Science and “native English-speaker advantage”

Perhaps the best we can do is to change the rhetoric, by making it persistently clear to native English-speakers that they do indeed possess an unfair advantage that they should set about voluntarily remedying. There are some indications that this is beginning to happen. Nothing less than a rethinking of the language policy of the international scientific community seems called for – a shift from rank profit-making to egalitarian information-sharing.

Humphrey Tonkin 2008

At MTG we would whole heartedly agree with the final sentence.  We would also agree with the general sentiment of Tonkin’s interesting paper.  Where we would disagree with Tonkin, however,  (and here he is merely echoing authors such as Van Prijs and R Phillipson), is with the very concept of native English-speaker advantage. The very concept for us only obscures linguistic inequalities and their causes. Rather than throw light upon this complex issue and the measures required to redress such inbalances in power, such a concept merely reinforces market ideologies. It is of little surprise, therefore, that Tonkin can quote Graddol (an infamous apologist for neo-liberalism) in support of his hypothesis, even though Graddol’s arguments are in complete contradiction to his own:

David Graddol has recently warned (2006) that the biggest threat facing British scientists is a growing unwillingness to master other languages. English is rapidly becoming a language of second-language speakers: it may even have dropped to fourth position in the world in the number of native speakers, while the number of non-native speakers is continuing to grow rapidly (Graddol 1997, 2006). Not only does this mean that on a worldwide scale control of the English language is slipping out of the hands (or mouths) of its native speakers, but also that native English speakers are trapped in their own language even as individual multilingualism (the term used to describe speakers capable of handling several languages) is on the increase elsewhere in the world. As this happens, more and more non-English-speaking universities are offering English-language programs, thereby challenging the near-monopoly previously enjoyed by the English-speaking countries. The Erasmus program and now the Bologna Process, designed to improve mobility among institutions and now covering some 45 countries, has encouraged this development.

To be fair to Tonkin, he sees Graddol’s comments  from a more human perspective (pursuit of knowledge)rather than a purely economic perspective (pursuit of economic survival) as the quote below reveals:

So the monolingualism widely encountered among scientists, especially those from the USA, does carry inherent disadvantages (they may remain ignorant of significant developments in many fields), even if the disadvantages are outweighed by the advantages.

For Graddol, of course, the advantages don’t outweigh the disadvantages. The march of global capitalism is leaving the monolingual native English-Speaker behind because such speakers will be denied access to key international markets.

What both Tonkin and Graddol appear to accept is the inevitability of the market and that there is a meaningful sense of economic advantage/disadvantage attributable to any individual merely by means of being a native speaker/non-native speaker. This is the language of division and needs to be challenged.

For example, one might say to the receptionist at a holiday resort in Barbados,

“This is a beautiful island, you are so advantaged living here”

No doubt, he or she would look somewhat puzzled. They might reply that whilst they are fortunate in some ways to live there, they can’t possibly understand the use of the word advantaged. This surely relates to advantage in competition with others or the advantages and disadvantages of choosing one option over another.  As to the latter, they might think of the advantage of the climate and the disadvantage of having to entertain tourists (especially ones as ignorant as the question maker). The concept of competition for such a person has no meaning at all.

Indeed, the language of advantage, is really only applicable when assessing antagonistic self-contained units in competition with each other. This is the language of capitalism. In this language  people become individuals in continual competition for scarce resources. Now, clearly workers are in competition with each other (both in competition for jobs and in competition with other workers producing a similar product for the same market) but this is only a surface competition, as the worker does not choose whether to participate or not in this game, they are obliged to do so. Nor do any of the workers have any meaningful control/input into the rules of this competition (merely they are told what is required of them if they wish to be “successful” in this game). In short, by not being able to dictate the general rules of the game, all participants, or at least the majority (the workers) are severely disadvantaged.

So, if a scientist has an advantage because they are a native English-speaker, in what ways is there a real competition between them and a scientist who is a non-native speaker? For Tonkin, the fact that conferences/papers etc are nearly all in English, therefore, such native speakers have not had to dedicate years of study to learning English and that they may be able to express their ideas more easily, is clearly an advantage.  We would ask, Tonkin, however, in what ways does your average research scientist control their sphere of work and make the decisions with respect to grant allocations, editorial boards of journals, conference speakers, etc.?  Clearly, for those successful in the game, it is in their individual interest to perpetuate and intensify the inequality embodied in these rules but this is not necessarily the same for all particpants, especially those at the bottom of the ladder.

At MTG we do not see individuals as embodying power. Not that power cannot be exercised by individuals rather that such power is drawn from wider social relationships such as class, gender and race.  Therefore, we see no economic advantage in language per se, only in the uses it is put to. It is rather like suggesting to a villager in the Niger  Delta, that they are so advantaged to have oil in their region, he or she will of course reply that the discovery and exploitation of oil has led to enormous misery. A member of the Nigerian ruling class, paid handsomely by the oil company, will, of course, appear more positive about such rich deposits of oil in that region. This is the power of social class, and the power of Shell Oil is the power of imperialism.

Here, therefore, we disagree with all the advantage/disadvantage of the native speaker theorists as English is merely a resource which is the site of power struggles. For some people , the fact that people speak  English, have learnt English or are learning English has had enormous advantages, but this advantage cannot be generalised to all native English speakers and we cannot forget that non-native English speakers (even non English speakers) can benefit enormously from English.

Imagine two scenarios:

A: Joan leaves Southampton, England and goes to Italy to teach English. After five years, she starts her own school in Milan on money borrowed from the UK. She imports her books from the UK and the majority of her students go to study every year in Cambridge for one month. 40% of her students end up studying at British Universities and working for English multinationals based in Italy. Joan retires in England, buying a beautiful country house.

B. Joan leaves Southampton, England and goes to Germany to teach English. She works for Andreas in Hamburg.  Unbeknown to Joan, she only uses books from publishers owned by German companies and whose editions are printed in Germany.  Five of her students become research scientists for a large German pharmaceutical company. These students develop a cure for cancer (using English to liaise effectively with other scientists/scientific findings). Another one of her students oversees the takeover of a large pharmaceutical company in England by this new prosperous German multi-national.   Profits are enormous as this company expands its operation all over the world (English being the shared business language of middle-management). One of the research scientists, Manuela, marries Joan and they live happily ever after in Hamburg.

As can be seen from these two examples, the economic advantage of English is never so straightforward, not even on a national level. The simple fact is that we cannot talk broadly about native English speaker advantage (disadvantage), it must be demonstrated. This is not to excuse the status quo. We agree with Tonkin when he talks of the enormous harm that this obsession with publications in English causes. After all, surely a scientist’s value lies in their scientific capabilities and not in their mastery of a particular second language.  Yet, in the world of profit making, information sharing is not of the utmost priority (indeed it is all too often discouraged).

It is not only linguistic inequalities in science that need to be addressed but the very class, race and gender bias which holds humanity back from  the very solutions required to the enormous problems we collectively face. By placing the blame on native English speakers, we miss the real powerful interests that stunt the growth of a truly egalitarian international scientific community, capable of facing these challenges.

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5 responses to “Science and “native English-speaker advantage”

  1. Whenever the ‘advantages’ of English are held up here in Asia, we start from a baseline of 1945 and compare and contrast Japan and the Philippines. Most Japanese know little or no English, and do not care to. In the Philippines the language has ‘nativized’ (even if many English-language conservatives are unwilling to accept this status for the language in places like Philippines, Malaysia, and most importantly, India).

    On the other hand, one debate that is stifling is over power in ELT. Worldwide it seems fairly clear to me that most of what could be called ‘ELT’ is controlled not by ‘native speakers of English’ but by those for whom it is a foreign–indeed alien–language. Most of the decisions that affect the ‘economics’ and fiscal aspects of ELT in Japan are decided by people who don’t even understand English!

    The critiques about linguicism and linguistic imperialism and the like are often simply pseudo-critiques coming from people well esconced in Anglophone academia and/or the ELT business as it is exported from the UK, Australia and USA. These critiques have been latched onto by rather elite people in places like Singapore and Malaysia simply because they feel slighted that they can’t have high-powered academic careers in the UK or US and must remain in the old former colonies.

    • I wrote earlier:
      >>Worldwide it seems fairly clear to me that most of what could be called ‘ELT’ is controlled not by ‘native speakers of English’ but by those for whom it is a foreign–indeed alien–language.<<

      I should also add: but of course the dream of many in ELT in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, etc. is that through neoliberal deregulation, liberalization, etc. they will be able to expand even more into EFL markets like China, Japan, Korea.

      One issue that they can't deal adequately with is the language and cultural barriers that await them. One case in point was how bubble Japan in the 1980s was going to be the promised land for US universities and their 'ESL programs' and degrees earned in English. The problems were that they didn't know how to operate in Japan, most Japanese might want to study short-term abroad but when the Americans come to Japan, the 'magic' gets lost, and most American institutions were not prepared to teach English to students who don't even get a minimum valid TOEFL score (they had never seen real EFL beginners before).

      That doesn't mean we here in Japan, for example, should embrace the capitalist government and economy we have when it turns nationalistic and 'anti-foreign'. It simply means that the Americans or British aren't going to be any help either. Not when pursuing the export of language and education is just another capitalist undertaking.

      • marxistelf

        Thank you Charles for your further comments. There is obviously a lot which unites our perspectives and clearly this is an overtly political blog where you can easilly express such opinion. We invite you to submit a guest piece or two, on the politics of research and methodolgy in ELT (or whatever).
        Our contact point is
        We have also included your blog ELT in Japan on our blog roll

        In comradeship
        Marxist Elf

      • I have placed your blog on my list of blogs as well. Will work on a bit longer piece about research and knowledge making in ELT. There is politics, and then there is all else, and all else is still political.

  2. marxistelf

    We very much look forward to your guest piece(s)

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