July 26, 2009

Robert Phillipson

NNEST of the Month
August 2009

rp [dot] isv [at] cbs [dot] dk

Dr. Phillipson: Thank you for contributing questions, all of which are important. They are also, unfortunately, ‘big’ questions that need rather detailed answers – which time does not permit. Anyone working in our professional field is likely to suffer from information overload. I definitely do: I’m rather stretched both professionally and in my home life, since my wife, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, and I live in the country, grow most of our own vegetables and fruit, and have sheep. We enjoy working with nature, and feel this complements our intellectual activities. Both involve interaction with ‘the real world’, in our view.

1. Could you tell us your background and why you decided to become an educator? (from Ana Wu, City College of San Francisco, ESL Instructor)
Dr. Phillipson: My home background and schooling were entirely monolingual British English, but with many factors triggering a love of languages: my mother was in drama, my parents were internationally oriented, and music figured prominently. My first visit to the USA was as an 11-year-old member of the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral Choir in London in 1953; we gave concerts in 40 cities. At school I specialised in French and German, which led to studying these languages at Cambridge University. I spent half a year between school and university in continental Europe, experiencing Austrian, French and German cultures and becoming proficient in the languages. With a BA, I joined the British Council, the UK’s official service for cultural diplomacy, in 1964. It stands for bridge-building between Britain and countries worldwide, in theory in the interests of both. Within the organization’s career service, English teaching seemed to me to be the most stimulating activity, and I therefore found myself in posts in Algeria, Spain, Yugoslavia, and London that built up ELT professionalism. But by 1973 I had had enough of being in Her Majesty’s service, emigrated to Denmark, and was lucky enough to find work straight away at an experimental university, Roskilde. Studies there are multi-disciplinary in the first two years, problem- and project-oriented, with students working in groups at building up academic competence in speech and writing, in dialogue with their professors. This forces teaching staff to constantly renew their professional identity, which is demanding but very productive. At several Danish higher education institutions over the years, I have found traditional teacher-centred course teaching much less worthwhile.

So to answer your question more directly, I have enjoyed being an educator, i.e. teaching, and the institutional teamwork and administration that this entails. I have also been fortunate enough to be in university employment in which there has been a right and duty to research for at least one-third of my time, in institutions that attempt to ensure that teaching is informed by ongoing research.

There is some personal information on my background in my contribution ‘Dialogue and Discourse’ to Christian and Critical English Language Educators in Dialogue: Pedagogical and Ethical Dilemmas, ed. Mary S. Wong and A. Suresh Canagarajah, 2009. London & New York: Routledge, pp. 66-71.

2. From poststructural and postcolonial perspectives, linguistic imperialism could be critiqued by its deterministic and binary divisions; those who colonize and those who are colonized.
However, in this globalized era–where it is more difficult to differentiate this binary yet expanding hegemonic power of English–what would linguistic imperialism provide to our understanding of the dominance of English? Does linguistic imperialism have any insights and meaning in this era? What would you say about Pennycook’s (2003) article, “Global Englishes, Rip Slyme, and performativity”? And how does linguistic imperialism differ from world Englishes? (From Bong-gi Sohn, University of British Columbia, first year doctoral student).
Dr. Phillipson: I have written a good deal about the issues you raise since the publication of Linguistic imperialism in 1992. Several of my articles are being re-published in a new book Linguistic imperialism continued (Routledge, July 2009, also published in New Delhi by Orient Blackswan for seven Asian countries). The book also includes a number of book reviews of the work of others in the field of ‘global’ English, and goes into considerable detail on many of the issues you ask about. In the introductory article I react to some of Pennycook’s points of criticism of my understanding of linguistic imperialism, such as being too deterministic and overly structural. I don’t think that Pennycook’s work on hip-hop cultures really takes educational policy for multilingualism, or even ‘English-medium’ education, forward significantly, except in relation to connecting to young people’s awareness of language.

I move on to attempting to theorise ‘the linguistic imperialism of neoliberal empire’, since, as you rightly state, the world has changed a good deal, and the roles of English with it, over the past 20 years. The linguistic imperialisms of dominant languages have not gone away, but are integral to the maintenance and reconstitution of power, economic, political, cultural and military in the preset-day world. The binary issue needs unpacking (the oppressed generally know the difference between Them and Us), and this can be facilitated when colonizers become aware of their role: their/our minds need decolonizing as much as do those of the colonized - and I am not essentialising by writing this, we all have agency and responsibility, and an opportunity to exert influence.

Within this overall framework, which, yes, is a global structure, TESOL activity can be ambivalent, an issue that is explored in Julian Edge’s (Re-)Locating TESOL in an age of empire (2006), which I have a review of in the next number of the TESOL Quarterly. The initial work on linguistic imperialism, and linguicism, required analysis of structure, ideologies and beliefs, and the policies, discourses and professional norms that these are embedded and transmitted in.

Most work on World Englishes in the Kachruvian sense is purely descriptive, and an over-simplification of the complexity of the sociolinguistics of English in multilingual societies. Whereas I see my own work as attempting to document inequality and exploitation, and to move things forward in a more just direction. Not getting stuck in intellectual games. I have reviewed a recent book, Cultures, Contexts, and World Englishes by Yamuna Kachru and Larry E. Smith in World Englishes, 38/1, 2009, 136-138.

3. Currently, I am conducting a research project in which I am exploring the crosslinguistic applicability of the native speaker fallacy by investigating foreign language students’ perceptions of their native and non-native teachers. The next step in the project will be comparing ESL students’ perceptions with that of foreign language students. I would like to learn more about your expert opinion on the crosslinguistic applicability of the native speaker fallacy.
I would like to make use of this opportunity to thank you for your immense contributions to our field, as well as to our efforts of understanding what is behind the mirror (from Ali Fuad Selvi, University of Maryland, College Park, PhD student – Graduate Teaching/Research Assistant).
Dr. Phillipson: This sounds like an immensely worthwhile and much needed project. Historically, it is a fact that the TESOL business evolved quite separately from well-established traditions of foreign language learning. They remain distinct professional worlds, with literature still dominating in most departments of ‘English’ in, say, the UK and India, and the same being true of departments of ‘French’ or ‘Spanish’ in the USA or Denmark. The financial constraints that increasingly drive higher education in the UK mean that English for Academic Purposes, pre-sessional language training, is being privatised, since there is cash in the foreign students industry, and universities can then maintain their language departments, and an ‘apolitical’ focus on literature, unchanged.
By contrast, native speaker mythology has never taken root in most countries of continental Europe, which have a relatively successful tradition of learning foreign languages, including English, taught by locals with proficiency in the target language. University posts are open to all in most countries, irrespective of mother tongue. This means that in foreign language departments, any native speakers who are employed are so because of their qualifications and not because of their mother tongue being privileged.

The need to analyse why there is so much faith in native speakers of English in Asia (but not in the Indian sub-continent) and the Middle East really needs empirical exploration. Personally I think it is a scandal that monolinguals are let loose on hapless Chinese, Malay, Saudi, or Emirate learners. The attitudes of decision-makers as well as learners therefore need clarification.

In the European Union, several studies have explored the gap between the policy-makers’ rhetoric which advocates early foreign language learning, and the professional skills that need to be in place for anything of the kind to succeed.

So any studies that can shed light on ‘the crosslinguistic applicability of the native speaker fallacy’ and cross-cultural and cross-national dimensions would be very welcome.You are probably familiar with the considerable literature on the qualifications of 'non-native' teachers of English (a discriminatory label, since it defines people negatively, in terms of what they are not). I also heard of a PhD study at Teachers College, Columbia University, which Ofelia Garcia supervised, and which drew on the fine tenets/fallacies. Ofelia wrote to me some months ago, Maryam Brjian, mb2452@columbia.edu. She has just finished a dissertation on English teaching in Iran which she will defend April 1st. For the moment, she is in the United States again, but I don't know whether she still is. Ofelia is now a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

4. Prior to the publication of your seminal book Linguistic Imperialism in 1992 conventional wisdom among linguists was that language spread was a naturally occurring phenomenon. Perhaps the greatest significance of your book was to show that the current position of English in the world was clearly not the inadvertent and natural result of language spread as it has been traditionally defined. Also, as Alastair Pennycook pointed out in his book English and the Discourses of Colonialism, you have been one of the few writers on ELT who have written about in detail why colonialism should be seen as the context in which present day language policies are framed. Pennycook compares your treatment of these aspects of language teaching and ELT history with those of Kelly (1969) and Howatt (1984), for example. How did you originally come to realize that the global spread of English is so closely linked to colonialism and also to the Americanization or homogenization of world cultures? Also, how important and relevant are the conclusions of your seminal book Linguistic Imperialism and the five tenets you identified (especially tenet #2 “the ideal teacher of English is a native speaker” and the “native speaker fallacy”) to ELT and especially non-native teacher issues in 2009? (Questions 4, 5 and 6 from Terry Doyle, City College of San Francisco, ESL Instructor).

Dr. Phillipson: The short answer to the first question is that my experience of being paid for nine (youthful!) years by the British government to promote English worldwide, and of working in countries with different political agendas (Third World liberation Algeria and communist Yugoslavia, now both tragically fractured) made me sensitive to issues of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and global and local inequalities.

One seminal experience was that my wife, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas (see www.tove-skutnabb-kangas.org), was asked by a Norwegain ‘aid’ NGO in the early 1980s to get involved in support for the liberation movement of Namibia, SWAPO, then still occupied by apartheid South Africa. It later transpired that well-intentioned NGOs in Scandinavia were attempting to support Namibian refugee children living in camps in Angola and Zambia by sending them literacy materials. And guess what? Large amounts of money were being spent on British mother-tongue basic readers presenting a world in which ‘Peter is helping Daddy wash the car, while Susan is doing the washing-up with Mummy’, and pictures of middle-class Brits to match. We were appalled, and started to look deeply into what had happened in post-colonial education in ‘independent’ countries in Asia and Africa. Tove was already then a well-established scholar in bilingualism studies, with a worldwide network, and publications for UNESCO dating back to the 1970s. We were twice at ‘aid’ conferences for SWAPO in Zambia, planning education for an independent country, and have never looked back. We have been deeply influenced by many African and Indian scholars and creative writers (see, for instance, our “Reviewing a book and how it relates to ‘global’ English, Wizard of the crow by Ngŭgĭ wa Thiong’o”. The European English Messenger, 16/1, 2007, 50-54. It can be downloaded from my website, along with several recent articles, www.cbs.dk/staff/phillipson).

I am afraid that the native speaker fallacy is alive and kicking in many parts of the world. English as a ‘lingua franca’ belongs in the same category of generally unchallenged myths that serve to propel English forward uncritically, and which I have written about at length.

5. In your book English Only Europe? Challenging Language Policy, you contrast the “diffusion of English paradigm” with the “ecology of languages paradigm”. Among other things, the “ecology of languages paradigm” promotes multilingualism and linguistic diversity, additive foreign/second language leaning, and equality in communication. In this book you also advocate English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) as a way to legitimate a shift away from native speaker norms towards equipping people to function effectually as non-native speakers. Can you explain further how the “ecology of languages paradigm” can bring about truly equitable communication? Also, what are the negative consequences of continuing to treat native speakers as the learning target? How can the ELF model make a positive contribution to non-native teacher issues, to help decrease discrimination against non-native job applicants and to put to rest the idea that non-native teachers have to define their identity in terms of “native teachers”?
Dr. Phillipson: Much of what I have written earlier (in this NNEST contribution and generally) can be seen as pointing in the direction of a world of more equitable communication. I think that analysis and discussion of the native speaker issue, and of the legitimation of Englishes in all their diversity, are often derailed by a failure to distinguish clearly between norms in speech and in writing. The amount of variation in written English worldwide is minimal, except in texts that are of purely local significance. Whereas in speech the position is much more varied. This applies equally to so-called ‘native speakers’ as much as to non-natives.

Research into ELF is still in its infancy, even if the Vienna project has now made a large corpus accessible on the internet. But there is no direct connection between insights from the kind of research that Seidlhofer and Jenkins stand for and what happens in classrooms. On the other hand, if classrooms can sensitise learners to a wide variety of relevant types of spoken English, develop the receptive competence of learners, while maintaining clear and different goals for the types of spoken proficiency that are needed for different contexts, and different levels of the education system (local --- regional --- national --- international), I see this as ensuring that English is learned appropriately, additively, and with no reason for any teachers to define themselves as either native or non-native, but rather as proficient users of English.

6. In the March, 2009 interview, Dr.Marinus Stephan mentions that your book Linguistic Imperialism is one of the best books he has read in the politics of ELT. He also says that much criticism has been leveled at your book. No doubt, Dr. Stephan is alluding to criticism of your arguments which come from what I feel are un-informed people who refuse to see the connections between colonialism, Americanization, and now globalization. How would you reply to people who say that the “native speaker fallacy” is no longer relevant when it comes to policy decisions and hiring practices?
Dr. Phillipson: I agree that much of the criticism of Linguistic imperialism tends to be rooted in political differences. I am also tired of the book being misrepresented, even by eminent scholars like John Joseph, and Bernard Spolsky, to whom I have responded in ‘Linguistic imperialism: a conspiracy, or a conspiracy of silence?’ Language policy, 6/3-4, 2007, 377-383.

7. How do you think we should call ourselves? What do you think English speakers should be called in the future? Would terms such as intercultural speakers, multi-linguals, or translinguistic teachers be more accurate and representative than "non-native speakers"? (Questions 7 and 8 are from Ana Wu, City College of San Francisco, ESL Instructor).
Dr. Phillipson: I strongly agree with the need to get away from the non-native label. It may be no comfort for you to learn that teachers of English in Scandinavia are never referred to in this way! Also, ESL means very different things in different parts of the world. Obviously TESOLers should be minimally bilingual. There was a symposium on this topic organised by Shelley Taylor at TESOL 2008 in New York (with, among others, Tove, Jim Cummins, Ofelia García, and Joan Wink), one purpose being to attempt to persuade the High and Mighty in TESOL to make a clear break with monolingualism. The short papers from this symposium are appearing in a number of the TESOL Quarterly which I have already read proofs for.

I don’t think my (European) views on what labels might go down well in your local contexts are relevant. Good luck in producing something snappy and valid.

8. You have written and discussed very controversial issues. How do you deal with criticism? How do you react to people who disagree with your ideas?
Dr. Phillipson: This is a tricky issue. Tove told me, as soon as Linguistic imperialism was published, that I would need to develop a thick skin. I felt the need to spend quite a bit of time responding to critiques of my work that I thought were invalid, in several journals. I list the references in my new book, which does not regurgitate these ‘dialogues’, though the book does contain my reviews of books by people like David Crystal, Abram de Swaan, and Janina Brutt-Griffler, scholars who basically claim that linguistic imperialism never existed (!), and that I got it all wrong – which happily a lot of people worldwide don’t agree with (the book was published in China in 2000 and in India in 2008, better late than never). One is tempted to simply ignore attacks that either misrepresent what one has written or contradict one’s conclusions on false premises. This has also happened with what Tove and I have written about linguistic human rights. On the other hand, if one does not challenge conflicting views, they have a habit of getting recycled by others as though they are uncontested. Ideally scholarly dialogue should take things forward, and lead to better empirical descriptions and to an improvement of our concepts and theoretical approaches - for which all of us, including myself, need to be open-minded.

Ana Wu: Thank you very much for your time and insightful interview!


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