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The study of linguistic imperialism focuses on how and why certain languages dominate
internationally, and attempts to account for such dominance in a theoretically informed
way. Many issues can be clarified: the role of language policy in empires (British,
French, Japanese, etc.); how languages from Europe were established on other continents,
generally at the expense of local languages; whether the languages that colonialism took
to Africa and Asia now form a useful bond with the international community, and are
necessary for national unity internally, or are a bridgehead for Western interests,
permitting the continuation of marginalization and exploitation. In a globalizing world,
has English shifted from serving Anglo-American interests into a more equitable
instrument of communication for diverse users? Or do US corporate and military
dominance worldwide and the neoliberal economy constitute a new form of empire that
consolidates a single imperial language? Can the active suppression of languages such as
Kurdish in Turkey or of Tibetan and Uyghur in China be seen as linguistic imperialism?
With the increasing importance of China globally, will the vigorous promotion of Chinese
internationally convert into a novel form of linguistic imperialism?
The evidence for or against linguistic imperialism can be investigated empirically in a
given context. Linguistic imperialism entails the following (Phillipson, 1992, 2009):
• 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.
• 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 rationalize the linguistic hierarchy.
• The dominance is hegemonic: It is internalized and naturalized as being “normal.”
• 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.
• It is a form of linguicism, a favoring of one language over others in ways that parallel
societal structuring through racism, sexism, and class: Linguicism serves to privilege
users of the standard forms of the dominant language, which represent convertible
• Linguistic imperialism is invariably contested and resisted.
The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, Edited by Carol A. Chapelle.
© 2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2013 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
The term imperialism derives from the Latin imperium, covering military and political
control by a dominant power over subordinated peoples and territories. A panoramic
history of language empires reveals great variety in the role of languages (Ostler, 2005).
In the period of global European dominance, a combination of military, commercial, and
Christian missionary activities facilitated the transplantation of Western cultural and
educational norms and languages (Fanon, 1952, Mühlhäusler, 1996, Rassool, 2007).
Using terms like imperialism is contentious, because “Defining something as imperial or
colonial today almost always implies hostility to it, viewing it as inherently immoral or
illegitimate” (Howe, 2002, p. 9), although the dominant tend to have no illusions about
the workings of empire. In the Roman empire that covered much of Europe and North
Africa, the strategy for co-opting a conquered people was insightfully analyzed by
Tacitus 2000 years ago:
in place of distaste for the Latin language came a passion to command it. In the same way, our
national dress came into favour and the toga was everywhere to be seen. And so the Britons were
gradually led on to the amenities that make vice agreeable—arcades, baths and sumptuous banquets.
They spoke of such novelties as “civilization” when really they were only a feature of enslavement.
(Tacitus, trans. 1948, p. 72)
The significance of language for the colonial adventure was appreciated from its
inception. In 1492 Queen Isabella of Spain was presented with a plan for establishing
Castilian “as a tool for conquest abroad and a weapon to suppress untutored speech at
home”: for its author, Antonio de Nebrija, “Language has always been the consort of
empire, and forever shall remain its mate” (Illich, 1981, pp. 34–5). The language was to
be fashioned as a standard in the domestic education system, as a means of social control,
and harnessed to the colonial mission elsewhere.
When French became a lingua franca for secular purposes in Europe, there was
widespread belief in the intrinsic superiority of the language. The Academy of Berlin held
a competition in 1782 on the theme of why French was a “universal language.” A
winning essay argued that languages which do not follow the syntax of French are
illogical and inadequate. Maintenance of a linguistic hierarchy typically involves a
pattern of stigmatization of dominated languages (mere “dialects,” “vernaculars”),
glorification of the dominant language (its superior clarity, richer vocabulary), and
rationalization of the relationship between the languages, always to the benefit of the
dominant one (access to the superior culture and “progress”). The ancient Greeks
stigmatized non-Greek speakers as barbarian, meaning speakers of a nonlanguage. The
term Welsh was used by speakers of English to refer to people who call themselves
Cymry. “Welsh” in Old English means foreigners or strangers, a stigmatizing
categorization from the perspective of the dominant group and in their language. A
dominant language is projected as the language of God (Sanskrit, Arabic in the Islamic
world, Dutch in South Africa); the language of reason, logic, and human rights (French
both before and after the French Revolution); the language of the superior ethnonational
group (German in Nazi ideology); the language of progress, modernity, and national unity
(English in much postcolonial discourse). Other languages are explicitly or implicitly
deprived of such functions and qualities.
Colonial governments implemented linguicist policies that discriminated in favor of
European languages. Linguistic hierarchization figured prominently, alongside racism, in
the legitimation of the colonial venture (Pennycook, 1998), and continues in arguments
that celebrate the current dominance of English in a wide range of countries (Bunce,
Phillipson, Rapatahana & Tupas, 2016). An analysis of the links between linguistics and
the furtherance of the French colonial cause documents how French “consumed” other
languages by processes of linguistic cannibalism, glottophagie (Calvet, 1974). Linguistic
genocide, as defined in work on the United Nations genocide convention, is in fact still
practiced widely in the modern world when groups are forcibly assimilated to the
dominant culture and its language (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000); such policies can also be
seen as a crime against humanity (Skutnabb-Kangas & Dunbar, 2010).
Expansion Through Linguistic Imperialism
The expansion of English from its territorial base in England began with its imposition
throughout the British Isles. The 1536 Act of Union with Wales entailed subordination to
the “rights, laws, customs and speech of England” (cited in Jenkins, 2007, p. 132).
Throughout the British Isles a monolingual ideology was propagated, with devastating
effects, even if some Celtic languages have survived and are currently being revitalized.
The continued marginalization of Irish Sign Language exemplifies linguistic imperialism
(Rose & Conama, 2017). A monolingual ideology was exported to settler colonies in
North America and Australasia. President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1919: “We have
room for but one language here, and that is the English language.” More differentiated
policies were needed in exploitation colonies (where the climate precluded settlement by
Europeans) such as the Indian subcontinent and most African colonies (Rassool, 2007).
The present-day strength of English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese in the Americas,
in Africa, in Asia, Australasia, and the Pacific is a direct consequence of successive
waves of colonization and of the outcome of military conflict between rival European
powers. Between 1815 and 1914 over 21 million British and Irish people emigrated, the
greatest number to the USA, and increasing numbers to Canada, Australia, New Zealand,
and to a lesser extent South Africa. This demographic movement, also undertaken by the
Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spaniards, assumed a right to occupy territory as though
it was unoccupied: the myth of terra nullius which assumed that aboriginals had no right
of ownership of the land. The aim was to establish replicas of the “home country” in New
Amsterdam (later New York), New England, New Zealand, Nova Scotia, Hispania, and
so forth. English is now fraudulently marketed as a lingua nullius, is if it serves all
equally well (Phillipson, 2017).
Native American languages were initially used in missionary work and education, but
when competition for territory and resources intensified, conflict between the settlers and
indigenous peoples increased. Education was then established on the principle “that the
only prospect of success was in taking the children in boarding schools, and making them
‘English in language, civilized in manners, Christian in religion’” (Spring, 1996, p. 152).
As a direct result of such policies, very few of the languages originally present in the
USA, Canada, and Australia have survived. This exemplifies linguistic imperialism vis-à-
vis minority languages within a polity. It is comparable to the way the languages of the
peoples of the Soviet Union were treated by Stalin: “bilingual education” meant transition
to monolingualism in Russian. “Under the pressure of the imperial ideology they were
forced to sacrifice linguistic rights for an ideal that was clearly an attempt at linguistic
genocide” (Rannut, 1994, p. 179).
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 rationalizing,
naturalizing, and legitimizing myths about colonial relationships and realities. (Martin, 2002, p. 210)
Despite differences in the articulation of policies in the French and British empires,
what they had in common was the low status accorded to dominated languages, whether
these were ignored or used in the early years of education; a very small proportion of the
population in formal education, especially after the lower grades; local traditions and
educational practice being ignored; unsuitable education being provided; an explicit
policy of “civilizing the natives,” and the master language being attributed civilizing
properties (Phillipson, 1992, pp. 127–8). These 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 elite entailed using the educational content and methods of
metropolitan France. In the British empire, “English was the official vehicle and the
magic formula to colonial élitedom” (Ngũgĩ, 1985, p. 115).
The World Bank has played a decisive role in funding education in “developing”
countries. Its policies have continued the linguistic imperialism of the colonial and early
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, p. 39)
Fishman, Conrad, and Rubal-Lopez’s Post-Imperial English (1996) has a wealth of
empirical description of the functions of English in many contexts. The 29 contributors to
the volume were specifically asked to assess whether linguistic imperialism was in force
in the country studies they were responsible for. They all address the issue, but without
assessing whether there might be more valid ways of coming to grips with theorizing the
dominance of English.
Scholars who are skeptical about linguistic imperialism as an explanatory model for
the way English has been consolidated worldwide tend to analyze matters as though there
is a strict choice between (a) active US–UK promotion of English, supported by linguicist
policies that favor it over other languages, and (b) colonized people actively wishing to
learn English because of the economic, social, political, and cultural doors that it opens.
Matters are summed up as though (a) involves imposition, whereas (b) is a “free” choice
(e.g., Kirkpatrick, 2007, pp. 35–7). This is a false dichotomy: Neither imposition nor
freedom is context-free. Push and pull factors both contribute to linguistic imperialism..
Neoliberalism and Western-dominated globalization have strengthened English (Piller
and Cho 2013), as has the expansion of NATO (Templer 2016), with the US military
intervening whenever “vital interests” are at risk. Financial and economic crises since
2008 have exposed instability and the increased influence of China, but hitherto English
has served to consolidate the interests of the powerful globally and locally and to
maintain an exploitative world order that can disenfranchise speakers of other languages.
The strong position of English in former colonies represents a continuation of the
policies of colonial times. It has strengthened an elite class, with the effect that in India
“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, pp. 268–9).
The USA and the UK coordinated efforts to promote English as a “global” language
from the 1950s. English language education as propagated by the British and Americans
builds on five tenets, each of which is false: the monolingual fallacy, the native speaker
fallacy, the early start fallacy, the maximum exposure fallacy, and the subtractive fallacy
(Phillipson 1992, pp. 183–218). These underpin the profitable global English teaching
business. This persists in dispatching unqualified native speakers to teach in Asia
Ongoing Tensions Between Linguistic Imperialism and Resistance
The conceptual framework elaborated above can serve to explore the questions raised
initially in this entry in more depth. Analysis can be supplemented by documentation of
educational experience in devising ways of counteracting linguistic imperialism
(Canagarajah, 1999, Bunce et al, 2016). Some critiques of a linguistic imperialist
approacg actually misrepresent it (e.g. Blommaert, see Phillipson, 2012). Accusations
that it ignores agency, is excessively structuralist, and implies that education systems
should not produce competent users of English (Pennycook, 2001) are invalid
(Phillipson, 2009, pp. 15–18). The study of linguistic imperialism does not argue for or
against particular languages. It analyzes how linguistic imperialism functions in specific
contexts in order to identify injustice or discrimination so as to provide a basis for
It is logical that people in many countries wish to develop competence in English, but
in many postcolonial countries this entails subtractive learning. For instance, a
consequence of education in Singapore being exclusively through the medium of English
is that more than half the population now use English as the home language. English-
medium schooling that neglects mother tongues can have this effect.
One development that strengthens global elite formation is the rapid increase in the
number of English-medium international schools around the world (8,000, including 550
in the United Arab Emirates and China, Wechsler 2017). Most graduates go on to study at
universities in “English-speaking” countries. It is likely that their linguistic roots in their
cultures of origin will be weaker than their identification with the global economy and
By contrast, the governments of the Nordic countries are determined that increased
proficiency in English should in no way reduce the role of national languages. This
principle is enshrined in a Declaration on a Nordic Language Policy, available in eight
Nordic languages and English (www.norden.org). Many universities in Finland and
Sweden have thus formulated language policies that aim at ensuring that their graduates
and staff are in effect bilingual: Universities have a responsibility as publicly funded
institutions to promote national languages, and as participants in an international
community of practice they also need to function in English and other international
languages. This exemplifies governments being aware of the risk of the negative impact
of linguistic imperialism and taking measures to counteract it.
The management of multilingualism in European Union institutions is exceptionally
complicated. Market forces are strengthening the position of English in member states as
well as in the EU system. There is therefore a risk of other languages being dispossessed
of their linguistic capital. The EU is seen by some political scientists as an empire, with
its language policies constituting linguistic imperialism (Phillipson 2016b).
The immense volume of scientific publication in English also serves to consolidate a
hierarchy of languages. Scholars from the Spanish-speaking world increasingly need to
publish in English (Mar-Molinero, 2010).
Linguistic imperialism is a reality in many contexts worldwide. Among the extreme
cases are the oppression of Kurds in Turkey and of linguistic minorities in China,
especially in Tibet and in the Xinjiang Uyghur region. For an authoritative survey of
language rights worldwide, see the four volumes compiled by Skutnabb-Kangas and
Phillipson in 2017.
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