Symbolic Dominance Vs Transformation in Relation to World Englishes

 Surendra Raj Adhikari

(MEd, MA,  MPhil, English)

Rainbow International College

This paper I provide a conceptual discussion on how symbolic dominance of a specific language such as British English is imposed by inner circle countries on outer and expanding circle countries, how the cultural arbitrary is reproduced in dominated groups, requirement of critical perspectives for transformation and thereby validation of multiple varieties of English along with the perspectives of some Nepalese academia.

These days, hot debate is going on regarding the world Englishes. Different academia in different countries are found advocating for ownership building of English. Perspective to look at the spread of English and its position in different social settings has geared the debate of power balance among different varieties of English throughout the world. During colonial period, the voices against colonist and their language remained suppressed and awareness of colonized group towards imperial language such as English became either futile as the demand of circumstance. However, colonizers had already been aware of this fact that they were creating hierarchy among them and ‘others’ – colonized group. This kind of ‘otherness’ expanded in such a way that the colonized group could not properly maintain their cultural and linguistic identity in particular. On the other hand, colonizers – to be specific British and American imperialists– accelerated their influence along with linguistic imperialism. With the advent of globalization and neo-liberalism, English started getting commoditized and those countries which were not colonized also formed the policy of promoting English through formal education system. In post-colonial period, English linguistic imperialism got mixed responses from the colonized groups. The group of academia who do not recognize any kind of imperialism created by ‘the inner circle countries to outer and expanding circle countries’ (Kachru,1996) accept the linguistic legitimacy in the name of standard English as taken for granted and are reluctant to go for the alternative of local variety of English. On the contrary, voices against legitimate standard English are leading nowhere in the country like Nepal. Let me discuss about how symbolic dominance may help for linguistic legitimacy.

Symbolic resources, such as money, scholarship, and so on boost up symbolic dominance. As said by Bourdieu (1991), jobs and educational settings create symbolic market. Having learnt English, people expect to get job. In case of Nepal, parents invest so much amount of money for educating their children in English medium schools with the expectation that their children may find better jobs, scholarship in foreign countries, etc. In this symbolic market, people want to get material resources such as money. This ultimately leads to symbolic dominance of a particular language. This symbolic dominance supports for linguistic legitimacy so that certain norm is created of particular language such as standard British or American English and others have to follow it. The speakers of the particular language such as English hold the ability to control over others. In this regard, influenced by Bourdieu (1977), Heller (1995:373) says, “The ability of certain social groups to maintain control over others by establishing their view of reality and their cultural practices as the most valued and , perhaps more importantly, as the norm.” This creates imbalance of power and there starts resistance. When speakers of other language realize that certain hierarchy is created among native speakers of the particular language (English) they seek for transformation. For instance, some Nepalese academia are raising the voice of Nepali English. However, I have found some academia who are playing the role of skeptical duality – they call for Nepali English but they themselves speak standard English. In this pretext, is it possible for transformation?

Dominated group requires empowerment for transformation. Outer and expanding circle countries which are forced to follow standard variety of English are dominated groups. The idea of transformation opposes with Bourdieu’s concept of a constraint and reproduction of social structures, including inborn cultural capital (habitus), hierarchical socio-cultural status, and advantaged ethnicity. In this regard, while teaching English, learner’s mother tongue can also be used not only to facilitate their learning but also to oppose learning English in the culture of inner circle countries. Supporting this idea, Rivera (1999) who suggested that in educational process, the use of learner’s native language “not only as an aid to learning English but also as a terrain of knowledge and a field of possibilities that linked students’ experiences to collective action” (p. 485). However complete use of mother tongue in English class may create problem in some cases, such as translating everything into mother tongue may not be possible. It may create unintelligibility while talking to the speakers of other varieties of English. Mainly cultural issues that may make dominated group inferior require to be discarded. This shows that to be transformed, one has to go out of the box and start thinking. It is very important for inner circle group to accept multiple realities, too. Not only dominated groups but also dominant groups require to be transformed for maintaining balance of linguistic capital.

Varieties of English in different countries are emerging and English learners are embodied with their own habitus, which may not match with standard variety of English; imposing them to learn in standard variety of  English and their cultural capital may not be justifiable. Though Nepali English has not been emerged as its own existence, its relevancy, need for its existence and its recognition in international level may be another part of research. In this regard, I tried to understand the perspectives of some Nepalese academia.

In Nepal, English language is used as a foreign language in academic institution. As far as my experience shows almost all of the people are in favour of standard varieties of English. However, a few academia are found advocating for Nepali English. I know that the large number of academia is very radical supporter of standard British variety of English and advocates for teaching and learning strategies in the same line. Similarly, the English curriculum is also designed in the same way, which aims at producing the students as native like competence. English curriculum at the Faculty of Education, Tribhuvan University, the greatest and oldest university of Nepal, which produces teachers, lays more emphasis on correctness in English based on Received Pronunciation (RP), grammar, linguistics and English language teaching. British English is given more preference in academic sector than American one though the latter is not rejected. Based on this, in an informal talking with me (on 2nd June, 2012), Kamal Pandey (pseudonym), the strong supporter of standard British English and experienced campus level English teacher of T. U., contended:

“English is not ours [……] I think that ownership building is narrow-mindedness. [….] If different countries make different kinds of English, communication may be broken when we happen to communicate in international level. We started learning English as spoken in England, were asked to follow Oxford advanced learners’ dictionary and have been asked to teach our students in standard way, however, we have not been teaching students properly.  If we use the same dictionary properly, communication with native speakers can be effective but making English of different kind is foolishness and it may not help our children, when they go to international locality. This is the reason why our students are feeling regret – it is the biggest problem in Nepal now.”

Mr Pandey’s opinion shows how ‘symbolic dominance’ (Bourdieu, 1991) is affecting reproduction of cultural arbitrary. Regarding Nepali English he said a bit emotionally:

‘We never make English! If they don’t have their words, they may borrow our words. We may fail if we start speaking English in our own way.”

Mr. Pandey’s opinion seems to be very positivist. He claims on single reality of standard English but hesitant to accept multiple realities of socio linguistic situation of the world. Furthermore, his statement such as, “Nepalese can also speak like native English speakers, can’t they?”shows how ‘reproduction of cultural arbitrariness’ (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977) imposed by inner circle countries is reflected.

Mr Kumar Dahal (pseudonym), the English lecturer of Tribhuvan University and supporter of world Englishes said:

“I prefer to make Nepali English and respect world Englishes. English is getting its popularity along different communities of the world with ownership building. English speaking countries are trying to colonize us mentally. We can speak English in our own way but it should be based on the communication purpose. I mean it should be understandable throughout the world. Making Nepali English does not mean that it should not be understood by other people of the world” (25th March, 2012).

Mr Dahal’s idea seems to be in favour of resistance of power imposed on outer and expanding circle countries by inner circle countries – it further supports argument against symbolic dominance; he is aware of Western chauvinism to avoid so- called standard English which is supposed to be an exclusive vehicle.

Concluding Remarks: My perspective regarding varieties of English aligns with multiple realities and emancipation from the oppression of  so called legitimate Standard English , the exclusive vehicle, which carries symbolic violence implicit ‘in the hierarchies of language’ (Thompon, 1984), whereby I neither favour Western chauvinism in the form of linguistic imperialism produced by ‘misrecognized cultural arbitrary’ (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977) nor breaking the structural integrity in the name of different varieties of English, such as Nepali English which may be unintelligible in international community.

Intolerance of many possibilities by inner circle countries and ranking standard British or American English at higher level whereas other varieties such as the varieties spoken in the countries of outer and expanding circles as inferior may have a threat to  ‘individual prestige and status’ (Tsuda, 1997), that being so, I would stress on celebration of world Englishes regardless of legitimate and illegitimate varieties ; transformation of  speakers of all varieties of  World Englishes by stressing ‘the WE-ness among the users of English’ (Karchu, 1996: 135) is required – native speakers of standard varieties may be respected if they are able to tolerate many possibilities getting rid of linguistic imperialism and those speakers of other varieties of English, breaking the taken for granted cultural capital imposed by inner circle countries, through critical literacy, need to celebrate their own identities reflecting socio-linguistic reality with autonomous structural linguistics without breaking structural integrity among different varieties of English of the world. In case of Nepal, as English is not used as native variety, being critically aware, following any variety of English such as British or American  or any other or our own if it is intelligible in the international community might emancipate us from western centred linguistic imperialism.


Bourdieu, P. (1977). The economics of linguistic exchanges. Social science information16(6), 645-68.

Bourdieu, P. & Passeron, J. C. (1977). Reproduction in education, society and culture (R. Nice, Trans.) London: Sage.

Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and symbolic power. (G. Ramond & M. Adamson, Trans.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Heller, M. (1995). Language choice, social institutions, and symbolic domination. Language in Society, 24, 373-405.

Kachru, B. B. (1996) World Englishes: agony and ecstasy. Journal of Aesthetic Education. 30 (2), 135-55.

Rivera, K. M. (1999). Popular research and social transformation: A community-based approach to critical pedagogy. TESOL Quarterly, 33(3), 485- 500.

Thompson, J. B. (1984). Studies in the theory of ideology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Tsuda, Y. (1997) Hegemony of English vs ecology of language: Building equality in international communication. In L. E. Smith & M. L. Forman (Eds), World Englishes 2000 (pp. 21-31). Honolulu: University of Hawaii.

3 thoughts on “Symbolic Dominance Vs Transformation in Relation to World Englishes

  1. Respected Sir,

    I hope you will make me clear on some of my queries.

    1. When you said “they call for Nepali English but they themselves speak standard English”, were you pointing out the accent/stress/intonation or something different which is truly unique to “Nepali English”?

    My confusion remains on, what exactly is “Nepali English”?

    Expressions like “Your homework became?” which completely defies normal grammatical rules,
    or speaking in our Nepali accent (tone),
    or mixing Nepali while speaking English and vice versa [Yaar, I have to go home hai.]

    Or, is it about internalizing our local context into English – spoken, reading and written forms – with or without adhering to grammar/rules?

    2. English as a language has become a global language. There’s no doubt about it. There are various variants of English now – Indian English, Chinese English, Spanish English and so on. This localized version English is dynamic and ever evolving, especially when people start incorporating local words or loan words into English language. [“Chautari” is one such loan word.] Yes, we are adding our own Nepali-ness into English.

    Realizing this fact, my question is, what is it that really characterizes “Nepali English”?

    3. Here’s my next question. If we stop striving to use standard English, do we necessarily stop “symbolic dominance”? What is wrong/right in trying to speak/write standard English, when used in our local context?

    Are we sloganeering “Down with the imperialistic British English grammar rules, we make our own grammar”?

    Cheers !

    1. Dear Umes,
      Thanks for your interest in reading the article. First of all let me make it clear that I have already put aside the issue of Nepali English to more intensive research work.
      Secondly, as far as I know, local variety of English is coloured with local accent, pronunciation, slight deviation of structure, mix of some local lexicons, and so on, however, it does not affect in the intelligibility in the international communication; it is spoken to facilitate the communication in the local level but that is anyway global English, I would say – as far as I know, there is no different dictionary of any kind of local variety of English.
      However, let me give you one example of extremism that comes from as Time magazine article which reports on a Chinese immigrant to the United States. He was confined in a mental institution for thirty-one years because of “the incomprehensible English” he spoke. The article reports that when the Chinese visited a doctor, he was diagnosed as “abnormal” because of the English he spoke. (“Free at last,” 1984)
      Though the above example is a bit older, you know that human beings are embedded with history unlike other animals. Now you can imagine yourself !
      Thirdly, I disagree with any kind of extremism of standard or local varieties of English. So, I neither say,
      “Down with the imperialistic British English grammar rules” nor “Down with Nepali variety of English” – I believe in multiple realities.

  2. Thanks for clearing out your perspective !

    “In case of Nepal, as English is not used as native variety, being critically aware, following any variety of English such as British or American or any other or our own if it is intelligible in the international community might emancipate us from western centred linguistic imperialism.”

    And your conclusion pretty much nails it.

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