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How do you decolonise the English language?

In 400 years, English went from being a small language spoken in the British Isles to changing into the most dominant language in the world. In the yr 1600, at the finish of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, English was spoken by 4 million folks. By the 2020s, at the finish of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, that quantity had risen to just about 2 billion. Today, English is the important language in the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; and it’s an ‘intra-national’ language in former British colonies akin to India, Singapore, South Africa and Nigeria. It is Earth’s lingua franca.

For some, English is Britain’s biggest ‘gift’ to the world. In a web based interview with ConservativeHome in May 2022, Suella Braverman, now the UK’s Home Secretary, stated she was happy with the British Empire for giving its colonies infrastructure, authorized techniques, the civil service, militaries and, in her phrases, ‘of course, the English language’. On the different facet of the political spectrum, in 2008 Gordon Brown, then the prime minister, delivered a speech during which he acknowledged that he wished ‘Britain to make a new gift to the world’ by supporting anybody outdoors the UK who wished to be taught English. In the similar yr, The Times introduced proposals for a brand new museum devoted to the language, to ‘celebrate England’s most elaborate present to the world’. And, extra lately, Mark Robson of the British Council described English as ‘the UK’s biggest present to the world’. The notion of English as a present from Britain to the planet is so commonplace it’s nearly unremarkable.

English might have turn into common, however not everybody believes it’s a present. In truth, many maintain diametrically reverse views. In an article in The Guardian in 2018, the journalist Jacob Mikanowski described English as a ‘behemoth, bully, loudmouth, thief’, highlighting that the dominance of English threatens native cultures and languages. Due to the methods during which English continues to realize floor worldwide, many languages have gotten endangered or extinct. This not solely impacts comparatively small languages like Welsh or Irish, but additionally bigger languages, akin to Yoruba in Nigeria, that are pressured by English in enterprise, commerce, schooling, the media and expertise.

For this purpose, various students in the area of sociolinguistics think about English a killer language and have described it as a form of monster, like the lethal multi-headed Hydra from Greek mythology. Those who see English from this attitude think about its world roles a type of linguistic imperialism, a system of profound inequality between English and different languages, that are crushed underneath the would possibly of a former colonial energy, Britain, and the present world superpower, the US. In The Oxford Handbook of World Englishes (2017), the sociolinguists Robert Phillipson and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas notice how ‘the international prestige and instrumental value of English can lead to linguistic territory being occupied at the expense of local languages and the broad democratic role that national languages play.’

The idea of linguistic imperialism is a reminder that the historic root of the dominance of English is 4 centuries of British Empire. English has a heavy load on its conscience. Its unfold via house and time from the finish of the sixteenth century till the finish of the empire in the second half of the twentieth century occurred along with imperial growth, involving land-grabbing, genocide, slavery, famine, subjugation, looting and exploitation. This must be central in any dialogue about English as a worldwide language, not solely as a result of it’s traditionally correct but additionally as a result of, in the phrases of the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in 1965, English ‘came as part of a package deal which included many other items of doubtful value and the positive atrocity of racial arrogance and prejudice’.

So, why is the English language not foregrounded in debates about decolonisation? In the early Twenty first century, decolonisation has been mentioned primarily in relation to museums or celebrated historic figures with clear hyperlinks to empire. But the world attain of English is simply as a lot a product of empire as the British Museum or the statue of Cecil Rhodes adorning considered one of the faculties at the University of Oxford.

What precisely do I imply by ‘decolonisation’? Here, I’m not referring to the political course of via which colonies gained their independence in the second half of the twentieth century. One of the important methods we perceive decolonisation in the Twenty first century is as a problem to a system of data that was put in place throughout colonisation and systematically imposed by the colonisers to supply an ethical justification for colonisation itself. This justification revolved round a central precept: the coloniser was superior to the colonised, and due to this fact was not solely justified to rule the colonised, but additionally morally obliged to do so. Based on this precept, the coloniser and the colonised had been positioned at reverse ends of the civilisation spectrum:

coloniser < – – – – > colonised
civilisation < – – – – > savagery
faith < – – – – > superstition
democracy < – – – – > absolute rule
nations < – – – – > tribes
literature < – – – – > oral custom
languages < – – – – > dialects

The political decolonisation of the twentieth century – when colonies gained independence – didn’t routinely dispel this technique of data on which colonisation was primarily based, each in the Global North and in the Global South. The legacy of that mentality persists and pervades the means we see and perceive the world. So Twenty first-century decolonisation is anxious with the purpose of achieving what the Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o in 1986 referred to as ‘decolonising the mind’: first, changing into conscious of and rejecting the coloniser’s system of data that also lingers right now; then, changing it with extra balanced, various, complicated and regionally related understandings of human societies and the relationships between them; and, lastly, altering practices because of this. It’s an extended and tortuous course of, far more so than changing one flag with one other, or swapping one nationwide anthem for one more.

It’s a necessity if we’re critical about rebalancing a worldview lengthy skewed by colonisation

What the English language, the British Museum and Cecil Rhodes have in frequent is their problematic colonial legacy and the debates that go on about them being like ‘gifts’ or ‘monsters’. The Benin Bronzes on show at the British Museum – greater than 900 ornamental sculptures from the Kingdom of Benin in right now’s southern Nigeria – might provide a chance for folks to admire historic artworks however they’re additionally tangible proof of the systematic depredation that went on throughout colonial occasions. The Rhodes statue at the University of Oxford might rejoice this British politician’s generosity to the establishment, however it is usually a extremely controversial visible picture of a statesman who acted in accordance with his agency perception that the ‘whites’ had been the ‘supreme race’ throughout British rule in South Africa.

Artworks and statues of historic figures have been the topics of heated debate due to the problematic colonial legacy they symbolize. Museums are underneath rising stress to contemplate the return of artefacts to their locations of origin, particularly when the ‘acquisition’ of such artefacts demonstrably befell via looting throughout colonial occasions. In this sense, the restitution of the looted Benin Bronzes to Nigeria wouldn’t solely proper a flawed, but additionally tackle symbolic significance in the means of countering the very colonial system of perception that allowed the stealing of the bronzes in the first place. In different phrases, it could be an act of decolonisation. Similarly, the elimination of the Rhodes statue from the University of Oxford is seen by many as a necessity if we’re critical about rebalancing a worldview that has lengthy been skewed by colonisation and its protracted ideological legacy.

Of course, there may be additionally appreciable resistance to this concept. Those who’re sceptical about decolonisation are inclined to interpret the prefix de- as a type of censorship. For them, de-colonising something would erase any and all connections to the colonial expertise. For instance, in response to the toppling of the statue of the slave dealer Edward Colston in Bristol in June 2020, Boris Johnson, then the UK’s prime minister, Tweeted that: ‘We cannot now try to edit or censor our past.’ In the same vein, responding to the suggestion that the Victoria and Albert Museum must be decolonised, Tristram Hunt – its director – remarked in February 2020 that ‘the origins of the Victoria and Albert Museum are embedded in the British imperial and colonial stories’ and that, for that reason, ‘to decolonise the V&A in many ways doesn’t make sense as a result of you can’t.’

Understood as a type of erasure, decolonisation simply turns into an inconceivable and even undesirable job. But the drawback with this interpretation is that it utterly turns the that means of decolonisation on its head. As I defined above, decolonisation entails initially a profound and demanding engagement with the colonial previous, not its erasure.

What about the English language, although? What would the decolonisation of English appear like? In this regard, there have been two important positions. One considers English a form of ‘unwanted gift’ that, given its standing as a worldwide language, might be pragmatically-but-reluctantly accepted as long as it may be tailored, re-forged, and bent into totally different shapes. This finally de-anglicised English could be became an African and Asian language. In different phrases, English stops being the unique property of the British and the Americans, and turns into appropriated elsewhere in the world.

English unfold round the world with the empire, and continues to be an inherently imperialistic language

Several African and Asian writers have been staunch proponents of this concept, from Achebe in the Sixties, to Salman Rushdie in the Eighties, all the strategy to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie extra lately. However, this place has additionally been criticised for being excessively optimistic and related solely to a restricted and slightly privileged elite, akin to that of internationally famend English-speaking novelists. From this standpoint, the critics say, de-anglicising and claiming possession of English is the prerogative of some and stays effectively out of attain of the many, who proceed to undergo from the erosion of their languages, cultures and identities.

The second place takes a extra radical method. From this attitude, English not solely unfold round the world with the empire, but it surely continues to be an inherently and unavoidably imperialistic language. From this attitude, appropriating the language is a mere phantasm that acts as a distraction from the actual issues: English continues to have an effect on the lives of a whole lot of thousands and thousands of individuals, invading their societies as native languages are pushed out of schooling, the media and tradition generally. So the decolonisation of English would entail a better and more healthy equilibrium between English and native languages, the place the latter thrive and regain the standing and roles that they misplaced because of the English juggernaut.

Of course, some don’t see any significant connection between the English language and decolonisation. Gordon Brown, in the similar speech talked about above, described English as: ‘the pathway of global communication and global access to knowledge’; ‘the vehicle for hundreds of millions of people of all countries to connect with each other’; ‘a bridge across borders and cultures’; and ‘a source of unity in a rapidly changing world’. For Brown, English is hardly a candidate for decolonisation. Tellingly, he described the unfold of English as the results of an ‘accident of history’. Similarly, in one of the British Council’s many publications, The English Effect (2013), the language is described as one thing that ‘drives growth and international development’ and ‘changes lives’. The conclusion is: if English is a ‘gift’, it must be celebrated, not questioned.

To decolonise or to not decolonise? To perceive the nuances of that query, it’s value reflecting on why each side of the debate share one thing elementary in the means they speak about and picture English: they describe the language via metaphor. A ‘gift’, a ‘monster’, a ‘bully’, a ‘vehicle’, and so forth are all issues that aren’t actually language. And, certainly, that is what metaphor does at its most simple degree: it talks about X as if it was Y.

Sometimes, as in the examples simply cited, this mechanism could be very overt. But most of the metaphorical expressions we use to explain the language go unnoticed. This is as a result of they don’t embody an apparent ‘X is Y’ type – as in ‘English is a pathway to success’ – and likewise as a result of they’re so conventionalised that we don’t have a tendency to consider them as involving metaphor or creativity in any respect. For instance, once we speak about languages, we frequently use phrases akin to ‘birth’, ‘life’, ‘growth’, ‘development’ and ‘death’ – as if a language had been a dwelling organism. An expression akin to ‘language develops all the time’ doesn’t instantly seem metaphorical, as language is just not explicitly described as one thing else. Talking about language as if it had been a dwelling organism is so conventionalised that, in the means we sometimes conceptualise it, language is a dwelling organism.

We must rigorously think about grammar and that means to parse the metaphorical essence

We use metaphors all the time, particularly when describing complicated phenomena through ideas which can be less complicated, extra acquainted and extra readily understood. And language – as a fancy social observe that’s intricately embedded in tradition and society – is a main candidate for being talked about through metaphor. But metaphor is just not solely a rhetorical system used to make complicated phenomena simpler to know. By treating one thing as if it was one thing else, metaphor generally is a very highly effective software to encode and specific ideology. Depending on the ‘something else’ we select, we are able to use metaphor to specific distinct ideological positions. Describing English as a ‘gift’ portrays the language as extremely useful: a way of enhancing world communication and enhancing folks’s prospects in life. Describing it as a ‘monster’ depicts the language as a risk to cultural and linguistic variety: a weapon serving Anglo-American neo-imperialist pursuits.

However, issues turn into extra attention-grabbing with metaphors which can be extremely conventionalised and due to this fact much less seen. When the British Council states that English ‘drives growth and international development’ and ‘changes lives’, we’ve got to rigorously think about grammar and that means to parse the metaphorical essence. To say that English drives development and adjustments lives is to deal with English as an entity that’s in some way able to performing actions. This entails a grammatical and a semantic shift, from English as an object that’s realized, spoken and utilized by folks, to English as one thing that may act upon different issues or folks – a doer. So, even when not explicitly acknowledged, the ‘X is Y’ metaphor that we are able to retrieve from expressions akin to ‘English changes lives’ is ‘English is a doer.’ And, as soon as English has company, it may well additionally act by itself, independently of individuals. This can turn into powerfully ideological.

In English as a Global Language (2nd ed, 2003) – considered one of the hottest accounts of English as a worldwide language by considered one of its best-known students – the British linguist David Crystal provides an ideal instance that illustrates the ideological energy of metaphor. In his guide, we be taught that ‘a common theme which can help us explain the remarkable growth of this language’ is the incontrovertible fact that it ‘has repeatedly found itself in the right place at the right time’. On the floor, an announcement like that will look like mundane, but it surely’s loaded with ideology. Apart from the ‘living organism’ metaphor contained in the phrase ‘growth’, this assertion treats English as if it had been a traveller that fortuitously occurred to be specifically locations at specific occasions in its journey round the world. The traveller metaphor additionally portrays English as possessing human-like qualities and its personal volition, suggesting that language expanded throughout the world because of actions that English took at varied factors of its ‘life’. Through the logic of this metaphor, what unfold English was English itself, not colonisation. If English is a traveller, empire is erased. Its unfold? Just ‘an accident of history’, in the phrases of Brown.

Once empire is edited out of the equation, the world growth of English is sanitised, and emphasis might be positioned on how exceptional such growth has been, how useful the presence of English is globally, and so forth. In different phrases, English might be talked about as a real ‘gift’ to the world, with out having to take care of the uncomfortable ‘package deal’ that the ‘gift’ got here with. Crystal’s account of English as a worldwide language – that ‘repeatedly found itself in the right place at the right time’ – has been described by critics akin to Robert Phillipson as being ‘Eurocentric’ and ‘triumphalist’ and in want of being decolonised.

English is just not an animate being with the capability to ‘open doors’, ‘change lives’ or ‘kill’ different languages

On the different facet of the debate, English can be described although metaphor. An illustration of this can be a assortment of essays titled English Language as Hydra (2012), which goals to debate ‘the immense power that is being wielded around the world by the English language’. In this quantity, English is just not a ‘gift’. Instead, it’s known as a thief, a bully, a monster, and so forth. In the introduction, by the editors Vaughan Rapatahana and Pauline Bunce, we learn that:

Wherever [English] goes, it takes with it, through its inherent discourses and constructions – in a seemingly useful style – a complete panoply of inherent controls, expectations, attitudes and beliefs which can be typically counter to these of the learners themselves.

And, additionally, that:

right now’s English language Hydra has managed to extend its geographical vary to span the planet. English has tailored to a variety of environments by growing totally different heads elsewhere and typically totally different heads in the similar place. It has additionally developed its personal symbiotic relationships with societies, companies, governments and schooling techniques.

While I’m sympathetic to the sentiments underpinning these statements, I feel that this manner of representing English doesn’t do full justice to the goal of decolonising our discourse about it. English continues to be described as an entity able to making its personal choices and transferring independently of individuals. The quotes above painting English as a traveller and a form of supernatural being that’s phenomenally and insidiously able to remodeling because it expands throughout the world. Just like Crystal’s traveller, who occurred to be in the proper place at the proper time, these representations deflect consideration away from the elementary subject: a world order that was formed and continues to be closely decided by 400 years of European imperialism.

The determine of the present is highly effective. But trying to counter it with metaphors of monsters attracts important voices right into a rhetorical battle during which the guidelines of engagement have been set by their opponents. At most, what this may obtain is the standard conclusion that actuality is complicated. Within this body, English is neither all ‘bad’ nor all ‘good’. In the meantime, the supreme situation – the place English retreats to a much less dominant function, and different languages get better misplaced floor – stays simply that: a theoretical aspiration with out a credible and implementable plan of motion.

The decolonisation of English must be approached extra radically by altering the means we perceive it and speak about it. Language is just not an object or a factor, like an artefact in a museum or a statue in a metropolis. And it’s actually not an animate being geared up with the capability to ‘open doors’, ‘change lives’ or ‘kill’ different languages. Instead, it’s integral to and enmeshed with social observe. We all use language as we go about our day by day lives – typically a couple of. No language, together with English, is inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’, neither is it ‘rich’, ‘powerful’ or ‘arrogant’. No language, together with English, ‘does’ something. It doesn’t develop, it doesn’t adapt, it doesn’t evolve, it doesn’t dominate. These are all shortcuts that obscure relationships between folks and language.

It is folks, not languages, which can be highly effective, underneath risk, grasping, beneficiant and extra. It is folks, not languages, who develop their affect, adapt to conditions, change their practices (together with the methods they use language), dominate others, are subjugated by different folks, and so on.

The ‘dominance’ of English in the world and the concomitant lack of different languages, identities and cultures are direct penalties of the very important inequality that exists in the world, which is a direct consequence of colonisation and its long-lasting results. The English ‘monster’ is a symptom of a critical illness, not the trigger of it.

The decolonisation of English doesn’t contain eradicating or returning an object. It entails reassessing what English is and, extra crucially, what it is just not.


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