You are on page 1of 15

Linguistic Imperialism, linguistic democracy and

English language teaching

Mohammad Aliakbari
Ilam University - Iran

In response to the assumptions of linguistic imperialism and cultural
homogeneity, especially explained and reacted to in Phillipson (1992), the
present article raises ten contradictory arguments, which put the native
speakers hegemony in international uses of English under question. Advocating
cultural awareness, and intercultural competence, this article calls for the
interlocutors mutual appreciation and cooperation of cultures to strengthen
international relationships. Finally through an attempt to specify the problems
with the 'native speakers dependency view, the article proposes linguistic
democracy as the alternative paradigm and elaborates on recognition of cultural
diversity in ELT.

Key words: linguistic imperialism, linguistic democracy, biculturalism, and

languageculture relationship.

With respect to culture, some sense of powerlessness and inferiority has
been thought of on the part of the language learners, which implies their
dependability to native speakers (Valdes 1986; Phillipson 1992). This position is
most radically articulated in Philipson (1992) as he considers that the relationship
between the native English speaking community and the foreign or second
language learning countries represents a sort of core-periphery connection. "The
tenets of ELT have ideological and structural consequences. They serve to

This paper was prepared when the author was a visiting scholar at the Center for Applied Linguistics
and Languages at Griffith University, Australia during 2001-2002 academic year.

strengthen the hold of the centre over the periphery (Phillipson 1992: 192).
Bisong (1995) reviews the main thread of Phillipsons explanation of linguistic
imperialism as follows. The linguistic relation between the center and periphery
has been and continues to be one of dominant and dominated languages. English,
the author maintains, was originally imposed on a number of countries in the
periphery and has through deliberate contrivance, successfully displaced, or
replaced some of the indigenous languages of these countries. The dominance of
English has also resulted in the imposition of the Anglo-Saxon Judeo-Christian
culture that goes with it so that indigenous cultures have been undervalued and
marginalised (Bisong 1995: 123). Though Phillipson reacted to the idea in his
own terms, this article also intends to highlight ten major problems with what has
long been taken for granted by the advocates or the followers of such views. Yet,
it is important to be clear that the upcoming position and discussions deal
primarily with the English that is used in an international context. And the
interactions between English native speakers are deliberately excluded from the
arguments that follow.

The conceptual ambiguity

A basic problem with native speakers' dependency position is the visible

imprecision and simplification in the concept of 'native speaker' (e.g. Kachru
1982; Rampton 1990; Crystal 1992; Kramsch 1993). The differences among
English speaking communities cannot be taken for granted. This diversity makes
an inclusive and comprehensive definition or description bewildering, even
impossible. Native speakers may share as much homogenizing features as they
are known for their differences. This point is rightly recognized in Kramsch
(1993) when she argues that the notion of a generic native speaker has become so
diversified that it has lost its meaning. She further asserts that the concept of
native speaker must be put in question from both linguistic and pragmatic
perspectives. Kachru (1982) and Rampton (1990) also put emphasis on the

dissatisfaction with the terms 'native speaker' and 'mother tongue'. The latter
seems more dissatisfied since he complains the whole mystique of the native
speaker and the mother tongue should probably be quietly dropped from the
linguists set of professional myths about language (Rampton 1990: 97).
Generally speaking, the concept of 'native speaker', as it is used in the field,
appears abstract, subjective, unrealistic and simplistic and attempts to undermine
or minimise the differences among native speakers does not change the issue. It
is abstract because it implies an idealised native speaker with perfect mastery of
English. It is unrealistic in that it ignores the linguistic and cultural heterogeneity
of native speaker communities. What we are witnessing is a collection of native
speaker varieties not a single 'native speaker pattern'. It is subjective because in
undermining the differences it creates an imaginary perception of the concept.
More importantly, it is simplistic since it translates the growing tendency to learn
English as a wish to be integrated to the native speaking communities.

The problem of representatives or language models

According to Phillipson, the term Core English Speaking Countries covers

Britain and the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Such diversified
native speaking population naturally has led to an ambiguity in selecting a
language model for the core. Though the proposed homogeneity implies
adherence to a commonly agreed upon language model and the eventual
superiority of the core, diversity among native English speaking communities
limits the possibility of such an achievement. Since no group has officially,
regionally or socially been proposed or accepted superior, there may be no
criteria for adopting a single model. Besides, as Rampton (1990) insists
nationality and ethnicity are not the same as language ability and language
allegiance. Thus, the basic question of, who is the most representative to be taken
as a model for non-native speakers? remains unanswered. Even if varieties as
Elaborated code, Educated English, Standard English, Oxford English or RP can

be accepted as the model, it indirectly forces a good number of native speakers to

learn that variety.

In addition to their linguistic differences, native speakers' cultural

diversity also restricts the possibility of such a selection. The literature suggests
that there exists no unique culture common to all native speakers and almost
every country is multicultural. For instance, Smith (1978) and Kachru (1982)
note that the culture of the United Kingdom is certainly not similar to that of the
United States, Canada, or Australia. Therefore, the possibility of finding an
agreed upon representative is quite rare.

The problem of cooperation and collaboration

Linguistic homogeneity position strongly violates the cooperative

principle proposed and introduced by Grice (1975). As a cooperative principle or
teamwork, communication demands cooperation on both sides. Both the speaker
and the listener are required to contribute to overcome an information gap or a
misunderstanding. In other words overcoming misunderstandings requires a
shared commitment through which both sides cooperate to resolve the problem.
In cases of native/non-native communication, insistence on culture-specific
points on either side may lead to a communication breakdown. Thus participants
in a communication are expected to avoid such topics and tend to base their
interaction on the commonalities. Concerning the fact that in most interactions
the interlocutors have equal status in giving and receiving information, avoiding
accommodation in either side threatens the success of communication. Thus,
both sides are recommended to refrain from cultural ambiguity and tune to
manageable units. Improving global relationship through English may be
achieved not through the native speakers' superiority, but through their admitting
equal statues in the world communication.

The problem of direction

The position in question implies that language use always aims at native
speaker models. It perpetuates the notion of the ideal native speaker and assumes
that learners are deficient. However, the question is not whether learners should
observe native linguistic patterns but whether they should adopt every behaviour
and attitude of native speakers. It is not always matter that the learners initiate the
communication for their gain but native speakers increasingly need to
communicate with non-native speakers to improve their own capital. Thus, there
might be no convincing reason for approving the one-way direction of
communication. This position is also supported by a vast number of researchers
in the field (e.g. Smith and Bisazza 1982; Campbell et al. 1982; Smith and
Rafiqzad 1979) in that they generally argue for native speakers need for training
in using English internationally. Moreover, in the present condition of the world,
the range of the nonnative/nonnative interactions, if not far greater than the
interactions among native/nonnative ones, is highly noticeable. Thus, with such
an indisputable increase in the range of nonnative/nonnative interactions the
question of direction to native speakers or the one-way overflow of information
appears useless, at least impractical.

The problem of minimizing the learners' role

Defining hegemony as the dominant ideas that people take for granted,
Phillipson asserts that English has a hegemonic position in many former
colonies. "English linguistic hegemony can be understood as referring to the
explicit and implicit values, beliefs, purposes, and activities, which characterise
the ELT profession and which contribute to the maintenance of English as
dominant language"(Phillipson 1992: 73). It seems that in cultural hegemony
position, adopting the culture of native speakers has been considered as an
undoubted truth and learners have been provided with no choice for culture. A
major problem with this argument is that, through resorting to the culture of the

medium of the conversation, i.e. English, it characterises the interactors as

helpless and passive receivers of their means of interaction. It deserves notice
that there are countries or nations that voluntarily, try to learn foreign languages,
especially English, to fulfil their own objectives and maintain a better global
relationship. In such a condition, which has not been fully recognised in
Phillipson's theory, displacement and replacement policies may not work. The
dominant-dominated or centre-periphery distinction is irrelevant for analysing
these situations. In such cases, learners are actively acquiring English to suit
purposes that are not decided upon by the centre. To these learners, the basic
reason for learning English is not simply the access to English native speakers
but to the global community. Therefore, this article argues that, as the potential
speaker of English, the learner is the one who will decide about the kind of
culture to be expressed not the language or its native speakers. In fact, it looks
illogical or unreasonable to expect the learners give up their own culture and
adopt the culture of the acquired language or its speakers.

The question of intelligibility

Relevant to the position stated at the beginning of the article is the

assumption that native speakers are the most intelligible speakers of English.
This position, though widely held, has not been validated empirically. On the
contrary, Smith and Rafiqzads (1979) empirical study of the role of the native
speakers phonology demonstrated that native speakers are not necessarily the
most intelligible ones. The study expressively signifies how non-native speakers
have problems in understanding native ones. They conclude, since native
speaker phonology does not appear to be more intelligible than nonnative
phonology, there seems to be no reason to insist that the performance target in
the English classroom be a native speaker (ibid.: 57). Accordingly, They found
no place for the role of the national and cultural bias in cross-cultural
communication. This point has also been acknowledged by Widdowson (1994)

when he notes, "the majority of those who are to the language born speak
nonstandard English and have themselves to be instructed in the standard at
school" (p.397).

The question of ownership

In his explanation of linguistic imperialism, Phillipson talks about a view
among a group of native speakers who think of their ownership of English.
However, with its global extension throughout the world, English is no longer
considered as a property belonging to its native speakers. "English is no longer
the language of its originators. It has become a property of the world (Shaw
1983: 21). Based on the argument that the state of English language in the world
is distinct from and beyond the state of its native speaking communities, English
can and should be denationalized in international communications. This
argument relies on the assumption that English as a native language or in a
national level differs from English as an international language, (Bower 1992;
Talebinezhad & Aliakbari 2001). Widdowsons (1994) position in this relation is
also highly insightful. In response to the question of which community or which
culture has a rightful claim to ownership of standard English, he asserts, "the
very fact that English is an international language means that no nation can have
custody over it. To grant such custody of the language, is seemingly to arrest its
development and so undermine its international status" (p. 385).

The question of attitudes

Language users attitude toward the language they speak has been proved
effective in learning the language and managing the communication, (Gardner
and Lambert 1972; Oller, Baca, and Vigil 1978). Attitude is communicatively
functional. It can either facilitate or hinder communication. Cited in Valdes
(1985), Schumann (1976: 40) describes a bad language learning situation as
when the 2LL (second language learner) group would consider itself subordinate

and would be considered subordinate by target language group. He further

describes a good language learning situation as the one in which both groups
have positive attitude toward each other, (p.139). Therefore, both the native
speakers assumption of the language as their own possession and non-native
speakers consideration of English as an imposed language can be very
preventive and destructive.
British Council's Annual Reports discussed in Phillipson (1992) represent
such an extreme attitude. "British influence, British power has not diminished,
because Britain has this 'invisible, God-given asset [English language]. Thus,
'Britain's influence endures, out of all proportion to her economic or military
resources" (British Council Reports 1983/1984:9). Adopting a different position,
this article calls for a distinction between English as a national property in
English speaking countries and English as an international language (EIL).
Through the shift towards EIL, two major consequences are expected: first native
speakers attitude of considering English as 'their own property' seems to be in
urgent need of revision. An 'our' position is what both native and nonnative
speakers of English can adopt. The second change has to do with the native
speakers attitudes about English spoken by foreigners or other native speaking
communities. Local varieties of English along with British and American English
can still be considered acceptable. This position is also in agreement with
Widdowson (1994) in that he asserts that an international language has to be an
independent language. It [English] is not a possession which they [native
speakers] lease out to others, which still retaining the freehold. Other people
actually own it (p. 385).

The question of comprehensibility

Smith and Bisazza (1982) found out that in comprehending nonnative
speakers, native speakers were not necessarily superior to their nonnative
counterparts, nor were they free from deficiency or problem. Accordingly, they

suggest that native speakers also need practice and training for comprehending
English internationally. Thus, they consider the users comprehensibility in
English in the international setting as an outcome of active exposure to both
native and non-native speech. They also affirm that the assumption that
nonnative students of English will be able to comprehend fluent nonnative
speakers if they understand native speakers is clearly not correct. They seem to
need exposure to both native and non-native varieties in order to improve
understanding in communication (Smith and Bisazza 1982: 67). Comprehension
in international situations is actually the result of the familiarity with, and
understanding of, variant speakers. This is why they suggest that a true
evaluation of ones English comprehensibility should be based on the judgement
of both native and nonnative speakers of the language (ibid.: 59).

The question of culture

Phillipson also informs us of the implicit ideology of anglocentricity and
English linguistic imperialism behind ELT promotion. "The title linguistic
imperialism refers to a particular theory for analysing relations between
dominant and dominated cultures, and specifically the way English language
learning has been promoted" (Phillipson 1992:15). With respect to culture,
several points deserve clarification. The diversity of native speakers cultures or
lack of consensus on a culture common to all native speakers, inaccessibility of
any approved criteria for selecting one culture or another as model and lack of a
justified reason for drawing parallelism between bilingualism and biculturalism
are just a few. Kramsch (1993) holds that the ability to behave like someone else
is no guarantee that one will be more easily accepted by the group who speak the
language, nor that mutual understanding will emerge. Moreover, when any
language becomes international in character it cannot be bound to any one
culture. This does not, by any means, mean to hinder the language-culture
relationship. Rather it sets out to argue that, the existence of the relationship

between the two does not specify a constraint on the categories of the two sides.
This position is eloquently expressed in Smith (1981) when she notes, language
and culture may be inextricably tied together but no one language is inextricably
tied to any one culture and no one needs to become more like native speakers in
order to use English well(p. 10).

The experience of global interaction in English enables one to claim that

the learners do not need to become more western or change their morals to use
English well in international situations. In a similar position, Smith (1976) argues
"it is not necessary to appreciate the culture of a country whose principle
language is English in order for one to use it effectively. Neither does the
effective use of English need to make one more western"(p. 2). It needs to be
clear that this article does not intend to undermine the possibility of expressing
culture in interactions. Rather, it argues that the culture of the means of
communication and its native speakers is not necessarily practical or ideal culture
in all English interactions. Thus, it implies that there is no particular culture for
English as an international language and obviates the representation of different
indigenous cultures through English.


If the widespread use of English makes it an international language, it

does not mean that everyone who speaks English will behave like Americans,
Australians, Canadians, or so. The worldwide spread of English should by no
means be considered as a homogenizing factor, which causes cultural differences
to disappear. Rather the ever-increasing use of English throughout the world
offers a medium to express and explain these differences. In an English native
speaking country such as Australia, it is not difficult to notice the difference
among native speaker news announcers reporting for the national or local
channels. Moreover, research has not indicated a common desire among

members of the world community, when using English, to become more like
native speakers in their life style. As the native as well as nonnative speakers
need for training in using English internationally has already been stressed
(Smith and Bisazza 1982), there is no room for cultural or linguistic chauvinism
of native speakers in international interactions.

With the growing trend of English becoming a worldwide language of

communication, the time is ripe, it seems, for a change in attitudes of both native
and nonnative speakers towards English. Both are recommended to adopt a new
orientation with regard to this language and its speakers. In shifting toward
English as an international language, native English speakers are expected to
change their attitudes and assumptions concerning English and its varieties. Upon
the universal extension of English, they are expected to give up the monopolistic
view and simply take a universal position. They are also expected to treat the
present varieties of English as realities, which can no longer be considered
improper or unacceptable (Talebinezhad & Aliakbari 2001:2). Non-native
speakers must also become more tolerant to, and get along with, many varieties
of educated English. They should also learn about the ways other nonnative
speakers use English. In addition, they are expected to give up the assumption
that considers English a colonizing effect or a manipulative means, which
necessarily leads to westernisation.

To be brief, it seems clear that in using English as an international

language, there is no need for the user to be like a native speaker of English. In
such a condition English can be taken as a means of expressing the speakers
culture, not one for imitating the culture of Great Britain, the U.S. or any other
English speaking country. Since in such conditions the interlocutors come from
different cultures no special culture can be imposed. Perhaps in using English
internationally, cultural awareness and appreciation of cultural differences on the

one hand and the attempt to develop intercultural competence on the other, can
lead to more successful and effective communications. This is exactly what is
meant by linguistic democracy, the discussion of which makes up the final
section of the article.

The Proposal; Linguistic democracy

While linguistic imperialism is certainly real in analysing and explaining a
known period and policy of English language promotion, it does not seem to
cover the whole picture of ELT. Following the worlds recognition for dialogue,
especially after United Nations' nomination of the year 2001 as the year of
dialogue among civilisations, the new millennium is thought to require a new
linguistic terminology, one which is not tainted with one sides superiority,
hegemony or expansionism. The special thesis in this article is a call for
linguistic and cultural democracy among the speakers of English in international
situations throughout the world. This proposal rests on the assumption that
democracy is the accepted choice for human relations and language as a human
attribute is thought to follow the same direction.

Deeply rooted in monopoly and colonization, linguistic imperialism may

no longer accounts for the volunteer language learners' condition in learning and
using English as an international language. On the contrary, the ever-increasing
body of English language learners can take advantage of this globally recognised
means of communication to express the variant cultural treasures in their
background. In this proposal, English is not expected to decline to a narrow path
to the monocultural bank of Anglo-Saxon tradition. Rather it is to function as a
vast and endless resource of human civilization, which can thereby turn into a
global archive of mans cultural heritage.

In linguistic democracy, the non-native majority of English speakers are

no longer recognised as 'periphery'. Nor are they thought to yield to the native

'core' minority. In this system all speakers of English, native or otherwise, have
the right to remain faithful to their original culture. In other words, the global
attraction to learning English as an international language is not interpreted as the
learners undervaluing of their native language or culture. Rather, it is considered
as mans struggle for mutual understanding in the presence of diversity. Thus, the
ultimate destination is not linguistic and cultural homogeneity but the
appreciation of linguistic and cultural diversity as well as tolerance. Accordingly,
with no intention to undermine the value of the cultures of various native
speaking communities, the final suggestion is a call for decentring culture in
English language teaching enterprise away from the authority of the imaginary,
unreal 'native speaker'.
I would like to thank Professor David Ingram, director of the Centre for Applied
Linguistics and Languages in Griffith University, Dr. Shirley ONeill and Elaine Wylie,
Senior Research Fellows, for their valuable comments on the article.

Alptekin, C. & Alptekin, M. 1984. The question of culture: EFL teaching in

non-English speaking countries". ELT Journal. 38/1, 14-20.

Bisong, J. 1995. Language choice and cultural imperialism. ELT Journal. Vol.

49/2, 129-132.

Bowers, R. 1992. Memories, metaphors, maxims, and myths: Language learning

and cultural awareness. ELT journal, 46/1.

British Council Annual Reports 1940-41 to 1989-90.

Campbell, D., Ekniyom, P., Haque, A. and Smith, L. 1982. "English in

international settings: problems and their causes". In L. Smith. (Ed.) 1983.

Readings in English as an international language. Pergamon Press.


Crystal, D. 1992. An encyclopedic dictionary of language and languages.

Blackwell Publishers.

Grice, H. P. 1975. "Logic and conversation". In Cole, P. & Morgan, J.P. (Eds.)

Syntax and semantics 3: Speech Acts. Academic Press.

Jenkins, J. 1998. "Which pronunciation norms and models for English as

International Language?" ELT Journal. 52/ 2, 119-126.

Kachru, B. 1982. Models for nonnative Englishes. In B. B. Kachru (Ed.) The

other tongue. Urbana University of Illinois Press.

Kramsch, C. 1993. Context and culture in language teaching. New York.

Oxford University Press.

Phillipson, R. 1992. Linguistic imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rampton, M. B. H. 1990. Displacing the native speaker: Expertise, affiliation

and inheritance. ELT Journal, 44/2, 97-101.

Shaw, D. 1981. Asian students attitudes towards English In L. Smith (Ed.)

1983. Readings in English as an international language. Pergamon


Smith, L.E. 1976. English as international auxiliary language. RELC Journal,


Smith, L. E. (Ed.). 1981. English for cross-cultural communication. London.


Smith, L. E. and Bisazza, J. A. 1982. The comprehensibility of three varieties of

English for collage students in seven countries". Language learning. Vol.

32, No. 2.

Smith, L. E. & Rafiqzad. 1979. "English for cross-cultural communication: the

question of intelligibility". In L. Smith (Ed.) 1983. Readings in English

as an international language. Pergamon Press.

Talebinezhad, M. R. and Aliakbari, M. 2001. Basic assumptions in Teaching

English as an International Language". The Internet TESL Journal. Vol.

VII. No. 7. Available on line at


Valdes, J. M. (Ed.) 1986. Culture Bound: Bringing the cultural gap in

language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Widdowson, H. G. 1994. "The ownership of English". TESOL Quarterly. 28/2,