#IATEFL 2017 – ELF, Juncker and the striptease dance of culture

Apologies in advance for bandwagoning a news item and IATEFL 2017, I hope my attempt is worth a read.

The switch from talking about language to talking about culture is an easy one to make. So it is not surprising that defenders of native speakerism invoke culture as a reason people want to learn a language from a native speaker. English culture from a native speaker is a proxy for ownership. As Martin Kayman notes 1 there is a long tradition of talking about language that involves the idea of property. He cites the definition of English by Dr. Johnson in his famous dictionary “E‘NGLISH. adj. [engles, Saxon]. Belonging to England”. More recently Henry Widdowson asserted “[English] is not a possession which [native speakers] lease out to others, while still retaining the freehold. Other people actually own it.” And Jacques Derrida stated “I only have one language; it is not mine”

Claims that to learn a language one needs to know its culture are heavily imbibed with ideas of ownership.

When Marek Kiczkowiak states 2 that “English is a global language. It’s the official language of over 50 countries.” he is trying to highlight the release of English ownership from its far British and near US history. Kayman points out that the first modern efforts of dis-embedding English from the old narrative can be seen in the simultaneous development of Communicative Language Teaching and the modern technologies of global communication such as the internet, email etc. That is, English was the preferred language for communication through its association with the evolving technologies while at the same time language pedagogy was promoting communicative functions rather than linguistics structure or cultural content. So in this way culture as a communicative function became available to all.

An audience member at the IATEFL ELT Journal debate on ELF hints 3 at this Kayman origin story (though her immediate point is about dilution of the term ELF):
“I don’t know about linguistic imperialism but it seems to me that ELF is becoming as pervasive and invasive in its claims to relevance and just as unclear to me as the term communicative once was. I can remember hearing things here about accommodation, about communication strategies. And also wondering a little bit how some interpretations of ELF are any different from interpretations and pedagogic implications of dealing with interlanguage once was.”

Yet Kayman argues this subordination of culture to functional properties of communication did not really release it from its English inheritance. The spread of communicative language teaching was mainly due to British, Australian and American academics, the new materials from Anglo publishing houses, new methods promoted through the British Council etc. Kayman points to the work of Robert Phillipson which showed that the adoption of English as a global language is fundamentally incompatible with an emancipatory project. The alternative approach is multilingualism. By contrast ELF promotes English.

ELF moves the subject from the native speaker to the non-native speaker and hence can be said to complete the project  started by communicative language in the 70s and 80s. This shifting of the subject of English runs in parallel with the shifting of the site of English from the home nations of the language as Marek points out “It’s the official language of over 50 countries”.

This means that ELF and globalization are intimately entwined and hence English is privileged in the project of globalization. Further with the use of the term lingua franca in preference to international language, world English world Englishes, global English, etc. Kayman sees a return to the vexed issue of ownership.

Marek asks “So what does culture even mean in relation to the English language?”. The defenders of native speakerism claim that English is still owned by the home countries whilst advocates of non-native speakerism in their efforts claim English is a language where notions of culture are devoid of meaning.

A Forbes magazine writer, on a recent tongue-in-cheek claim (on the slow loss of English in Europe) by polyglot EU President Jean Claude Juncker, recalls 4:
“And as someone with some decades of working and living in non-English speaking lands I really should point out that English becomes more important the fewer English there are about…However, the thing about is (sic) is that it is relentlessly stripped of anything which is not a shared cultural idea.”

So English can be “stripped” of its cultural baggage and be used instrumentally by those who wish to do so. Yet can language so easily escape its cultural history? New meanings are not created out of nothing, hybrid forms are possible because language carries potential meaning that are dependent on culture and enacted and traced to specific contexts. Kayman claims that Jennifer Jenkins’ view of ELF as a bastard child can only be so in an “English” way. He states that English can only be free from cultural locations to the extent illustrated by John Locke  “in the beginning all the World was America”.

The new American world was an empty land, land owned by no one. Jenkins’ is a postmodern inversion of Locke’s imperialistic concept of  America. Locke and Jenkins, though having opposing aims (colonial justification and tool for emancipation respectively), have in common that both are u-topian – spaces where things exist without already being the property of anyone in particular. Yet the drive of globalization and the  commodification of everything includes ELF, English as a global language, world Englishes etc. These commodities are branded with the emancipatory vision of globalization. Seen in slogans by the British Council such as “making a world of difference”.

And so the cultural political dance of English..the culture dance of English..the dance of English continues to be performed by many different players, in many different settings.

Notes:

1. Kayman, M. A. (2009). The lingua franca of globalization:“filius nullius in terra nullius”, as we say in English. Nordic Journal of English Studies, 8(3), 87-115. (pdf) – [http://ojs.ub.gu.se/ojs/index.php/njes/article/download/361/354]

2. Native speakers know the culture? – BBELT 2017 plenary part 2

3. IATEFL 2017 ELT Journal Debate

4. Jean Claude Juncker Insists English Is Losing Importance In Europe – In English To Be Understood [https://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2017/05/05/jean-claude-juncker-insists-english-is-losing-importance-in-europe-in-english-to-be-understood/#2ba975ae57f2]