International English and the Anglo-American Hegemony: Quandary in the Asian Pacific Region

 

Introduction

America today is arguably at the center of a growing international hegemony.  The United States has invested incredible amounts of resources to the spread of the English Language since the end of the Second World War.  With the spread of the Internet, ownership of most international media outlets, and as the recipient of international economic investment as well as having uncontested military capability, American might lends prestige to the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) in Asia and abroad.

 

Mastery of the English language now stands both as a means for the elite of various countries to access the world system, and as a barrier to keep all but native speakers out of the highest levels of power.  Explicit rewards and implicit threats are meted out to those countries and peoples living linguistically on the edge of Americafs sphere of influence.  Greater access to political, economic and sociocultural opportunities is bestowed upon those who have mastered the English language and conformed to Anglo-American norms.  This is the meaning of hegemony:  In most cases, hegemony does not rely on coercion, but rather on established power and the consent of the majority of the people in the world to go along with the rewards, benefits and prestige that flow from that power.  But for those who question the authority of the American Hegemony, economic marginalization, cultural isolation and, as in the recent cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, full-scale military action await. 

 

 

Power Politics:  The Struggle for Ownership of English

Some of the strongest opponents of the spread of English originate from Asian Pacific countries with well-established monolingual settings that emphasize correct forms communication, and avoid communicative disharmony.  The implication is that the objections against English come from older nationalistic hegemonies that wish to preserve their hold on to zealously guarded cultural boundaries.  While decrying the loss of a linguistic ideal for their countries, linguists and political thinkers alike have failed to accept the political reality of internationalization, which even now is in the process of replacing nationalism just as nation states replaced the earlier political models of the 15th and 16th centuries.   One of the results of internationalization has been the compromise of linguistic and cultural borders by the onslaught of American English via satellite, entertainment media, the Internet and the ever-increasing migration of English language teachers.  The practice of TESOL, therefore, seems to be intertwined with issues of power politics, especially of who has it and who wants it. 

 

Recently there have been calls in Asia for the teaching of English as an International Language.  International English is often defined as English that is spoken both by native and non-native speakers, and a language which is the property of the world instead of the property of the United States.  The redefinition of English as an International Language (EIL) is a serious political undertaking, as is all language education at its core.  Redefining English as an International Language is an attempt to denationalize English and divest the American hegemony from its claim on the English language.  The EIL movement, led by fluent non-native speakers of English in various countries who have been unable to access the higher levels of power in the American hegemony, attempts to create a linguistic powerbase that is free from American influence. 

 

In places such as Japan, where many quietly feel that their culture, language and national identity are under attack from the forces of American-style English Language Teaching, taking ownership of English in this way is an attempt for Japanfs elite not only to contextualize English for their own nationalist aims, but also to begin using English as their own tool of protest and personal expression.  As admirable this effort may be, proponents of English as an International Language also need to aware of certain pitfalls in the venture to separate themselves from the American Hegemony. 

 

Pitfalls of International English and the American Hegemony

One difficulty lies in the terminology of ginternational.h  In Western history, Hellenization, and then Romanization were terms used by the Greeks and Romans to describe an increased level of international political and economic integration.  A common language (Greek, then Latin) was central to the goal of unifying vast numbers of people from different cultures and language groups.  Because the English language is a fundamental aspect of internationalization, it begs the question of whether internationalization is not really Americanization.  While supporters of EIL in Asia state that English must be distanced from the American Empire in order for it to become truly international, it is impractical to simply ignore the fact that the American Hegemony would still benefit greatly from an enthusiastic promotion of EIL.  More speakers of English would create a larger market for American products, services and entertainment.  International English might speed up the oppressive and relentless flow of people, goods and ideas, and eventually result in the creation of larger versions of the current national socioeconomic rifts, and further the increased marginalization of minority cultures, languages, religions and ethnic groups. It is not a coincidence that George W. Bushfs gaxis of evilh consists mostly of oriental countries which are non-Caucasian, non-Christian, and which has some of the fewest numbers of English speakers in the world. Historically, when the language of one culture has been introduced into another culture, and if one is more powerful or advanced than the other, then influence, educational practices and styles of learning move one way, from the dominant to the less powerful.  This has been the legacy of English language education in Asia, and supporters of EIL should keep this in mind.

 

In terms of culture and language education, some will still question whether one can or should divorce Anglo-American culture from the English language.  Metaphorically speaking, to some, EIL may seem like taking the flavor out of a meal while attempting to preserve its nutritional value, or perhaps of injecting an imported fruit with the flavor of a local vegetable.  It may take some time for more students and teachers in Asia to adjust their linguistic palate in order to gswallowh the claims of some who propose EIL-based curricula, and even longer for parents and administrators, who often see the mastery of British or American models of English as having the potential to open doors of opportunity for their learners.  

 

Another pitfall lies in the fact that EIL proponents often call for a return to traditional grammar-based language teaching methods as a means of lessening American influence.  American language teaching methods, many state, lessen the status of the teacher, and create confusion in the minds of learners as to how to operate within their classrooms.  They claim that because most learners will not be able to reach the level of a native speaker, EIL should be taught so that learners can communicate only enough to feel friendly emotions towards people from other countries (also known as gcomityh). Students are encouraged to maintain the communicative strategies used in their mother tongue for speaking English, and to focus upon reading and writing skills.    

 

The problem with these ideas is that traditional grammar-based teaching is as political an exercise as the potentially-democratic teaching methods of American TESOL.  The teaching of grammar is a very authoritarian model.  The teacher is the sole expert who controls the flow of information to the learners.  The teacher chooses grammatical examples of the language, which modern linguistics has shown to be, at best, only true for some of the time.  Grammar tests often demonstrate less about how much the students have acquired English, and more about to what extent they have conformed to the teacher. 

 

In addition, while most of the main proponents of EIL very skillfully use Anglo-American models of English communication and achieved a near-native speaker standard in the language, by not holding their learners up to a similar level, they implicitly encourage learners to acquire a level of English that is far below what they might have had the potential to attain.  Asian language learners are caught between two untenable positions:  In the Anglo-American Hegemony, learners are encouraged to strive to become like Americans or the elite speakers of their own society, but with little economic or social rewards for their efforts.  However, if the learners follow the suggestions of some of todayfs EIL proponents, they are literally gkept in their placeh by being taught a form of English which is clearly less proficient than the elite members of their society, and are returned to a system of dependence and conformity.  The flow of information from the American Hegemony is controlled by the elite, with only the acceptable information to be filtered down to the rest of society.  In the meantime, those who seek comity on their own run the risk increased misunderstanding, creating the need for experts to come in to assist in the process of clear communication.   

 

The Need for a New Construct

Neither the supporters of the American Hegemony nor many of the proponents of EIL presently seem to offer much hope for Asian students.  English as an International Language does exist, but no one has yet been able to either control it or define what it is in the process of becoming.  Continued debate and discussion on the topic of EIL are necessary to form better a better understanding of what it entails.  Using American models as a point of departure only serves to bind EIL as a gnon-Americanh form of English.  World Englishes, such as those found in Singapore, India or Nigeria evolved only after the collapse of the British Empire, when these former colonies made their own decisions about the uses of English.  Perhaps EIL might become an independent reality once American power begins to wane in the world.

 

 However, in the meantime, it must be noted that while the concept of EIL is still a subject of controversy, and rather nebulous to both students and teachers, all of us should anticipate an evolution in the way that English will be taught in Asia.  More educators are beginning to suggest ways and means to approach the subject.  EIL is coming.  When it does arrive, changes in attitudes towards accuracy over fluency, an increase in the creation of materials contextualized for the local culture, greater adaptation to the local culture, respect of non-native speakers of English, and an increased awareness of the political nature of English will be minimum requirements for language teachers of the future.

 

 

The Quandary for Language Teachers in the Asian Pacific Region

What are language teachers and students in Asia to do in during this age of the struggle between older hegemonies and the American Empire?  The answer, of course, is that it depends upon the teacher and the students. 

Issues for Teachers
 

Whether language teachers serve the interests of the American hegemony, nationalist aims or focus on the local needs of their learners, hinges on the pedagogic beliefs and practices implicit in their lessons.  It is felt that Asian language teachers should regularly reflect on what they are actually teaching in their classes, how they teach the language, and why they are teaching English in the first place.  Careful attention needs to be paid to the textbooks chosen, and what type of English (American, British, nativized varieties, or a combination of the three) is being quietly upheld as the ideal for students to model. 

Language teachers would benefit from clearly identifying what they believe about the spread of English, and design their lessons accordingly.  Regardless of whether they believe in teaching EIL, support an Anglo-American model, or are committed to teaching English as an Islamic language, they should prepare their lessons in way that these goals are met.  However, such purpose-driven language teachers should be careful to work in a manner that is respectful to the differing views of others.  Language teachers should also be explicit about their political ideology and how those beliefs influence their pedagogic practices.  Teachers who state that their educational practices are apolitical should be viewed with skepticism.


Issues for Students

At a minimum, it is felt that learners should be exposed to a variety of views, types of teachers (bilingual experts and native speakers from the expanding circle countries), and materials that take local as well as Anglophone interests in mind.  In light of the developments taking place in the world and the field of TESOL, where appropriate, students should also be given more information about the matters discussed in this paper.  For example, language lessons centering on English and actual economic opportunities in their country, possible Anglo-American beliefs in teaching materials, or the political implications of English as an International Language, could help stimulate critical thought about some of the larger issues involved with English language study.  Students should be better informed so they can choose for themselves if they want to support or subvert the hegemonic implications of conforming to Anglo-American norms.  They should also be made aware of the potential punishments and rewards that may result from their decisions.  As well, students need to be made aware of the agenda of many within the elite classes of their society who support English as an International Language.  By providing students with greater awareness, they might be empowered to make their own informed choices about the role of English in their lives.


Conclusion

It is recognized that this paper may raise more questions than it attempts to answer.  For example, in view of the recurring cycles of history, is imperialism avoidable?  Are nation states, with their respective sociolingual classes of elite and oppressed, simply smaller versions of what is happening on an international scale?  If the continued spread of English is to be construed as an unwelcome development, what can be done to replace it without major disruption on a global scale?  Given that the dynamic of empire-building is as ancient as the history of humanity, and if America is deemed to be an unjust, unwelcome cultural and linguistic influence in the world, could the United Nations replace the US?  If not the UN or America, then what other alternatives are available?  Is it truly possible to go back to a political, economic and linguistic situation of the 1890s, when nation states had greater autonomy in their internal and external affairs?  These and more questions await our critical examination.