Illegitimate English

Bangladeshi manager speaking English and subtitled in British educational video “How fair is fashion”

Bangladeshi manager speaking English and subtitled in British educational video “How fair is fashion?”

The other day I watched a show about global textile production. How fair is fashion? by British educational media producer Pumpkin TV is an excellent resource explaining the circuits of cheap clothing for consumers in the global North, huge profits for multinational fashion and retail corporations, and the exploitation of textile workers in the global South. The film was shot in Bangladesh and features stories such as those of an 18-year-old woman, who has been working in a textile factory in Dhaka for seven years. Working 100 hours a week, she earns the equivalent of between 40 and 50 USD per month. Together with her husband she lives in a small room in a slum where they share toilet and water facilities with around 10 other families. The mud track leading to the dwelling doubles as an open sewer.

She is one of thousands of workers working for a factory in the Rupashi Group, which has contracts which many well-known clothing brands. On the day the film crew was visiting they were making shirts for Forever 21.

All the workers interviewed for the film spoke Bangla while managers, policy makers and a high-level union official spoke English. The language choices in the film are thus reflective of a well-known divide in Bangladesh: that access to English and proficiency in English is a marker of privilege.

A new wave of thinking about English and development has recently started to argue that English is vital to development and that to improve the lot of people like the 18-year-old garment worker English would be indispensable to her. English in Action, a UK-funded English language teaching program for development in Bangladesh, is an example:

The Programme’s goal is to contribute to the economic growth of the country by providing communicative English language as a tool for better access to the world economy. The purpose of EIA is to significantly increase the number of people who are able to communicate in English, to levels that enable them to participate fully in economic and social activities and opportunities. (English in Action)

Sounds good. However, watching How fair is fashion? revealed one problem with this theory. The problem was that the show treated all Bangladeshi speakers – irrespective of whether they were Bangla-speaking workers or English-speaking elites – as incomprehensible to the British viewer. Both Bangla-speaking and English-speaking Bangladeshis were presented as requiring mediation to become intelligible: Bangla was translated and English was subtitled. The image provides an example: The general manager of Rupashi group says “We are number three now. Our target is to become number two, and then one.” in English at the same time that the subtitles appear in English.

I have blogged about the politics of subtitling English speakers to other English speakers before. As I pointed out there, subtitling some varieties of English but not others to an English-speaking audience serves to mark the subtitled varieties as illegitimate.

The subtitling of educated Bangladesh English constitutes a perfect example of everything that is wrong with the assumption that being able to communicate in English has anything much to do with development. To assume that being able to communicate in English will enable Bangladeshis – or anyone else in the global South – “to participate fully in economic and social activities and opportunities” fails to recognize that language is never just about communication.

Linguistic exchange is always also an economic exchange, as Bourdieu explains:

[U]tterances are not only […] signs to be understood and deciphered; they are also signs of wealth, intended to be evaluated and appreciated, and signs of authority, intended to be believed and obeyed. (Bourdieu 1991, p. 66)

Subtitled speech is a sign of lack of wealth and authority. Only Bangladeshis who speak English can be rendered illegitimate in this way as the translation of Bangla is simply a marker of linguistic difference rather than a linguistic hierarchy.

The elite Bangladeshis featured in the film are competent speakers of English (you can listen to the excerpt with the General Manager of Rupashi Group and judge for yourself). However, linguistic competence does not necessarily translate into legitimate competence:

The competence adequate to produce sentences that are likely to be understood may be quite inadequate to produce sentences that are likely to be listened to, likely to be recognized as acceptable in all the situations in which there is occasion to speak. (Bourdieu 1991, p. 55)

If the English of competent elite Bangladeshi speakers of English is not acceptable on the global stage (however valuable it may be in the local linguistic market), what likelihood is there that English teaching will turn ordinary impoverished Bangladeshis into global players? Hamid’s (2010) analysis of the gap between policy discourses about the promise of English and the reality of the implementation of English language teaching in Bangladesh paints a gloomy picture of high expectations, inadequate resource investment, and poor outcomes. Essentially, he finds that the current policy of “English for everyone” doesn’t produce much competence in English because it is severely under-resourced, and, where donor-funded, unsustainable and poorly integrated with the local environment.

If I were a cynic, I’d argue that the whole point of universal English language teaching is not actually the acquisition of linguistic competence but the recognition of the legitimate language; not to learn how to speak English but to learn how to recognize legitimate – “metropolitan” or “global” – English; to learn one’s place in the linguistic hierarchy and thus to accept one’s inferior position as a natural and incontestable fact. I am not a cynic and I follow Bourdieu in seeing the disparity between knowledge of the legitimate language (always a limited resource) and recognition of the legitimate language (always much more widespread) as a function of the linguistic market.

While proponents of universal English language teaching for development may not intend to collude in linguistic domination, they fail to achieve any of their well-intentioned aims because they ignore the fact that language is not only about communication but also about legitimacy – an error Bourdieu (1991, p. 53) calls “the naïvety par excellence of the scholarly relativism which forgets that the naïve gaze is not relativist.”

While I’m pessimistic about English for development, How fair is fashion? ends on an optimistic note by featuring a cooperative in rural Bangladesh producing for People Tree, a fair trade fashion label. The garment worker interviewed there earns about the same as her Dhaka-based counterpart. However, in contrast to the factory workers in Dhaka, she has fixed hours and works from 5-9; she has a proper contract and the cooperative also provides childcare and schooling for her children; above all, more autonomous and diverse, there is dignity in her work.
Bourdieu, Pierre (1991). Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hamid, M. Obaidul (2010). Globalisation, English for everyone and English teacher capacity: language policy discourses and realities in Bangladesh Current Issues in Language Planning, 11 (4), 289-310 DOI: 10.1080/14664208.2011.532621

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
  • Very thought-provoking, and, in multiple places, searing — in a good sense — entry. It seems pretty clear that “giving the whole world English” isn’t going to suddenly transform massive socio-economic inequalities. Indeed, as the “need” to subtitle “inferior” forms of English for the metropolitan cosmopolitan English speaking/reading elites shows, there’s plenty of socio-economic and cultural division and hierarchy within languages. In other words, while language is part of the picture, it clearly isn’t the core issue. Of course, it’s a lot easier to “give the whole world English”, feel good about yourself for doing this and/or make some good money while doing it, than to attack the core factors underlying global socio-economic inequality and hierarchy.

  • PeterL

    I agree that subtitling can make it appear that the person doesn’t speak English well, but what’s the alternative to subtitling when there’s a good chance that the viewing audience will have some difficulties in understanding what the person says?

    Why do you jump to the conclusion that subtitling means illegitimate? It can mean nothing more than difficult to understand because it’s different or because it’s poorly recorded or because there’s background noise … I’ve seen Australians subtitled on American TV, for example; and I’ve also seen Americans subtitled on American TV. I am a native speaker of North American English and I often find accents from southern Asia very difficult to understand over the telephone (but not too difficult in person), whereas I have little difficulty with Australian or most of the British dialects. It’s just a matter of what I’m used to. And I’ve had to “translate” for Americans (and very competent Israeli speakers of English) when in Scotland (and my father had to translate for me at a street market in London).

    Incidentally, NHK often subtitles interviews done outside a studio, even when the person is speaking standard Japanese (although if the interviewee goes off into dialect, there’s a tendency to make the subtitles into standard Japanese, but not always).

    • Thanks, PeterL. You are right, subtitling can mean all kinds of things. If all speech is subtitled (e.g., for the hearing impaired) or if all speech under certain conditions is subtitled (e.g., as in your example, all interviews outside the studio), then no further implications arise. However, what I am talking about is selective subtitling, i.e. someone made a decision that some speakers would be intelligible to the audience while others would not be intelligible. That decision requires to “imagine” who the audience will be and thus a decision about what kinds of speech and speakers have legitimacy to that imagined mainstream and what or who has not.

  • Agi B

    Absolutely agree. Not sure if it is still in practice but I also found it imperialistic to dub foreign speech with accented English e.g a person speaking in Hindi dubbed in English with an artificial Indian accent.

  • Thanks Ingrid for this interesting post.

    Readers interested in following up on the problems and pitfalls of ‘Language in Development’ (an emerging field of study), might like to consult two books published by myself and a colleague at the University of Technology, Sydney:

    Appleby, R. 2010, “ELT, Gender and International Development: Myths of Progress in a Neocolonial World”, Multilingual Matters, Bristol.
    Widin, J. 2010, “Illegitimate Practices: Global English Language Education”, Multilingual Matters, Bristol.

  • Saeed

    Dear PeterL…you made a plausible argument but as you have noticed in the footage, the intelligible talks of the Bangladeshis are “selectively subtitled” as Ingrid mentioned. I agree that it could have other reasons, however; I have seen many similar instances of this “unification” attempts- as Bourdieu says- in Persian movies too where “accented Persian” is captioned in Standard Modern Tehrani Persian as a way of showing linguistic unity in the country.
    Since Ingrid drew on Bourdieu (1991) to discuss the matter, I would also like to elaborate more on the matter from this perspective. Bourdieu likens language to a commodity or a socio-economic capital. I would like to know how different species of capital namely economic, cultural, social, and symbolic capitals are existent in the Bangladeshis and if these capitals can save them from being labeled as the illegitimate language speakers.

  • Saeed

    As the caption reads, the first speaker is the General Manager. Hence, he must have possessed the economic capital (i.e. money and other financial assets), cultural capital (i.e. the knowledge sources he might have gained through his profession), social and symbolic capital (through his networks and connections of power as the manager). What seems to be a question here for me is why in spite of possessing all these capitals, he should still be labeled as illegitimate? I think the main reason can be found in the concepts of “field” (the domain where the agents struggle over possessing the power over other members) and “habitus” (the mentality or cognitive system of structures we acquire during our life time). In this communicative event, the field is Bangladesh but is shown to English speaking audience…hence I think we can deduce that the power of native speakerism norm outweighs and makes the language as illegitimate. On the other hand, the mentality of the audience (habitus) “unconsciously aids in its (the standard English language as the norm) preservation” (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 44). Ironically the footage showing how globalization backfires in the textile market, ends up making a wry grimace at the globalized English market of the Bangladeshi speakers!

  • Non-native speakers of English are probably destined not to be in the same league as native speakers. And the more they use English subtractively, the less likely they are to escape their inferior position. This is why political leaders may chat in English behind the scenes, but when it comes to the press conference following discussions, they are advised, as most of them do, to speak in their national language. So without being a cynic, it is difficult to expect the promotion of English by many bodies (like the British Council, for example) to result in anything other than the average non-native speaker of English vying for a consolation prize.

  • Khan

    Dear Ingrid

    Many thanks for a wonderful post illustrating the politics of sub-titling. As I have shared with colleagues earlier also that the recent report on role of languages in Pakistan published by British Council (2012) has shown all Pakistanis speaking standard British English. In addition, the learned scholars have not considered it important to discuss the issues of translation and transcription. I think your observations are very valid and logical showing what Bourdieu (1977: 650) observes ‘the tacit presuppositions of its efficacy’

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