Teacher Talking to Teacher: Vol. III, No. 3, Oct. 1995, (pp. 21-23).
The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language
by Alastair Pennycook (1994)
Harlow, Essex, UK: Longman Group Limited
This book is about the cultural and political implications of the
spread of English across the globe over the last four centuries. It
raises fundamental questions about the nature of education, language,
and culture. Pennycook challenges the traditional view that
English language teaching and applied linguistics has nothing to do with politics. Pennycook underscores how
language is always taught in a political context. Teachers who assert they're
"only teaching language" will find it hard to accept many of the ideas in this book.
Throughout this work Pennycook exhorts readers to
critically reevaluate existing concepts, particularly those claiming
to be "universal". Pennycook insists that any academic discipline should
be evaluated in terms of the vested interests supporting it and the
historical contexts in which it arose.
". . . any academic discipline should be evaluated in terms of the vested interests supporting it and the historical contexts in which it arose."
Many of Pennycook's statements are a variation of the
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. However, he criticizes Whorf for being too structuralist
in his approach to language and for failing to explore the concept of social class.
Pennycook feels the most fruitful way to consider language is as a locus of political
struggle. He uses the term 'political struggle' in a Freireian
sense: as an endeavor to ascertain contending values and to establish a
personal worth. Envisioning culture as an "active process by
which people make meaning of their lives" (p. 61),
the author portrays cultural politics as a "struggle over different meanings" (p. 66).
He disputes the Marxist tendency to view culture as "a superstructural
phenomenon determined by the socioeconomic 'realities'" (p. 63) as well as
the positivist view of culture as the action of nation-states within a high/low diametric field.
Pennycook discusses the spread of English in terms of
Galtung's (1971) concept of Center and Periphery. He points outs how
English media from 'developed' countries have penetrated the media of
developing nations. This essentially one-way flow of information erodes
the national sovereignty, cultural identity, and political independence
of developing nations. Though institutions considered along the
Periphery tend to become distributors of knowledge received from the
Center, Pennycook emphasizes that the actual situation is more complex.
Many institutions in the third world are more than passive
information receptors. Through the process of 'writing back' – of
expressing their own values and vision – marginalized populations can
gain dynamic voices. Pennycook concurs with Appadurai's (1990) appraisal
that, "the new global cultural economy has to be seen as a complex,
overlapping, disjunctive order, which can no longer be understood in
terms of existing center-periphery models." (p. 32)
Outlining the global spread of English in recent centuries with the
expansion of Anglo-American power, Pennycook disputes the assumption that
its proliferation has been natural, neutral, or beneficial. He also
refutes claims made by Fishman et al. (1977) that English is not
"ideologically encumbered." Every language, Pennycook maintains, carries
the weight of a civilization. The decision to use a certain
language means to support the existence of a given cultural matrix.
Phillipson's (1986, 1988, 1992) notion of "English
linguistic imperialism" is considered in depth. The author concedes Anglo-American
expansion has gone hand-in-hand with the expansion of English and that
the American and British governments have fostered the
disciplines of EFL/ESL and organizations such as the
British Council and Peace Corps. Pennycook, however, criticizes Phillipson for not
adequately considering how English can be used in diverse contexts.
Although the author concedes that English is 'the language of
international capitalism,' he underscores that English is also a
language of protest. Pennycook points out how writers such as Achebe, Baldwin,
and Lim have impacted not only on readers in their homelands, but on
readers around the world. Emphasizing the power of human agency to
reshape language in unexpected ways, Pennycook remarks, "it becomes
important to acknowledge [English] . . . not merely as a language of
imperialism, but also as a language of opposition." (p. 262)
A theme considered at length in this book is the nature of education.
Instead of viewing schools as "neutral sites
where a curricular body of information is passed on to students" (p. 297),
Pennycook urges readers to think of educational institutions as
"cultural and political arenas" in which different values are in struggle.
He agrees with Giroux (1991) that "teachers need to see themselves as
'transformative intellectuals' rather than mere "classroom technicians
employed to pass on a body of knowledge" (p. 299). For Pennycook, teaching
is a process of political engagement and the curriculum should be based
on themes of social relevance to students. He emphasizes that teachers can
empower learners through an amalgam of approaches known as 'critical
This work seemed both revealing and recondite. Many of Pennycook's key assertions are,
I maintain, all too briefly outlined and unsupported. His
description of the "metanarratives of modernity" (p. 58), for example, is
as terse as it is abstruse. Moreover, when Pennycook suggests that,
"perhaps language – and particularly English as an international
language – should also be replaced by a vision of powerful discursive
formations globally and strategically employed" (p. 64) he
doesn't elaborate what this means.
Pennycook offers no prescriptive list of pedagogic dos-and-don'ts
in this work. Nor is a clear-cut teaching methodology elucidated. What he
provides is an impassioned vision of a personal philosophy, stating
how he sees his role in shaping the political agenda for
the next century. Embracing the concept of cultural relativism and
lambasting all claims towards "objectivity", this text is worth reading for the thought-provoking
questions it raises rather than for the answers it provides.
Reviewed by Tim Newfields
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Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn't this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy.
Harvard Educational Review. 59 (3), 297-324.
Fishman, J. A., Cooper, R. W., & Conrad, Y. (1977).The Spread of English. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
Galtung, J. (1971). A structural theory of imperialism. Journal of Peace Research. 8 (2), 81-117. doi: 10.1177/002234337100800201
Nirnjana, T. (1992). Siting translation: history, post-structuralism, and the colonial context. Berkerly, CA: University of California Press.
Phillipson, R. (1986). English rules: a study of language pedagogy and imperialism.
In R. Phillipson & T. Skutnabb-Kangas (Eds). Linguicism rules in education. Roskilde University Centre, Denmark. pp. 124-343.
Phillipson, R. (1988). Linguicism: structures and ideologies in linguistic imperialism.
In J. Cummins & T. Skutnabb-Kangas. (Eds). Minority education: From shame to struggle. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Masters.
Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford University Press.
Simon, R.I. (1992). Teaching against the grain: Essays towards a pedagogy of possibility. Boston, MA: Bergin & Garvey.
Copyright (c) 1995 by Tim Newfields