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Spreading the Word – Why the Image of English Should Not Be a Single Story
English is omnipresent in today’s (Western) societies – every day, people are confronted with it in advertisements, movies, social media, and popular music. Nothing else seems to connect the world more than this lingua franca (ELF) does. But the triumph of English is only one side of the coin.
In “Politics, Power Relationships and ELT,” Alastair Pennycook outlines English’s (often hidden) legacy of colonialization, exploitation, discrimination, and globalization and, therefore, its consequences for English Language Teaching (ELT). Pennycook states that English and, especially ELT, always need to be seen in relation to power and politics. English not only creates opportunities but also fosters inequality because its spread in the world has always been “pushed by many forces”. In the context of ELT, every interaction – from textbooks to the English-only policy – “needs to be seen as social and cultural practices that have broader implications than just elements of classroom interaction”. He aims to reconstitute English in “more inclusive, ethical, and democratic terms” and to form a many-sided view of the relations of power and politics of ELT. Among other things, the role of English in local economies and student motivations for learning English need to be taken into account.
While I was reading Pennycook’s article, it reminded me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech called “The Danger of a Single Story”. I, personally, never questioned the status and influence of English in today’s society and never wondered why this language had become a lingua franca. But in many regards, Pennycook’s critical take on the spread of English was eye-opening for me and I realized that, until now, I had only heard a single story about English as a world language. He shows impressively that the spread of English was never coincidental but always bound to culture and the use of the language. Coming to see English in a new light also changes my perspective on ELT because as a teacher I stand in the tradition of propagating English.
For me, questions arise about how we can implement this other story of English in the ELT classroom. Unfortunately, Pennycook fails to develop and present precise suggestions for English teachers in order to change their teaching style according to his perception of English. Instead, he remains highly theoretical, abstract, and specific in stating his arguments. Because of the complexity of this topic, it remains a theoretical construct and nothing that seems actually realizable. I can only guess how Pennycook would like his view of English to be implemented in practice.
The reality is that in today’s globalized society, a lingua franca is necessary in order to communicate properly. With its legacy, English is predetermined to play this role – this is irreversible. Pennycook’s critical view of this trend is not only justified but also highly relevant in order to change the image of English permanently. Seen as the language of Great Britain or the United States of America, it needs to become a global language – a global English for everyone. This new perception of English should bear in mind its role in the history of colonialism and power relations. From this point onwards, a perception of English should be developed which acknowledges all Englishes spoken equally. In the classroom, English could then be taught as a language with connections to almost every part of the world which go back many centuries.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED Talk, www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript. Accessed on 27 June 2022.
Pennycook, Alastair. “Politics, power relationships and ELT.” The Routledge Handbook of English Language Teaching, edited by Graham Hall, Routledge, 2016, pp. 26-37,
www.routledgehandbooks.com/doi/10.4324/9781315676203.ch2. Accessed on 27 June 2022.
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