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Linguistic imperialism

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Linguistic imperialism, or language imperialism, is a phenomenon that occasionally occurs defined as "the transfer of a dominant language to other people". This language "transfer" comes about because of imperialism. The transfer is considered to be a demonstration of power; traditionally military power but also, in the modern world, economic power. Aspects of the dominant culture are usually transferred along with the language. In the modern world, linguistic imperialism may also be considered in the context of international development, affecting the standard by which organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank evaluate the trustworthiness and value of providing structural adjustment loans.[1] Since the early 1990s, linguistic imperialism has attracted attention among scholars of applied linguistics. In particular, Robert Phillipson's 1992 book, Linguistic Imperialism, has led to considerable debate about its merits and shortcomings. Phillipson found denunciations of linguistic imperialism that dated back to Nazi critiques of the British Council (European aristocracy was at the time agreeing on the use of English), and to Soviet analyses of English as the language of world capitalism and world domination.[2] In this vein, criticism of English as a world language is rooted in anti-globalism.


Linguistic imperialism is a form of linguicism; it is an intentional form of discrimination for the benefit of ranting power to the dominating/oppressing language and its speakers. Linguicism is a bias against or discrimination of a person based on their language or language skills: dialect, accent, native tongue, vocabulary size, and more. As summarized by linguists Heath Rose and John Conama, Dr. Phillipson argues that the defining characteristics of linguistic imperialism are:

  1. As a form of linguicism, which manifests in favoring the dominant language over another along similar lines as racism and sexism.
  2. As a structurally manifested concept, where more resources and infrastructure are given to the dominant language
  3. As being ideological, in that it encourages beliefs that the dominant language form is superior to others, and thus more prestigious. These ideas are hegemonic and internalized and naturalized as being "normal".
  4. As intertwined with the same structure as imperialism in culture, education, media, and politics.
  5. As having an exploitative essence, which causes injustice and inequality between those who use the dominant language and those who do not.
  6. As having a subtractive influence on other languages, in that learning the dominant language is at the expense of others.
  7. As being contested and resisted, because of these factors.[3][4]

Though it is not easily possible to determine the intentions of specific policies that have led to linguicism, some scholars believe that intent can be proven by observing whether imperialist practices are continued once their sociolinguistic, sociological, psychological, political, and educational harm of other languages are made aware.[5][6][7]


Phillipson defines English linguistic imperialism as "the dominance of English... asserted and maintained by the establishment and continuous reconstitution of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages."[8] English is often referred to as a global "lingua franca", but Phillipson argues that when its dominance leads to a linguicide, it can be more aptly titled a "lingua frankensteinia".[9]

Phillipson's theory supports the historic spread of English as an international language and that language's continued dominance, particularly in postcolonial settings such as India, Pakistan, Uganda, Zimbabwe, etc., but also increasingly in "neo-colonial" settings such as continental Europe. His theory draws mainly on Johan Galtung's imperialism theory, Antonio Gramsci's social theory, and in particular on his notion of cultural hegemony.

A central theme of Phillipson's theory is the complex hegemonic processes[clarification needed] which, he asserts, continue to sustain the pre-eminence of English in the world today. His book analyzes the British Council's use of rhetoric to promote English, and discusses key tenets of English applied linguistics and English-language-teaching methodology. These tenets hold that:

  • English is best taught monolingually ("the monolingual fallacy");
  • the ideal teacher is a native speaker ("the native-speaker fallacy");[clarification needed]
  • the earlier English is taught, the better the results ("the early-start fallacy");[clarification needed]
  • the more English is taught, the better the results ("the maximum-exposure fallacy");[clarification needed]
  • if other languages are used much, standards of English will drop ("the subtractive fallacy").

According to Phillipson, those who promote English—organizations such as the British Council, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and individuals such as operators of English-language schools—use three types of argument:

  • Intrinsic arguments describe the English language as providential, rich, noble and interesting. Such arguments tend to assert what English is and what other languages are not.
  • Extrinsic arguments point out that English is well-established: that it has many speakers, and that there are trained teachers and a wealth of teaching material.
  • Functional arguments emphasize the usefulness of English as a gateway to the world.

Other arguments for English are

  • its economic utility: it enables people to operate technology;
  • its ideological function: it stands for modernity;
  • its status as symbol for material advance and efficiency.

Another theme in Phillipson's work is "linguicism"—the species of prejudice that can lead to endangered languages becoming extinct or losing their local eminence due to the rise and competing prominence of English.

Other languagesEdit

In 1976, Black school children in Soweto protested at being taught in Afrikaans, which had been pushed by the Apartheid authorities concerned at the growing refusal of the Black population to speak it. They reasoned that by only having access to Afrikaner resources the South African government could control them more closely than having access to a global language i.e. English. 176 children died for the right to be taught in English. The Uprising became a turning point in the overthrow of Apartheid years later.

At various times, especially in colonial settings or where a dominant culture has sought to unify a region under its control, a similar phenomenon has arisen. In the Roman Empire, Latin—originally the language of a limited region in central Italy—was imposed first on the rest of Italy and later on large parts of Europe, largely displacing previous languages spoken there, while in Roman Africa Latin was merely dominant until it and the native languages were displaced by Arabization.

Anatolia was similarly diverse linguistically when it was ruled by small native states. Under the Persian and Hellenistic empires, the language of the conqueror served as the lingua franca. The indigenous Anatolian languages disappeared.

In the Far East, Africa and Latin America, regional languages have been or are being coercively replaced or marginalized by the language of a dominant culture—Tibetan and regional Chinese varieties by Mandarin Chinese, Ainu and Ryukyuan by Japanese, Quechua and Mesoamerican languages by Spanish, Malayo-Polynesian languages by Malay, Philippine languages by Filipino/Tagalog and so on. Arabization has eliminated many indigenous languages in North Africa, and restricted Coptic to sacred use.

The English language during the Middle Ages was an object of linguistic imperialism by the French language, particularly following the Norman conquest. For hundreds of years, French or Anglo-Norman was the language of administration (See Law French) and therefore a language of superior status in England. Latin remained the language of the church and of learning. Although many words introduced by the Normans are today indistinguishable by most English-speakers from native Germanic words, later-learned loanwords derived from Latin or French often have a more cultured sound to a native English-speaker.

Following the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire over much of present-day Germany and Central Europe, the German language and its dialects became the preferred language of many Central-European nobility. With varying success, German spread across much of Central and Eastern Europe as a language of trade and status. This ended with World War II (See also Germanization.).

French too has expanded. Languages such as Occitan, Breton, Basque, Catalan and Corsican are to a great extent marginalised in France. This process, known as Francization, often causes resistance amongst the subject peoples, leading to demands for independence. Examples of this can still be found in Brittany and Flanders (Belgium).

Spanish and to a lesser extent Portuguese colonization, made these languages prevalent in South America and in parts of Africa and Asia (the Philippines, Macau and for a short time Formosa). In Iberia, Castilian Spanish, as spoken in the kingdom of Castile spread and was imposed on other peoples and territories of Spain, becoming the only official language of the state from the 18th to the 20th century. It was labeled "the companion of the Empire" by Antonio de Nebrija (1492) in the introduction to his Gramática de la lengua castellana.

Russian linguistic imperialism can be detected in Belarus both in the former dispute over the name of the country (Belarus vs Belorussia) and in the common spelling of the name of their president. English transcription has overtaken the Russian form Alexander Lukashenko instead of Belarusian form Alyaksandr Lukashenka.


Many scholars have participated in lively discussions of Phillipson's claims. Alan Davies, for instance, envisions the spectre of Phillipson haunting the Department of Applied Linguistics in Edinburgh:

'Round up the usual suspects', he cries, outing those who have pretended all these years merely to teach applied linguistics, but who have really been plotting with the British Council to take over the world.[10]

For Davies, two cultures inhabit linguistic imperialism: one, a culture of guilt ("colonies should never have happened"); the other, that of romantic despair ("we shouldn't be doing what we are doing"). Rajagopalan goes a step farther and maintains that Phillipson's book has led to a guilt complex among English language learning and teaching (ELT) professionals.[11]

Davies also argues that Phillipson's claims are not falsifiable: what "if the dominated... wanted to adopt English and continue to want to keep it? RP's unfalsifiable answer must be that they don't, they can't, they've been persuaded against their better interests."[12] It has thus been argued that Phillipson's theory is patronizing in the sense that it does not regard developing countries as being capable of independent decision-making (to adopt or not to adopt ELT). In the context of Nigeria, Bisong holds that people in the "periphery" use English pragmatically—they send their children to English-language schools precisely because they want them to grow up multilingual. Regarding Phillipson, Bisong maintains that "to interpret such actions as emanating from people who are victims of Centre linguistic imperialism is to bend sociolinguistic evidence to suit a preconceived thesis".[13] If English should be abolished because it is foreign, Bisong argues, then Nigeria itself would also have to be dissolved, because it was conceived as a colonial structure.

Furthermore, the assumption that the English language itself is imperialistic has come under attack. Henry Widdowson has argued that "there is a fundamental contradiction in the idea that the language of itself exerts hegemonic control: namely that if this were the case, you would never be able to challenge such control".[14] Additionally, the idea that the promotion of English necessarily implies a demotion of local languages has been challenged. Holborrow points out that "not all Englishes in the centre dominate, nor are all speakers in the periphery equally discriminated against".[15] Irish English, for instance, could be regarded as a non-dominant centre variety of English.

Some scholars believe that English's dominance is not due to specific language policies, but rather as a side effect of the spread of English and American powers through colonization and globalization.[16][17]

Thus it could be argued that, while those who follow Phillipson see choices about language as externally imposed, the other camp sees them as decisions made by individuals.[18]


Those who support the arguments favoring the existence of linguistic imperialism claim that arguments against it are often advanced by monolingual native-speakers of English who may see the current status of English as a fact worthy of celebration.[citation needed]

Those who see the increasing spread of English in the world as a worrying development (that marginalizes the status of local and regional languages as well as potentially undermining or eroding cultural values) are likely to be more receptive to Phillipson's views. Alastair Pennycook, Suresh Canagarajah, Adrian Holliday and Julian Edge fall into this group and are described as critical applied linguists.

However, Henry Widdowson’s remarks on critical discourse analysis may also be applied to the critical applied linguists:

It ought surely to be possible to say that an argument is confused, or an analysis flawed, without denying the justice of the cause they support. My view would be that if a case is just then we should look for ways of supporting it by coherent argument... And I would indeed argue that to do otherwise is to do a disservice to the cause. For the procedures of ideological exposure by expedient analysis... can, of course be taken up to further any cause, right wing as well as left.... If you have the conviction and commitment, you will always find your witch.[19]

As a response to English linguistic imperialism, de-anglicisation became a matter of national pride in some places and especially in regions that were once under colonial rule, where vestiges of colonial domination are a sensitive subject.[20][21] Following centuries of English rule in Ireland, an argument for de-anglicisation was delivered before the Irish National Literary Society in Dublin, 25 November 1892; "When we speak of 'The Necessity for De-Anglicising the Irish Nation', we mean it, not as a protest against imitating what is best in the English people, for that would be absurd, but rather to show the folly of neglecting what is Irish, and hastening to adopt, pell-mell, and indiscriminately, everything that is English, simply because it is English."[20] Despite its status as an official language, the Irish language has been reduced to a minority language in Ireland as a result of centuries of English rule, as is the case in North America where their indigenous languages have been replaced by that of the colonists, and continued to decline even after independence.

According to Ghil'ad Zuckermann, "Native tongue title and language rights should be promoted. The government ought to define Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander vernaculars as official languages of Australia. We must change the linguistic landscape of Whyalla and elsewhere. Signs should be in both English and the local indigenous language. We ought to acknowledge intellectual property of indigenous knowledge including language, music and dance."[22]


Some who reject the concept of linguistic imperialism argue that the global spread of English is better understood in the framework of appropriation[23]—that English is used around the world for local purposes. In addition to the example of Nigeria, above, the following examples have been given:

  • Demonstrators in non-English-speaking countries often use signs in English to convey their demands to TV audiences around the globe. In some cases, the demonstrator may not even understand what the sign he is carrying says.
  • Bobda shows how Cameroon has moved away from a mono-cultural, Anglo-centered way of teaching English and has gradually accommodated teaching materials to a Cameroonian context. Non-Western topics are treated, such as rule by emirs, traditional medicine, and polygamy.[24] Bobda argues for bi-cultural, Cameroonian and Anglo-American education.[25]
  • Kramsch and Sullivan describe how Western methodology and textbooks have been appropriated to suit local Vietnamese culture.[26]
  • The Pakistani textbook Primary Stage English includes lessons such as "Pakistan, My Country", "Our Flag," and "Our Great Leader",[27] which might sound jingoistic to western ears. Within the native culture, however, establishing a connection between ELT, patriotism and the Muslim faith is seen as an aim of ELT, as the chairman of the Punjab Textbook Board openly states: "The board... takes care, through these books to inoculate in the students a love of the Islamic values and awareness to guard the ideological frontiers of your [the student's] home lands."[28]

Such an "internationalization" of English might also create new possibilities for English native-speakers. McCabe elaborates:

...whereas for two centuries we exported our language and our customs in hot pursuit of... fresh markets, we now find that our language and our customs are returned to us but altered so that they can be used by others... so that our own language and culture discover new possibilities, fresh contradictions.[29]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Master, Peter (1998-01-01). "Positive and Negative Aspects of the Dominance of English". TESOL Quarterly. 32 (4): 716–727. doi:10.2307/3588002. JSTOR 3588002.
  2. ^ Phillipson, Robert (1992), p36.
  3. ^ Conama, John Bosco; Rose, Heath (2018-08-01). "Linguistic imperialism: still a valid construct in relation to language policy for Irish Sign Language". Language Policy. 17 (3): 385–404. doi:10.1007/s10993-017-9446-2. ISSN 1573-1863.
  4. ^ Phillipson, Robert (2012). Imperialism and Colonialism. Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy. pp. 203–225. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511979026.013. ISBN 9780511979026.
  5. ^ Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2016). "Linguicism". Retrieved 2019-01-08.
  6. ^ Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove (2000-02-01). Linguistic Genocide in Education--or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights?. Routledge. ISBN 9781135662363.
  7. ^ Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove; Dunbar, Bob; Peoples, Gáldu-Resource Centre for the Rights of Indigenous (2010). Indigenous children's education as linguistic genocide and a crime against humanity? : a global view (PDF). Guovdageiadnu / Kautokeino, Norway : Gáldu - Resource Centre for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. ISBN 9788281440494.
  8. ^ Phillipson, Robert (1992), p 47.
  9. ^ Phillipson, Robert (2008). "Lingua franca or lingua frankensteinia? English in European integration and globalisation1". World Englishes. 27 (2): 250–267. doi:10.1111/j.1467-971X.2008.00555.x. ISSN 1467-971X.
  10. ^ Alan Davies (1996), p. 485
  11. ^ Rajagopalan (1999), p. 200.
  12. ^ Davies (1996), p. 488
  13. ^ Bisong (1995 [1994]), p. 125.
  14. ^ Henry Widdowson (1998a), p. 398.
  15. ^ Holborrow (1993), p. 359; see also Bisong (1995 [1994]), p. 124.
  16. ^ Spolsky, Bernard (2004). Language Policy. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521011754.
  17. ^ Ferguson, Gibson (2006-03-14). Language Planning and Education. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9780748626588.
  18. ^ Davies (1997), p. 248.
  19. ^ Henry Widdowson (1998b), p. 150.
  20. ^ a b Hyde, Douglas (25 November 1892). "The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland". Retrieved 2010-08-21.
  21. ^ "De-Anglicisation - Free Online Dictionary". the elimination of English influence, language, customs, etc.
  22. ^ Zuckermann, Ghil'ad, "Stop, revive and survive", The Australian Higher Education, June 6, 2012.
  23. ^ E.g. Spichtinger (2000).
  24. ^ Bobda (1997), p. 225.
  25. ^ Bobda (1997), p. 234.
  26. ^ Kramsch and Sullivan (1996).
  27. ^ Malik (1993), pp. 5, 6, 7.
  28. ^ Punjab Text Book Board (1997).
  29. ^ McCabe (1985), p. 45.


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