The Hegemonic Language: Considerations on the Influence of the English Language

April 4, 2019
Photo by Ian Nicholson.

اقرأها بالعربية

English is a determining factor in the academic and professional advancement of many talented, young speakers of other languages. It is thus an obstacle, standing in their way to higher education, or preventing them for working in companies and institutions that pay their employees high wages and whose work environments offer excellent opportunities for personal and professional development. Two central issues consequently arise: How the linguistic hegemony of English was established in the first place; and the extent to which English is related to the colonial practices of Anglophone nations in Third World countries, and especially in the Arabic-speaking world. In order to understand these two issues, it is therefore of extreme importance to historically and conceptually trace the phenomenon of English dominance over other languages–taking into account that this dominance constrains the individual and his capacities at several levels, chiefly among them the economic and intellectual. 

Language and Culture

Language is the most important form of interpersonal communication, through which ideas are woven into numerous linguistic templates that vary depending on the speaker. Human difference produces distinct linguistic features, since languages are directly intertwined with the cultural nature of different groups. It is through languages that people’s social lives are shaped, which is what makes it a unique manifestation distinguishing human groups from one another.[1] 

According to the anthropologist Edward Sapir, language is the guide for social reality. It powerfully shapes how we think about and solve social matters. In his account, no two languages are alike, due to the different cultural representations that each language expresses. Sapir also calls attention to a remarkable matter: the world of one society is completely different from that of another because of the language differences between them. What Sapir means by this is that language differences produce distinct worlds; not one world with different appellations, but rather different worlds whose inhabitants conceive and approach their reality in completely unique ways. They simply don’t see the world in the same way.[2]

Language is one of the key components of human identity, which is why when a person learns the language of another group, he grasps part of that group’s culture. This cultural insight, which the language learning process introduces to his mental framework, is accompanied by a change in the components of his basic identity; different cultural identities are added to his initial one. According to what has been mentioned above, we can better understand what Franz Fanon spoke about in regards to the black man making use of the White man’s language––that he considers it an adoption of White culture and an extension of White colonialism. For him, language is not merely a string of interconnected words and sentences, but rather a system laden with cultural weight.[3] According to Fanon, the use of White language (French in the case of Martinique) meant the alienation of Black people from their identity and culture, and the forced adoption of the White man’s culture.

Language and Colonialism 

Discussions about the role of language in the consolidation of colonialism are not new. History has been a witness to the use of language as a repressive tool to alienate the colonized from their identities. Americans, for example, used English as a tool to carry out the genocide of Native Americans and their culture. They realized they could reduce the cost of war on the Native American tribes by establishing boarding schools for indigenous children where they could be more easily influenced, and more efficiently separated from their cultural roots.[4] In 1879, the Brigadier-General Richard Henry Pratt established the Indian Carlyle School outside of Indian reserves in Pennsylvania. It was the first boarding school to focus on assimilating children into the colonial education system, to teach them how to think like colonists. Attendance was mandatory, and parents who refused to enroll their children were arrested and imprisoned. Education focused on teaching the Christian religion, and, moreover, children were forbidden from speaking their mother tongues and were forced to speak English instead.[5]

The colonizers transformed the physical destruction of Native American tribes into a cultural genocide by stripping them of their right to speak their mother tongues, as well as their right to practice popular customs, traditions, and spiritual rituals. It was Pratt who coined the famous phrase “kill the Indian and keep the man,”[6] which stood for the idea that Native American identity must be destroyed, and the Indian transformed into productive individual within modern American industrial society. Male children were forced to wear military clothes, and girls were dressed like Victorian women. Their work was divided by gender; men were assigned blacksmithing, carpentry, and plumbing, while the women worked in sewing, cooking, washing, and baking. In this way, the colonizer prepared the children to become readymade workers for the white man’s benefit. What’s more, this colonial gender division sought to impose a patriarchal system that did not correspond to the structure upon which the social roles of many Native Americans tribes were based.[7] The process of assimilation focused on replacing the language system of these young students, making English a central tool in the colonial plundering of Native American culture.

Transformations in the Modern University

The economic shift towards neoliberalism, theorized by Milton Friedman and his students at The University of Chicago’s Economics Department, has led to major changes in several fields, among them university education. The neoliberal school considers that the responsibility of any state is limited to protecting itself from foreign enemies, ensuring the safety of society through the maintenance of law and order, and promoting a competitive market. In his book English for Academic Purposes in Neoliberal Universities, Gregory Hadley speaks about the two dominating conceptions of education in Western universities between the mid-18th century and the 1960s.[8] The first is the vision of the German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, which was founded on the principles of guaranteeing academics the freedom to conduct research about the requirements of the learning process and its development, emphasizing the importance of independence when it came to determining curricular content, and granting sufficient authority to the administration of university affairs. Students with social privileges were granted the opportunity to enter these universities by taking exams that filtered out students based on their competenceThe selected pupils were then immersed in a system of cultural values and ideals deemed necessary for the nation-state to prosper. As for the second conception of education, it was based on the idea that universities must serve students from different class backgrounds, providing them with professional skills that would help the economic development of their society, and transform them into productive members of it.[9] 

Nowadays, there is a lack of balance between these two ideologies about the course of the university learning process. Universities have been turned into factory farms that produce graduates able to learn quickly in the interest of serving the demands of the global market. The principal goal of the learning process has become the satisfaction of market needs, depriving the individual of his value as an actor who carries cultural and intellectual influence in his society, as in the first conception of education, or who contributes to the economic prosperity of the nation through his professional skills, as in the second conception. The transition from a model of education that gives the individual the ability to influence his world through social participation to a neoliberal model that sees education as a form of investment with the sole goal of personal profit began in the 1970s. It was during this period that the welfare state policies followed by the United States and most European nations after World War II, which stressed the importance of governments that protected central institutions like the education and health sectors from the forces of the market, were discarded in favor of Keynesian Economics.[10]

This transition, stimulated by the neoliberal perspective that supporting education is an unfair intervention in market affairs, has jettisoned decades of government support for higher education. It has forced universities to adopt a corporate model that embraces neoliberal values. State support for universities has dropped at a high rate, while university fees continue to increase on an annual basis. This rise in the cost of tuition has made it difficult for working class people to enroll in universities, prompting students to take out loans to cover their education costs. The students’ desire to pay off their high debts has in turn led to an increasing interest in disciplines that help secure high incomes after graduation––engineering and medicine. Though this situation began in the West, where many universities have become institutional investors that strike deals with major international corporations so as to meet the needs of highly educated professional labor, it has by now spread throughout the world.[11]

English within the Framework of the Modern University

Some consider this fundamental transformation of university education a form of colonialismHigher education is run by economic centers that transform the intellectual, financial, and human resources of universities into raw materials in order to nourish the aspirations of neoliberal elites.[12] This transformation has directly affected the nature of English instruction, centering it on university vocational training,[13] and emptying it of cultural substance and value. This is what Edward Said felt when consulted by the English Department at one of the Gulf’s national universities. English was taught in such a way that it was reduced to a technical level, stripped off all of its expressive and aesthetic characteristics, and deprived of all the dimensions that help speakers develop self-awareness and critical thinking.[14] Here, it should be noted that the cultural substance of the English language has spread through other channels like the entertainment sector and major media outlets, while the simplification of and reduction of the language has contributed to an effective rise in an individual’s ability to attain the best possible jobs. English has become an essential skill that cannot be abandoned in many parts of the world, including our Arab region.

American universities have become a template employed by universities, leading many researchers to describe this global trend as “Americanization.”[15] They have become a gateway for the dissemination of English, and a tool to consolidate English as the sole universal language. This is what David Rothkopf[16] noted when he spoke of the importance of English as a key player in enabling the United States to lead the world in the twenty-first century, saying: “It is in the economic and political interests of the United States to ensure that if the world is moving toward a common language, it be English; that if the world is moving toward common telecommunications, safety, and quality standards, they be American; that if the world is becoming linked by television, radio, and music, the programming be American; and that if common values are being developed, they be values with which Americans are comfortable.”[17]

English and Class in Society  

The neoliberal transformation employs English as a colonial tool by replicating the American university model throughout the world. The concept of “linguistic imperialism,”[18] coined by Robert Phillipson, holds that the dominance of English is consolidated and maintained through the establishment and constant reconfiguration of cultural and material inequalities between English and other languages. In the context of the Arab world, many of the best educational institutions prepare their syllabi and curricula in English. These are institutions with substantial material power, either as a result of their tuition fees or direct governmental support. Their material power produces class divisions within society, and works to confine English language proficiency to a particular class whose members will later obtain the best jobs in the private and public sectors, the humanitarian sector, NGOS, and research centers. In her essay “The Palestinian Feminist Movement and Hamas: An Attempt to Understand Women’s Empowerment Outside the Feminist Framework,” Sara Ababneh describes this situation in relation to the disparity in jobs available to the women in Hamas who study in Arab universities and pay lower tuition fees, and their peers in the Palestinian Women’s Movement. Thanks to their education, the latter group of women are fluent in English. NGOs jobs, which in Palestine are considered one of the main sources of employment for women, are opened up to them, since they require an advanced knowledge of the language.[19] In the Jordanian context, exceptional minds are denied access to the best-paid sectors due to the fact that they lack English proficiency. Knowledge of English is a necessary condition for almost every job in the NGO sector, and the pressure to reach fluency increases with every step up the career ladder.

Different Approaches

In today’s world, the importance of English surpasses that of all other languages, even though the number of English speakers is estimated to be close to one and a half billion, less than a quarter of the world’s population; there are even more speakers of English as a second language than there are native speakers of it. Astonishingly, more than a fifth of all children in the world are English learners, and by 2020 the number of speakers is projected to approach two billion. English, of course, sweeps the sectors of science, art, literature, entertainment, business, and international relations.[20]

Perhaps the way that China deals with English deserves further study. Chinese scientists and politicians have quickly accepted English as the world’s dominant language;[21] it is now a required course in Chinese schools from third-grade onwards.[22] In a 2009 speech, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jaibao mentioned that the number of Chinese citizens who were learning English had reached three hundred million.[23] So although China is a country where people speak English as a foreign language, the depth of English immersion, the diverse roles the language plays, and its connection to the local rewards system point to a degree of nationalization, to the fact that English has become something of a second national language. In other words, English has local social functions; it is taught so as to advance Chinese goals within the Chinese context, and with the aim of making English a Chinese language.[24] 

However, besides this model, which is indistinguishable from China’s political and economic ambitions, many countries have tried to counterbalance the hegemony of English. They are keen to preserve their linguistic heritage and so may adopt multilingual tactics in the process of developing their educational curricula. Meanwhile, the Arab countries in our region deprive their university and public school graduates of the opportunity to obtain a conscientious English education, one which would give young students the ability to compete in local and international markets, while keeping them connected to their society’s issues.

  • References


    [1] Kramsch, C. (1998). Language and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press. 

    [2] Sapir, E. (1949). Selected Writings in Language, Culture and Personality. Berkeley CA: University of California Press.

    [3] Fanon, F. (2008). Black Skin White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

    [4] Hackman, A. (2017, July 20). Colonization and Language. Retrieved from

    [5] Yu, J. (2009). Kill the Indian, Save the Man. Retrieved from

    [6] Ibid.

    [7] Ibid.

    [8] Hadley, G. (2015). English for Academic Pruposes in Neoliberal Universities: A Critical Grounded Theory. Springer.

    [9] Ibid.

    [10] Ibid.

    [11] Ibid. 

    [12] Ibid. 

    [13]  Dovey, T. (2006). What purposes, specifically? Re-thinking purposes and specificity in the context. English for Specific Purposes, 25(4), 387–402.

    [14] Said, E. W. (1990). Figures, configurations, transfigurations. Race & Class, 32(1), 1-16.

    [15] Altbach, P. (2004). Globalisation and the university: Myths and realities in an unequal world. Tertiary Education and Management, 10 (1), 3–25

    [16] Former adviser to President Bill Clinton and professor of international affairs at Columbia University.

    [17] Rothkopf, D. (1997). In praise of cultural imperialism? Foreign Policy, Summer (107), 38–53.

    [18] Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford University Press.

    [19] Ababneh, S. (2014). The Palestinian women’s movement versus Hamas: attempting to understand women’s empowerment outside a feminist framework. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 15(1), 35-53.

    [20] Montgomery, S. (2014). Does science need a universal language? English and the future of scientific research. (Translation: F. Abdulmutallab), Kuwait: National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters.

    [21] Ibid. 

    [22] Bolton, K. (2008). English in Asia, Asian Englishes, and the issue of proficiency. English Today, 24(2), 3-12.

    [23] Graddol, D. (2010). English next India: the future of English in India. British Council.

    [24] Graddol, D. (1997). The future of English?: A guide to forecasting the popularity of the English language in the 21st century. British Council.

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