May 09: Globalization and English Language Teaching

Introduction: NeltaChoutari May 2009

Globalization—or the flow of economic, educational, cultural, and other “materials” across national borders—has radically changed people’s lives and societies around the world. Those materials are sold/bought, used/misused to affect communities around the world in all kinds of ways. In the case of education, globalization involves the flow of products of knowledge through channels of power; in local, national, and global markets, knowledge flows in the form of learning materials, teaching methods, attitudes about what counts as legitimate knowledge, subjects in schools/universities, and so on. For teachers like us must take seriously this commodification and flow of knowledge when the globalized market of knowledge makes the knowledge of some societies flow into others and not so much vice versa.

In the case of ELT, English language—which is not just a neutral means of communication among societies but also the vehicle of cultural and political power—flows from centers of global cultural power into most other societies around the world whose languages and knowledge are not yet as economically and culturally valuable. That is why a vast majority of people in the developing world, along with a lot of well-meaning English teachers, believe that there is such a thing like English education (as if knowledge speaks in one particular language). It is very true, as things are in the world of raw facts, that English is a more valuable ingredient for the manufacture of more valuable cultural products. Also, it is because English language is commodified that many people think there are no alternatives to buying it and then selling it at a higher price to others. But teachers should never be people who simply accept and teach the raw facts and maintain the status quo. By rethinking how we can challenge the one-way center-to-margins flow of intellectual, cultural, and social power in the world, teachers can contribute to the making of a better world.

No one would have to worry if the commodification of English did not intensify the divide between people who can and cannot afford to buy it. Nor would even just that be a big problem if the supermarket of English didn’t also destroy the small bazaar of local products of knowledge. One argument or underlying assumption many English teachers fall victim to is that if we can teach English to everyone, then everyone will be better able to sell their knowledge for their own progress as well as survival. Well, the problem with that simple-minded dream is simply that it doesn’t acknowledge that your supermarket is neither buying from the local farmers of knowledge nor selling them anything at affordable prices, the idea of the market has to be regarded more critically. That is where national governments, local entities, and professional organizations intervene for justice for all. One of the many solutions to that reality which many of us don’t even believe we can solve (or that it is our job) is to not only work in the supermarket and enjoy its paycheck but also to help local farmers modernize the local agriculture of knowledge-making with the aim of making the supermaket make the local produce its best commodity. The supermarket is blind: teachers need not be slaves to that blind master. There is no point in opposing this global company of English. It is only reasonable to buy most of the stock of its regional stores in our own localities.

To help us prompt another interesting series of conversation on this interesting subject “ELT in the context of globalization,” we have this month the following columns:

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