioned in the article, everyone wants to learn English to have chance to participate in the global economy.

  • Nancy

    When I was in high school, the purpose of learning English was merely to pass the entrance exam. As I moved to the university, I was required to read a lot of authentic materials as a part of assignments and at the same time I got addicted to skincare and makeup which were absolutely in a lack of information in my home country. Constant exposure to English in different settings made me aware of the importance of learning English in current context. I was able to access to authentic sources, get up-to-date with contemporary events in the world and witness different viewpoint of people from different countries without language barrier. Thus even though I do not have many options to choose, I am happy with it.


    The situation about English learning in my country is similar to yours. As I could recall, English has been a compulsory subject at school and lots of parents send their children for extra training English class so that they could learn English well. It was and still is a huge misunderstanding that speaking fluent English raises the good opportunities of being hired. Moreover, Chinese people focus much more on the accent and pronunciation of the English language than the content it should be. They think good pronunciation equals good English, and good English ensures good job. To put it another way, people still believe the choice of learning English offers much more choices in future.


    n my country (Korea), until a few years ago, when I was looking for a job, most of the companies did not accept the applicants who do not have the score of TOEIC Test (The English proficiency test was predominant in Korean society). I could not even imagine applying the company without score of TOEIC Test. From a TED talk, the lecturer said English is an “Opportunity” in a single word and it is a reality that cannot be denied practically in non-English speaking countries. English is an “opportunity,” but I also agree that there was no other choice at the time.