Linguistic imperialism is just one topic for debate at this year's IATEFL conference in Liverpool.

Linguistic imperialism is just one topic for debate at this year's IATEFL conference in Liverpool.

Linguistic imperialism is just one topic for debate at this year's IATEFL conference in Liverpool.

Anne Burns of Aston University, Birmingham, and University of New South Wales, Sydney, prepares to moderate a discussion on this topic at this year’s International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) Annual Conference.

In 1992 a book appeared in the field of applied linguistics that presented English language teachers with a highly challenging, even shocking, proposition. The author, Robert Phillipson, argued that the global teaching of English was an act of linguistic imperialism.

One of the major arguments in Linguistic Imperialism was that the spread of English, much of which had occurred through its prominence in global language education, has served to undermine the rights of other languages and to marginalise the opportunities that should exist for widespread multilingual education.

Since the 18th century, Phillipson argues, the spread of English has accompanied the political and economic intentions of English-speaking nations to conquer other countries. He claims this endangers their cultural ideals, their ways of life and their indigenous languages.

Collectively, English language teaching and its major agencies, such as the British Council, have been implicated in perpetuating myths about the significance and necessity of learning English and in ensuring that English has outstripped the teaching of other languages worldwide. Phillipson calls for radical change in language policy to redress the balance and to promote the multilingualism that reflects the more natural state of language use around the world.

Phillipson’s arguments have also provoked a number of criticisms, among which are making teachers feel unnecessarily guilty about teaching English, and adopting a patronising attitude towards developing countries by assuming they are incapable of making their own decisions about language choice. It has also been pointed out that a language of itself cannot be imperialistic.

Two decades on from when Phillipson’s book was published, we have another opportunity to debate his provocative questions about linguistic imperialism during this week’s IATEFL conference in Liverpool.

I am very much looking forward to facilitating the conversation among an expert panel of Dr Robert Phillipson himself, now Professor Emeritus at Copenhagen Business School; Dr Rebecca Kapitire Ndjoze-Ojo, former Deputy Minister for Education in Namibia; Dr Sarah Ogbay of the University of Asmara, Eritrea; and Danny Whitehead of the British Council in Indonesia.

The discussion is sure to provoke, challenge and stimulate, but what kinds of questions are likely to emerge? There are some that are still at the very centre of the debate: Are English language teachers promoters of linguistic imperialism? Or do they give learners access to a very important linguistic tool that helps individuals and economies to develop and compete globally? These questions continue to merit very serious consideration.

Moreover, as globalisation spreads and investment in English language learning increases, other questions continue to arise. Does the global spread of the English language threaten local languages, cultures and identities? Do these need to be safeguarded?

What are the forces driving the spread of English? Is the dominance of English online a threat?

We hope to hear your views about these questions, so share your thoughts in the comments, and check back here tomorrow when we will post video of the discussion.

If you’re attending the IATEFL conference, join us for the British Council Signature Event from 15.10 to 16.25 BST on Wednesday 10 April or join the debate on Twitter.

Follow our live coverage of the 47th Annual International IATEFL Conference and Exhibition.

Read more blogs about English.


Total 7 Comments Add your comment

Name*Paul Woods

Posted on April 10th, 2013 Report abuse

Phillipson’s core arguments could apply equally well to any language used as a major global lingua franca, not just English. For example French in much of West and Central Africa, Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America, Russian in the former FSU countries and Chinese in Tibet threaten the existence of indigenous languages whose use may be confined to increasingly restricted settings and contexts, especially where they are not used as a medium of instruction, or even taught, in schools. It is not clear why Phillipson singles out English as a target. In my view English has a clear role as a language of international and wider communication, but much more needs to be done by national governments to support linguistic diversity, and to document and promote minority languages threatened with linguicide. This should not be left entirely to charities such as SIL International (see but requires active intervention and adequate resourcing by governments.

Name* Gordon Slaven

Posted on April 12th, 2013 Report abuse

English is increasingly an additional local language in many countries: I am currently in the UAE, where an extremely multi-ethnic and linguistic community uses English as a lingua franca, as well as Arabic. Recent British Council research puts use of Arabic as 82% as the language of business within the UAE, and English at 77%. This is not about imperialism: it is about pragmatism. English is the language of globalisation, and I doubt that Chinese, or Arabic, or Russian speaking business people operating in English feel imperially put-upon. I suspect that they are rather grateful that by learning only one other language (which in the world’s current disposition is English) they can do business in most of the world.

There are issues around language in most countries of the world, and fewer and fewer countries have a single language as mother tongue for all their citizens. Without denying anyone the use and maintenance of their mother tongue (and I accept this not the case in many parts of the world), teaching citizens (an) additional language(s) that they can not only use with their fellow citizens (and through this build a national identity, in addition to their ethnic and linguistic identities), but also with people from all over the world; seems to me to be a liberating, rather than an oppressive or imperialist action. Far more oppessive, in my view, is denying people the opportunity to learn to communicate with others outside their lingustic group on grounds of lingusitic, ethnic, or national purity.

Name*Alan Bowman

Posted on April 14th, 2013 Report abuse

A common language gives opportunties for dialogue with peoples of other countries irrespective of whether it is their main or only languagae. Esperanto could well have fitted the need but for various reasons, it failed to take off. One could argue that Spanish being the second most common native language after Mandarin has a greater right to be the common language, however, when one considers the total number of speakers globally, then there are far more who speak English, even more than those who speak Mandarin. Being able to communicate freely with other peoples can defuse difficult situations, facilitate co-operation on global issues, even reduce the likelihood of war.

Having a common intermediary language can enable people who have native languages that are completely different and mutually unintelligible to the other party to communicate with ease, simply because they only need to translate their own language into the common language. There is no sense of conquest or subjugation in the spread of a common language other than in the minds of certain paranoid individuals.

Name*Tim Child

Posted on April 17th, 2013 Report abuse

I life in an expat community where native English speakers are a small minority of the foreigners living and working in our host country. Whenever a group of expats get together they do not use the local language (Hungarian) but English. In our host country the most common language for international business is English. The reason is not because of an imperial connection – most of the foreigners are from countries that were never part of the British Empire – but because we find it the easiest language to use. I have always felt that Phillipson and those who support his views are have some guilt complex. English has become the global language long after the Empire. It no longer belongs to any one country or culture but it belongs to the world. We should accept it and get on and have fun using it.


Posted on April 17th, 2013 Report abuse

The agents (teachers) mention on the preview are relevant forces driving the spread of English; however, I know colleagues who teach English and promote the spread and development of our Colombian culture, identity and language. Nonetheless, if we don´t simply eye but notice, there are in the governement stronger forces which are presumably careless about what happens to our culture , identity and language.

Julian Wing

Posted on May 2nd, 2013 Report abuse

You can watch the video of this debate on the IATEFL Liverpool Online website at:

Gearing up for IATEFL 2014 | Jennifer MacDonald

Posted on March 31st, 2014 Report abuse

[...] listening assessment. I also do like sessions on global issues and sociolinguistics; for example, the panel discussion on linguistic imperialism at last year’s IATEFL was one of the highlights of the whole [...]