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(After Robert Phillipson’s Lingua franca or lingua frankensteinia? In World Englishes, 27/2, 250-284, 2008)


1. Reference to English as a lingua franca generally seems to imply that the language is a neutral instrument for ‘international’ communication between speakers who do not share a mother tongue. The fact that English is used for a wide range of purposes, nationally and internationally, may mislead one into believing that lingua franca English is disconnected from the many ‘special purposes’ it serves in key societal domains. English might be more accurately described as a lingua economica (in business and advertising, the language of corporate neoliberalism), a lingua emotiva (the imaginary of Hollywood, popular music, consumerism and hedonism), a lingua academica (in research publications, at international conferences, and as a medium for content learning in higher education), or a lingua cultura (rooted in the literary texts of English-speaking nations that school foreign language education traditionally aims at, and integrates with language learning as one element of general education). English is definitely the lingua bellica of wars between states (aggression by the US and its loyal acolytes in Afghanistan and Iraq, building on the presence of US bases in hundreds of countries worldwide). The worldwide presence of English as a lingua americana is due to the massive economic, cultural and military impact of the USA. Labelling English as a lingua franca, if this is understood as a culturally neutral medium that puts everyone on an equal footing, entails not merely ideological dangers, it is simply false. The history, aetiology and misuse of the concept will be explored below.


2. While English manifestly opens doors for many worldwide, it also closes them for others, as recounted by an Indian with experience of the language being seen as a lingua divina (Chamaar 2007), for which he had rather more empirical justification than the hopefully apocryphal story of the American head teacher informing immigrants that if English was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for them.

It wasn’t until he was 18 that Kanchedia Chamaar realized that God spoke and understood English and nothing else. Because unfamiliarity with the lingua divina was a matter of intense shame at Delhi School of Economics in the 1970s, he started learning English on the sly, and continues to be consumed by the process to this day.

In India, as in many former colonies, English is the language of elite formation, social inclusion and exclusion. Are there then grounds for referring to English as a lingua frankensteinia? We need to recall that Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s novel refers to the person who created the monster rather than to the monster itself. This is a useful reminder that any language can serve good or evil purposes, whether humane or monstrous ones. English tends to be marketed as though it serves exclusively laudable purposes (a language of international understanding, human rights, development, progress etc, Phillipson 1992).

But the elimination of national languages from certain domains can threaten social cohesion and the vitality of a language. The experience of ethnocide and linguicide is traumatic, which people of First (Indian) Nations origins in North America are only too aware of.

Amos Key,of the Six (Indian) Nations of the Grand River, Ontario, Canada is committed to the Indian languages being revived, even if few in the younger generation speak anything other than English or French. Amos tells the story of encountering scepticism when expressing a wish for the First Nations to recover their languages. What’s the point? To which he replies, well, when I die and go to heaven, I shall want to communicate with my ancestors, my grandfathers and grandmothers. To which the sceptic replies, but what happens if you have been evil and end up in the other place? No problem, because I know English. For Amos Key, English has been a lingua diabolica rather than a lingua divina, even if, like Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, he has become proficient in the language. English, like other colonising languages, has functioned as a lingua frankensteinia throughout the history of the occupation by Europeans of North and South America, Australia and New Zealand.


3. The elimination of linguistic diversity has been an explicit goal of states attempting to impose monolingualism within their borders: linguicist policies favour the lingua frankensteinia and lead to linguicide. This was the case in the internal colonisation of the British Isles, with the attempted extermination of Welsh and Gaelic, and in North America and Hawaii at the expense of First Nations languages. Skutnabb-Kangas (2000) avoids seemingly innocuous terms like ‘language death’ and ‘language spread’, concepts that obscure agency, by referring to killer languages, language murder, and linguistic genocide, basing this term on definitions in international human rights law and the historical evidence of government policies. Swales (1996), after a lifetime of work on scientific English, is so concerned about other languages of scholarship being on the way to extinction that he labels English a lingua tyrannosaura.

The widespread concern in political and academic circles in Scandinavian countries with domain loss signifies a perception that segments of the national language are at risk from the English monster, hence the national policy to ensure that Danish, Norwegian and Swedish remain fully operational in all domains. This is a gradual, long-term process, and generally unobtrusive, but sometimes the underlying agenda can be seen in operation. Thus the language policies connected to the Bologna process, the creation of a single European higher education and research ‘area’, are largely covert, but policy statements imply that ‘internationalisation’ means ‘English-medium higher education’ (Phillipson 2006a). This is also the way government ministers understand the process (e.g. in Norway, Ljosland 2005).


4. In other words, universities should no longer be seen as a public good but should be run like businesses, should privatise, and let industry set the agenda. The new buzzwords are that degrees must be ‘certified’ in terms of the ‘employability’ of graduates. ‘Accountability’ no longer refers to intellectual quality or truth-seeking but means acceptability to corporate-driven neoliberalism. The recommendation that there should be more ‘student-centred learning’ probably implies more e-learning rather than a more dialogic, open-ended syllabus. Before European integration has taken on any viable forms, universities are being told to think and act globally rather than remain narrowly European. This is insulting to higher education in general and to all universities that have been internationally oriented for decades.

What therefore needs further analysis is whether English is a cuckoo in the European higher education nest of languages, a lingua cucula. Cuckoos substitute their own eggs for those in place, and induce other species to take on the feeding and learning processes. Higher education authorities in the Nordic countries are increasingly addressing the question of cohabitation between the local language and English. The current strategy is to aim at ‘parallel competence’ in the two languages. The Nordic Declaration of Language Policy, signed by Ministers from five countries, endorses this goal. Quite what parallel competence means in practice, for an individual or for institutions, remains obscure.


5. What is the relevance of this for Europe? Surely the languages that have been consolidated in independent states over the past two centuries cannot be at risk? Isn’t the commitment of the EU to maintaining and respecting linguistic diversity a guarantee of equality and fair treatment for European languages? In fact, the position is far from clear, not least because language policy tends to be left to nationalist and market forces, and there is a fuzzy dividing-line between language policy as the prerogative of each member state, and language as an EU concern (Phillipson 2003).

One of the most visible causal factors is cultural globalisation in the media, which utilise the original language in the north of Europe: 70-80% of all TV fiction shown on European TV is American. […] American movies, American TV and the American lifestyle for the populations of the world and Europe at large have become the lingua franca of globalization, the closest we get to a visual world culture. (Bondebjerg 2003)

By contrast in the USA the market share of films of foreign origin is 1%. The cultural insularity of the US and the UK is also clear from the figures for translation: 2% of books published in the UK, and 3% in the USA are translations from other languages, whereas the corresponding figures for Italy are 27%, for Denmark 41%, and Slovenia 70% (from a survey for International PEN). There is therefore a massive asymmetry in how globalisation impacts on national cultures. There is no doubt that this is a direct result of US policies, which have become more visibly aggressive as the neoconservatives behind the Project for the New American Century, the Cheney-Wolfowitz-Rumsfeld doctrine, have been in power under Bush II.


6. The plan is for the United States to rule the world. The overt theme is unilateralism, but it is ultimately a story of domination. It calls for the United States to maintain its overwhelming military superiority and prevent new rivals from rising up to challenge it on the world stage. It calls for dominion over friends and enemies alike. It says not that the United States must be more powerful, or most powerful, but that it must be absolutely powerful.

The rhetoric of global ‘leadership’ is warmly embraced by Tony Blair: Globalisation begets interdependence, and interdependence begets the necessity of a common value system. History the age-old battle between progress and reaction, between those who embrace the modern world and those who reject its existence. Century upon century it has been the destiny of Britain to lead other nations. That should not be a destiny that is part of our history. It should be part of our future. We are a leader of nations or nothing.

Blair’s belief system is based on a vision of progress that religious belief entitles him and US neoconservatives to impose worldwide (Gray 2007). The project of establishing English as the language of power, globally and locally, is central to this empire. It is in the economic and political interest 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; and that if common values are being developed, they be values with which Americans are comfortable. These are not idle aspirations. English is linking the world.

US colonisation policies externally were comparable to practices in European colonial empires. The policies were not as actively linguicidal as in the home country, but rather installed a hierarchy of languages, a diglossic division of linguistic labour. Language policy in former colonies is well documented. What is not so well known is that the urge to establish English was not limited to parts of the world that were under European or American control.

7. Science cannot be advanced without the English language and textbooks and students will make better progress in the sciences by taking the English textbooks and learning the English to boot than they will by giving exclusive attention to their own language and textbooks in our field and the same is true of any field where the Gospel is preached to intelligent beings. We need disciplined and educated men. (Greenwood 2003) This rationale was written in 1847 by Cyrus Hamlyn, an American missionary who spent a lifetime in Istanbul and founded a school, Robert College, named after an American ‘philanthropist’.

In recent years the issue has been hotly debated at the annual conferences of TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages), not least since much of this activity is engaged in covertly by US citizens, while otherwise employed as teachers of English in the Middle East, China and the former Soviet Union. A British website reports: ‘as missionaries are still banned from China, it represents one of the most effective ways to support Christians in China through the sending of teachers of English from overseas.’

Isn’t this precisely what globalisation expects of us in the privileged world? That we should not be concerned about what happens in the Asian sweatshops that produce our cotton and electronic goods, nor about unfair, unsustainable trade policies which mean that food subsidies to producers in the rich world undermine the livelihood of growers in poor countries? Are these the values that unite the Americans and the EU, the ‘deep ties of kinship’ stressed by José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, when endorsing the ‘Transatlantic Economic Integration Plan’ agreed on at the 2007 EU-US summit?

In EU-US negotiations, English is the sole language involved. This is in conflict with the declared policy that in the EU’s international relations, the multilingualism that characterises its internal affairs should also apply. This is a clear case of English as the lingua cucula. Externally the EU has become monolingual.



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