English Plays Offense - Conjecture is not fact. Or, imperial propaganda.

Trond Trosterud trond.trosterud at hum.uit.no
Wed Nov 10 07:35:23 UTC 2004

This seems to be a debate with surprising twists and turns.

Underlying it, and linked to the question of bilingualism, is the
assumption that language is a question of either - or. In Africa, the
British Council spends large sums (yes, language wars are fought, and
not only by the French) on promoting English, the message being "do as
we do - use English, and be as prosperous as we are". (or in the latest
url on this list: "English ... to remain competitive") (cf. robert
Philipson: Linguistic Imperialism, Oxford UP). We saw it when UN
suggested English as an official lg for Namibia (3 % of the speakers),
or in an earlier message to this list, on Rwanda (considering English
as off.lg., with 3 % English, as opposed to the "dominating" French (8
%!). The fact that 98 % in Rwanda speak Kinyarwanda went unnoticed).

My alternative is to restate the British Council slogan in this way:

"Do as we do - use your mother tongue".

The most competitive country of the world is actually Finland
(according to recent surveys). Hundred years ago Finland was a poor
colony with a school system run in a foreign language, 50 years ago it
was still dominated by small-scale agriculture. What they did during
the last century was to replace the former colonial language with their
own, and build a good educational system based upon 100 % literacy,
with a focus on science. They did not choose English. They do not
choose English today either. Rather, they keep on choosing Finnish. In
most EU countries, English is the compulsory first foreign language (as
it is in Norway), but in Finland, it is not (still, if your first
foreign language is something else than English, then English must be
the second foreign language).

Using people from Anglophone countries as Foreign Experts on
multilingual and foreign language education (as is often done in former
colonies, at least in Africa) seems very strange to us outsiders: The
Anglophone countries are precisely the ones with school systems that
educate monolinguals, thus a priori the ones with no experience of
nation-wide English as a Foreign language teaching, or with serious
foreign language teaching (by which I mean teaching where the goal is
that the whole age cohort shall actually be able to use the foreign
language actively). This isn't intended as an offence. In anglophone
countries, working foreign language skills will always be a matter for
the specially interested, for reasons we all know.

Watching the focus on the "battle between French and English", the
"battle against English" makes me sad. The real issue is another one:
The right to learn the multiplication tables in your own mother tongue,
the right to have the nature study classes being just that, instead of
being disguised English or French lessons. At the university level we
carry on using our mother tongue, but in most cases our textbooks are
in English. This does not make me a bilingual (in the narrow sense),
but it gives me English skills more or less on an average level here in
Norway. Depriving people the human right of high-level literacy in
their own mother tongue is the real crime here, and stopping it should
be the main focus. The price to pay is then that the lucky ones will
have to live with English skills not better than mine (foreign language
skills, never used as medium of instruction).

I am not against English (or French). Language is not either-or. The
Hong Kongers should not learn English in order to "cater the remaining
10 percent", but in order to, e.g., follow this discussion.

In Finnish they have a word, "ummikko", derived from "umpi-" (closed,
blind), the word means 'monolingual'. So yes, the Hong Kongers should
avoid being ummikko's, with the restrictions that imply for life in
Hong Kong, whatever language they risk being ummikko's in.


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