“We do aid, not English!”

Should ‘helping with English’ be part of the brief of humanitarian aid workers? (Source: helpage.org)

Should ‘helping with English’ be part of the brief of humanitarian aid workers? (Source: helpage.org)

Over a few years of involvement in the aid sector in Asia, I became aware that aid workers turn their noses up at ‘English work’. Managers for my Australian government volunteering program encouraged us not to be sucked in to being human dictionaries while on NGO postings. In China, where I was, there was a bristling critique because USA’s Peace Corps volunteers were “only” sent to teach English: ‘How linguistically imperialist!’, we thought.

However, our local colleagues at NGOs and so called ‘development-sector’ government agencies often made requests of us native English speakers: to talk English with them, proofread and draft reports, apply for grants, translate the organisation’s website, help with overseas university applications and tutor their friends’ children. This sparked complaints like ‘I feel like I’m here mostly to translate’ and ‘I’m doing proofreading and admin tasks which I don’t see as capacity building’.

It sure is frustrating to move overseas and find you are expected to provide little but ‘white face time’ in your job. But is English language aid underrated?

Discounting ‘English work’ doesn’t happen because aid workers are haughty. These people have professional training in fields like environmental science or public health and believe they were hired to contribute in those areas. Moreover, many native English speakers recognize that they have no professional language teaching experience. Most aid workers are conscientious global citizens, wary of being language imperialists. But these ‘good reasons’ are misconceived, I argue.

Wrong Skills

Without teacher training, you are a less-than-ideal candidate to teach, no question. But in the regions I’m talking about, learners seldom get to select from a smorgasbord of English-speaking trained teachers and native English-speaking non-teachers. Even the Peace Corps receive some teacher training and teach in impoverished areas where TESOL staff-members are otherwise in short supply. Moreover, when learning a new language, important learning is done beyond the classroom and after childhood: for instance, between aid workers and their adult colleagues. Psychologist Vygotsky showed peer group learning with ‘more knowledgeable others’ was a productive part of language acquisition, with no teacher needed. Modelling grammatical and pragmatically-appropriate language provides useful input for learners. In short, helping colleagues with their English tasks or even just conversing can be valuable for their language learning and is within any English speaker’s ability. 


In many countries, people see access to a native English speaker as a boon. Why not give communities what they think would assist their upward mobility? The contribution to informal, out-of-classroom English learning these native speakers provide is something their colleagues and communities may find even more valuable than the specific aid project, especially as the expense, scarcity and systemic preference given to children’s classes make formal language learning inaccessible to many adolescents and adults who want it.

As Kamwangamalu (2013, p. 328) notes of Africa – and I’ve found this in China, too – ‘stakeholders reject their own indigenous languages […] because they consider them insignificant and of no practical value in the linguistic marketplace.’ In this, local stakeholders are not wrong; English is indisputably of greatest value in many markets. Many (including me) would say this is evidence of linguistic hegemony and non-native English speakers are complicit in their own linguistic domination by prioritising English, embracing the coloniser’s model of the world. Even so, is it an incoming English speaker’s place to decide to attack hegemony by refusing to help people proofread?

Often, English is the language of power and funding, particularly for international aid, and non-elites may well perceive English as a resource monopolized by elites to preserve their status. For instance, Ghanaians ‘expressed the view that using the vernacular as an instructional medium was a subtle strategy employed by the elite to perpetuate communities’ marginalization from mainstream society’ (Mfum-Mensah 2005, p. 80).

Whether or not we oppose English’s dominance ideologically, it is beneficial to proofread co-workers’ donor reports, make templates for the office and attend events to speak for the organisation or those it assists, in English. The more co-worker inclusion in these activities, the better. That oft-encountered request to help a friend-of-a-friend with a personal English task should likewise be accepted, because language competencies can function as collective resources. Indeed, many linguists now advocate studying ‘actual linguistic, communicative, semiotic resources’ rather than ‘languages’ (Blommaert, 2010, p. 102). English resources can benefit networks rather than merely individuals. In expanding the networks around English resources, inequality and elitism is reduced.   

Both national politics and international development are ‘Fields’ (Bourdieu 1991). English is both economically and symbolically valuable in these Fields. Native English speakers – especially professionals doing aid volunteering – have an ability to use professional-register English at less expense (a Bourdieuian ‘Habitus’).  So it’s efficient for them to do tasks requiring professional English. Importantly, this is not short term efficiency at the expense of long term efficiency; helping out with English tasks now doesn’t preclude co-workers’ language acquisition in the longer term. Rather, it can play a part in their improvement so the ‘cost’ of professional English for colleagues will decrease over time. English-speaking aid workers, in doing ‘English work’, can improve their hosts’ access to material support and their ability to be heard in international forums.

The benefit of mobility of individuals, of organisations and across community networks is hard to weigh against the detriment of linguistic imperialism, but this weighing up should not be shirked, and nor should the ‘English work’ involved.

ResearchBlogging.org References

Blommaert, J. (2010). The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and symbolic power. Cambridge, Polity.

Kamwangamalu, N. M. (2013). Effects of policy on English-medium instruction in Africa. World Englishes, 32 (3), 325-337 DOI: 10.1111/weng.12034

Mfum-Mensah, O. (2005). The impact of colonial and postcolonial Ghanian language policies on vernacular use in two northern Ghanaian communities. Comparative Education 41 (1), 71-85.

Author Alexandra Grey

Alex has completed her PhD at Macquarie University in Sydney and is now waiting for graduation day! Her thesis is in sociolinguistics, analysing China’s minority language policies today with a focus on Zhuang language. She also teaches various subjects in policy development and law at Macquarie University law school, and she was previously a legal researcher and advocacy trainer at a Chinese not-for-profit organization in Beijing, continuing there after a stint with AusAID’s Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development program. Between the NGO and the PhD, Alex studied Mandarin at BLCU and Tsinghua University in Beijing, adjudicated and lectured in debate, and completed her Masters in Applied Linguistics. Alex has written for the Lowy Interpreter, Whydev and The China Beat blogs.

More posts by Alexandra Grey
  • A. D. Lee

    I agree with the thrust of your argument and, further, would apply it in more dimensions. 1) Many governments fund individuals in other countries to learn their language, both in aid programs and beyond: Japanese, French, German and Chinese to name a few. An economist would say a ‘market’ should decide how much English (or some other language/s) dominates. If so, the question is: do language-focused aid programs ‘enable’ or ‘interfere with’ the market for second languages? In the scheme of things, I’d say the influence of aid programs is relatively small compared with other social and political factors. 2) Development workers should be just as concerned with learning the local/national languages of target countries.
    As for the disappointed volunteers you mention, I can think of examples where volunteers have effectively become substitutes for local staff competent in a second language. This does not build capacity, is unsustainable, and goes against the point of the volunteer program. Expectations clearly need to be managed on all sides as to how much and what kind of language capacity building is appropriate in any given role.
    Comptency in second languages–not just English–is worth everyone’s effort to foster as a step to education, training, work and life opportunities (including teaching a second language) and as a step to reflect on one’s own language and culture. Only then can we jointly negotiate the glorious, vast differences across the world’s languages and cultures

  • insignificant other

    After having read this post, which was posted in english, I was reminded of just how many useful and interesting things are available to those who know english. This is particularly true of the internet. Based on forum postings and Q+A sites, it’s not just the existing knowledge available on the internet either — it’s apparently far easier to get understandable and correct answers to important questions in disfluent english rather than whatever native tongue.

    English is almost indisputably practical; An aid worker favoring not being seen as contributing to Linguistic Imperialism should ask themselves why they are really trying to be an aid worker. Are they really trying to make a practical contribution to improving the lives of others, or instead primarily trying to cultivate a certain image?

    • Alexandra Grey

      I agree English is extremely practical to access knowledge, but in my experience volunteers and aid workers who dislike “English work” have been genuine about making a contribution rather than in it to cultivate an image. The problem, I believe, is in people not thinking of their English as a skill that they’re supposed to transferring as part of their work.

  • Sinjoro ENG

    Saluton Alex, just can’t saying for not congratulating your good article.

    I was pained down to my ass when I saw the word volunteer. How these volunteers are able to help the local people to gain some knowledge. English is almost equal to the white skin especially in Asia countries. The volunteering association whether is well organised or cheating on the volunteers as you can read more on the Cambodia orphanage issues.

    If more people and government in the world could accept Esperanto, which is recommended by UNESCO for international communication, it would let the truly volunteers transferring their knowledge to the needy.

    You can watch this video tape from the new agency. Certainly, the Esperantists are addicted to the congress instead of volunteering more as I have stated in my blog article in Esperanto Dependuloj de kongresoj


    The myth of English is the international language will go on for decades unless the governments in many countries can be less corrupted.

    Despite the 2008 report from The Telegraph, the English crazy is not slowing down with my country is making English language a compulsory pass before the candidate can get the SPM certificate, the act, which will kill many talents and in the end, would have to be like Singapore, importing talents from overseas.



    • Alexandra Grey

      Look, if transferring knowledge is the goal, a language with as few speakers as Esperanto seems a wildly impractical choice. Why would people with limited resources want to (or even be practically able to) access Esperanto classes or other ways of learning Esperanto?

      Personally, I support aid workers (paid or volunteer) learning the language of their destination to better integrate with the community and better understand their workplace (a point A D Lee raises in a comment above). I think that’s much more valuable than expecting aid workers to learn Esperanto.

      • Sinjoro ENG

        I was surprise to know that your perception of Esperanto is in the 80s but not in the internet age. I would not like to argue with your further. If you like to know more of Esperanto, contact the Australia Esperanto Association which just celebrated 100 years not too long ago.

        May I know the aid workers do not need translator from the local to carry out the work, certainly, in your case it was teaching English, but if you are going to teach the Vietnamese how to conserve the fish, you either have to learn Vietnamese or get a translator to tag along the entire period of your stay.

        Besides, the Glabal Voices, the 4th largest community media also has the Global Voices en Esperanto. Of course the other top 3, Wilki, Youtube and BBC, of the three, wilkipedia has Esperanto version long time ago, Youtube has Esperanto short films in hundreds if not thousands.BBC which pride to be world largest media has no Esperanto programme but China Radio International is going to celebrate 50 years of its Esperanto section.



        Looking into the future is more important than the past, learning Esperanto needs only 150 hours. One can find Esperanto speakers in 130 countries.

        • Sinjoro ENG

          Sorry, once sent, I cannot edit it.

          For your information, UNESCO recommended the use of Esperanto since 1954 and it would be 60 years of celebration in 2014.

          Read the resolutions here.


          • Cyndi

            Sorry to prolong disagreement, but isn’t Esperanto highly Eurocentric? As someone with good knowledge of English and Spanish, plus not so good proficiency in Portuguese, Italian and French, it seems quite familiar with no real Esperanto study. You say it only takes 150 hours to learn, but for someone proficient in what languages to start with?

  • Cyndi

    Excellent points, except for paragraph 3! Do native/fluent English speaking aid workers only come in one color? 😉

    • Alexandra Grey

      Thanks for picking me up on this. Cyndi. Of course native speakers and aid workers are of many ethnicities. I am quite conscious of that in my own experiences but I should have qualified para 3 to make that clear. The point I was making is that some aid workers can see the instance that they help with English as just another part of a skill-free “contribution” their host organisation is expecting of them, in contrast to meaningful work they want to do.

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