Language Learning and Inequality.

There is no doubt that second language learning (in particular English) can act as a gatekeeper to certain jobs, educational opportunities and social positions (e.g. politician). However, it is important not to confuse a concrete expression of inequality with its cause. It is rather like saying the more money spent on tobacco as percentage of income, the higher the incidence of lung cancer. In short, we need to look at the root causes of the problem and see how they are mediated by issues of class, race and ethnicity rather than assume the manipulation of a secondary variable can resolve the problem. For example, if governments were to make tobacco cheaper (believing the percentage of income to be the problem)it would probably result in a rise in the incidence of lung cancer, were they to make it more expensive (being counter-intuitive) it might result in a decrease in incidence but not necessarily reduce inequalities across categories of gender, class and race. And so we see the same with issues of Language Inequality. This is taken from an interesting and well-informed   study of English Learning in Pakistan:

Keeping in view the favourable attitudes to English of all stake holders in higher education for instrumental reasons, and to allow effective participation from the public sector where English acts as a gate-keeper and a powerful means of inclusion or exclusion from further education, employment, or social positions (Tollefson, 1991; Pattanayak, 1981; Rajah, 1990), it would be important to consider a language policy in education where all students are empowered by being fluent in English. This seems to be the best solution to a very complex and problematic issue. By removing the barrier of English, students from the public sector institutions and lower socio-economic strata would be able to access higher education and white-collared jobs. The challenge of working on the notion of “English for development” is that it would have to take into account not only the concept of sustainable development (see Pennycook, 1994) and linking it with “notions of local involvement, continuity, and ecological soundness,” but also to ensure that development does not only “imply a linear path of development that is easily conflated with notions of modernization, and westernization”. This would involve that post-colonial countries such as Pakistan develop an indigenous model for English language teaching that is suitable in its own context.

The problem with this analysis is that it confuses the secondary variable (inequalities in language competence) with its primary causes (gender, ethnicity and class). Indeed for all its talk of “post-colonial indigenous model” and “sustainable development” it merely reflects the dominant imperialist model whereby inequalities in knowledge are the root causes of inequality in the world. If less-developed countries improve their knowledge base (modernisation) then they can lift themselves out of poverty.  Little attention is paid to the fact that the “finest minds” of such countries somehow find themselves transported to the most powerful countries or that the knowledge base of each country neatly fits into a hierarchy in the international division of labour (e.g. low-end software production in India is simply incomparable to the high-end software production in the United States).

Of course, for this ideology to be all pervasive it must also structure inequality in the heartlands of the imperial capitalist system. In the US, Japan and Europe we will hear that education is the prime determinant of economic success, both at home and abroad. With its heavy expansion in higher education, the populace are being told that it is education that determines economic outcomes and not class, gender or ethnicity. As debts mount in working class homes, the idea is sold that only education can secure prosperity and security. At a time when income differences in these countries are reaching historic proportions not seen since the 1920’s, the message is clear, this inequality is based on education.

However, careful analysis of the facts reveals that whilst education (or the lack of it) correlates strongly with growing income inequality, it is not true to say that education is the principal cause of that inequality. Jared and Mishel ‘s work (2007) painstakingly reveals that in the US education has been a tool for structuring income inequality rather than redistributing wealth and opportunity:

In other words, wage inequality is driven by a slew of factors, of which differences in education is but one. More recently, in the 2000s, the evidence shows no evidence of increasing skill demands, or at least no evidence that these demands are not being met by enough skilled workers. Instead, in recent years, it appears the inequality has largely been driven by increased concentration of income and wealth at the very top of the scale. The current inequality is much more than a simple skills story-persons like CEOs and holders of large capital assets hold a privileged position that has enabled them to steer the bulk of growth their way.

Sure, many of these persons have college degrees, but as our and others’ data show, a college degree, even an advanced degree, does not guarantee entry in this rarefied club (see, for example, our analysis  of recent inequality trends). In fact, our own research shows that half of the growth in wage inequality over the 1980s, and most of the growth in the 2000s, occurred within education groups, meaning that inequality’s growth is currently being driven by the gains of some college graduates relative to others with the same education credentials.

The same can be said for second language learning, clearly those not speaking English or another second language might be discriminated against in the job market or Higher Education (we say discriminated against because many positions do not actually require a second language) but this does not explain inequality. (Notably, lack of second language learning as so far caused little problems for either the UK or the US). We can, indeed map income differentials amongst those in, for example, Malaysia who speak English and those who don’t and see great income differences but we cannot explain those differences in terms of language learning. As Charles Jannuzi points out elsewhere,  while post 1945 English has been successfully developed as a lingua franca in the Philippines,  this country has not enjoyed the same economic success as Japan where competence with English is not so great amongst the population. Moreover, China has enjoyed great economic success but that success predates the great expansion of English language learning in the country. No doubt, however, were we to map English language competence amongst the populations within Japan and China we would see great disparities in income (those more competent in English enjoying, on average, considerably larger incomes).

In conclusion, while we cannot deny a link between English language competence worldwide and inequalities of wealth, we would challenge the idea that language is the prime cause of these inequalities or indeed the solution to removing them. The solution to removing these inequalities is not therefore a post colonial method of ELT but the struggles of the international proletariat. ELT or any other form of second language learning can support that struggle but it cannot substitute itself for the self-organisation of the international working class. Native speaking English teachers believing they are fighting inequality by merely teaching English is the height of imperialist-tainted self-delusion.



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3 responses to “Language Learning and Inequality.

  1. In the US there is no working class movement with political aspirations, nor does there seem to be the conditions to create such a movement. On the other hand, we have wave after wave of issues that, whether we like it or not, often reflect bourgeois agendas (sometimes competing agendas) that seem to distract from class analysis and class consciousness. That is, gender equality (for middle class women), gay rights (for middle class people), racial equality (perhaps a set of issues and movements that had the most impact on working class Americans), and now environmental issues and language issues.

    On the possibly brighter side of things, it was the Spanish-speaking Hugo Chavez that the Arab world applauded at the UN, not the oily warmongers Bush and Blair. So the oppressed of Gulag Mesopotamia emotionally stood with a Spanish speaker of mixed descent, and he represented their interests better than anyone from the opinionated of the ‘free world’ .

    At least for a few moments, before the US military dissected another sector of Iraq.

  2. marxistelf

    Sorry technical problems with linking document quoted in article. Try this alternative link:

  3. marc

    please i want to know all about inequalities

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