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Commodifying English and constructing a new myth

Our speech, as spoken in common life, is wonderfully terse and pithy; your average Englishman will never waste his breath more than he can help. His tongue is well fitted to be the language of the world in future years.

—T. L. Kington-Oliphant, The Old and Middle English, 1878


Two chapters in this book have dealt with modern myths (or potential modern myths) about English, both of them originating in sociolinguistic research on English. The first of these, the creolisation of English myth, dealt with in chapter 4, appears to have been spread beyond the academic confines of linguistics. The other, a potential myth about the beginnings of the complaint tradition, has not yet spread discursively beyond the framework of historical arguments concerning the ideology of the standard language (cf. work by James and Lesley Milroy). However, at least two other books, Deborah Cameron’s Verbal Hygiene (1995) and Rosina Lippi-Green’s English with an Accent (1997), have argued from a similar perspective that lay attitudes towards language inevitably reveal value judgments about speakers and groups of speakers and about the varieties of language used by them.

The present chapter deals with a third “modern myth”, the myth of English as the global language, which can be shown to derive from the superiority of English myth and the legitimate language myth. It originated in the middle of the nineteenth century and is well established as the driving

force behind a present-day modern hegemonic discourse both within and beyond English-speaking nation-states that promotes the acquisition of English on a global scale. It is not the aim of the present chapter to evaluate the pros and cons of the discourse, but warning voices have been raised consistently that it promotes a covert modern form of imperialism (Phillipson 1992; Canagarajah 1999; Pennycook 1994), that it represents a danger to the continued existence of minority languages as well as to bi- and multilingualism as a rich form of linguistic coexistence (Skutnabb-Kangas [1984] 2007, 2003; Muhlhausler 1996) and that it encourages a return to forms of neocolonial discourse (Pennycook 1998; Alim, Awad & Pennycook 2009). As one would expect, these critical analyses of the presence of English in the world have not gone unchallenged (cf., e.g., Berns et al. 1998] Davies 1996] Alatis & Straehle [1997] 2006; Crystal 2000).

Although my purpose in this chapter is not to take sides in this dispute, it is still interesting to note that those who have taken sides refer to the term myth in its negative sense of an “untruth”, a “fiction”, a “fabrication”, as a story below what we take to be faithful to fact in a hierarchy of believability (see chapter 1). Davies (1996), for example, implies in the title of his review article of Phillipson’s book on linguistic imperialism that it purveys the “myth of linguicism”, and he accuses Phillipson of “trivialising history in favour of myth”. Phillipson counters that Davies’ review article itself spreads “myths” about his book. Neither Phillipson nor Davies defines the term “myth”, and the implication made by both is that creating and spreading myths is simply unscientific. My position, however, is that every discourse on language is ultimately based on myths representing beliefs about language, and I argue that the discourse has become hegemonic enough to represent “the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events” (Foucault 1972: 129), and that as such it constitutes a potential new discourse archive. Linguists, applied linguists and sociolinguists, like everyone else, are very much the prisoners of this archive, which leads them to resent or oppose any challenge from an alternative discourse.

Despite my attempt to retain “neutrality” in the debate, I still wish to argue that one particular current hegemonic discourse determining “the law of what can be said” about English in Foucault’s sense is based on a mythical construction, which needs to be unearthed and reexamined—without the myth being branded as an untruth. I shall attempt to walk this argumentative tightrope in the present chapter. The attempt begins by stating that when the English language becomes a commodity, to be given a price and to be traded like every other commodity in a Bourdieuan material as well as symbolic marketplace, the superior language myth and the legitimate language myth are open to transformation into the global language myth] I am certainly not suggesting that those who have not acquired English as an additional language have no right to do so. Any such claim would represent a violation of the human right to learn and use whatever languages the individual wishes to learn and use. Languages do not have a price—or rather they should not have a price—and may thus be freely acquired by anyone who has the will, the time and the energy to learn them. But the global language myth has long since extended beyond the confines of academia, and it informs language policies in a wide range of nation-states, to the extent that such policies seriously need to be questioned.

In the following section of this chapter I outline how the global language myth began to emerge in the middle of the nineteenth century, and I trace its progress into twentieth-century discourses on English. I then give a brief account of the historical development of English in colonial and imperial settings, and explain what I mean by the term “the commodification of English”. To illustrate some of the latent dangers of running the global archive on the status of English, I focus in some detail on a more local example of the development of a linguistic ideology concerning English in a setting with which I am intimately familiar, the changing situation of English in Switzerland. Finally, I shall criticise attempts to construct varieties of English as homogeneous systems, English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) and English as an International Language (EIL). I argue that, in attempting to construct such varieties as systems to teach, the danger reemerges of returning to the myths of homogeneity and legitimacy that characterise the ideology of “standardisation”. This goes against the grain of variability, hybridity and heterogeneity, which is one of the major themes of this book.

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