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