Intercultural communication and imperialism

Sir John Bagot Glubb (1897-1986)

Many people tend to think that multilingual and intercultural communication skills are not only useful skills to have but are also somehow morally superior. Multilingual people who are skilled intercultural communicators are often thought to be more open-minded, tolerant, peaceful and understanding than their monolingual counterparts; in short, better people. However, this idealistic view of multilingualism and intercultural communication is difficult to square with the institutional fact that some of the best language learning and teaching as well as intercultural communication training has historically been happening in the halls of power. Military and secret service training academies in particular have produced some of the finest multilinguals and most skilled intercultural communicators.

I’ve written about this conundrum in my new book Intercultural Communication: A Critical Introduction (and, btw, make sure to join the official launch on August 02), particularly with reference to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and Edward T. Hall’s work there. As the author of classics such as The Silent Language (1959) and The Hidden Dimension (1966), Hall is widely considered as the intellectual god-father of the field of intercultural communication. That his work was based in the institutional needs and concerns of the FSI is less well known. The FSI grew out of various language training programmes for military personnel during World War II to prepare US diplomats for their missions abroad.

Kingmakers, a collection of the biographies of the British and American men (and a few women) who invented the modern Middle East provides another set of intriguing case studies of the relationship, if any, between language and intercultural communication skills on the one hand and contributing to world peace and global understanding on the other. The authors, Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, call their subjects “kingmakers” because they attempted to influence the course of the Middle East through “indirect rule,” mostly in Her Majesty’s Service. In the late 19th century, “indirect rule” became a much-hyped strategy of semi-colonial administration, which did not involve full-fledged occupation but rather wielding influence through being the power behind an indigenous autocrat. What possibly distinguishes the kingmakers of the early 20th century, aka “advisers” from the consultants of today is that they were actually accomplished Orientalists, highly proficient in Arabic and that they spent most of their lives in the region. Overall, people such as A. T. Wilson, Gertrude Bell, T. E. Lawrence, H.S.J.B. Philby, John Bagot Glubb or Percy Cox seem to have genuinely felt that by serving Britain they were also acting in the best interests of the people in the region.

The feelings for the region and its people prevalent among this group are expressed well by John Bagot Glubb, also known as Glubb Pasha, the British commander of the Arab Legion, in his autobiography:

I spent thirty-six years living among the Arabs. During the first nineteen of these years, I lived entirely with them, rarely meeting Europeans and sometimes not speaking a word of English for weeks on end. I originally went to Iraq in 1920 as a regular officer of the British Army, seeking fresh fields of adventure and a wider knowledge of the many different forms of modern soldiering. But when I had spent five years among the Arabs, I decided to change the basis of my whole career: I made up my mind to resign my commission in the British Army and devote my life to the Arabs. My decision was largely emotional. I loved them. (quoted in Kingmakers, p. 265).

One of the forms that this “devotion” and “love” took is that he pioneered aerial bombing in Iraq. It’s a long story and the simple version goes something like this: during World War I, the British promised King Faisal’s father, a tribal chief in the Hejaz, a kingdom. After the war, no suitable kingdom was available for various reasons, including conflicting promises made to others. So, eventually, he was installed in the newly-created Iraq, where he had no local base whatsoever and where local tribes felt no need to be loyal to the new king nor to pay taxes to support his regime. The fact that Iraq had only recently been invented (by another set of British advisors, of course) as a nation out of three previous Ottoman provinces didn’t help. So, it was decided to engage in some stark nation-building: the submission of the Beni Huchaim tribes of Southern Iraq to their new nation and imported king was to be achieved through terrorizing them with aerial bombing.

In 1923 what is today Southern Iraq thus became a testing ground for the aerial bombing of civilian populations and in those early days someone needed to map the terrain before any bombing could be undertaken. The only person with the right skill set was Glubb: he had the geographical mapping skills, the military knowledge of operational aspects, and the language and cultural skills to be able to move among the local population. As he notes in his autobiography, on at least two occasions it was the Beni Huchaim tribes’ hospitality that enabled him to make the maps that would enable the RAF to bomb them. In addition to mapping the terrain, he was also “mapping” their social structure by pinpointing those sheiks whose influence among their people would render them particularly “suitable” for attack.

Glubb was not without sympathy for the tribes: he notes their poverty as well as the fact that to them the central government was nothing but “a kind of absentee landlord which never concerns itself with them except periodically to demand revenues” (Glubb, quoted in Kingmakers, p. 268). Given his excellent cultural knowledge, he was also well aware that what he was doing was a serious breach of the norms of Arab hospitality (as a matter of fact, any norms of hospitality it would seem to me). The justification offered by Glubb is that he did not actually in any way betray the Beni Huchaim or lied to them. On the contrary, he says he was candid about his purpose and even warned them “that he, himself, would lead the bombers if they [=the Beni Huchaim] proved recalcitrant” (ibid.). In the end, that’s exactly what happened: Glubb lead the enforcement of government policy to use aerial bombing for non-payment of taxes. He praised the strategy as “extremely efficient” because it demoralized the tribesmen by making them feel helpless and precluding any effective response on their part.

The way I see it, if you warn a people who have never even seen airplanes and who have no idea of what a bomb might be of potential air raids, and if you consider that fair warning, then that obviously demonstrates an extraordinary lack of empathy. Not to mention that aerial bombing is obviously an extraordinarily unjust and cruel way of enforcing tax compliance. So, we are back with our original conundrum: a highly competent linguist and intercultural communicator acting immorally and violating basic principles of trust and interpersonal relationships. However, tying the question of multilingualism and ethics to an individual would be to miss the point in the same way that assumptions of multilinguals as peace makers and better people miss the point.

In the end, multilingualism and intercultural communication don’t exist “per se” outside a particular context. In the context of the imperial make-over of the Middle East during and after World War I, language and culture teaching were a key aspect of the education of an imperial elite, and intercultural communication was nothing more and nothing less than an aspect of establishing and maintaining imperial control.

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
  • Vahid

    A very interesting post, Indeed. Insightful and enlightening. Many thanks…

  • Thanks Ingrid for such an interesting post. Power often makes its own morality, ethics and thereby it make everything possible be it intercultural skills or mastery over many languages.

    Thanks once again. I think it is a very important post and I look forward to reading people’s view on it.


  • Banafsheh

    Dear Ingrid,
    Thanks for your interesting post.I have suggested my friends to read your mind-capturing post,too.
    Thanks so much…

  • There are some graphic images of the victims of aerial bombings in Western Pakistan at; just as in the 1920s bombings in Iraq, these drone attacks are supposedly “extremely efficient”, “very precise” and only hit the baddies …

  • Hazem

    Normally people learn a new language in order to gain access to the culture. It allows them to understand the people on a more personal level and will therefore have empathy towards them. This post is a real eye opener on how people in authority can use their skills and prey on the hospitality of the poor in order to get the job done. In relation to the article, people in power usually learn the language well enough to be fluent in it, understand the culture well enough to integrate with it and therefore are able to manipulate a group of naive people for their own personal gain. Intentions of people learning a new language can be varied depending on who they are and what they want to achieve.

    Thanks Ingrid

  • Golnaz

    I really enjoyed reading it .Thanks

  • A wonderful post about a very real subject that most people in ESOL would rather avoid facing. What I wonder is if you are an ELT professional, how you do deal with the reality that English has been and continues to be a tool for dominant global powers?