Language as Capital, a Marxist Critique

Ever since the late Comrade Bordeaux’s claim that knowledge is capital and that social capital is used to stratify and justify society, many left-leaning types have succumbed to this bourgeois notion of human capital. And this is no different with ELT, as pseudo-Marxists have argued that language is another form of capital. Even Marxists like Phillipson have attempted to stretch this concept to explain the financial gain of the centre (advanced English-speaking capitalist societies) at the expense of the periphery (non-English-speaking advanced and not so advanced societies). In doing so they give a left-wing gloss to the centre-right theories of social integration and language which inform their reactionary social policies.-

Basically stated, learning a language supposedly gives us capital that we can use to produce benefits for ourselves and dependents. Not only the language we learn but how we use that language, for example the manner in which we communicate to a teacher or a bank manager. Language forms alliances which can be called upon to include and exclude others and therefore operates as power. Now, we have no problem with the notion that there are disadvantages to not being able to speak a certain language or speak it in a different way in a different context. And clearly language encodes clear power relations and ideology (we only have to think of the terms foetus and unborn child as employed by the opposite side of the right to choose debate- see, we have just used language that very same way). But this does not make it capital. Indeed stretching the meaning of capital as such empties the concept of any meaning.. It implies we all stand a priori equal to each other in a market place. That we are all capitalists. This is simply not true.

If one were to buy a suit, one could attend a job interview and maybe obtain a job in a bank. With two suits one could start the job and earn a salary. Later one could sell the suits second hand on the local market. In this way one is no different from the owners of the bank who buy a piece of land, furnish it with all the necessary equipment, employ you, make a huge profit, make you redundant (that’s why you are selling your suit) and sell on the land and building to another capitalist for another rich profit. What human capital theory disguises is the different relation we have to capital. The capitalist owns the means of production. (concrete capital) and we only have our labour power to sell (of which a surplus is taken by the capitalist as profit-i.e. capital).

Indeed, we can not buy or sell our language anymore than we can sell our own face (unless of course you are David Beckham and here you are selling the rights of usage not the face)- we can only use these attributes in our labour power.  Because, for the worker, language is not a commodity which we can sell on, we can  trade it only as part of our labour power, it is difficult to calculate how that language might benefit us- we do not face the market in the same way a capitalist faces the market- with clear saleable commodities with a clear exchange value. Indeed for a student learning a language it is rather like buying a super-expensive suit- it cannot be traded in directly for a job  but without it they will probably be denied a job, especially with a reserve army of unemployed to choose from. This is not investment in capital- this is the economic necessity of surviving under wage slavery .

 Phillipson’s argument in 2007 is a little more Marxist looking. After all he openly draws from the work of Marxist economics scholar David Harvey. Phillipson argues: 

The process of domain loss can be seen as linguistic capital accumulation by dispossession (Harvey 2005)




Now the concept of domain loss is an abstract and contradictory academic concept. Domain was originally developed to explain which language bilinguals choose  in which particular setting and why. So basically domain is a matter of not exercising a particular choice rather than losing one. Domain loss, however, suggests that an area (science) or quantity (a number of words) of language are lost to another language. However, do Latin words used by English doctors or do English words with new pronunciation and grammar incorporated into another language represent domain loss? And how can you quantify this and say that it has been extracted from one country and made available to another in terms of investment?  

This idea of Phillipson’s is rather a pity because in the same article he says, and I quote at length:

..language policy is a significant parameter in higher education planning. Continental European universities have traditionally not seen themselves as being in competition with foreign universities, but international marketisation is a reality they need to address, hence the need to address the role of English. The market for foreign students entails fierce competition with the United Kingdom. A survey conducted by the British Council warns that the UK economy is at risk if it doesn’t invest in international education. The goal in higher education is 8 per cent annual growth across the sector, and doubling the present number of 35,000 research graduates by 2020.

The British government sees education as a market opportunity. The British Council proclaims that it is the United Kingdom’s international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations.. It is registered in England as a charity, a misleading proposition which has to do with taxation, and elides the fact that most of its activities are self-funded through the income generated by English teaching and examining and other educational services18. The UK economy benefits by

£11 billion p.a. directly, and a further £12 billion indirectly, from .international. education. Its English-language industry is a vital pillar of the British economy, with over half a million people travelling to the UK for language courses, and a massive export of publications and know-how, with the British Council in a key integrative role worldwide.


So education is increasingly commodified for the world market and English classes are big money. No problem here but they are not capital and while English or education can be transformed into saleable commodities, it is available for sale by all sorts of competing capitalists whether they be Greek, Russian or Australian.  The school is capital, the course is a commodity and the student is a customer. The expansion of Higher Education and the associated expansion of English are, to quote Phillipson himself, driven by the need to find new markets:

 There are thus many aspects of quality in the internationalisation of higher education that urgently need addressing in the rush to expand or change higher education. The Asian factor is central: .demand. from China happens to match up with demographic changes in western Europe (less .supply. of local students), but what happens when the Chinese no longer choose or need to migrate to western universities?

And here we have it. China appropriates knowledge until it is self-sufficient and then it will abandon English. Probably wrong.. but highly indicative of Phillipson’s self-contradictory hypothesis.

 It is true Higher Education has expanded and it appears equally true that it has reached the limits of that expansion. The search for new markets is inevitable but so also is the search for more investment opportunities abroad and certain universities trying to monopolise the market through its brand.  

The panel of witnesses, faculty and leaders of top U.S. colleges and universities, highlighted the positive aspects of university expansion abroad. For the U.S. to maintain its economic competitiveness and leadership, testified Cornell University President David Skorton, universities “must instilm an international perspective in all our students” and “must collaborate with others internationally as never before.” He dismissed the idea that American institutions with programs abroad were “giving something away,” saying that the expanding pool of knowledge and exchange of ideas would benefit all and that unique research conducted elsewhere could be applied to problems in the U.S. as well. According to Philip Altbach, Director of Boston College’s Centre for International Higher Education, as academic programs, texts and curricula become more uniform and academic degrees accepted more internationally, the global academic marketplace will expand. He claimed that monetary gain was the central motivation for university expansion, but Gary Schuster, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, pointed out that Georgia Tech’s overseas programs were revenue-neutral and were established to complement and enhance the institution’s research opportunities and benefit its students. “We do not undertake international activities to make money,” he said in his statement.

The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News  Number 88: August 24, 2007

So without going into Henryk Grossman’s theory of unequal exchange (this issue will be dealt with elsewhere on these pages), we guess the reader already knows that profits will, ultimately, be greater in the most powerful nations. After all, how come the profits of Saudi Arabia and China are ploughed back into the USA or at least support the dollar and the huge trade deficit?

Language, therefore, is not capital but TEFL is indeed playing a part in the expansion of the Higher Education bubble. The language industry has positioned itself within this expansion in an attempt to find profits. Currently the biggest language on sale is English due to the dominant position of American, British and Australian universities. But one would be wrong to discount the commercial exploitation possibilities of other advanced state capitals like Germany and France and one would be equally wrong to assume that the English language industry is actually owned outright  by native English-speaking capitalists or that sharp shifts in language learning are not possible; look at the relatively recent decline in Russian.   

So, we can see that linguistic capital theory truly disguises the real power relations of production. It attributes a magical quality to learning a foreign language that it simply does not have, mirroring the crude advertising campaigns of language companies, promising to “unlock the future” “expand opportunities” “equip you for the international world”. There was one particular advertising campaign from The North American Institute which showed a father and his daughter carrying differently sized balloons, asking the viewer, “How big is your English?”. As if English could be quantified so easily or passed from hand to hand.

If such a theory mystifies the real relations of production, it also confuses how society is reproduced, held together ideologically. According to Bordeaux, students succeed or fail at school due to the amount of desired social capital they hold. Education is about identifying the shared tastes and interests of the ruling group, class is a set of aesthetic choices in that each class:

has its own artists and philosophers, newspapers and critics, just as it has its hairdresser, interior decorator or tailor”

 Or we could add: either watching Brideshead Revisted in original version (succesful student) or Die Hard 3 in dubbed version (failed student)

Startling really that your average school teacher sifts through their pupils looking for evidence of ruling social capital, which, lets face it, they simply don’t have themselves. Otherwise they would be on a yacht in the Carribean counting their profits, or, at the very least, sipping wine with the other professors at Oxford.   

It is clear that eduction promotes a notion of culture and that this culture is not ideologically neutral but, in reality, it is not the content of eduction that subjugates the worker, but the very organisation of education itself.

Firstly, one should not overestimate or underestimate the direct role education has in improving productivity. Clearly certain levels of numeracy and literacy are basic requirements in most jobs and production would be considerably harmed without them. But on a content level, it is diffuclt to see how history, music, or physics have any impact on most production. With the later two, however, one can see that a certain path of training moves towards specific industries. Similarly, whilst history in content terms does not appear to add to production, it does add to the realisation  of value in providing a market (an appreciation of history) for films, books, the heritage industry etc.Therefore, the link between production and content exists but is not necessarily direct or “efficient”. 

Secondly, there are skills which are taught at school, which prepare the worker for the outside world which are not content based but are general skills necessary for most jobs; discipline, timekeeping, hard repetitive labour are the most oft-qouted.  However, much of what passes for radical teaching within education such as project work, problem solving, team work etc is, in fact, preparartion for the modern workplace. The modern workplace is less hierarchical, requires greater flexibility and input from the woker. Now the manger does not solve the problem but the team. And the reward for these new responsibiliies; Well…for the capitalst, increased profits and for the worker, less job security, longer hours, more stress. So schools are now producing new workers (with better problem solving, greater autonomy, longer time spent studying) for capitalists, who reward them less as a proportion of the new pofits made and contribute less and less to the costs of their training. What progress. It is not the teacher who keeps discipline, it is the reserve army of labour that hangs like the sword of Damocles over the worker and their family.

Finally, the obstacle course that is education. shuffles the bent pack of cards to show the winners and losers. Of course, the effect of education creating new jobs, as we have seen, is at best marginal  but it remains the most efficient way of justifyig stratfication in the jobmaket. There are so many architects not because that is how many people can be trained to be architects but because that is what the market can support. If you are therefore relegated to a technical draughtsperson through lack of opportunity  you must accept less pay. Therefore, education stratifies us against each other. Education is not to create and share work of value and enjoyment, it is to divide us against each other so we never have time nor opportunity to ask questions about what is produced, who it is produced for and how it could be produced alternatively. Yes the modern education system encourages problem solving but it strictly determines the limits of the problems to be solved.   Education is not social capital, it creates use values that can only be realised through labour power and it attempts to create these use values in a manner which is convenient for the organisation of the workplace and class power generally.

Language therefore reflects the same trajectory:

Firstly, we should not overestimate nor underestimate the function of foreign language learning  in production. The link is not always direct or efficient. For example the Portuguese waiter who has learned English from other waiters in order to “better” perform his job pays for his daughter, who is studying to become an acountant, to attend English classes. If she then works for a company and never uses English how can we quantify how  “investment” in English improves productivity. On the one hand, with no direct financial investment (but time) yes… on the other with direct financial investment (and time)…no.  

Secondly, language learning is packaged in such a way it reflects the modern workplace:

 With regard to ability to learn, learners may (be expected/required to) develop

their study skills and heuristic skills and their acceptance of responsibility for their own learning Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: learning, teaching, assessment


In short, responsibility for education is no longer that of society, a collective reponsibility in how to allocate resources and train teachers. Teachers provide the minumum of resources, set targets and assess how well the individual has performed against these targets. Questions of access to the teacher, class sizes, quality of materials all evaporate in talk of methodological pluralism and learner autonomy. These are the dominant motifs of our society, we are liberated from the hierarchy of the past. Except, of course, that this liberation leaves the same class relations in tact and the elite prosper even more at the expense of the poor.

Finally,  as any student of foreign languages knows, learning a language to pass exams takes time, intense effort and money. Yes there are those immigrants, for example those from Senegal who arrive in Barcelona and wihin three months have added Catalan and Spanish to their communiative repetoir, but it is not these gifted language learners who will benfit the most from language acquisition , no they will spend their time running from the police, trying to find ways to feed themselves and send money home to their families. The people who will prosper are those who have the resources to employ teachers best placed to help them through exams, go to the best schools, spend study periods abroad. This is not to say that working class people do not sacrifice to send their children to extra language classes or do not go ino debt to send their children abroad for four weeks, it is merely to ask why on earth they should  do so. They do so, of course, in a hopeless attempt to close the ever increasing gap between the elite and themselves. If learning a language is so important, then class sizes should be reduced for all, all students should enjoy extra tutoring where necessary and all children enjoy summers studying abroad.   The truth is that such policies are uneconomic because formal language learning isn’t really that important, What is important is the use of language disadvantage to stratfify society, to create elites.

So those who follow Bordeaux in his notion of linguistic capital somehow believe language learning creates more, or at least represents an exchange between individuals or societies and holds those same societies together. We have been at pains to point out here that such notions are highly dubious. We believe there is no clear ratio/equation between language learning and economic growth. When governments bemoan immigrants for their failure to “dominate the language” of the host country, they do not accept that such people have seen through the “language as capital” argument. They know that language learning is no panacea for low paid jobs and poor housing and racist attacks. There are only so many “good jobs” and “dominating the host language” is hardly going to entitle them to these. Of course they hope for better for their children, and it is these second and third generation offspring who take to the streets when the lies of progress told to their all sacrificing parents have been exposed by the harsh realities of unemployment, no housing, badly resourced schools, racist attacks and media demonisation. Moreover, we have seen that languages do ot necessarily belong to a country, neither the language nor the country, in themselves, are the problem but the class system and its imperialist tendencies. Ultimately, language learning does not promote cohesion, rather it divides people against each other.  As Haberlkand (2007) argues in the case of Denmark:

 we encounter classic elite multilingualism for inter-group communication, and a widespread, but functionally restricted receptive multilingualism which makes it possible to use English (and, to a lesser extent, otherlanguages) in advertisements.

The only cohesion is that offered is by those who obscure where the real power relations lie in society, who argue that we face the market a priori and equal, and any inequality can be ironed out by positive action from the state. Here at Marxist TEFL we argue that if you want to release the creative force of other language learning, then you must smash the chains of the class and imperialist relations which imprison that creative force.



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