How States Promote Global English: Shifting Priorities in Education

By October 11, 2016Globalization
Cover of 2008 movie "Mad about English" (Source: Zhang, Jie. Language policy and planning for the 2008 Beijing Olympics)

Cover of 2008 movie “Mad about English” (Source: Zhang, Jie. Language policy and planning for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. )

We are repeatedly told that people around the world are choosing to learn and use English. The media and many academic scholars present the spread of English globally as the result of an agglomeration of a massive number of individual choices.[1] Yet we all know that deciding to learn and then use English takes place within specific contexts most often including what languages are available to study in schools. The expansion of English language learning as a mandatory or optional component of many education systems especially in non-Anglophone countries predictably runs parallel to the increase in the spread of English across the world.

Language and education scholars have provided many case studies and comparative analyses of the increase of English language teaching.[2] These include detailed research on the ways English is taught – as a foreign language, as an international language, as a language for specific purposes and especially as a language of instruction to be learned together with other educational subject matter, what is often called Content Language Integrated Learning (CLIL).

But with all these complexities, it is difficult to get a global perspective on these trends in the key role that national education systems play in the spread of English. This is perhaps one main reason why it is so easily overlooked or ignored by the media and some scholars.

This is why my co-investigators, Jeff Bale (University of Toronto) and Eve Haque (York University) and I have received an Insight Development Grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) to create a database of the role of English language teaching in state curricula policy. The project is entitled: How States Promote Global English: Shifting Priorities in Education. It includes a large team of specialists from an array of disciplines for us to consult as we construct this data base and create an open-access website for other researchers, policy makers, journalists and educators to use. Our hope is that this on-line database will help facilitate a wide range of academic research from across disciplines of language education, sociolinguistics, applied linguistics, political science and sociology. We also want it to be useful for journalists, policy makers and other people interested in language education and the spread of English.

We are well aware that this database needs to be built with the knowledge of its limitations and blind spots. Due to the global nature of the debates and discussions concerning the rise in the dominance of English, we have decided that we need to begin with basic information at the most macro-level – as many of the 206 countries in the world that we can derive useful data about. Of course this breadth will, at least initially, come at the cost of depth in various important considerations. Although our hope is that such depth can be increased over time as the database is used and developed. For example, our focus is on public education systems and their nationally mandated curricula. In many countries private schools are prevalent and key places where English is learned. Because private schools tend to have much greater diversity in their curricular offerings, including them in this database (at least in this first phase) would be overly ambitious. But we will certainly make explicit the distinctions between public and private education so researchers, journalists and policy makers interested in private education can use this database as an initial starting point.

Perhaps even more importantly, English learning is taking place in many non-formal arenas outside formal schooling. These processes are incredibly important to understand the trends and implications of the increasing use of English especially among non-native speakers. The point of this database is not to obscure such venues of language learning, but provide contexts and contrasts to facilitate research in these areas as well.

There are clearly huge gaps between the official policies concerning amounts and formats for English teaching and what actually happens in schools. There are significant differences between education policies and their implementation and outcomes. As an initial project, we are limiting ourselves to the official policy goals. This will enable us and other future researchers to augment this work with greater focus on the implementations and outcomes of such policies. Despite such limitations of this initial database, it will hopefully be a useful place for researchers focused on questions of implementation of education policy and the proficiency outcomes of students. It may be overly ambitious to think that such complex issues as actual educational practices and outcomes could be meaningfully addressed at such a macro, global level. Indeed, such a goal may be even unwise.

Part of the rationale for such an on-line database is rooted in an historical analysis of the development of written, standardized languages in the process of nation-state building. From Italian and French to Bahasa Malaysia and Mandarin, governments have played an active role in defining, codifying and propagating national languages. It is perhaps understandable that debates on so-called globalization that emphasize a decrease in power and effectiveness of nation-states would down-play the role of those nation-states in the rise of global English. But even cursory evidence and the more in-depth but smaller scale case study research shows that national education systems have been increasingly active in promoting English. But without this type of global level snapshot, many assumptions are continually repeated.

For more information about this research project, please contact Peter Ives at [1] For an overview of U.S. media coverage of global English, see Demont-Heinrich, Christof, “Language, Globalization, and the Triumph of Popular Demand” The Communication Review 12 (June 2009), pp.20-49. For scholarly examples see David Northrup, How English Became the Global Language. London: Palgrave, 2013; Abram De Swaan, Abram, Words of the World: The Global Language System. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001; and Philippe Van Parijs, Philippe, Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[2] For just a few examples see, Ericka Albaugh, State-Building and Multilingual Education in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014; Peter Sayer, Ambiguities and Tensions in English Language Teaching.  New York: Routledge, 2012; and Hu, G. (2005). English Language Education in China: Policies, Progress, and Problems Language Policy, 4 (1), 5-24 DOI: 10.1007/s10993-004-6561-7. You may also wish to browse the Language on the Move coverage of “English as a Global Language”.

Author Peter Ives

Peter Ives teaches Political Science and Cultural Studies at the University of Winnipeg in Canada. He is author of "Gramsci’s Politics of Language: Engaging the Bakhtin Circle and the Frankfurt School" and "Language and Hegemony in Gramsci" and has published articles and book chapters on the politics of global English in journals such as Political Studies, Language Policy, Historical Materialism, Educational Philosophy and Theory. He is on the editorial board of "Rethinking Marxism" and co-edits a book series, "Reading Gramsci", from Pluto Press.

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