The inevitable decline of the US and the role of monolingualism in that decline. Two Graddolisms considered.

There is no underestimating the effect of Graddol’s two books (The future of English, English Next) on the ELT community. This is largely because Graddol identified certain trends that others were becoming increasingly aware of but did so with the use of some limited data to back up his claims; something not so available to your average over-worked language teacher. It is no accident, therefore, that MTG often touch on issues raised by Graddol because Graddol’s work gives concrete expression to feelings and half-feelings shared by the language teacher community. Recently, Darren Elliot , author of the excellent teachers’ resource, Lives of Teachers raised two Graddolisms in relation to our article concerning the retreat or not of English language learning in Japan. Namely, the American economy is not a model to be copied (by Japan), presumably because of its decline as a world economic force rather than its inequalities,  and that monolingualism is both a symptom and driver of that decline:

First off, the American economy is hardly a model to be striving for..and secondly, the situation is totally different. In the past Americans could get away without foreign languages because the world bent to accommodate them in English. As it stands now, monolinguals in any language are going to be at a disadvantage.

Now clearly as Marxists we are not cheerleaders for the American system and as language teachers (and internationalists) we are very much in favour of multilingualism. However, we do think it is necessary to look more critically at both these Graddolisms as we do not believe America will be so easily usurped as the most powerful country in the world nor do we believe it is so easily disadvantaged by its alleged monolingualism. Indeed, these Graddolisms not only oversimplify the real concrete situation,  they also cloud the bigger picture and the urgent need for social change.

The Problem of Measurement.

Before we begin, it would be useful to flag up the issue of measurement. For example, were a prospective student to suggest to an English teacher that 30 Euros an hour for private classes is “very expensive” , the English teacher might feel quite offended. The English teacher will consider their own (and their family’s) basic needs, the probable greater salary of the prospective student, the preparation/travel time required for the class, and, last but not least, the various qualifications, experience and linguistic skills they have painstakingly developed over a number of years. They might also think about the 65 Euros an hour the local academy might charge this same student. On the student’s part, they will consider their basic needs, housing, children, clothing, health care and leisure. They might well compare the cost ,say 70 Euros to go to the gym every day of the week (fully equipped, car parking, showers, qualified staff) with 120 Euros for four hours of English (in a cafe or at their own home) a month.  In reply, to the assertion that English is an investment and going to the gym is not (a contestable point) the student might also reply that a Masters could cost them 120 credit hours 2,000 euros but their English Classes, with no official title granted at the end, 3,600 Euros . Of course, there are many different perspectives on this and should a student and teacher delve too deeply into them (at least publicly) then it is highly unlikely the student will contract the teacher’s services anyway.  The point is, however, when discussing whether anything is “expensive” or not, if American capitalism is in decline or whether monoligualists (in any language) are at a disadvantage, we need to define our terms of reference much more tightly and make our criteria for measurement much clearer.

Is American capitalism in decline?

It is clear that America is not the richest country per capita in the world (according to the World Bank it is only the 6th) but it is also clear, given its size, that it is the most significant economy in the world. In 2009 the US had a higher GDP than the entire Euro Zone, nearly three times the size of Japan’s and nearly four times the size of China’s. Significantly, whilst China had the third highest GDP (now above Germany but below Japan), it ranked 87th in the world for GDP per capita (again according to the world bank 2009).

Now this only tells us that America is the number 1 economy in the world, it does not tell us the overall trajectory of the American economy, whether it is in decline or not. For example, in 1870, the biggest economy was the UK, now it lies in a modest 5th place for GDP and 18th for GDP per capita. The assumption (the Graddolism) appears to be, however, that America’s “decline” is as inevitable as the UK’s was in 1870.

Before proceeding though we need to put that decline in perspective as we suspect a great many people (we don’t count ourselves amongst them) would indeed have settled for a “decline” which represented (from 1870 to 1979)  a trebling of living standards, a tenfold increase in exports and a cutting in half in the number of hours actually worked each year.

Nevertheless, the UK was overtaken by the US and commentators have spent the last fifty years predicting who the new number 1 will be. Of course, during the 1970’s the candidates were Germany and Japan and now they are China and India. Here is what Graddol says:

Before the 19th century, India and China were the world’s economic superpowers. Thanks to their new economic rise, they will soon regain their former status.

He then produces the following chart (courtesy of Goldman Sachs)

Note that even with these projections the US still hasn’t degenerated to the middle ages nor have the other major economies.

History, however, particularly that of Japan and Germany, teaches us that there are limits to growth and such projections do not take into account simple economic and political forces which operate to ensure that dislodging the top dog is a difficult business indeed. The first is to confuse, rising material exports (one also has to consider services) , or rising levels of productivity with permanent tendencies. We have shown elsewhere that China and India have benefitted most not from taking jobs from America, the UK or Japan but from middle income countries like Mexico and Poland (demonstrated well by economist Ed Learner here). China and India have been able to substitute themselves for other producers by offering lower costs and somewhat better infrastructure. We cannot stress enough though that  China and India are not market leaders, they are not (generally) centres of innovation, and production (components, lower quality goods) is much lower down the quality chain. Both India and China face enormous problems in establishing themselves at the higher end of the production chain and to do so they will become increasingly dependent on technologies and expertise from abroad. Moreover, understandably, the highest skilled from the world gravitate towards the US and not to China or India. Similarly, as Chinese capital asks more from its workers in terms of skills and application, the workers will ask more in terms of wages, health care and democratic rights which will undermine its current competitive edge at the lower end of the said productivity chain (this process is well under way).

Of course, this is not to suggest that, given certain favourable conditions, China and India cannot complete this enormous task, but we would argue, it is greater than the task facing American Capitalism (and other major economies) in maintaining their position. The total structure of current research and development, education and laws over intellectual property (patents etc.) company takeovers, the world bank, etc. is designed to perpetuate that dominance. As America fought back against the twin threats of Germany and Japan to their economic dominance, we will see interesting developments with relationships between Japan, the EU, the US and their relationship to China and India (we should not forget the role of Russia either). For example, inward foreign direct investment to China is greater than Chinese investme but relatively low considering Chinese growth rates. This is the case with the US (22 billion invested in China 2006) and China (22 million invested in the US in 2006).This is largely due to restrictions on both sides concerning foreign investment. Compare this with the EU where there is relative free flow in investments between the EU and the US.  In both cases, the two countries fear the other country will use it for own greater economic advantage. The Chinese fear that the US will exploit real estate and destabilise the Chinese economy whilst the US fear China will use investment to close the technology gap and offer no advantage in return. The EU, on the contrary, currently play by American rules. The US will continue to ask for greater openness to Chinese markets and industry and if the US feel strongly enough that bilateral relations are not in their own interests, they will retaliate:

With regard to high profile investments and buyouts, China has so far had very little success in the U.S. In 2005, the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) attempted but ultimately failed to buy American oil company Unocal Corporation due to intense political pressure from Congress, which questioned the communist-owned CNOOC’s motives and argued that it did not represent a free-market transaction. A similar bid by Chinese appliance maker Hai’er to buy Maytag also failed in 2007 due to foreign ownership concerns, as did an attempt by Chinese firm Huawei’s attempt to partner with U.S. firm Bain Capital Partners in a $2.2 billion buyout of 16.5% of 3Com Corp, an American company that makes systems to protect against computer hackers. Although Huawei denied that the Chinese government owns or controls any part of the company, the lack of transparency as to who actually owns Huawei and research (by Rand Corp) that indicates Huawei has “deep ties” to the Chinese military made U.S. lawmakers nervous enough about the potential transfer of sensitive military technology to pressure Bain to scuttle the deal. The one exception is Chinese firm Lenovo’s (around 28% owned by the Chinese government) success in purchasing IBM’s PC division in 2005.

In conclusion, we would say that for China (and India) there is much to admire in the American economy; namely its position as the number one economy and its strengths at the high end of the production chain. The decline of America is not a given but then neither is its continued dominance (or for that matter the continued rise of China and India). What we are witnessing is a struggle on the part of America to maintain its position and a concerted effort by China and India to continue to expand. If that expansion is at the expense of Mexico and Poland then it will not worry the US, but if it is at its own expense then it will continue to develop strategies to combat this. Seeing America (or indeed the EU or Japan) as a weak and wounded creature with China and India ready to pounce, is a deeply misleading picture.


Again, we need to start with some sense of definition and measurement. Let’s take for instance “monolingualism”. For example, America, and the UK have poor records of formal language learning but both have large “immigrant” populations and, because of this and not formal language learning, a large percentage of the population speak more than one language. For example, the 2000 US census found over 47 million of those over five years of age (of its 309 million populace) spoke a language other than English at home. Nobody would argue that, with the continuing “Hispanicisation of the US“,  the figure isn’t now much higher. The contradiction, however, is that those speaking a language other than English at home and English outside it are likely to earn much less than those only Speaking English, or speaking English at home and another language outside it.  Earning power will depend primarily on the “quality of English spoken” and levels of Education in English.

Furthermore, for example, even if we found a correlation between monies spent on dental care during childhood and later earnings as an adult, we could not claim that those earnings were a consequence of dental care rather that dental care was a consequence of social class and not a determinant. Moreover, on interviewing an employer and discovering (of course no employer would be so candid) that an applicant for an office position  (not a super model) was turned down because they had “bad teeth” we cannot say this was the determinant, the ultimate determinant was the socio-economic position which made dental care less-likely and generated the social class assumptions on the part of the employer. Like dental care, English or foreign language learning, is often a representation of socio-economic realities rather than a determinant.  A lack of English, like bad-teeth, reveals something “unsavoury” (social class) about the applicant. Of course, were the applicant, by good fortune, to have excellent teeth, the “lower-class” status/lack of higher education would be suffice to dissuade the employer from recruiting them to a “professional” position.

Unfortunately, there is no possibility of criticising existing statistical studies on earnings and foreign language learning because they simply don’t exist. We have a plethora of studies on academic qualifications and earnings/unemployment etc. but not language capabilities. We even have studies on whether people choose their marriage partner for beauty or earnings but nothing on foreign language learning. This is of course despite the industry’s “common sense” claim that foreign language learning creates wealth and opportunity.  A shrewd investor might ask, however, more information on likely returns before making such an investment. Yet, if this information is not available, why does the assumption persist and people continue to invest large quantities of money in language learning?

This is not just an individual issue but an institutional and nation state issue. For example many employers put a great stress on language learning and the vast majority of countries encourage, to a greater or lesser extent, language learning. But why no statistics? An organisation is able to list all the academic qualifications and training course attended by its employees but it is unlikely to have a consistent record of the existing language capabilities of its staff. Moreover, a nation state may have information on illiteracy rates but very little information on the second language capabilities of its population.

The simple answer might be, therefore, that certain institutions and countries take a blanket approach to language learning. They are more interested in language learning prior to employment (capacity to learn languages) than after employment. Similarly, countries  put emphasis on schooling and, maybe, insist on some degree of foreign language learning as a prerequisite to entry at university level but tend to ignore development of linguistic skills therefater. The real emphasis is on “deviation” at certain entry points and not language development after such entry points. There is no guarantee, however, that language levels will be sufficient for a concrete person in a concrete situation to carry out future tasks demanded of them or that the person will have the appropriate language for the actual task. Of course, under this system, it is a given that a large percentage of the population are not actively developing a foreign language and that there is no actual record of financial losses accrued through lack of language ability.

Graddol, however, claims:

…….as English becomes more generally available, little or no competitive advantage is gained by adopting it. Rather, it has become a new baseline, without English you are not even in the race.

These are very strong claims and would be suggesting Japan, Italy, Brazil Russia, France, even China  (countries Graddol himself counts as some of the 10 economic Giants of 2050) are not in the race because the majority of the population do not speak/write above an A2 (CEF framework) English. It is an enormous contradiction. If English speaking was so key to success, then China would not have overtaken the German economy in terms of exports or GDP; China succeeded despite (relatively) low levels of education and second language skills not because of them. If China has invested heavily in both, it is because China wishes to transform itself into a producer of higher quality goods. Moreover, in the sphere of technological and scientific innovation, English is quite clearly essential but again we question how important it is to the general population. Japan has incredibly high tech companies and products produced by staff, often with a rudimentary or non-existent grasp of English.

We might recast Graddol’s claim, however, to suggest that in select occupations (usually “graduate” positions) those not speaking/writing a competent level of English will be severely disadvantaged and, if a country has not sufficient persons, it may too be disadvantaged. Moreover, that as the number of such people rises, there will be more need to demonstrate other foreign languages, and as a result, unsuccessful applicants might apply for “lower positions” which, with their English skills, might put pressures on other applicants to improve their English skills and this cascade effect might disadvantage the general population if they do not have sufficient English language skills. It is, however, a big “might” and there are other issues like “over-qualification” which might intervene to counter-act such a tendency.

Finally, we note Graddol’s other claim which relates neatly to Darren’s claim about “momlingualism” in America (beautifully summarised by the Right Horrible EU Parasite, Neil Kinnock);

David Graddol concludes that monoglot English graduates face a bleak economic future as qualified multilingual youngsters from other countries are proving to have a competitive advantage over their British counterparts in global companies and organisations. Alongside that, many countries are introducing English into the primary curriculum but – to say the least – British schoolchildren and students do not appear to be gaining greater encouragement to achieve fluency in other languages.

Now Kinnock rightly qualifies the situation as graduate, not talking in such sweeping terms as Graddol but we believe the proposition is still too broad. There is little or no evidence, for example that an American engineer, doctor, scientist, lawyer, etc. would benefit from learning a foreign language (at least not in economic terms). Indeed, there is every bit of evidence, namely the marked migration of highly skilled people from poorer countries to the US that the US benefits directly from graduates abroad learning English. The US, Australia and UK also benefit greatly from foreign students studying at their universities.

Again this is not to say that certain graduates are not increasingly developing their language skills  in order to be more competitive  in the job market (they are!), but it is to raise caution against dangerously misleading generalisations.

Graddolisms and the Bigger Picture

We believe that the error of all Graddolisims rest with a neo-liberal conception of the world which sees the market as sovereign, and all individuals equal before it. For Graddol, the nation state has disappeared and the world is post-political. By post-political we mean that problems of war, famine, poverty and crisis are aberrations of a smooth functioning system (i.e. an inability to structure the economy or our personal lives along the lines of the market). Problems are created because people cling to modernist conceptions of the nation or religion and not because the capitalist system itself generates vast inequalities and irreconcilable conflicts. According to Graddol, the UK, the US, and China are all “teams” playing the market and the “best team” will win. Similarly, the person who learns the most languages deserves the best job.

Here at Marxist TEFL we recognise that on one level capitalism is indeed transnational. Capital is free to flow around the world but that it tends to flow, ultimately, to certain geographical areas and certain people in those areas. At the end of the day, capital needs a home, it needs a strategic relationship with a state, an army to uphold its interests when there is conflict. The state likewise, is keen to make capital feel at home and “safe”- to show it operates in its interests. The state will help it through crises and, in return, Capital will help ensure it is big enough and aggressive enough to defend its interests. The state and Capital will operate in tandem to ensure they have  advantage in the market place and they will assemble geo-political alliances to deal with military or economic threats. The general population represent the units of production or the “deployable forces” in a war situation which are mobilised to increase profits and/or to stabilise the system. Without nationalism and a national interest the general population cannot be mobilised so. For this reason, capitalism cannot for all the pressures to do so, rid itself of the baggage of the nation state through which it grew.

Of course capitalism is pushing at the limits of the nation state, but it also pushing at the limits of private market led production.  There is enough technology to feed, educate, clothe and entertain the entire world but it refuses to succumb to such a logic because it would have to liquidate itself, instead it must waste the planet’s resources, keep people unemployed, overwork others, all because it needs to produce a profit and the higher the profit levels the better. So yes, America is in decline because Capitalism is in decline. China offers no alternative to that model but a greater brutality to its own people.

Meanwhile, as capitalism accelerates the inter-relations of people around the world, so people become ever conscious of the role of languages and the opportunity to practise different languages increases. Unfortunately, workers are being asked to jump through hoops, learn languages they may never need nor want to learn, they are expected to go from job to job, country to country, as capital sees fit. They are supposed to be frictionless, ever at the command of capital. With unemployment and poverty a continuous threat, they must make themselves as available as possible and always with the appropriate skill set. In such a world education and language learning has spread quantitatively but not qualitatively. As  consumers we demand a reproducer of music holding a quantity of music we cannot possibly listen to (the majority of which is loaded “just in case” or “to fill” the necessary space). Similarly, the capitalist asks qualities and skills of us which are often unnecessary, just to distinguish between us and another applicant. The nation state requires an ever more skilled workforce whilst opportunities to use those skills declines or never arrives forcing us to acquire more.

When we hear, therefore, that monolingualism is a disadvantage (as is only speaking one other foreign language) we rather feel as if we are being criticised for having limited memory on our i-pod or failing to fill the space. We know that music can be a joy but wonder where the unexamined compulsion comes to” fill the empty spaces” of our lives with yet more music but less opportunity to listen to it with friends and family. Similarly, learning is a joy but wonder where the unexamined compulsion comes from to  ” fill the empty spaces” of our lives with yet more commitment to making ourselves marketable and less time spent with the people we care about. We wonder why we are asked to participate in a race, when we see all around us unsatisfied need and social injustice. Surely, we have more pressing needs. Is humanity really in competition with each other, or does such competition only serve the needs of the few?

Ultimately, Graddolisms are unhelpful over-generalisations that, whilst they are rooted in real tendencies in society, are an inaccurate picture which do not help us to critically evaluate those tendencies in order to take greater control over own lives. They are part of an ideological structure which keeps us misinformed and passive.



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2 responses to “The inevitable decline of the US and the role of monolingualism in that decline. Two Graddolisms considered.

  1. I kind of visualise speaking English in the ‘new’ superpowers as a bit like how Latin and then French were in England in the past where it marked you out as part of the upper middle class, but I think it’s important to remember that analysis aside it is genuinely useful to speak a little bit of English for everyone who lives in a big city and likewise for native speakers of English language skills are useful

    Language skills look good on CVs irrelevent to jobs same as any skill because it shows self motivation etc

    liked the article tho 🙂

    • marxistelf

      Thanks Nick,
      Very much agree with you apart from the term “self-motivation”.

      “Self-motivation is the ability to motivate oneself, to find a reason and the necessary strength to do something, without the need of being influenced to do so by another person. Working in a careful and consistent manner without giving up.”

      Now language learning shows “working in a careful and consistent manner without giving up” but then so do a whole host of other activities like learning the piano or practising yoga. However, the latter two are more in keeping with “the ability to motivate oneself, to find a reason and the necessary strength to do something, without the need of being influenced to do so by another person” because they don’t necessarily look good on a CV and are done for personal growth/expression (until of course they become prime assets on a CV).

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