Scoop Review of Books

The Medium Is The Message

English Language As Hydra: Its Impacts on Non-English Language Cultures ed. Vaughan Rapatahana and Pauline Bunce (Bristol, Buffalo, Toronto: Multilingual Matters, 2012)
Reviewed by Mark P. Williams

The English language is a monster bent on devouring weaker language cultures, this is the thesis of the editors of English Language As Hydra.

Rapatahana and Bunce’s book offers a trenchant critique through wide-ranging analyses, drawing on a mixture of years of experience and detailed case study. The writers collected here are a mixture of language teachers, writers and theorists from diverse cultural backgrounds including notable figures such as Malaysian National Laureate Muhammad Haji Salleh, and world-renowned Kenyan playwright, novelist and academic Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Rapatahana and Bunce’s anthology explores how the global dominance of English serves to create and maintain a system where English can be seen as the international language of cultural access to those who already have access to it, through teaching policy, economic policies, private and public institutions, creating a line of social division to those from other language cultures. In the process of describing and analysing the various manifestations of this hierarchy in English language culture, from policy to unconscious privilege, and its alarmingly negative effects on indigenous cultures, the book charts a map of mutually supportive linkages between prejudice and bureaucracy from Australia to Singapore, New Zealand to Kenya and beyond. This book explores both the systematic and structural ways in which parts of this system ensure their own survival in the ecology of language.  Its varied insights into the cultural politics of language teaching alone are fascinating.  It is valuable for budding scholars and educators who wish to understand the networks which define their potential job horizons internationally, and for those seeking to engage critically with the interlaced structures of language and economic stratification under globalisation.

Vaughan Rapatahana makes the opening case in polemical terms: he considers English language culture ‘a thief’ which steals the resources of people around the world and puts them to work in its service as second or third class global citizens.

Rapatahana’s introduction maps the scope of the anthology via five thematically linked sets of arguments, each with internal nuances.  These are: 1) the effects of English language culture are ‘insidious, pervasive and self-perpetuating’ because they serve the economic interests of classes who already have access to English; 2) English language is ‘destructive and inimical’ to other language cultures because ‘[l]inguistic structures can determine our perceptual and, thus, our cognitive selves’; 3) ‘English language domination is complex and contradictory’ there is no simple process whereby contemporary hegemony can be separated out so its componants must be explored in their interconnectedness; 4) the anthology is concerned to chart the ‘fight-backs against the domination of the English language’ by considering points of resistance; and finally, 5) English is not alone ‘in its cultural theiving’ but joins other languages, particularly ‘all those languages that have been designated as official, national and standard'(5-8).  There is something really energising about such a strong, clear critical project.

Rapatahana makes an argument in the linguistic field that is a corollary to that of Hardt and Negri about contemporary postmodernity in Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth. Hardt and Negri argue that globalisation operates to actively reproduce inequalities between nations and regions which it then diagnoses as the natural outcomes of relationships between markets and nations. Similarly, the processes described in English Language As Hydra terms collection might thus be summarised roughly as follows:

• Language enters nations through specific language cultures, such as colonialism or market-dominance;
• Where there is a power relationship between language cultures it produces other social inequities through differentiations in cultural capital;
• Incoming language cultures facilitate the accrual of material benefits for speakers of their supporting language at the expense of indigenous language cultures;
• Inequalities of cultural capital reinforce, naturalise and, ultimately, reproduce material power relationships which benefit one language culture at the expense of others.

This cycle is described across diverse nations throughout the book. It is inevitably tied to the history of British colonialism which brought forth the initial differences in material capital by expropriating land and resources from indigenous cultures in many of the examples discussed but the variety of issues raised by the contributors demonstrates that this relationship, although determining, is only one important factor among others. The contributors are particularly concerned to treat the present regimes of global power, which maintain the importance of English as a language of global communication, as an extension of the global interests of the United States of America and its allies. This is perhaps the ninth, economic head of the Hydra: English language culture is still rooted in a global superpower.

Although this book calls English a rapacious monster, it is not really an attack the things that we associate with English, such as the internet and news media resources (of whatever cultural politics), or on literatures in English (whether Shakespeare and Swift, or Austen and Joyce, or Angela Carter and Samuel R. Delany); rather, it attacks the idea that these things should only be accessed through an internationally standardised language regime. English Language As Hydra is not suggesting that English should not be learned, in fact several writers recommend English, or French, or Mandarin, be learned as useful international languages, but, crucially, only after people have had the opportunity to really engage with and inhabit their own indigenous language cultures.

English Language As Hydra is an attack on the assumption that learning any single “international” language to the detriment of one’s own language is a benefit of globalisation to the peoples of less economically dominant nations. It opposes the idea that a very few languages should be the only ways for people to engage with cultural resources.  Instead, it promotes the usage and advancement of indigenous languages on their own subjectively-valuable terms (cognitive and cultural) in order to better learn to operate in the world. Ngugi wa Thiong’o contributes a powerful opening chapter arguing that difference in language has an additive effect on social development, offering the guiding metaphor of languages as bridges, rather than barriers, to understanding. As an extension of this principle, English Language As Hydra also promotes the recognition of distinctive, non-standard Englishes as affirmative languages which have evolved in those indigenous cultures as a response to colonisation by English-speaking cultures.

The essays in this collection indicate the various ways in which a strong class-based dimension to the consideration of language-teaching emerges, contra to the ideal notion of language as a provider of access. Various writers invoke Bourdieu and Gramsci to productively theorise language teaching in terms of cultural capital and hegemony. Joseph Sung-Yul Park writes about the Korean experience of the border as a language construct. He explains that ‘jogi yuhak, or early study abroad, in which pre-university students are sent to study in English-speaking countries’ has become a significant strategy for adapting Koreans to English (217). This is, he goes on, ‘a phenomenon constrained by class relations’: accessibility requires financial means, further reproducing existing hierarchies of ‘power and legitimacy’ between ‘native-English-speaking West and non-native Koreans’ (219).  For Koreans, Sung-Yul Park argues that English language culture is the experience of living at the border.

Xavier Barker’s essay on English in Nauru is as much a catalogue of bureaucratic errors as it is an account of linguistic chauvinism; it speaks greater volumes about organisational failure to engage with different language cultures than it does about deliberate language strategies. That is an important part of the point: the discourses which produce cultural prejudice are largely unconsciously absorbed as part of the naturalised or atmospheric condition of working within a specific sector. Barker writes that although ‘more information exists in and about English than Nauruan, more commerce […] more diplomacy, more trade, more technology’ the important point of consideration is the degree to which many people will ‘acquire English to the degree that they will be able to take part in that market’ (20), which will itself be determined by other socio-economic factors; English ability will then serve to reinforce the naturalisation of socio-economic division.

Robyn Ober and Jeanie Bell’s chapter on Aboriginal English in Australia emphasises that competency within any language culture is heavily dependent upon immersion to fully grasp the nuances of usage. They argue in favour of recognising the distinctiveness of Aboriginal English as a language culture in itself which is threatened by an international or standardised version of English:

To be truly communicatively competent in Aboriginal English, one must grow up learning the cultural and linguistic protocols of the specific Aboriginal social group to which one is connected. [….] Aboriginal people have cleverly taken the English language and shaped, manipulated and moulded it to make it their own. They have resisted the dominant linguistic forms of speaking, by staying true to their values, beliefs and ways of doing and being–incorporating and embedding this into their speech. This has resulted in English dialects that are distinctly Aboriginal.’ (73)

Ober and Bell’s chapter is concerned with the diverse traditions of ‘englishes’ of the postcolonial world. They indicate how ideology is spread through the subtle differentiations of cultural capital given to more or less “correct” language usage.

At work here are a set of arguments with very wide-ranging implications for understanding how discourse operates. Each chapter is separately and distinctly calling for self-determination and autonomy in the face of a common dominating power.

What are, to me, most interesting are the conceptualisations of rich additive relationships between English and other languages which are proposed or explored by the various authors as possible alternatives. For example, describing the situation in the Philippines, Lalaine F. Yanilla Aquino writes that there is ‘a need for Fillipinos to realize that living in a multicultural and multilingual country is a gift and not a liability’, promoting language learning in terms of ‘a pedagogy of possibilities’ for advancing the value of education and language in general (170). These positive effects are contrasted to the predominantly negative impact of the integration of English language policy into management frameworks which regulate and control cultural capital to exert economic control, things that, in political discourse we might call the “soft power” of global governance.

English language culture’s soft-power is manifested in the examples of South Africa and Singapore. In South Africa, English language seems to enjoy the dubious benefits of being considered a necessary evil because ‘the use of English as lingua franca “disadvantages all indigenous language groups equally”‘ (Land qtg de Clerk: 193) and so it continues via mephistophilean pacts with all formerly oppressed language cultures in post-liberation politics.

Rani Rubdy identifies a similar use of English in post-Independence Singapore, functioning as ‘neutral’ by not being ‘native’ to any of the major ethnic groups identified by Singapore’s official policy of ‘multiracialism’ (224-25); in other respects the Singapore experience is similar to that of the Philippines, where English acts as a co-dominant language, overruling a much more diverse range of local languages for the pragmatic politico-economic reasons of its perceived cultural benefits under contemporary globalised modernity (which just happen to benefit some groups and classes more than others).

English Language As Hydra presents a critique of the institutionalisation of language study which has significant implications for other policymakers and for educators and theorists in other fields. The writers question whether the rhetoric of policies supporting language education in English actually matches the nature of the practice.

The writers find that language policies which favour English language culture as an international lingua franca do not respond to the demands of indigenous peoples’ lived experience but force indigenous peoples to respond to the alienating demands of English language institutions. The challenge the book asks is whether this can be changed, allowing a myriad flowers of language relationships to bloom, or if English teaching will continue to accrue a liberating rhetoric of access and social mobility, while having restrictive material effects.

English Language As Hydra is a useful reminder of the political dimensions of the cultural sphere and a fascinating critique of the cognitive processes which accompany globalisation. This is an important book for anyone interested in the dynamics of education, culture and politics in a globalised world.

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Supplement: Response and Reconsideration
(17 Oct, 2012)


In an e-mail giving feedback to the above review, Vaughan Rapatahana pointed out to me an obvious omission: I have not discussed the specific instance of Aotearoa New Zealand as it was dealt with in the book by himself and Professor Graham Hingangaroa Smith in ‘English Language As Nemesis for Maori’. This was unintentional and happened incidentally out of a desire to demonstrate the wide-ranging international application of the anthology. Nevertheless the response from author to critic has caused me to reconsider the review as a reader; as Rapatahana points out, his conception of the collection as a whole necessarily stems from his position as a Maori and a kiwi working as an English educator, therefore I feel that, as a response to his feedback, addressing Rapatahana and Smith’s chapter on New Zealand requires its own space.

Rapatahana and Smith’s arguments in ‘English Language As Nemesis’ are in many respects a microcosm of the general thrust of the argument of English As Hydra but dealing with this chapter in more detail makes visible the sets of unconscious assumptions of recent liberal (i.e. post-1960s and ’70s) cultural politics about the appropriate means of response to cultural difference. As a case study it illustrates compellingly how dealing with indigenous peoples’ political and social struggles as issues to be resolved through management within established ‘Western’-orientated frameworks can be said to extend or perpetuate some of the same problems as colonial discourses within contemporary political cultures.

From ‘Nemesis’ to Reciprocity? Rapatahana and Smith on the Maori encounter with English Language Culture

Rapatahana opens his introduction to English Language As Hydra with a poem by Hong Kong poet Gigi Wong called ‘English is…’ composed from a list of contradictory statements juxtaposed, and goes on to end his introduction with a poem of his own called ‘linguistic imperialism continued’; both poems illustrate the ways that the process of thinking within a language causes the subject to reproduce and live out the concepts and contradictions inherent in that language. As Rapatahana addresses the minutiae of everyday life from a Maori perspective through his use of Te Reo in his poems such as ‘Aoetearoa blues, baby’ and ‘God defend New Zealand’, so English Language As Hydra draws explicitly on this same approach to the role of language in shaping life.

Rapatahana and Smith’s ‘Nemesis’ chapter analyses how Maori language culture has been framed within popular New Zealand discourses historically and contemporaneously through the dominating perspective of Pakeha English language culture. It examines how the processes of English language acquisition aided not only the historical progress of colonialism by British culture, but also how the extant English language culture in New Zealand is maintaining the cultural disparities by a kind of appropriation or expropriation—as Rapatahana puts it: in New Zealand as elsewhere, the English language is a thief, it steals the concepts of thought out from under the indigenous thinking person and makes them rethink themselves in English. Rapatahana and Smith’s chapter explores how prescriptive educational and property measures worked together throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to take away indigenous people’s ability to engage with their home land in their own language. They summarise the ways processes of educational discouragement (holding children back in classes, negative reinforcement for Te Reo use) and conceptual impoverishment (teaching te reo Maori at lower levels, devaluing the application of traditional Maori knowledge in areas like agriculture) cumulatively deskill and alienate subsequent generations. They go on to attack the post-1970s negotiations of ‘biculturalism’ and ‘multiculturalism’ as concepts which assume a starting point of abstract equality that cannot be present for Maori because the ideals are framed only in English language cultural terms with all the hegemonic baggage which that carries for a colonised people.

In demonstrating the ways the bicultural policies could be extended to produce greater cultural and social equality for Maori, Rapatahana and Smith’s chapter also points towards a framework for asserting the value of multiculturalism within New Zealand, based on the concept of mutual enrichment through non-reductive, collective identities. I would suggest that this is quite close to what Hardt and Negri term ‘the multitude’ as collective, active subject of contemporary modernity and could be very valuable for negotiating with contemporary debates about multiculturalism in New Zealand. When the question of New Zealand as a contemporary multicultural society is discussed in popular journalism it is still sometimes presented by politicians and pundits as a form of contest between the official, national bicultural policies and the overweening, culturally naturalised forces of the international market; as the ‘Nemesis’ chapter illustrates, the dominant language cultures of both are English and so the apparent opposition is, for Maori, a distraction from the more pressing on-going political project of language culture promotion and enhancement.

After detailing the problematic history of English in New Zealand, Rapatahana and Smith then ask the question: Have matters improved for Maori in Aotearoa New Zealand? And they answer: ‘a little, but not enough’ (93). It is a philosophical challenge that is being offered in Rapatahana’s project in this anthology, which has, as Rapatahana demonstrates, applications within New Zealand, and implications for New Zealand’s international stance as a culture. As a radical philosophical project it is analogous with others dealing with globalisation from indigenous peoples’ perspectives in that it illustrates clearly the ways in which English language culture is epistemologically and ontologically different from Maori language culture, and states the case for Maori-centred approaches conceptualised through te reo Maori at every level, taught in Kura Kaupapa Maori educational establishments, and stemming from the principles of Maori self-determination and autonomy of Maori authority (tino rangatiratanga).

Smith and Rapatahana emphasise that they are not suggesting that there should be any kind of attempt to ‘colonise back’ or overthrow English, but rather that, in order for Maori to have the collective tools to address the disparity of socio-economic situations which they are presented with, te reo Maori language culture must be an equal medium to English language culture. They see it as important to this end that ‘Maori English’ is accepted as Maori-centred usage of English rather than a sub-set or deviation from some standardised ideal English. This chapter argues strongly that advancement of Maori language culture will not only enrich, conceptually and economically, the lives of Maori New Zealanders, but, by offering a meaningful reconception of partnership between ‘two idiosyncratic cultures and languages’ which are ‘both equally independent and interdependent and, largely, sharing the same territory’ (94), will in turn enhance New Zealand culture as a whole. Rapatahana and Smith indicate that this would be to the furtherment of international principles that New Zealand is signed up to, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to recognise and advance Maori language culture.

As Rapatahana and Smith observe, there has been progress but there is more to be done. From observation of New Zealand culture, we can see there are many celebrations of Maori heritage in public art and architecture, and at public events such as Waitangi Day or the opening ceremony of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, but these must be counter-posed to awareness of the complaints voiced against the decisions of the Waitangi Tribunal and the necessary struggle against the divisive rhetoric of ‘grievance’ to describe Treaty settlements still indulged by minority parties and their supporters. Likewise, although Maori phrases are common currency among journalists, politicians, educators and public figures, and although the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi recognising Maori as tangata whenua (people of the land) and Treaty Partners, are written into official documents, and public sector work contracts, there remain clear inequalities which privilege the English language culture.

Rapatahana and Smith are calling for a systematic restructuring which will treat Te Reo Maori as a comprehensive national living resource for Maori New Zealanders to situate themselves in the world, to grasp and conceptualise the world as social beings, the way Pakeha New Zealanders can use English, so that the two peoples can enter into a greater reciprocity. It is a politically charged statement because it calls for further advances in equity between Maori and Pakeha over and above the demands of the neo-liberal centrist politics which define contemporary New Zealand’s political parties. It is ultimately, a radical call which demands better from the future—and rightly, because if we believe in the concept of progress then that’s exactly what the future is for.

Mark P. Williams
Journalist and Independent Academic Researcher

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