Pupils in an English class in Rwanda, where English replaced French in 2008 as the official language of instruction in schools
Pupils in an English class in Rwanda, where English replaced French in 2008 as the official language of instruction in schools © Tim Smith / Panos

English is the language of business and science. The government in Rwanda, and many people in Tunisia, prefer it to French. Singapore makes sure every child is fluent in it. It is the world’s lingua franca, the key to success for every ambitious parent and a central part of the curriculum of every sensible school.

That is one way of looking at it. The other is that English is a “bully, juggernaut, nemesis”, an “unnerving border crosser, criminal and intruder”, an international conspiracy run by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, Nato, the British Council and the massed ranks of Anglo-American capitalism. The worldwide spread of English reflects the “Washington linguistic consensus”, which is the “aggressive promotion of English to serve Western political and economic interests”. The supposed benefits of English to ordinary people around the world — better jobs, higher salaries, access to new technologies — have been vastly oversold. Only national elites and their foreign sponsors benefit from the penetration of English. For the vast majority, “English promises much but delivers little.”

That is the view of Why English? Confronting the Hydra, a collection of essays by a group of academics and English teachers. This book follows an earlier work, English Language as Hydra, but adds additional context to that work’s national case studies, as well as adding its own. Why English? begins on an apologetic, partly italicised, note. “There is, indeed, huge irony in the fact this collection is written in English and published in the United Kingdom. Such is the power of the global publishing industry and the pervasiveness of English-language hegemony that this critique needs to emanate from within its very realm.”

The authors would doubtlessly view any irritation at the stridently polemical tone of this book as exactly what one would expect from the Financial Times, a prominent participant in the anglophone ascendancy. So we should say at once that Why English? has much to recommend it. With schools and universities in Latin America, continental Europe and Asia rushing to embrace English, it is appropriate to ask whether they are going about it in the right way and for the right reasons. A number of authors of this collection have taught English and have classroom experience of what is and isn’t working.

The writers repeatedly stress that they are not opposed to students learning English. Indeed, they welcome it. But they object to the practice, particularly common in African countries, of attempting to teach children in English from early on. They cite repeated research showing that children learn more effectively if they start their schooling in their mother tongue. They not only acquire greater facility in subjects such as mathematics and science; they also end up learning better English if it is introduced as a foreign language and slowly integrated into their lives.

The problem for the writers, which they acknowledge, is that many parents around the world refuse to accept this. They demand English early. One of several examples they cite is a school in Islamabad that taught in Urdu in the early years, while devoting 15 per cent of classroom time to English. The school planned to increase the proportion of English teaching gradually until the children were thoroughly bilingual. The school said its mission was “to reclaim and create our own agenda instead of selling out to alien cultures”. It had to close. Its founder said: “The bulk of people did not want what we were offering.”

People note that the elites in their societies make sure their children speak English and understandably ask: if it is right for their kids, why not for ours?

Is there any substance to the authors’ view that this popular passion for English is the result of an Anglo-American conspiracy? The colonial roots of world English are incontestable. The vastness of the British empire, followed by America’s cultural, commercial and technological dominance, meant that when companies, scientists and academics, increasingly trading and working together, needed a language to communicate in, English was widely available.

But Why English? greatly overstates the power of English language publishers and English-as-a-foreign-language schools. These are fragmented, not particularly profitable, businesses bobbing on the global English wave. As for the British Council, while the bulk of its revenues come from English teaching and examinations, supplemented by a government grant, it struggles to break even.

When business, entertainment and technology expanded around the globe, English happened to be in the right place at the right time, writes Nkonko Kamwangamalu, quoting David Crystal, a prolific writer on the language. Kamwangamalu, a linguistics professor at Howard University in Washington DC, agrees that the US and UK — and France — are not entirely innocent of imposing their languages on the world. Foreign aid is sometimes tied to promoting a former colonial tongue.

And he endorses the research that shows children learn more, and end up speaking better English, if they are educated in their own languages. But the merit of his elegantly written and intelligent book Language Policy and Economics: The Language Question in Africa is that he views African parents as subjects — makers of their own decisions about their and their children’s futures — rather than as objects manipulated by nefarious outsiders. Parents in Africa, he says, have noticed how people get ahead in the world and have concluded that speaking English is a big part of it.

“It does not take long for the language consumer to realise that an education through the medium of an African language does not ensure its recipients social mobility and a better socio-economic life,” Kamwangamalu writes.

The problem, he says, is that education in English has not worked in Africa. Unesco statistics show the continent has the world’s highest illiteracy rates. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than one in three adults cannot read. And in spite of learning in English, many African students leave school unable to speak, read or write in the language. In 2013, the University of Malawi had to dismiss over 100 students because they could barely express themselves in English. In Uganda and Nigeria, only 15 per cent of the population are functionally literate in English, in spite of it being the official language of both countries.

Kamwangamalu points out that, Singapore aside, all developed countries school their children in the mother tongue of the majority, teaching English as a foreign language. Most achieve better education results, and produce students who speak better English.

Kamwangamalu understands why many postcolonial African countries opted for English both as an official language and as a medium of education. The citizens of many of these countries speak dozens of languages. English has the advantage of being neutral. It is not tied to any ethnic group. It can be used to promote national unity. But, he says, that doesn’t explain why monolingual countries such as Swaziland and Lesotho have opted for English too. The reason is that they think teaching children in English improves their, and their countries’, prospects.

Kamwangamalu says that if governments are to convince people that education in local languages would be preferable, they have to show that these languages improve children’s prospects as much as English seems to. How can this be done? The author points to Quebec, where the provincial government required businesses to provide goods and services in French.

African governments could make fluency in a local language a criterion for public sector employment, he says. But in hugely multilingual countries, which languages should they choose? He accepts that it would be impractical to provide education in and award jobs for every language. He suggests concentrating on national or regional lingua francas, such as Swahili in east Africa, which, if not every child’s mother tongue, is at least “both culturally and structurally” closer to it.

Would that be better than educating children in English? As Kamwangamalu observes, what someone’s mother tongue is can often be difficult to discern in Africa, where most people speak at least two languages and many four or five. And, particularly in cities, English is increasingly one of the languages they speak, often inventively and creatively. This is the principal weakness of both these books: the authors pay little attention to how people, not just in Africa but around the world, are reshaping English. The British Council estimates that there are close to 2bn people who speak English to a reasonable level — far outnumbering native speakers in the US and the UK. The new English speakers are leaving their mark on the language, investing it with new grammatical and lexical features.

You can see this, sparklingly, in South Africa, one of the world’s most fascinating linguistic laboratories. Because of the prominence of South Africans in English letters — the country has produced two Nobel literature laureates in Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee — it is easy to forget that fewer than 10 per cent of the population speak English at home.

South Africa has 11 official languages. Zulu is the home language of the largest number — 22.7 per cent, followed by Xhosa at 16 per cent and Afrikaans at 13.5 per cent. But English is the country’s lingua franca, the language most widely used in business, courts and parliament. In her fascinating book The Linguistic Landscape of Post-Apartheid South Africa, Liesel Hibbert, a South African academic, explains how the country’s recent history has speeded up the mixing of tongues, the practice of switching between languages, often in a single sentence, and the development of a distinctive black South African English.

Since the advent of democracy in 1994, formal racial segregation has been abolished, black children have begun attending formerly all-white state schools, the lifting of cultural and economic boycotts has increased links with the rest of the world and there has been an influx of migrants from the rest of Africa. All of these developments have resulted in a bubbling linguistic ferment — and new forms of English.

Hibbert focuses on the English spoken in the country’s parliament by the newly arrived, mostly black MPs, whose style was often informal. Frene Ginwala, the post-apartheid parliament’s first Speaker, said: “Just as we relaxed the dress code, we should also not force MPs into verbal suits and ties, or gloves and hats, which would be out of character.”

Black South African English frequently incorporates elements of both local African languages and Afrikaans. Hibbert notes how black South African MPs mix Afrikaans words into their English when criticising their white opponents, which has the dual effect of both attacking and including them, indicating that they are all part of the same country with its own in-group linguistic references.

This book has its flaws: chapters on present and past presidents Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki would have been more in keeping with the theme of the book if they had investigated their language styles rather than the intent of their political discourse, and another chapter on the clampdown on press freedom sits oddly. But Hibbert revels in the English she hears around her. Her country’s, and her continent’s, education problems are serious. But that should not detract from the way so many, particularly the young, are making English their own.

Why English? Confronting the Hydra, edited by Pauline Bunce, Robert Phillipson, Vaughan Rapatahana and Ruanni Tupas, Multilingual Matters, RRP£109.95/$189.95, 312 pages

Language Policy and Economics: The Language Question in Africa, by Nkonko M. Kamwangamalu, Palgrave Macmillan, RRP£60/$99, 232 pages

The Linguistic Landscape of Post-Apartheid South Africa: Politics and Discourse, by Liesel Hibbert, Multilingual Matters, RRP£89.95/$149.95, 184 pages

Michael Skapinker is an FT columnist

Photograph: Tim Smith / Panos

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