Dreams and Realities: Developing Countries and the English Language

This publication presents a selection of papers about people’s experiences of English language policy and English development projects from around the world.

Governments increasingly recognise the importance of English to their economies and societies, and individuals see English as a tool that can help them to fulfil their personal aspirations. However, there are complex issues and challenges associated with this scenario. This volume draws together a range of voices from around the world, addressing issues such as:

  • the perceptions of individuals and communities of the role and benefits of English
  • language policy and the introduction of effective change in education systems
  • the use of the mother tongue or English, as a medium of education
  • the role of 'local Englishes' and their use alongside global standard English
  • equity: the widening of access to English
  • the contribution of English to national and international development
  • the role and challenges of English in 'fragile' situations.

Edited by Hywel Coleman

You can watch a five-minute video outlining some of the findings and download the individual papers papers or the complete book below.

If this video is not available for viewing in your location, please click here



Submitted by Jim Harries on Mon, 12/11/2017 - 13:16


I have found reading this compendium of chapters a fascinating exercise. Sometimes I have been more amazed by what has not been said than what has been said. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to find people grappling with these linguistic issues. This review follows the authors of chapters in order. The first paragraph in every case summarises some of the author’s points. The second paragraph includes reflective comments by the author of this review. (The final two chapters of the book are not included in this review.) • Coleman, the editor to this volume tells us that ‘language and development’ is a new theme, that has only been around since the early 1990s. Contemporary scholars are critiquing what was apparently previously a blanket notion that ‘English is good for everyone’. Two things immediately stand out. One is the link between English and racism: racism is said to be a ‘bad’ thing. English is being promoted by secular bodies, whereas languages of non-White races much less so. Why is this not considered racist? That raises the issue of another elephant in the room – secularism. All the articles in this compendium presuppose that a ‘secular’ worldview is somehow set in stone and universal. • Kennedy points out that language issues have been under-attended to. He makes no mention, and neither do other authors specifically, of ways in which learning of English can help ‘indigenous’ people around the world to bypass taboos that are otherwise holding their people hand and foot. • Williams tells us that while it is widely accepted that education assists economic development, it is clearly not a sufficient condition for development. In Africa, the survival rate of educated mothers is barely higher than that of those who have much less education, he finds. Williams has no convincing explanation of this phenomenon. Education is largely ineffective in Africa, Williams concludes. The lack of evidence that English brings development, means it should be taught as a subject, and not be the medium of instruction, he suggests. One would think the fact that English in African schools is often rote-learned, plus the fact that English-language discourse tends to bypass rather than address issues that African people are battling with, would at least partly explain the irrelevance of so-called ‘education’ to much of African life. • Meganathan tell us that Indians believe that English has transformative power. He is largely silent on why this might be. The three-language policy is practiced in India, whereby students should learn an international language, a regional language, plus their mother-tongue. Is the transformative power of English inherent in the language, it seems one ought to ask oneself? Surely it is in the way the language is used by its native speakers that makes it powerful. This hardly seems to be discussed. Knowledge of English enables non-Westerners to link in to the ‘good things’ coming from the English-speaking West. Megathan does not mention how the predominance of English, interpretation of which in detail will always be difficult for Indian people, might be binding Indian people to a constant state of lack of self-understanding. He does not mention ways in which the Christian faith, on which Western English is built, brings release from many ‘oppressive beliefs’. • Coleman tells us that, contrary to earlier resistance to English, Indonesia has recently set up a programme to encourage some of its schools, at great government expense, to imitate ‘international schools’, including in the use of English. Coleman seems in some ways to remain perplexed regarding the reason for this. It seems clear, that Indonesian leaders have realised just how powerful native or close-to-native understanding of English can be. Certain scholars’ insistence that the value of English is unrelated to its native-speakers’ usages have contributed to an impasse in this area. Indeed, English can be a useful code for basic communication for those who have no other language in common. Yet, it is the way it is used by native speakers that has enabled it to build the most powerful and functional human societies that have ever existed. • Tembe disagrees with the widely declared belief that African languages cannot do science. His interviews in Uganda are all conducted in English – making one wonder, how he could possibly have heard Ugandan issues as comprehended by Ugandans, who express themselves accurately in indigenous languages that have very different categories to English? While a country like Uganda may have policies to teach both English and Swahili, Tembe correctly realises that the foreign backing it gets enables English to thrive, while Swahili often does not. Whether African languages can communicate science, is a matter of worldview and the definition of science. If science means ‘when you heat water it boils’, then they can. If, however, perception of science is rooted in a dualist worldview, that is really quite unique to the West, then African languages that do not distinguish the spiritual and from the physical cannot ‘do’ science. • Focho addresses issues somewhat tangentially related to the rest of the articles in this book. • Negash speaks about English on behalf of Africans. He sees gains that arise from English, so he wants more of it. He points out that 90% of resources coming from the outside to Africa come in English. While Negash is keen for English to be the external window of an African country, he does not explain how this dummifies outsiders, especially those who are native-English speakers, who only ever hear Africa described in their own terms. The prominence of English can, in contemporary times, make it very difficult for outsiders who speak English to ‘penetrate’ so as to acquire any in-depth understanding of Africa, as they are hit by a wall of English. This makes it very difficult for Westerners to engage seriously with Africa, because categories Westerners might think attach to words, have already been subtly, or even radically redefined by Africans to suit their own life circumstances. Unfortunately, as is often the case for non-native users of English; native-English listeners here receive what is translated into the unknown. • Lamb makes a refreshing reference to the bible. The effect of English at aggravating inequality in education can perpetuate poverty, he recognises. He perceives a widespread default assumption that English is simply good. He recognises that an impediment to childrens’ uptake of English is that those who speak it can, by their colleagues, be considered to be proud. One wishes that Lamb had gone into more depth in his use of the bible. Lamb does not ask why there is such a widespread understanding that English is ‘good’? Surely the massive prosperity of traditionally Protestant nations, which includes all native-English speakers, are a factor, that is more and more evident given today’s widespread internet? Not only material prosperity, but also achievements at peaceful community and co-existence in the native-English speaking West, are phenomenal. • Capstick looks at the effect of the recently imposed UK requirement for immigrants to have a good knowledge of English before they come, and its impact especially on Pakistan. • Hailemariam tells us that the UNDP advocates for the three-language policy these days widely adopted by non-Western nations. Eritreans, he notes, desire English, even though it is not imposed on to them. Hailemariam does not comment on whether the UNDP should be held responsible for the severe social and economic limitations arising from many country’s use of the three-language formula (who as a result never develop their own languages’ capacity beyond being an understudy to a European language)? He talks of Eritreans desire for English in neutral terms, and not as an outcome of major failures at state and local level in Eritrea, or in terms of the dependency it creates – Eritreans are going to be less inclined to try to solve their own problems if they instead see a way out and concentrate their efforts on the language of that way out. The way massive attention to English draws attention away from what might have been efforts at solving one’s own countries’ problems in sustainable ways, is not noted at all. English is said to be attractive because it brings ‘global culture’: one asks how Hailemariam can know that native-English understandings of ‘global culture’ can be the same as whatever is in the mind of Eritreans who are seeking to escape from their country? Hailemariam makes no mention of theology, as neither do other contributors to this volume, despite it’s obvious relevance, as Protestantism has done much to define ways in which native-English is used. • Seargeant looks at a massive project by the UK government to improve English knowledge in Bangladesh. Axioms, become determiners, he says. It is a modern idea of English being promoted, and apparently forced onto Bangladeshi people through British tax-payers’ money, even though they prefer to learn their own language and continue their own culture. He questions whether the goodness of English should be seen as a ‘done deal’, and whether English can be a ‘neutral code’. Promoting English may be unethical. Because wealthier people know English, does it follow that all efforts at helping whole populations know English are justified? Marginalisation of other languages in education may be immoral, destructive, and misleading. Tanzanians, in an example given, seem to have an eschatological understanding of the potential role of English in their lives. Seargaent’s insights are helpful. He fails to make any theological links: that hope that English one-day will bring benefits is rooted in Christian eschatology, or that it is the lifestyle of Western Christians that is actually being coveted by people wanting to adopt English. • Wedell observes that it is mostly native-English speaking countries who contribute to promotion of English around the world – a fact that should have us stop and think. While he concedes the debate is just beginning, he seems to fall in line with an anticipation of an inevitable globalisation of English, rather than trying to critique it. • Shamim asks the important question – if universal education is desirable, then in what language? Is the widespread default assumption that it should be in English necessarily right? Pakistani people, he says, have an insatiable thirst for English. English being linked to power, it is hard to tally this with supposed benefits of education being in mother-tongue. Pakistan is developing a language apartheid, he tells us. Although he is not explicit, one has to ask whether Shamim’s concealing the Christian roots of native-English, is so as not to offend Pakistani Muslims? If indeed so, then that is a great injustice, to dangle a carrot in front of people’s noses, without telling them the sustainable origins of its wonders. The question, as to WHY English should have become so desirable, is mute throughout this book’s discussion. This is a highly commendable and thought-provoking book, especially because it questions pre-suppositions in international use of English, that may be perpetuating poverty and handicapping development. Nevertheless, this review focuses a great deal on the weaknesses of the contributions by the various authors concerned. It makes suggestions, which it is hoped will take the debate forward.

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