Reviews / March 2017 (Issue 35)

Global Language Education and Diversity: Why English? Confronting the Hydra

by Nicholas Chan


Pauline Bunce, Robert Phillipson, Vaughan Rapatahana, Ruanni Tupas (editors), Why English? Confronting the Hydra, Multilingual Matters, 2016. 312 pgs.

For the sake of transparency, we would like to inform readers that Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, a co-editor at Cha, is a contributor to this collection.


In our rapidly globalising society, it has becomes a cliché—for both English and non-English speakers—to point out that the use of English has been spreading worldwide. In his own review of Why English? Confronting the Hydra in The Asian Review of Books, for example, Peter Gordon writes that this evident fact "has been documented in such books as The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel by Nicholas Ostler and […] discussed from a Japanese perspective in The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura." Gordon also highlights a corollary to the global spread of English, one initially put forward by Larry Summers in the New York Times: "for American students at least, learning other languages [is] largely a waste of time," a statement which strongly implies the taken-for-grantedness of English as a hegemonic language. In this short review of Why English?, I aim to engage with some of Gordon's arguments and explore a few issues revolving around English as the global hydra. I will then turn to the context of Hong Kong through my personal observations and experiences as a local student.

The essays in Why English? presents the perspectives of various stakeholders related to the English language teaching (ELT) industry. As the publisher states on its website for the collection:

This book brings together the voices of English language teachers, linguists and award-winning community voices in detailing a range of confronting and confrontational accounts of the powerful, yet possibly unforeseen impacts that the global English language teaching industry can have on unsuspecting, non-English-speaking communities worldwide.

The second publication in the "Linguistic Diversity and Language Rights series" by Multilingual Matters that takes the hydra as its theme—the first being English Language as Hydra: Its Impacts on Non-English Language Cultures (2012)—Why English? provides a comprehensive collection of essays on the often-neglected downsides of the ever-growing global English language teaching industry. According to Gordon, the two books "individually and jointly […] take the position that the promotion of English is often if not usually a manifestation of post-colonialism, an instrument of oppression (political or otherwise) and a danger to less-favoured languages." Again, this perspective is highlighted on the book's website, which offers an explanation for the metaphor in the title:

In this new collection, our contributors liken the burgeoning ELT industry to the all-powerful, multi-headed monster of Greek mythology known as the Hydra. This volume further documents the threats that can be posed by this beast's (often beguiling) "heads," as the multiple branches of the ELT industry (e.g. textbooks, examinations, overseas teaching schemes, policy advice to governments) manage to infiltrate an ever-widening range of national and international settings.

In other words, as the website also points out, the collection looks into various widely held myths about the efficacy of teaching English—for example, how early English education is often seen as a catapult for success, but how this belief often results in the language being taught in a too-much, too-soon manner, to the detriment of children's conceptual development. Nevertheless, the book's central metaphor requires further consideration. In Gordon's opinion, for instance, "the use of the hydra metaphor in almost all the papers is rather awkward: metaphors make for better polemic than robust argument; the repetitive can be stylistically problematic."

Another element of note in Why English? is the diversity (geographical and contextual) of its contributions. As the website notes:

The book's 24 chapters span locations on every continent, including contributions from Iceland, Eastern Europe, the Pacific and the USA. The language settings range from call centres to volunteer teaching, from elementary classrooms to teacher training to language policy-making. [...] Many of [the] chapters detail a welcome pushing-back against the often deleterious effects of prioritising English language teaching in non-English-dominant societies.

Yet, some of the benefits that we may expect from such a diversity of voices is undermined by the obvious and consistent political slant of the book. As Gordon points out the "papers have such titles as 'Offshore Call Centre Work is Breeding a New Colonialism,' 'The Struggle to Raise Bilingual Children in the Belly of the English Hydra Beast: The United States of America' and 'The English Language as a Trojan Horse Within the People's Republic of China.'" Unfortunately, this single-minded socio-political perspective not only limits areas for debate within the book, but may even result in misleading conclusions about the deleterious effects of English. Gordon identifies one potential case, arguing that "languages are becoming extinct at an increasing rate, but most are at threat not from English but from a locally dominant language." While I agree with his conclusion that "[i]f Quechua and Breton die out, it is because they have been supplanted by Spanish and French, not English," I find it difficult to fully accept his assertion that "Cantonese's fight is with Mandarin, not English." To a large extent, I believe that Cantonese is also competing with English in Hong Kong's language education. An obvious example is the HKSAR's former policy of turning Chinese (i.e., largely Cantonese) as a medium of instruction (CMI) schools into English as a medium of instruction (EMI) schools. Likewise, many parents continue to value English over Cantonese and are willing to pay hefty tuition fees to send their children to international schools. People like me who are concerned about this focus on English in Hong Kong will find arguments and examples in Why English? to support their concerns.

My personal experiences also add to my feeling that English and Cantonese compete within the city. Since 2008, in my capacity as a student-teacher at a summer internship called "Summerbridge Hong Kong"—a summer English enhancement programme for teenagers—I have noticed that students who come from local secondary schools, mostly CMI schools, have been constantly reminded to "speak English all the time," a slogan repeated endlessly every school day. Instead of prioritising English; however, the non-profit organisation running this programme simultaneously highlights that "Chinese is a beautiful language," thus eradicating the possibility of hierarchising these two official languages practised in Hong Kong, without undermining their main goal of enhancing students' English language skills in a purposefully devised international school setting.

Other limitations of Why English? are not to be overlooked. I agree with Gordon's observation that "the papers in the book largely take it as writ that linguistic diversity is [a] good thing without really explaining why." To a certain extent, it makes sense for him to question that "the flipside of [the authors] arguing that no language is 'better' than any other is that it then does not matter if one speaks one or the other" and reach the conclusion that "[n]o one would any longer be at a linguistic disadvantage [...] if everybody ended up speaking English." However, I doubt that many of us would sacrifice our native language, especially as it is often a central function of our cultural identity. Therefore, a single-global-language policy would still appear hypothetical at this stage. Last but not least, although the book's circumscription of the issues appears well-founded, some of its conclusions lack persuasiveness, and I would agree therefore with Gordon that they require "a deeper look at possible alternatives."

A key purpose of this book is the promotion of diversified language education. As Tove Skutnabb-Kangas suggests in the Foreword, "the chapters in this book consistently advocate a considered, and respectful, mother-tongue-based multilingual approach to language education." Despite the fact that English is often inevitably prioritised above other languages, Skutnabb-Kangas argues that it is pivotal that "all language should be taught additively so that especially children's linguistic repertoire grows [...] and a wider recognition of a diversity of languages [could be achieved in the long run]." This does not mean that we should abandon English education, as every language has unique linguistic elements that are advantageous to users and learners. However, as the authors in this collection emphasise, we should fundamentally oppose its prioritisation over local and regional languages, so as to move towards a more equitable linguistic order.

 Nicholas Chan is currently a research postgraduate at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He aspires to become a professor specialising in literary studies and film studies in the future. He is interested in English writings of all sorts, particularly novels, poetry and short stories. Besides his immense interest in academic research, he also hopes to publish a collection of works that bring meaning to life one day, addressing issues related to culture, gender and social affairs.
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