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  1. #1
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    Commentary #1

    Commentary
    Alastair Pennycook from the University of Technology in Sydney talks about globalisation and its impact on the English language.

    Alastair Pennycook
    Globalisation for me is always, as we know, I think a very contested term.
    There’s one line of argument where globalisation will be seen as necessarily tied only to economies and necessarily destructive so it’s seen as the takeover of global financial networks, the dominance of particular powers and that’s often been very much tied to the US and it’s seen sometimes as the Americanisation of the planet and so on.

    We must never forget those relations of power but if we view it only in that way it seems to me we’re only seeing one part of globalisation because what we’re also seeing are very complex relations of movements of people and particularly with new technologies now, we have very wide flows of culture and language and there are very multiple influences and we can often still see within those that there’s a dominance of particular cultural forms, things like Hollywood or McDonalds, they’re often taken up and people talk about Coca Cola-nisation, McDonaldisation of the world.

    But again that is to reduce what is globalisation. Because it happens in very local ways. One thing that occurred to me recently, I was on my way to Thailand to a conference and for some reason I started taking pictures of signs, Thai restaurant signs in, around Sydney. And it really struck me that actually, you know, the fast food in Sydney, I was taking photographs near our university. In a sense it is fast food and there was just this whole, right there was one KFC and then there was a Thai, a Chinese, a Japanese sushi place and, you know, that’s where everyone, you know, people eat, some people go to the KFC, some people go to the Chinese one, some to the Thai. And I thought yeah, that’s also a part of globalisation.

    Today, I think we have to understand language within globalisation. Globalisation is, is a new term that’s taken over in a sense more from what we might have talked in terms of internationalisation. For those of us that have been studying English and its spread and we always talk about the global spread of English as a fairly set phrase, it becomes very clear that that ‘global’ word needs to be dealt with. What do we mean, do we just mean everywhere by the term ‘global’, or do we want to link that term ‘global’ to a more complex set of ideas to do with globalisation so that the ‘global spread of English’ cannot be separated from ‘globalisation’ and that, once you start to look at it, it seems very clear. That you look at anything from corporations to international organisations to popular culture, to then the use of English for tourism. Throughout the world we see English used and tied to those areas of globalisation that, you know, there’s a reciprocal relationship, in a way, between, and that’s one of the interesting things.

    We shouldn’t only look at English by any means. There are other major languages and there are other languages that are affected by the dominance of English, also by patterns of globalisation. Sometimes English is seen as the threat to other languages but there’s always a much more complex picture of changing economic patterns of migrations of people and so on, that affect the use of other languages. So really to understand at least one aspect of languages, it’s always important to have an understanding of globalisation as the context in which so much is now occurring.

    To understand the global rise of English, first of all, I think we shouldn’t try to see it in simple terms as good or bad. We need to look at it very problematically. We need to understand it historically. And I think it’s been very clear that it was spread for quite deliberate reasons even though it, it spread sometimes incidentally as part of the two big movements which are clearly British Empire and then the dominance of the US.

    And interestingly, you know, it’s worth recalling that it’s that really quite coincidental relationship that caused that spread. If it had not been the US that had been the dominant nation post Second World War but another country where English was not widely used, the whole pattern would have been quite different. And it’s always worth thinking, if things had happened differently historically what would be the global state of languages and it would be very different.

    One of the arguments I made a long time ago in my 1994 book was that the dominant discourses around English tended to take it as one, natural, and second beneficial, and third neutral. And I wanted to argue against all three of those and say that the spread is certainly not natural in any sense. It’s just not, or it just happened and so on. This is very much linked to political and economic forces and also quite deliberately spread. And it’s very clear in lots of documents, people said. yeah it’s too …, the British saying it’s to our advantage if lots of people speak English. It’s economically good, it’s politically useful, and so on.

    The idea of it being neutral, people often say well it’s now no longer tied to Britain or the US. It’s no longer tied to a particular culture, therefore somehow it’s neutral. I say well no language is neutral and to say that a global language is in some sense neutral, it’s, it just makes no real sense, I think. The interesting question is what is tied to English as a global language culturally and politically. And that’s a much more harder question because it’s a much more contextual question about particular discourses, particular influences that are caught up with English.

    The other issue then was whether it was beneficial. And that’s a really mixed one. There are of course arguments that it’s useful to have a global language and that’s got a long history. The argument that we need an international language for international communication is pretty much a circular argument and we know that, actually we can function quite well with multiple languages.
    And there seems a very particular view of the world that says you need one, and one dominant one, in order to communicate, it helps some things but it causes all sorts of problems.

    There are vast amounts of money put into the learning of English and it pushes other things out of the curriculum. It takes up a lot of time, it has a huge influence and it’s not particularly beneficial for a lot of people. For a lot of people it’s just a large amount of wasted time. It doesn’t actually get them there. It’s now embedded in school systems and exam systems. People take exams to, you know, TOEIC and so on in South East Asia to get promotion in companies. Not because they’re necessarily going to use English, it just becomes a way of marking some superior ability.

    I wouldn’t want to put it as a wholly negative issue at all. But I think we – my issue is we always have to problematise and ask and constantly ask those questions when we say, OK, let’s introduce English into primary school. Have a policy supporting English here and there and you need to keep saying why, you know, what’s that going to do and who’s that going to benefit and how is that going to relate to people’s access to the language and how does that further increase economic divides that are already there? And what kind of provision are we going to make to overcome that? And what is it going to do for other languages that are not being learned? And there are always hard questions we need to constantly ask.

    We talk a lot now about the relationship between global and local. I think again it’s an area we need to be very careful with, of assuming there’s some fairly easy relationship here between the global being somehow big and the local being small, you know, what happens here is local and what happens over there is global or something.

    We know that the idea of the global, if we want it to mean anything real it has to be made very complex with an understanding of globalisation. So too, the local has to be taken up in very particular ways to understand the ways in which we’re thinking about the context.

    So when we think about the local and certainly the local is something that a lot of people have been taking up, it’s sort of, er, it’s the space of ethnography, the space of local activism, it seems to be the place of resistance and so on. But what we also have to be very careful with is that we don’t then reduce it to traditional static old small, the global is the kind of interesting place. And we actually seem to have these two quite paradoxical things, on the one hand you have global, the global is the, the threat, the, the danger, the, the dominance of certain powers as the local is the, almost like the good, the, the resistant, the interesting kind of place of colour and difference.

    And then we seem to have the opposite where the local is then also the traditional and the unchanging and the static. And the global is actually where the flows and the things move around and change.

    And we have to kind of work out where we sit in those relations. And when we look at English what’s very obvious, and English and other languages and other cultural forms, we can see very clearly that they have in a way a global presence. And we always need to say, ask ourselves what that means. Whether that’s just that they’re widespread and whether the global means it’s just the sum of lots of local places.

    But we can certainly say yes, you know, if we look at language, we look at hip hop which, and I was trying to draw analogies between them in my work, we can see how they spread in certain ways and then become localised. They take on particular local features, local colours, they become locally used and people then say English is a local language in, in South Asia and so on.

    By which they mean it’s got sort of local characteristics, it’s used by people for local interactions. And the fact quite often that it’s used elsewhere, that it’s global becomes quite irrelevant. It’s useful but it’s also often the fact that it’s then used locally is actually the important fact.

    I’ve also been trying to ask the question of what happens if we start to look at it from a more local position. That if we look at the idea of spread. I mean if I can give an analogy with hip hop - that the argument is often that hip hop started in New York in 1970s and then spread and then takes on local characteristics. And the same with English over a larger period of time and so on.

    But one of the things I’ve found that when we look at this take up of local, the idea that it takes on local characteristics. It also seems that when you talk to, for example, hip hop artists they sometimes say, no we’ve been doing this, you know, hundreds of years. This is local, it’s story telling, dancing, it’s just got a sort of hip hop character to it now.

    And when I was working with indigenous Australian hip hop artists, you know, one of them said, no, this has always been local, you know. Hip hop has always been Aboriginal, you know. And my African American colleagues say, oh, wait a minute, you can’t say that, you know, no it’s not, and, you know, he says yeah, no it’s, it’s also a kind of a black thing, its American but hey we’ve, we’ve always been doing hip hop, you know.

    And I was very intrigued by, I think, what does that actually mean and how do we think about that? It’s really just thinking from the other direction to say, well, OK, there’ve always been these local practices that then take on those other more global ones. So that you’ve got all these things that people do in terms of song and dance and rhythmic chanting, use of drums or whatever and then you kind of, that encounters hip hop coming in the other direction and you kind of appropriate hip hop.

    So from one direction you would look at it as the spread that becomes, takes on local characteristics. From the other point of view you can see it as something happening locally that takes on aspects of this more globalised cultural form. And you can look at languages that way too. So I’m still trying to think about that and what it means to look from those different directions. But, I think, at the very least we have to think very carefully and not assume we know what we mean by the local and global.
    Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!"

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