English: from British empire to corporate empire
Department of International Language Studies and Computational Linguistics, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
The article exemplifies and presents the characteristics of linguistic imperialism, linguistic capital accumulation
following the same pattern as capitalist economic dominance. The text summarizes the way English was established in
the colonial period. Many of the mechanisms of linguistic hierarchy have been maintained and intensified since then, as
African and Indian scholarship demonstrates. Language plays a key role in education, the World Bank taking over
where colonial regimes left off. Anglo-American efforts to maintain global English dominance have intensified since
1945 and are central to the present-day world ‘order’, as the postcolonial is subsumed under global empire, assisted by
English linguistic neoimperialism. Some scholars who deny the existence of linguistic imperialism are reported on, and
the complexity of language policy in European integration is demonstrated. The article concludes by setting out how the
deceptive term ‘lingua franca’ needs to be challenged, and lists ways of exploring English as project, process, and
product, setting out key research questions. The constraints of a short article only permit glimpses of a rapidly evolving
scene, the visible top of the English iceberg.
Key words: Linguistic imperialism, empire, colonisation, linguistic neoimperialism, postcolonial education, linguistic
capital, linguistic capital dispossession, lingua franca.
L’article présente des exemples et les traits caractéristiques de l’impérialisme linguistique. L’accumulation du capital
linguistique se produit de la même façon que la dominance capitaliste économique. Le texte fait le trajet de
l’établissement de l’anglais dans l’époque coloniale. Plusieurs des mécanismes d’hiérarchisation linguistique ont été
retenus et intensifiés depuis ce temps, ce que les chercheurs africains et indiens ont montré. La langue joue en rôle
central dans l’enseignement; la Banque Mondiale continue les politiques de la période coloniale. Les efforts des Anglo-
Saxons pour maintenir la dominance mondiale de l’anglais se sont accrus depuis 1945. Ils sont au cœur de « l’ordre »
mondial actuel, tandis que la période postcoloniale se transforme en empire mondial, soutenu par le néoimperialisme
linguistique de l’anglais. L’auteur fait l’analyse de quelques chercheurs qui nient l’existence de l’impérialisme
linguistique, et présente la complexité des politiques de langue dans l’intégration de l’Europe. L’article se termine en
expliquant comment le terme ‘lingua franca’ peut tromper et suggère qu’on doit faire une analyse de l’anglais comme
projet, comme procédé et comme produit, en cernant plusieurs questions pour la recherche. Dans le trajet d’un petit
article on ne peut que tracer les contours d’une actualité en plein changement, le sommet visible de l’iceberg anglais.
Mots-clé : Impérialisme linguistique, empire, colonisation, néo-impérialisme linguistique, éducation postcoloniale,
linguistique capitale, lingua franca.
Artiklen præsenterer eksempler på sprogimperialisme og dens centrale træk. Sproglig kapitalakkumulation har samme
mønster som kapitalistisk økonomisk dominans. Teksten giver en résumé af måden hvorpå engelsk blev konsolideret
under koloniseringen. Mange af de mekanismer som udgør sproglig hierarkisering er blevet fastholdt og intensiveret
siden hen, som forskning fra Afrika og Indien viser. Sprog spiller en central rolle i uddannelsessystemet.
Verdensbanken har overtaget rollen som kolonistyren havde tidligere. Anglo-Amerikanske anstrengelser for at fastholde
global engelsksproget dominans er blevet intensiveret siden 1945. De er centrale til den nuværende verdens ‘orden’, i
takt med at det postkoloniale viger for global herredømme, som engelsk sproglig neoimperialisme fremmer. Fagfolk
som afviser tilstedeværelsen af sprogimperialisme beskrives, der rapporteres om kompleksiteten af sprogpolitik i
europæisk integration. Artiklen afsluttes med at bevise hvor bedragerisk begrebet ‘lingua franca’ er, og opsummerer
hvordan man kan undersøge engelsk som projekt, som proces, og som produkt, herunder vigtige forskningsspørgsmål.
Indenfor rammerne af en kort artikel er det kun glimt af en hurtigudviklende situation som kan gives, spidsen af den
Table of contents
2. Patterns of colonisation, new and old
3. An English-dominant world system
4. Approaches to English linguistic imperialism
5. English linguistic imperialism moves to continental Europe?
6. Conclusion: exploring English as project, product and process
There are countless books and journals being published in English on the history of the language
and its assumed status as a ‘global’ or ‘world’ language. Likewise there are authoritative
publications (encyclopaedia, handbooks) in English covering language policy, the ecology of
languages, linguistic human rights, and threats to worldwide linguistic diversity. There is also a vast
amount of sociolinguistic coverage of many languages in books and journals, including analyses of
the current position of German and Spanish internationally, written in English. This information
overload in English contrasts with the paucity of works in French and German on macro-
sociolinguistic issues such as language in globalisation or regional integration. One can conclude
therefore that, even if there is significant coverage of language policy topics in Japanese, Spanish,
Russian and other languages, scholarly publishing in the area of language policy, language and
power, and linguistic imperialism confirms Anglo-American dominance. This dominance is partly
due to economies of scale that reflect the size of the academic linguistic market, national (the USA)
and international, but is due equally to the gate-keeping, hegemonic paradigms, and monolingual
control that consolidate Anglophonic power in the information society and the knowledge economy.
One revealing example: benchmarking handbooks on language and linguistics exclude Spanish-
language references: ‘the current English dominance within the geopolitics of knowledge is
enhancing the symbolic capital of English and contributing to the erosion of linguistic diversity’
(Mendieta, Phillipson and Skutnabb-Kangas 2006). How has this come about? Is the linguistic
imperialism of the colonial age being perpetuated and reinforced in the contemporary world? Is the
current pre-eminence of English the direct result of explicit and active US policy in the Americas
since the formulation of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, and similar policies in Europe throughout the
century (Arnove 1982, Smith 2003), and globally since 1945?
I see linguistic imperialism as involving the following:
• it is a form of linguicism, a favouring of one language over others in ways that parallel
societal structuring through racism, sexism and class: linguicism also serves to privilege
users of the standard forms of the dominant language, those with convertible linguistic
• it is structural: more material resources and infrastructure are accorded to the dominant
language than to others
• it is ideological: beliefs, attitudes, and imagery glorify the dominant language, stigmatize
others, and rationalise the linguistic hierarchy
• the dominance is hegemonic, it is internalised and naturalised as being ‘normal’
• linguistic imperialism interlocks with a structure of imperialism in culture, education, the
media, communication, the economy, politics, and military activities
• in essence it is about exploitation, injustice, inequality, and hierarchy that privileges those
able to use the dominant language
• this entails unequal rights for speakers of different languages
• language use is often subtractive, proficiency in the imperial language and in learning it in
education involving its consolidation at the expense of other languages
• linguistic imperialism is invariably contested and resisted.
This pattern of activities holds for the role of language in all empires, even if these inevitably
display great variety over time and space (and some scholars do not see a pattern of linguistic
imperialism, e.g. Ostler 2005). The Latin of the Roman empire left behind a massive legacy
throughout Europe. Four European languages have major footholds on other continents – Spanish,
Portuguese, French, and English – whereas political and military defeat diminished the impact of
such languages as Dutch, German and Italian. A hierarchy of languages is integral to an imperial
social order, discrimination by means of language – the acquisition and use of linguistic capital -
marking off privileged classes and groups from others, linguicism being entrenched structurally and
Throughout the British Isles a monolingual ideology was propagated, with devastating effects, even
if some Celtic languages have survived and are currently being revitalised. A monolingual ideology
was exported to settler colonies in North America and Australasia, accompanying genocide of the
local population. More differentiated policies were needed in exploitation colonies such as the
Indian subcontinent and most African colonies. Since Nebrija, language has been the explicit
handmaiden of empire, but one may need to distinguish between types of empire:
‘formal’ and ‘informal’ imperialism: the first meaning physical control or full-fledged
colonial rule, while the second implied less direct but still powerful kinds of
dominance, like Britain’s 19
century hegemony in Chile and Iran, or the USA’s more
recent role in much of central America. (Howe 2002: 24)
The notion of ’informal empire’ can be traced back to Macaulay, the most eminent British historian
of the mid-19
century, politician, and Indian administrator (Louis 1999: 5). Language played a
much less important role in informal empires of the colonising type. In the current neoimperial
world, English is increasingly in evidence. Plans to introduce English as a ‘second official
language’ in Chile, Japan and Korea, and the policy of making the learning of English compulsory
throughout education in China are symptomatic of this trend. The combined effect of the
dovetailing of English with the British Empire, the strength of the American economy since the
century, and the global power structures put in place from 1945 (Bretton Woods, World
Bank, IMF, WTO, United Nations etc), along with the imploding of a communist alternative, have
all contributed significantly to the current pre-eminence of the language.
The historical record shows that this evolution was not left to chance: English has been (Phillipson
1992) and still is actively promoted, for instance by Gordon Brown on his first official visit to
China and India. His Press Release of 17 January 2008 (http://www.number-
10.gov.uk/output/Page14289.asp) reveals a plan to make English the global language of ‘choice’
through strategic investments in English learning. The Murdoch-owned tabloid The Sun declared
that Brown believes this will ‘add a staggering £50billion a year to the UK economy by 2010’.
Imperialism has always been about profit.
The corporate agenda that drives neoliberalism and the new imperialism (Harvey 2005) was
precisely and presciently described in The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels in 1848.
has set up that single unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In a word, for
exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked,
shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. […] The need of a constantly expanding market
for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole face of the globe. It must nestle
everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. […] In place of the
old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every
direction, a universal interdependence of nations. And as in material, so also in
intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become
common property. […] It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the
bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization
into their midst, i.e. to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world
after its own image. (reprinted in Mendel 1961: 15, 16, 17).
This is echoed by Bourdieu (2001: 84, translation RP):
‘Globalisation’ serves as a password, a watchword, while in effect it is the
legitimatory mask of a policy aiming to universalise particular interests and the
particular tradition of the economically and politically dominant powers, above all the
United States, and to extend to the entire world the economic and cultural model that
favours these powers most, while simultaneously presenting it as a norm, a
requirement, and a fatality, a universal destiny, in such a manner as to obtain
adherence or at the least, universal resignation.
The forms that globalisation has taken since the 1970s have consolidated the position of English in
what Hardt and Negri (2000) see as Empire. Other dominant languages are of more regional
significance, more localised variants of linguistic empire.
2. Patterns of colonisation, new and old
European expansionist policies in North America sometimes aimed at the assimilation of Native
Americans rather than their extinction. European ‘values’ and Christianity were to ‘civilise’ the
‘savages’ to a capitalist economy and patriarchy, whether through European or indigenous
languages. Literacy flourished in some of these, for instance Cherokee (Spring 1996), and Native
Americans were introduced to Latin, Greek and Hebrew as well as English and more practically
oriented knowledge. In 1838 the Board of Foreign Missions of the USA (then only 13 states, all
separate colonies) articulated ‘a belief in the manifest destiny of Anglo-Saxon culture to spread
around the world’ (ibid., 145). When the pressure on land became fiercer, more liberal policies were
replaced by cultural and physical genocide. In education English generally became the sole
language used. There are currently attempts to reverse this.
The policy of the USA transforming a diverse immigrant and indigenous population into
monolingual English users was articulated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907: ‘We have
room for but one flag, the American flag... We have room for but one language here, and that is the
English language... and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the
American people.’ (Italics added)
Education in US colonies functioned along similar lines. In the Philippines, there was an insistence
on an exclusive use of English in education from 1898 to 1940: ‘… public education, specifically
language and literature education during the American colonial period, was designed to directly
support American colonialism. The combined power of the canon, curriculum, and pedagogy
constituted the ideological strategies resulting in rationalising, naturalizing, and legitimizing myths
about colonial relationships and realities.’ (Martin 2002: 210).
Comparison of the British and French empires, drawing heavily on the analysis of scholars from the
colonized world, leads to the conclusion that despite differences in the articulation of policies,
What the French and British empires had in common was:
- the low status of dominated languages, whether these were ignored or used in
- a very small proportion of the population in formal education, especially after the
- local traditions and educational practice being ignored,
- unsuitable education being given to Africans,
- an explicit policy of ‘civilizing the natives’,
- the master language being attributed civilizing properties. (Phillipson 1992: 128)
These broad generalizations are valid, even if policies were in fact worked out ad hoc in a wide
variety of situations. In French colonies, the goal of producing a black French elite entailed using
the educational content and methods of metropolitan France (Johnson 2005). In the British empire,
‘English was the official vehicle and the magic formula to colonial élitedom’ (Ngŭgĭ 1985: 115).
‘By the opening decades of the twentieth century the crass objective of confining colonized people
through inferior education had been dressed up with “scientific” justifications and permeated almost
every corner of the Empire apart from South Asia’ (Etherington 2005b: 269).
In India the situation was complex, due to its size and diversity, and since there were strong and
ancient literacy traditions in the main languages. Education in these was widespread before the
policy of promoting English was officialised. Three universities were founded in 1857, 14 by 1921,
and 20 before independence in 1947. But westernization was in effect confined to elites. These have
retained the role of the colonizers’ language for postcolonial elite formation and privilege.
There are major differences in the way British language policy in India has been interpreted. At one
extreme is the view that the decision to promote English and neglect Indian languages was ‘largely
a recognition of local Indian demands’, and that the idea of colonialist imposition of English is a
twentieth century ‘myth’ (Frykenberg 1999: 210). A more differentiated view is that the promotion
of English reflected a firm belief in progress, ‘English liberty, toleration and improvement’, as
articulated by the imperial spin doctor, Macaulay, who ‘held arrogant but representative views on
England’s cultural ascendancy in the world and on what he believed to be the benevolent impact of
British rule in India and elsewhere. The controversial Minute on Education, written in India in
1835, managed to reconcile British realpolitik and idealism in a way that left a lasting mark on
subsequent interpretations of British rule’ (Louis 1999: 5). At the other end of the spectrum is the
analysis of an Indian who has lived through the entire post-independence period:
The colonial language policy, therefore, was a part of the overall policy of governing
the ‘native subjects’ in such a way that their minds would cease to be Indian.
Language became an instrument for this purpose. It helped produce efficient and
dedicated slaves who would be faithful to their masters and grateful to be slaves. The
British rule consolidated itself mainly by dividing India into two classes: the loyal
English educated Indians and the ignorant masses restricted to their ‘vernaculars’.
(Naik 2004: 254-5).
In British Africa until the 1950s, 90% of educational work was in the hands of missionaries, from a
range of European countries as well as the USA, working for dozens of different Christian
denominations. Their primary goal was evangelisation, whether through English or the many
African languages that missionaries codified, artificially because of colonial boundaries and
linguistically and culturally uninformed selection practices. Christian missionaries remain active
worldwide, often in the guise of teachers of English, posing a major ethical dilemma for the English
teaching profession (Canagarajah and Wong forthcoming). Missionaries were generally looked
down on by colonial administrators, and were often at odds with settlers and commercial interests,
because they tended to disapprove of how the colonized were being treated (Etherington 2005a).
There was in fact a tension throughout the history of the British Empire between the empire-
builders and critics of imperialism.
When colonies acquired political independence, a number of competing factors, supply and
demand, ‘aid’ and dependence, have resulted in the continuation of the language policies of the
colonial period till the present (Bamgbose 2006, Ricento 2000). In language education, five tenets
have been of decisive influence since the 1960s, each of which is false (Phillipson 1992: 183-218):
English is best taught monolingually (the monolingual fallacy); the ideal teacher of English is a
native speaker (the native speaker fallacy); the earlier English is taught, the better the results (the
early start fallacy); the more English is taught, the better the results (the maximum exposure
fallacy); if other languages are used much, standards of English will drop (the subtractive fallacy).
The acquisition of linguistic capital in postcolonial societies is structurally constrained by linguistic
market forces in such a way that ‘choosing’ English is contingent rather than free, since
European languages were imposed on Africans in the colonial period. African people
as communities did not choose to learn those languages. […]
Individual Africans do not necessarily choose to learn these languages (French,
English, Portuguese). Since the language of instruction in almost all African countries
is the language of the former colonial power, going to school does not leave any
Individuals who do not go to school, and therefore do not learn European languages,
do not choose not to go to school. They do not have access to schooling (Rubagumya
In the global village there are ‘a few chiefs – very powerful economically and militarily – and a lot
of powerless villagers. […] The market has indeed replaced imperial armies, but one wonders
whether the effect is any different. […] It is therefore not the case that more English will lead to
African global integration; the reverse is more likely.[…] Giving false hopes that everybody can
have access to ‘World English’ is unethical’ (ibid.: 136-139).
The most significant source for funding for education in postcolonial states in the closing decades
of the 20
century was the World Bank, which has channelled funds toward the learning of the
former colonial languages. World Bank policies filter through into the ‘aid’ agendas of the US and
the British Overseas Development Administration (ODA), which favour a ‘transition’ from local
languages to English:
…one needs to be cautious when the World Bank, which controls and influences the
majority of aid packages to the third world, supports the transitional model. World
Bank officials who visited South Africa in 1992 made it quite clear that additive
bilingualism was not on the World Bank agenda and that funds would not be available
to support such programmes. As mentioned earlier, USAID and ODA are heavily
influenced by World Bank agendas, and the language education models they are
supporting are consistently transitional … a concrete example of just how powerfully
persuasive Western aid agencies are in influencing policy’ (Heugh 2003: 343, initially
published in 1995).
The World Bank’s real position … encourages the consolidation of the imperial
languages in Africa. … the World Bank does not seem to regard the linguistic
Africanisation of the whole of primary education as an effort that is worth its
consideration. Its publication on strategies for stabilising and revitalising universities,
for example makes absolutely no mention of the place of language at this tertiary level
of African education (Mazrui 1997: 39).
A stratified education system that serves the interests of elites and neglects others is common. In
India the ‘biggest failure in 50 years of independence – its shameful neglect of primary education’
(Malhoutra 1997: 152). This failure was to be addressed in the wake of the Jomtien (‘Education for
all’) conference of 1991 through the use of foreign aid and loans, but projects such as India’s
District Primary Education Project were plagued with financial mismanagement and corruption
(ibid.). Indian research indicates that ‘Over the post-Independence years, English has become the
single most important predictor of socio-economic mobility. […] With the globalized economy,
English education widens the discrepancy between the social classes’ (Mohanty 2006: 268-9).
Educational policy may be changing towards a more active commitment to multilingualism
Alexander (2006: 241) considers that in post-apartheid South Africa two factors determine current
practices and attitudes in the relationship between language and power:
• the hierarchies of the linguistic market are largely determined by the mundane fact
of economic and political, or military dominance
• the “colonised mind” (Ngŭgĭ wa Thiong’o 1994) of conquered peoples has often
led to a failure on the part of their leadership to realise the power that is latent in
the languages of the oppressed and of other subaltern strata or groups.
In South Africa ‘politicians and even cultural leaders have never thought deeply about the language
question. […] an English-only or even an English-mainly policy might have some of the following
• preventing the majority of the people from access to vital information and,
therefore, from full participation in the democratic political process
• undermining the self-confidence of L2-speakers and even more so of the vast
majority for whom English is effectively a foreign language
• by the same token, smothering the creativity and spontaneity of people who are
compelled to use a language of which they are not in full command
• at the economic and workplace levels, causing major avoidable blockages that
have significant impacts on productivity and efficiency’ (ibid.: 251).
Elsewhere in Africa the situation is comparable. Omoniyi (2003) in an article analysing why the
Nigerian military government decreed in 1998 that French should be the ‘second official language’
of the country, describes the neglect of local languages as a ‘rape on democracy’ (2003: 23). The
decision is a good example of push and pull factors working together in neoimperialism. The push
of French economic interests in the region promoted through ‘aid’ (sixteen language attachés,
support for 100 pilot schools, 6 colleges of education and 6 universities, 13 French language
centres, ibid.: 20-21) combines with a Nigerian political wish (a pull) to subvert US interests and
Commonwealth criticism of a military regime. Omoniyi refers to ‘two Europhone cohorts that have
outlived colonisation: Anglophone and Francophone Africa […] they resuscitate and/or perpetuate
colonial presence and rivalries, and neo-imperialist discourses in supposedly post-colonial times’
It is also important to recall that TESOL (the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages)
itself is a significant export item – teaching materials, examinations, know-how, teachers et al - for
the British and Americans, and a vital dimension of English linguistic neoimperialism. ‘The English
language teaching sector directly earns nearly £1.3 billion for the UK in invisible exports and our
other education related exports earn up to £10 billion more’ (Lord Neil Kinnock, Chair of the
British Council, in the Foreword to Graddol 2006). The major publishing houses are now global.
For instance, ‘Pearson Education's international business has been growing rapidly in recent years,
and we now have a presence in over 110 countries.’
(http://www.pearson.com/index.cfm?pageid=18, accessed 15 January 2008). The website of
Educational Testing Services of Princeton, NJ, which is responsible for the TOEFL test of English
language proficiency, states: ‘Our global mission goes far beyond testing. Our products and services
enable opportunity worldwide by measuring knowledge and skills, promoting learning and
performance, and supporting education and professional development for all people worldwide.’
The ambivalent role of the TESOL enterprise is explored insightfully in a number of the
contributions to Edge 2006.
US and UK interests and services are thus in symbiosis with education worldwide and with the
evaluation of proficiency in English, with the assessment of linguistic capital. Those wishing for
credentials in this linguistic market must invest in the form of ‘global’ English that examination
boards profitably dispense. They administer what Bourdieu refers to as the sanctions of the (global)
3. An English-dominant world system
The archetypical aggressive British imperialist is Cecil Rhodes, who made a fortune in the diamond
mines of South Africa, became the country’s Prime Minister, and pushed northwards, founding
countries which were named after him until they morphed into Zambia and Zimbabwe. He left his
fortune in the form of Rhodes Scholarships and an Oxford institution, his primary goal being to
influence key people from the dominions (Australia, Canada, New Zealand), India and the United
States. Rhodes’ purpose, as expressed in his first will (1877 – he died in 1902) was
- The extension of British rule throughout the world, the perfecting of a system of emigration
from the United Kingdom and of colonization by British subjects of all lands wherein the
means of livelihood are attainable by energy, labour and enterprise,
- the ultimate recovery of the United States of America as an integral part of the British
- the consolidation of the whole Empire, the inauguration of a system of Colonial
Representation in the Imperial Parliament which may tend to weld together the disjointed
members of the Empire,
- and finally the foundation of so great a power as to hereafter render wars impossible and
promote the best interests of humanity. (Quigley 1981: 33, bullet structure added)
Only part of this scheme has been realized, but perhaps more than meets the eye. The constitutional
bonds of Empire have been loosened in the establishment of a British Commonwealth of Nations, a
network of Anglophonic ‘global leaders’ in the Rhodes mould. The American dog has waved the
British tail since 1945, but with a ‘special relationship’ which can be traced through Churchill-
Roosevelt, Thatcher-Reagan and Blair-Bush II. The strong links between the US and the UK were
articulated by Churchill and Roosevelt in 1941 in the ‘Atlantic Charter’, which set out a policy for
the post-war world, Churchill stressing in the House of Commons on 24 August 1941: ‘… the
British Empire and the United States who, fortunately for the progress of mankind, happen to speak
the same language and very largely think the same thoughts …’ (Morton 1943: 152). British
ambivalence about its membership of the EU is partly due to the legacy of empire but more
significantly to the competing tug of the political, military, cultural and linguistic links with the US.
Some US think tanks envisage seeing the UK detached from ‘Europe’ and the creation of a trans-
atlantic Anglosphere (see Phillipson 2008a).
US policies 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. The overall strategy was analysed in Harper’s Magazine in 2002 (cited in Harvey 2005: 80):
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
Condoleezza Rice regularly articulates this vision. The rhetoric of global ‘leadership’ was warmly
embraced by Tony Blair: ‘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.’ (from a speech in 1997 cited in Le Monde Diplomatique, May
2007, 16.). This sentiment is scarcely compatible with the EU’s principle of a foreign policy
common to all member states.
It is perfectly logical for Tony Blair to opt for international banking after leaving British politics,
since financial globalisation is central to the current economic world ‘order’. Massive wealth has
been consolidated in the hands of the top 1% of the world’s population in the transition from a
capitalism based on commodities to trading in financial services. The accumulation of this wealth is
not territorially based (it depends on ‘price-space’ rather than ‘physical space’) and is intrinsically
linked to the impoverishment and dispossession of the rest of the world’s population, while
privileging a small elite worldwide. While commodity capitalism evolved with pre-eminence for a
number of ‘large’ languages, finance capital is symbiotically linked to the consolidation of English,
and its acceptance by those who might earlier have insisted on parity for other languages such as
French (Lysandrou & Lysandrou 2003).
4. Approaches to English linguistic imperialism
The papers from a conference in Japan that contrasted various linguistic imperialisms are summed
up in a Conclusion by one of the editors, Calvet (2005: 364), where he appears to state that
linguistic imperialism on the part of the British and French is a thing of the past: in the case of
English it is no longer needed, whereas in the case of French - in my interpretation of his comments
- two issues need highlighting, The birth rate in former French colonies will influence the vitality of
francophonie, which confirms Chaudenson’s contention (2000) that the fate of French as a ‘world’
language will be decided in Africa rather than in Europe, where the battle has already been lost.
Secondly, when French official discourse equates francophonie with diversity and its maintenance,
this implies that it is pointless to continue preaching the superiority of French. While many of
Calvet’s other summary points are uncontroversial (distinguishing between linguistic nationalism
and linguistic imperialism; different manifestations in particular historical periods), to suggest that
French linguistic imperialism is dead and buried is false (the claim is in fact disputed by Miura
Nobutaka in the same volume). There is abundant evidence that virtually all the criteria for
linguistic imperialism that I list initially in this article apply to both French and English in the
present world. How else can the massive efforts of the British Council to establish English in the
post-communist world, or the French to put French rather than African languages on school time-
tables in former British colonies in Africa be understood (see the Nigerian example above)? How
else can the activities of both governments to bid for and implement World Bank policies that
favour European languages be understood? Calvet is a prolific author who operates with a
schematic hierarchy of languages (based on de Swaan’s theory of hypercentral, supercentral and
other languages), and rightly exemplifies many of the variables (top-down, bottom-up, attitudinal)
that influence the mosaic of languages. However, his analysis does not seriously engage with issues
of power, or theorise contemporary linguistic imperialism, and I cannot detect any awareness of
human rights principles (the statement ‘Faire croire par exemple que l’on peut utiliser toutes les
langues du monde pour l’éducation des enfants est une imposture néfaste’, Calvet 2002, 207 is
uninformed), nor of the significance of cultural and linguistic diversity for language ecology and
biodiversity (Skutnabb-Kangas 2000).
Scholars who are sceptical about linguistic imperialism as an explanatory model for the way
English has been consolidated worldwide tend to analyse matters as though there is a strict choice
between (a) active US-UK promotion of English, supported by linguicist policies that favour it over
and above other languages, and (b) colonised people and others actively wishing to learn English
because of the doors, economic, social, political, and cultural, that it opens. Matters are summed up
as though (a) involves imposition, whereas (b) is a ‘free’ choice (Kirkpatrick 2007: 35-7). This is a
false dichotomy, the two elements in no way excluding each other. In addition, neither imposition
nor freedom is context-free. Nor should (a) be seen as necessarily entailing the adoption of ‘Anglo-
cultural norms’ and ‘British and American culture’, which is true, whereas (b) would not, which
incorrectly ignores the lexico-grammatical substance embedded in the language, and the uses to
which the language is put. Mono-causal explanations should be avoided. The norm is for there to be
push and pull factors contributing to linguistic hegemony and hierarchy.
Kirkpatrick (ibid.) also accepts Fishman et al’s analysis of ‘Post-imperial English’, which concludes
that the strength of English in former British and American colonies is more due to such countries’
engagement in the modern world economy rather than ‘to any efforts derived from their colonial
masters’ (1996: 640). This analysis seems to ignore the fact that ‘engagement in the modern world’
means a western-dominated globalization agenda set by the transnational corporations and the IMF,
and the U.S. military intervening, with or without a mandate from the United Nations, whenever
‘vital interests’ are at risk. World Bank, NAFTA, and World Trade Organization policies contribute
to political instability, and provide less favourable conditions for education, democratization,
cultural and linguistic diversity. English serves to consolidate the interests of the powerful globally
and locally and to maintain an imbalanced exploitative world order, to disenfranchise speakers of
other languages. A world polarized between a minority of English-using haves (whether as a first or
second language) and a majority of have-nots is not likely to provide healthy conditions for people
who speak languages other than English to flourish, so I have difficult in sharing Fishman’s
restrained optimism about linguistic power-sharing.
There is currently a considerable effort going into the documentation of English worldwide (see, for
instance, Kachru, Kachru and Nelson 2006), its formal and functional diversity. Much of the
description is celebratory, compounded by the use of such fuzzy terms as ‘global’ and
‘international’. Halliday has elaborated an intriguing distinction between these:
English has become a world language in both senses of the term, international and
global: international, as a medium of literary and other forms of cultural life in
(mainly) countries of the former British Empire; global, as the co-genitor of the new
technological age, the age of information. So those who are able to exploit it, whether
to sell goods or ideas, wield a very considerable power. […] It is important, I think, to
distinguish these two aspects, the international and the global, even though they
obviously overlap. English has been expanding along both trajectories: globally, as
English; internationally, as Englishes. Both of these expansions involve what I have
called semogenic strategies: ways of creating new meanings that are open-ended, like
the various forms of metaphor, lexical and grammatical. But they differ. International
English has expanded by becoming world Englishes, evolving so as to adapt to the
meanings of other cultures. Global English has expanded – has become “global” – by
taking over, or being taken over by, the new information technology, which means
everything from email and the internet to mass media advertising, news reporting, and
all the other forms of political and commercial propaganda. (Halliday 2006: 362-3)
Halliday’s binary distinction is helpful, but the notion that ‘world’ Englishes are ‘international’ is
invalid, since what is being referred to here is in fact local Englishes (Kenyan or Pakistani English).
The terminology in this area is treacherous.
Halliday’s focus on how adapting linguistic systems to new cultural demands can function locally
and globally is grounded (not here explicitly) in a material and ideological understanding that is
characteristic of Marxist approaches to language, which were refined in the 20
by Gramsci and Bourdieu. The former British colony that has been most successfully transformed
into a first-world economy is Singapore. Its language policy has downplayed tradition and ethnicity,
and transformed citizens of diverse linguistic origins (mainly variants of Chinese and Indian
languages) into users of English both in the public domain and increasingly even at home. This is a
prime example of language management successfully achieving its goals through the creation of
citizens who essentially identify with the materialism and consumerism that drive the global
economy (Chew 2007). An authoritarian state aims at proficiency in British English and the
ultimate elimination of the hybrid Singlish.
Brutt-Griffler, in a book entitled World English: A study of its development (reviewed in Phillipson
2004a) has argued that colonial education was more concerned to prevent colonial subjects from
having access to English than with imposing the language. She sees World English as doing away
with hierarchy among speech communities, non-Western nations taking equal part in the creation of
the world econocultural system and its linguistic expression. At the same time she acknowledges
that the US and UK dominate the world market and that World English is the dominant socio-
political language form. Her attempt to explain the growth of English worldwide is therefore
internally inconsistent, theoretically flawed, and based on argumentation that ignores the reality of
the market forces, political, economic and military, that strengthen some languages at the expense
of others locally and globally.
Some see a focus on the declared goals of US and UK policy and ‘aid’ investments as a conspiracy
theory. This is simplistic and false. I have elsewhere, in an article that exposes the way Spolsky
misrepresents my work (Phillipson 2007a), argued against this put-down. A conspiracy smear (it
has nothing to do with theory) is often, as a study of neoliberal agendas and ideologies shows, ‘the
standard invalidating predicate to block tracking of strategic decisions’ (McMurtry 2002: 17). What
critical scholarship should be concerned with is ‘the deeper question of the life-and-death principles
of regulating value systems which connect across and explain social orders’ (ibid.). This is the
overall context within which uses of ‘global’ English need exploration.
Others see a strong emphasis on material and structural power as too deterministic, and as depriving
those who vote with their feet for English of agency. I would claim that in any given context there
are many push and pull factors that determine the way English linguistic hegemony is asserted. It is
logical and comprehensible that English should be seen as desirable for the society and the
individual, and involves agency, without endorsing a spurious use of ‘choice’. There is no problem
here provided that English is learned and used additively, as an extension of one’s linguistic
repertoire, but this is not the case when mother tongues are neglected, which is the case in many
5. English linguistic imperialism moves to continental Europe?
The European context needs book-length treatment (Phillipson 2003) rather than a couple of
paragraphs. In a recent survey article (2007b) I conclude that there is now European linguistic
apartheid of three types: the exclusion of minority mother tongues from schools, public services and
recognition; the de facto hierarchy of languages in the EU system, in internal and external
communication; inequality between native speakers, particularly of English, and other Europeans,
in international communication and especially in EU institutions. Unfortunately there are many
obstacles to supranational, Europe-wide language policy formation. They can be enumerated in
outline. Each of them impinges on English as both threat and promise. The length of the list makes
it abundantly clear that the tension between English as an invasive, imperialist language and the
promises that it holds out is not straightforward. What is unclear is what the outcomes of present
trends will be:
• European history has led to different cosmologies in national linguistic cultures, making cross-
cultural dialogue treacherous;
• there are collisions of terminology (e.g. lingua franca, multilingualism, working language) in
discourse (politics, media, business etc), and in distinct academic disciplines, as well as in
• overall responsibility for language policy in the EU is fragmented (Council of Ministers,
Directorates for Education & Culture, Translation, …), and is ultimately an inter-governmental
• there is a poor infrastructure nationally (except in Finland and Catalonia, perhaps in Sweden
after legislation) and supranationally for addressing language policy issues, including a weak
infrastructure in research;
• international coordination among national language bodies is in its infancy, and the processes
for dialogue between scholars, interest groups, and policy-makers are fragile;
• language policy is politically untouchable at inter-governmental level;
• EU institutions are inconsistent in living up to ideals of multilingual equality (website,
communications with member states) and in effect practise linguistic apartheid;
• the EU translation and interpretation services are impressive in many respects, but are detached
from international research, and subject to an economic rationale, seeing themselves as a service
function rather than policy-making;
• the language of EU written texts is increasingly under attack, even if the translation industry and
translation technology are of increasing importance;
• the rhetoric of EU multilingualism and linguistic equality is seen as a charade by many;
• linguistic human rights are a recent development in international law, and do not constrain
• criteria for guiding equitable supranational language policy are under-explored;
• journalistic coverage of language issues tends to be ill-informed;
• alternatives to market forces (the comparative advantage of English in the European linguistic
market) and linguistic nationalism (e.g. Esperanto) are unexplored;
It is significant that both the EU and the Council of Europe now recommend some support for
migrant languages, though there is still a long way to go before these are recognised in any member
state as representing significant resources or involves them being seen as triggering rights.
Ultimately language policy is a matter of power politics, linguistic nationalism, and economics.
When there are so many uncertainties currently, and when supranational national policy formation
is stymied, market forces are allowed free rein. These all strengthen English nationally and
supranationally. Thus when there are discussions about ‘domain loss’ in the Nordic languages, the
central concept is inappropriate when it obscures the reality that it is the forces and agents of
linguistic neoimperialism which are causing the linguistic capital dispossession of other languages.
6. Conclusion: exploring English as project, product and process
The term lingua franca has been used in widely different senses in the past and is so still. I would
claim that lingua franca is a pernicious, invidious term if the language in question is a first
language for some people but for others a foreign language, such communication typically being
asymmetrical. I would claim that it is a misleading term if the language is supposed to be neutral
and disconnected from culture, from its uses and the purposes it serves. And that it is a false term
for a language that is taught as a subject in general education, which English is worldwide. There is
an ironic historical continuity in lingua franca being used as the term for the language of the
medieval Crusaders battling with Islam, the Franks, and currently to refer to English as the language
of the crusade of global corporatisation, marketed as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. In a lengthy
Forum article to which seven scholars respond (Phillipson 2008b), ‘Lingua franca or lingua
frankensteinia? English in European integration and globalisation’, in the journal World Englishes, I
have explored misuse of the term in contemporary neoliberalism. The Frankenstein image refers to
the agent behind the monster that gobbles up (speakers of) other languages.
One can attempt to bring together some of the many threads drawn on in this paper by seeing the
lingua franca/frankensteinia project as entailing
• the imagining of a community, in the same way as polities are
imagined (Anderson 1983), an English-using community
without territorial or national boundaries;
• the invention of traditions (in the sense of Hobsbawm and
Ranger 1983), customs, rituals and discourses that connect
people through a merging of the language with hybrid agendas
uniting the national, the European, the universal and global;
• ultimately the project reflects metaphysical choices and
philosophical principles that underpin the type of community
we wish to live in, the beliefs, values, and ethical principles that
guide us, in a world that is currently dominated by
neoliberalism, unsustainable consumerism, violence, and
• our choices can either serve to maintain diversity, biological,
cultural and linguistic (<www.terralingua.org>) or to eliminate
it, and current trends are alarming;
• all of which lead to visions of and for English, in Europe and
elsewhere, and if these do not define lingua franca in such a
way as to ensure equality and symmetry in intercultural
communication, but are essentially one-sided promotion of
English, the project tends to be more that of a lingua
The lingua franca/frankensteinia process can be seen as entailing
• building communities of practice, of language use and language
• that people identify with at various levels
• which can be personal, interpersonal, intercultural, and sub-
• in contexts of use, discourses, and domains
• which conform to norms of linguistic behaviour that are
institutionally (re-)inforced, legitimated and rationalised
• in societies that hierarchise by means of race, class, gender, and
• leading to English being perceived as prestigious and ‘normal’,
hence the feeling of native speakers that the language is
universally relevant and usable, and the need for others to learn
and use the language, in some cases additively, in others
The lingua franca/frankensteinia product
• interlocks with economic/material systems, structures,
institutions, and US empire
• is supported ideologically in cultural (re-)production and
• in political, economic, military, media, academic and
• through narratives of the ‘story’, the ‘spread’ of English, and
• through metaphors of English as ‘international’, global, God-
• with the prestige code that of elites in the dominant English-
speaking countries, and embedded in the lexis and syntax of the
Heuristic ways of clarifying whether the advance of English represents lingua franca rather than
lingua frankensteinia trends would entail asking a series of questions, and relating each of them to
English as project, process and product:
• Is the expansion and/or learning of English in any given context
additive or subtractive?
• Is linguistic capital dispossession of national languages taking
• Is there a strengthening or a weakening of a balanced local
• Where are our political and corporate leaders taking us in
• How can academics in English Studies contribute to public
awareness and political change?
• If dominant norms are global, is English serving local needs or
merely subordinating its users to the American empire project?
Empirical studies of such questions are needed before firmer conclusions can be drawn, in tandem
with a refinement of the theoretical framework for understanding these changes in the global and
local language ecology.
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