English economies: Everyday accounts of language in South Africa
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In a recent call for "co-ordinated action against neo-liberalism on the part of critical language researchers", Norman Fairclough (2000, p. 147) indicated the centrality of language for, and also in struggles against, the new market ideology in the following way:
Language is an important part of the new order. First, because imposing the new order centrally involves the reflexive process of imposing new representations of the world, new discourses; second, because new ways of using language – new genres – are an important part of the new order. So the project of the new order is partly a language project. Correspondingly, the struggle against the new order is partly a struggle over language. (p. 147)
This struggle, I would add, involves language in the abstract sense of genres or discourses that are largely independent of the
language people speak. Globalisation creates and supports, and neo-liberal ideologies justify, linguistic orders in which the local functions of "regional", "indigenous", "ethnic" or "minority" languages are being threatened and displaced by languages claiming "global" or "international" status. In the words of John Berger (1998/99, p. 3), although he was not concerned with the effects of neo-liberalism on
in particular, smaller languages increasingly become "the redundant, the next-to-be-eliminated". In this paper I focus on everyday images and accounts of languages and language diversity in South Africa, showing how the global currency of English is used to justify the displacement, and often continued racialisation, of other local languages. The data is drawn from a recent study on perceptions of language and language diversity in a multilingual and multiracial urban high school in the Eastern Cape (Painter, 2002; Painter & Baldwin, 2002). For this, discussions with groups of learners about topics related to language and multilingualism were recorded and analysed using the form of rhetorical discourse analysis associated with Michael Billig (1991). For the present discussion I rely mostly on the discussions of English speakers, with one or two extracts from the Afrikaans groups. Before discussing the data I will spend some time linking English to global capitalist expansion – both metaphorically, in the sense that language orders are talked about as "markets", and literally, in the sense that the growth of English and capitalism seem to be connected. Although the empirical data didn’t include many explicit references to the market and the economy, it is clear that a linguistic market was constructed on which languages compete and from where English emerges as more valuable. I will show, using my empirical data, that this linguistic market is still racially defined.
English and the market
The occurrence of language domination, whether of one language by another or of a dialect by the standard variety, is certainly not unique to the present stage of global capitalist expansion. Linguistic domination and displacement had been an integral part of the creation of national European states and of the administration of their various colonies, to name but two examples (Billig, 1995; Pennycook, 1998). In the present era, however,
languages and the creation of nationalist and colonial hegemonies based on these have become less important than the idea of a
language, which for many reasons, such as the dominant financial, cultural and political position of the USA, happens to be English. Even a once great national and colonial language like French finds itself losing global currency, and some even fear that it will lose some of its
currency due to the growing hegemony of English in so many domains. The global importance of English resonates with the position this language is also assuming in South Africa, where despite an exemplary progressive language policy granting official status to 11 languages, English is rapidly becoming hegemonic in public domains. Not unlike the global situation, English in South Africa is also often made politically transparent. This is made possible, easy even, by the prevalence of neo-liberal approaches to processes of globalisation, seeing it as a natural process by which various products, whether these be political systems, academic concepts, cars or languages, compete fairly and freely on an open market. By imposing upon situations of language contact or diversity a neo-liberal conception of globalisation, the value of languages are not fixed by outdated colonial and racial prejudices, but negotiated on the open market in which they compete (Crystal, 1997; Holborow, 1999). If English comes out dominant, it is simply because it gives people access to the products they want, and because it is
a product people want. On this account, widely shared in public and academic discourse, the active promotion of English as a global language is thus not a form of neo-colonialism, but an act of political liberation. Pennycook (1998) depicts this view of English as transnational, politically neutral, socially beneficial and therefore desired, as follows:
It is common in current liberal discourses on the role of English in the world to pronounce that it is no longer tied to its insular origins, it is no longer the property of Britain, or America, or Canada, or Australia; it is now the property of the world, owned by whoever chooses to speak it, a language for all to use in global communication. But is it? (pp. 190 – 191)
Pennycook’s question here is important. English is still intimately connected to forms of colonial power, especially the domination of the world by Western capital, cultural and political interests. Ali Mazrui (1997, p. 45) goes as far as saying that if "international capitalism helped the fortunes of English, however, the consolidation of that capitalism on a global scale has now, to a certain extent, become dependent on the language". On the neo-liberal account, of course, this is not problematic. Capitalism is itself victorious on an open market of economic ideologies, and is a free and fair system. What neo-liberal accounts of the rise of English fail to address, however, is that "while English at the end of the twentieth century is more widely scattered, more extensively spoken and written than ever before, the economic process that gave impetus to its development has also left its mark. The spread of English has been as uneven as the spread of the global economy" (Holborow, 1999, pp. 57 – 58). This is certainly true in South Africa. While English is dominant here, it is far from
. What is more, English is increasingly becoming an access point to wealth and educational and political participation, thus maintaining divisions between a slowly evolving multi-racial elite and the poor, the majority of which speak African languages. Phillipson (2000), one of the most trenchant critics of global English, therefore alerts that "such terms as ‘global English’, ‘anglophone Africa’, or reference to English as a ‘universal’ lingua franca conceal the fact that the use of English serves the interests of some much better than others. Its use includes some and excludes others" (p. 89). I would therefore agree with Pennycook (1994), when he states:
a view that holds that the spread of English is natural is to ignore the history of that spread and to turn one’s back on larger global forces and the goals and interests of institutions and governments that have promoted it. To view it as natural is to take a very particular view of language and also to assume that the apparent international status of English raises it above local, social, cultural, political or economic concerns. To view it as beneficial is to take a rather naively optimistic position on global relations and to ignore the relationships between English and inequitable distributions and flows of wealth, resources, culture and knowledge. (pp. 23 – 24)
The neo-liberal colonisation of life worlds by the market, or the "reconstruction of society in accord with the demands of an unrestrained global capitalism" (Fairclough, 2000, p. 147), is felt heavily in the domain of language. When everything is reduced to, and only legitimated by, the logic of markets, languages quite literally increasingly depend for their vitality on providing access to capital. This can be devastating in a multilingual ecology, especially when one of the languages is so closely tied up with global markets – devastating not only for the marginal languages, but also for people who have limited abilities in the dominant language.
A universal language
English, in our data (Painter & Baldwin, 2002), was consistently presented as a language that is politically transparent, ideologically neutral, and disconnected from particular places and identities. English floats around, is everywhere; English is effortless and light (also see Matthee & Painter, 2002). On the rare occasions that English was associated with identities, these were meta-identities: either global or national. This construction of English directly contradicted the construction of other, notably African, languages. These were inevitably local, bound to regions and particular identities; they were seen as "heavy", difficult, and ideologically suspect. They were almost always associated with identities, and these identities were racially fixed. The universality of English referred to at least two things in our data. First, English is spoken everywhere, which means it is not spatially defined or contained. It also means English is never really out of place, regionally as well as socially. Second, everyone speaks English (already) to an adequate enough extent. English is therefore inclusive of everyone and doesn’t have to be imposed or forced on people. Such constructions of English as a universal language made it possible for respondents to certify its status as the language of choice in public domains, and to relegate other languages to private domains. In neo-liberal terms, which is the ideology that determines and justifies the currency value of English, local languages are devalued because they fall short in the markets of finance, politics, post-apartheid identity, and culture. The universality of English elevated it above other languages even in the
local context of a South African school.
Tanya: Okay obviously we need to learn to speak Xhosa, English and Afrikaans. Not in this
, just in this country. To live in South Africa you have to know how to speak English.
Tanya: Our language is a universal language, and I mean, most or many people around the world speak English. Black people, I mean in South Africa for example, you won’t find many people who can’t speak English. And it’s like very seldom that you actually, like very seldom, come across a black that can’t speak English. In both these extracts English is presented as simultaneously globally and nationally shared. Therefore, in Extract 1, the need to speak more languages than English in South Africa is qualified as a local, not a global phenomenon. Even in South Africa it is not possible to get by without knowing English. Of course, this does not mean English is
on anyone. As Tanya states in Extract 2, South Africans resemble people around the world at least in this: most of them can speak English – despite tempering her universal claim for English with the qualified "or many". Significantly, she specifically states that the majority of
people speak English. This is an implicit rhetorical move against the possible charge that she is supporting a racial order with her support for English: unlike Afrikaans that was forcefully imposed, and the African languages that are exclusionary, English is inclusive and freely chosen. Thus, although multilingualism was throughout endorsed as a value, languages other than English could be marginalised by the natural development of the linguistic market. The market value of English, significantly, was not restricted to financial gain and personal mobility; it was also related to creating a South African identity and moving away from racial fragmentation.
Marc: Okay, you can’t expect everyone to speak one language. Andrew: We don’t actually speak many languages at school. I mean, the black people (.) the black people will speak to each other in Xhosa and they’ll basically know how to speak one other language, let’s say English and they’ll speak to everyone else in English. Charmaine: What about the Afrikaans kids? Andrew: The Afrikaans kids only really speak to their family in Afrikaans basically and to everyone else= Charmaine: =ja I know but= Andrew: =but that’s only here though. Wayne: Ja, but there are schools where the Xhosas just stick to themselves and talk Xhosa and the whites and everyone else stick to themselves and talk English and Afrikaans. The responses given by Andrew and Wayne to Susan’s (who was the only Afrikaans speaker in this group) hesitant resistance ("ja I know but") to this assigning of linguistic roles and places is interesting to look at more closely. Andrew seems to sense her resistance, and then qualifies the statement about Afrikaans as true "only here". This strategy was used more than once in our data, namely arguing for the dominance of Afrikaans
in South Africa. These
were usually fairly arbitrary, such as other schools or other towns. By identifying a local exception to the universal linguistic norm, English speakers managed at least three things. They countered charges of pushing the universal claims made for English too far. They defused Afrikaans claims for increased linguistic recognition by directing them elsewhere. And, importantly, they placed Afrikaans generally somewhat above Xhosa, which had to add to its status as a local language the status of a black language – a theme to which I return in the next section. Wayne’s response is equally revealing. He contrasts the image they have created of their own school, where languages other than English are privatised, to other schools where different languages have had the effect of racially dividing the student body. In other words, if English is not asserted as the language used for general communication, black and white learners will just "stick to themselves". Marginalising other languages is hereby made to look legitimate because it is used to foster racial harmony.
Xhosa was explicitly constructed as a
language throughout our data. Not surprisingly, this racial status was
attributed to Xhosa.
Michelle: We are an English school.
Tanya: Ja, this is mainly an English and Afrikaans school. Xhosa is just like a bonus subject that, I mean,
Tanya: Okay, Afrikaans comes either first or second, because it’s an English and Afrikaans speaking school. Xhosa is obviously a third language, but it’s second for black people, but it’s actually not because they’re taking Afrikaans, and they have been taking Afrikaans for many years, so they (.) you could say they’re more adapted to Afrikaans.
Susan: It doesn’t, it doesn’t work effectively because if for instance in class we have two different [ languages = Johan: [three = Susan: = three different languages.
Nick: If you know Xhosa, it’s just a bonus because = David: = all the black people, most of them, can speak English and Afrikaans, so it doesn’t matter. In Extracts 4 to 7, Xhosa is very explicitly marginalised and devalued. Rather than being seen as essential or even important it is constructed as a bonus subject or language (Extracts 4 and 7). Rather than a first language, even for Xhosa speakers, it is constructed as third or second language (Extract 5). In Extract 6 it is even momentarily omitted or forgotten as a language in the school. This marginal status is clearly linked to its racial status: Xhosa is a language black people speak and learn. Further, since black people are presented as capable of speaking other languages, it is
for white people to speak Xhosa. This sets language up along market lines once again: since English is the common currency other languages have decreasing value in the realm of interpersonal exchange. Clearly, the force of such constructions is that white people indeed
learn Xhosa, that the language will remain marginal as a local black language, and that Xhosa speakers will have to master English sufficiently well to participate in public and academic life. The construction of English as
obscures the fact that this might pose
for black, second language speakers. It also obscures the way English is associated with the political and economic interests of a particular section of the population. The very permeability of its boundaries, and its willingness to present itself as inclusive, masks the ideological effects its imposition might have. But maintaining Xhosa as a devaluing signifier of what is "black" is not the only racial effect of the liberal talk about language we have been discussing here. We have already mentioned that English was presented as inclusive and, in the school, contributing to racial harmony. For this reason, speaking Xhosa can be presented as negatively politicising the school.
Johan: When you get out on the playground you have (.) it causes friction, that’s why it’s not effective, that’s all. Because you get people speaking Xhosa, you don’t understand what they are saying, you think they [ are Susan: [ swearing at you, and you want to beat them up. Johan: Ja, but the way they look at (.) they’re looking at you and they’re talking about you. Megan: Ja, okay. Susan: I was in that situation yesterday and I almost hit them (laughter). Okay, what problems can it cause? Just as we said. Johan: Friction. Megan: Violence. Johan: Lots of
. Susan: And then it becomes [ umm Johan: [ social problems. Susan: Umm, no (.) racism.
Susan: Ja, it’s not that we are racist. It’s just, you know, that black people and the white people don’t understand one another. You have one out of how many white people who can understand a black person.
Johan: Okay well, there are not many people that speak different languages to me. They speak English or Afrikaans, obviously. Those that don’t speak English or Afrikaans, not being racist, they don’t (.) the way they look at you when they talk. You can see they’re talking about you. Many researchers have noted the rhetorical use of disclaimers, as found explicitly in Extracts 9 and 10, in the accomplishment of racist talk. Such racial disclaimers are intended to indicate that, according to the speaker, the claims made about others are not prejudiced but justified and reasonable. In these extracts black people are seemingly accused of violating the rules of common courtesy: they don’t hide the fact that they talk about you; they look at you inappropriately. This is here directly linked to their linguistic behaviour. It is when they speak Xhosa that misunderstanding, suspicion and anger are created. Against the careful construction of English as neutral, universally shared, and inclusive of a national "us", Xhosa is forcefully rendered out of place. Just as Afrikaans was deemed historically illiberal for being forced upon people, Xhosa is now illiberal for forcing itself, although not onto people, into public space. The effect of coming between people, of creating misunderstanding, is no less than racism and racial violence (Extract 8). As is so often the case in contemporary racism, the victim is blamed.
In this paper I have argued that the global spread of English, and its increasing currency value in areas where it is often exclusionary, is linked to the general neo-liberal conception of globalisation as determined by free and fair markets. These markets are not only financial: important as these may be, the market value of English is also linked to the creation of cultural and political hegemonies. Reconfiguring these also in the image of the market, of course, is exactly what neo-liberalism does. I then proceeded to illustrate the way this naturalisation, the almost inevitable construction of English as universal, functions to maintain local links between language, class and race in South Africa.
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