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The Role of English Language Education in Developmental Contexts

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The Role of English Language Education in Developmental Contexts


The teaching of English in postcolonial, Third World countries is an issue that has received much debate in the TESOL profession. Opponents of the current global spread of English argue that this language dominance is a form of neo-colonialism and that its expansion should be halted, especially in postcolonial countries where English was previously a language of oppression. Phillipson (1992) goes so far as to term the spread of English “linguistic imperialism” in his work of that title and establishes the notion of “linguistic human rights,” calling for the preservation of native languages in the face of global monolingualism. For many others, though, the growing popularity of English does not have such ominous connotations. Rejecting the implied connection between the spread of English and Western cultural dominance, these applied linguists view English as an international language belonging to all, a valuable asset for global business and cross-cultural communication. Many also hail English as a language of development for the Third World, claiming that the access it provides to greater markets and wider communication stimulates economic and societal development. Language policy makers have adopted this view both in wealthy nations (e.g., U.S., U.K.), where large amounts ‘foreign aid’ moneys are spent on promoting English in the Third World, and in underdeveloped countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where English is now often the sole official language of instruction at all levels of education.

What both perspectives in the debate over the dominance of English fail to address, though, is how English language education actually operates in developmental contexts. Despite many language professionals’ concerns about English language dominance in the Third World, most learners receiving English instruction in these countries, particularly those living in rural areas, gain only limited competence in the language and continue to use their native tongues throughout their daily lives. Instead, what having all of their instruction in English does cost these learners is the quality of their education (in that they are forced to learn through the medium of an unfamiliar language) and the opportunity to develop literacy in their L1. English is not the only language that operates in this manner either, although it is by far the most prevalent of the dominant languages. To provide some focus, this paper will remain limited to a discussion of English education in developmental contexts, though similar concepts may apply to any dominant language operating in these conditions. Many postcolonial and international tongues, and even some dominant native languages have the same affects as English on personal development when promoted at the expense of minority dialects, drastically hindering the learners’ individual economic potentials and leading to larger societal consequences as well.

If economic development is defined as the reduction of poverty and the improvement of economic conditions for the most disadvantaged, it is difficult to see how English instruction promotes it, especially when such instruction does not directly benefit the severely impoverished. Due to the scarcity of research dealing with the relationship of language education to economic development, it has not been proved that teaching English at any level reduces poverty in underdeveloped countries. Referring to this neglected area of study, Cooke and Williams (2002) cite the Institute of Development Studies (1998) as saying that “The literature dealing with development has paid remarkably little attention to the issue of language in education” ( p. 298). Yet, the research that has been done suggests that providing instruction in English either at the primary educational level or to the most economically disadvantaged works against individual and societal development. Despite this evidence, however, English-only instruction continues to be required at all educational levels in many underdeveloped nations and remains the focus of many language ‘aid’ programs implemented by the United States and other wealthy nations. Therefore, language educators working in developmental contexts must question these harmful language policies and seek to inform other educators, policy makers, and community members of more viable educational alternatives to the current, blind faith reliance on English to meet developmental needs.

This official policy of English-only instruction that many developing nations have adopted has devastating effects on education at the primary level. Children in these countries enter school with little to no familiarity with the language of instruction and are taught subject matter with only minimal attention to the understanding of meaning. Bunyi’s (1999) study of schooling in Kenya shows that when science instruction was conducted primarily in English as opposed to a native tongue, students were unable to apply concepts they had learned in class to practical situations at home. With little regard to content then, schooling becomes an endless repetition of language drilling designed to batter English into students’ heads at the expense of most other learning one would expect a formal education to provide.

Yet these schools consistently fail to achieve the goal of teaching students English set out for them by educational policy. Cooke and Williams (2002) cite numerous studies (Nkamba & Kanyika, 1998; Williams, 1996; Machingaidze et al., 1998; Nassor & Mohammed, 1998; Kulpoo, 1998; Voigts, 1998) conducted in several African countries to show that “the vast majority of primary school pupils cannot read adequately in English, the sole official language of instruction” (p. 307). Cooke and Williams go on to state, “If children in developing countries have little exposure to the language of instruction outside the school, and if teaching the language of instruction is ineffective inside the school, then low-quality education is inevitable” (p. 313). As the majority of these students leave school with no L1 literacy and a low competence with a language they use very little outside the classroom, to say that receiving their education in English disadvantages them is a severe understatement.

In contrast to the ineffective English-only language education described above, studies have shown that establishing basic literacy and oral skills in a learner’s L1 during their initial education leads to increased cognitive development and better performance in school. In a review of reading levels in 46 developing countries, Greaney (1996, cited in Cooke & Williams, 2002, p. 307) states that “initial instruction should be offered in a child’s first language.” The Association for the Development of African Education (1996) summarizes similar findings in Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, and Tanzania (Cooke & Williams, 2002, p. 307). Bamgbose’s (1984) longitudinal study in Nigeria found that students taught in their home language performed better than those receiving English instruction in all subjects, even English itself. The increased educational proficiency of students due to early instruction in the L1 shows that being educated in a familiar language facilitates their understanding of educational content and expedites their acquisition of literacy, resulting in greater cognitive development at earlier stages of learning.

As far as acquiring English is concerned, research suggests that, in the sociocultural context of schooling in most underdeveloped countries, an L2 should be introduced only after or during the establishment of L1 literacy. Cleghorn & Rollnick (2002) cite several sources (Carey, 1991; Phillipson, 1992; Roller, 1988; Street, 2001b; Swain, Lapkin, Rowen, & Hart, 1990; UNESCO, 1999) to back their claim that such a model is the most appropriate for schools in these countries to “foster a two-way transfer of literacy skills between the home language and the target L2, reinforce personal identity, and establish more equitable conditions with regard to education” (p. 362). Even if the promotion of English is the ostensible goal of education in many of these countries then, the fact that initial L1 instruction would produce better results in the eventual acquisition of an L2 should, logically, prompt the change of language policy in education. Yet, so far, this has not been the case.

Causes for the widespread stagnation of these English-only educational policies are often linked to politics and based on the public’s faulty impressions of English as the language of education, success, and national unity. Addressing these causes, Cooke and Williams (2002, pp. 314-15) describe how African governments have long ignored researchers’ calls to change harmful English-only educational policies in favor of promoting English as a national language and pushing its use in schools. The official use of English is also popular in local African communities where it is perceived as a language of strength and access to economic success, and is strongly backed in schools by parents and teachers alike, many even desiring its use as early as preschool (Cleghorn & Rollnick, 2002, p. 364). Similar community resistance to native language instruction has also been evidenced in Peru and Napal (Hornberger, 1987; Davies, 1996 as cited in Cooke & Williams, 2002). In countries where a multitude of languages are spoken, the prospect of having a strong, unifying national language is extremely attractive. Therefore, as government officials continue to make decisions based on political popularity rather than need, attempts to make changes at the policy level are unlikely to succeed without the support of the communities themselves.

It is a commonly held belief in underdeveloped countries where English is the primary language of instruction that English proficiency is the most valuable tool for achieving economic success; in most cases, though, this is a terrible illusion. Even with an education, very few people in these societies have the means to access the white-collar jobs or larger markets that require any knowledge of English at all. The majority of the poor instead participate in their local, informal economies which can involve 50% of the labor force and account for 40% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in underdeveloped countries (Montiel, Agenor, & Haque, 1993 as cited in Bruthiaux, 2002, p. 280). As English is virtually unused in this massive informal sector, those who received an education are likely to lose any competence in the language they may have attained, rendering all their years of formal schooling a waste.

Conversely, if they had been able to establish basic literacy in their home language, their economic potential could be greatly increased. In describing the economic value that basic literacy has for the severely poor, Bruthiaux (2002) writes, “for the poor to progress beyond the most basic economic level, their assets need to be represented in writing…[allowing] the user to step from the material into the conceptual realm where capital lives and economic development begins” (p. 286). Basic literacy enables one to record the ownership of property and use it as collateral, to conceive of nonmaterial capital and to participate in an asset-based as opposed to an object-based economy. Not only is it an important practical tool for managing ownership and handling economic transactions, it is also integral in transforming the poor’s perception of their own economic potential. Provided that the native tongue has a writing system, the most appropriate language in which to establish this skill would not be English but the local vernacular used in the day to day transactions of the informal economy in which the learner participates. The only people who seem to directly benefit from learning English, then, are those already in a position to access the larger national and international markets.

English language education in developmental contexts is put further into question when examining the inequities it perpetuates between its immediate benefactors (the relatively wealthy) and those for whom it has no practical use (the severely impoverished). In addition to possessing the means to access larger markets and coveted white-collar jobs, the relatively wealthy urban groups also have better educational opportunities leading to greater levels of English proficiency than the more disadvantaged urban and rural poor are able to acquire. English then becomes an upper-class language, which the poor hold in great esteem but cannot effectively access because of the low quality of their education and their disadvantaged economic status. Explaining the tension that arises from this linguistic classism, Cooke and Williams (2002) write that “Far from being a source of unity, the use of English in education in many poor countries has become a source of national disunity” (p. 314). Djite also concludes that the use of English to achieve development “has significantly contributed to the socioeconomic and political instability of most African countries” (cited in Cooke and Williams, 2002, p. 315). Thus, the popular notion that the promotion of English as the official language of education creates national unity in developing countries is also an illusion.

While English may indeed have a beneficial role to play in the overall economic and societal development of Third World nations, it should not be assumed that English is the solution to any developmental needs without proper research. Nor should it be promoted at the expense of much needed native language education at the local level (Bruthiaux, 2002). Despite evidence that English instruction in these countries hinders educational development at the primary level, is largely useless for much of the population, and contributes to social inequity; English-only educational policies and language ‘aid’ programs continue to operate under the pretense of assisting development. That local communities are often taken in by this pretense makes the task of deconstructing the too simple solution of English even more difficult for critical educators and researchers. Yet, change cannot occur without this problematization. Hence, the political motives of government officials in these countries must be questioned. It also must be questioned why wealthy donor nations such as the United States spend large amounts of ‘foreign aid’ moneys on the promotion of English in underdeveloped countries that should instead be diverted to funding basic literacy acquisition in local dialects and generating quality educational materials in native languages. Furthermore, a wide-scale educational campaign must be undertaken to inform Third World communities of how language choice in education can affect personal and economic development. For in order to make any change possible, both the causes and the effects of these harmful language and educational policies must be brought into question at every level, from government officials and policy makers down to the poorest participants in education.

Works Cited

Bamgbose, A. (1984). Mother tongue medium and scholastic attainment in Nigeria.Prospects, 16(1), 87-93.

Bruthiaux, P. (2002). Hold your courses: Language education, language choice, and economic development. TESOL Quarterly, 36, 275-96.

Bunyi, G. (1999). Rethinking the place of African indigenous languages in African education. International Journal of Educational Development, 19, 337-350.

Cleghorn, A. & Rollnick, M. (2002). The role of English in individual and societal development: A view from African classrooms. TESOL Quarterly, 36, 347-72.

Cooke, J. & Williams, E. (2002). Pathways and labyrinths: Language and education in development. TESOL Quarterly, 36, 297-322.

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

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