"Global English:  World Tool or World Problem":
The Social and Political Implications

Sebastian PEN Mahfood
3 April 2003

When asked explicitly if we are for or against English as a means of global exchange, whether we feel it is a world tool or a world problem, we are asked implicitly to choose between two extremes without considering the continuum that unites them.  The short answer to this binary construction is that English is both a world tool and a world problem.  It is a world tool because it connects under a common linguistic paradigm cultures that would otherwise be unintelligible to one another.  It is a world problem because language carries the burden of culture, and the English language carries the additional and lasting legacy of colonization and imperialism.  English, as a result, is not only a communicative medium; it is also a conduit for cultural expression.  Each of these functions gives the language a natural value, and that value is used in the creation and dissemination of what is known as worldview.  Worldview, the interpretation and reconstruction of the world in the image of a given culture, is the real subject of interest, for it is within worldview that myths affecting a people’s destiny reside.  A politics of language would question these myths and seek to reconcile the traditions of a culture with its social realities.  English, as a discursive medium, contains both the myth and the politics of cultural expression.  Therefore, English has within itself the ability to heal the wounds caused by its alliance with the various colonial objectives of the powers responsible for its exportation.

England, along with the other European powers in the 15th through 20th centuries, began commercial relationships with the empires of Africa, Asia and the Americas that quickly devolved into colonial relationships in which the Western powers assumed proprietary rights over the natural and human resources of various regions.  Even with the loss of its North American colonies in the late 18th-century, England could boast in the 19th-century of having an empire upon which the sun could never set, extending across Africa, Australia, Canada, Asia and the Caribbean.  In 1835, Thomas Macaulay, a member of the Supreme Council of the East India Company, successfully reformed the academic system in India by effectively abolishing the study of Sanskrit and Arabic in favor of the study of English.  Macaulay wrote in his “Minute on Indian Education” that

it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people.  We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.  To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population. (430)

His main point was that it was a waste of English money to pay for the education in native languages and philosophies of a reluctant native population when there were many Indians who were willing to pay good money to receive an education in English language and literature.  The study of English, it was believed, opened doors to the native population while the study of other disciplines, the British claimed, not only perpetuated dying philosophies based on partial truths but also left students forever reliant on the public dole after they had wasted their energies on material that would never serve them any practical benefit.  So, an elite class was formed native “in blood and colour” and “English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect,” not only in India, but in every region where the English had the opportunity to rule.  This new and privileged class, because they were English in so many ways, identified its cause with the cause of England and perpetuated the aims of Empire even at the detriment of its own people.  This scenario replayed itself in every region the British colonized to the point where the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o admits to his being beaten for speaking his native language of Gikuyu anywhere near the English day school he attended.

            The language of English, then, is more than just the spoken word or the printed text or the digital coding of hypertext, each of which is to varying degrees ephemeral outside of the impact it has on worldview.  The language of English, unlike the native languages it sought to supplant, was carried into every region by a dominant will, considerably aided by technologies superior to those against which they clashed and by a global vision superior to the regional affiliations of the people against which it was tested.  The natives of colonized regions were divided in their understanding of the value of the wisdom and knowledge demonstrated by the English.  Those who sought to study these new things were, by degrees, alienated from their people.  They found themselves facilitating the modernization of their countries at the expense of their traditional way of life.  When independence came, they found themselves in charge of governments that presided over arbitrarily drawn geographic boundaries, filled with diverse peoples who had little cohesive vision of the role their tribal group ought to play in the larger nation and their nation ought to play among the other nations of the world.  They allied themselves with Western interests in general and with the interests of their former colonizers in particular, for their nations had been developed as dependence economies where little had been done in the way of diversifying their major industries.  When it came to supporting the needs of the people, this new administrative class was perceived as being greedily interested in supporting its own needs and the needs of its European collaborators.

            This interpretation of the evolution of the English-speaking elite is what Braj Kachru calls the alchemy of English because it provides not only social status, but it also “gives access to attitudinally and materially desirable domains of power and knowledge.  It provides a powerful linguistic tool for manipulation and control”—hence the overwhelming desire of the native to study English that Macaulay so deftly articulates. The knowledge of English enables the native to share in the power of those who control the means of production.  In the process, “this alchemy of English,” Kachru argues, “has left a deep mark on the languages and literature of the non-western world.”  Writers who normalized the experience of English had little trouble justifying their use of it as an expressive medium, but those who were socially conscious had a great deal of trouble doing so and found themselves developing a kind of double consciousness, which led to their having to satisfy two audiences within the same text.  It is to Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o that the discussion must now turn, for it is one thing for the literature of England to permeate the consciousness and worldview of the native, but quite another for the native to use English as his or her dominant mode of literary expression, writing not for the majority among his or her people who cannot read the language but for the minority educated elite who can. 

            Chinua Achebe is a Nigerian writer who uses the English language as his exclusive means of literary expression because he views English as a language that transcends the myriad of ethnicities and regional languages throughout his country.  A national literature, he argues in “The African Writer and the English Language,” “is one that takes the whole nation for its province and has a realized or potential audience throughout its territory” (429).  An ethnic literature, on the other hand, “is one which is available only to one ethnic group within the nation” (429).  For the purposes of general communication throughout the country, Chinua Achebe feels bound to the use of English as his expressive medium.  Moreover, he endorses the use of English as the expressive medium for all former colonies of Great Britain.  He writes that “there are not many countries in Africa today where you could abolish the language of the erstwhile colonial powers and still retain the facility for mutual communication” (430).  This, for him, provides the foundation for defending his use of English in literature, and he extends this defense to include all other writers using the language of their former masters.  “Those African writers who have chosen to write in English or French,” he posits, “are not unpatriotic smart alecks with an eye on the main chance -- outside their own countries.  They are by-products of the same process that made the new nation-states of Africa" (430).  Since they have been, in a sense, institutionalized by the culture of the colonial power and by “the reality of present-day Africa” (430), Achebe sees nothing controversial in his position.  "The real question,” he says, “is not whether Africans could write in English but whether they ought to…For me, there is no other choice.  I have been given this language and I intend to use it…But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings" (434).  In support of his case, he quotes James Baldwin’s transformation in attitude concerning English, for Baldwin wrote that his “quarrel with the English language ha[d] been that the language reflected none of [his] experience” (434).  In time, Baldwin developed a better understanding of his relationship to English, and he wrote that “perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it.  If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test" (434).  To use the language, then, as an extension of oneself in the world, was a solution that held redemptive potential.

While for Achebe there is no other choice, other writers believe their only viable choice lies in their not using English at all in any of their creative works.  Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer in exile, argues in his book Decolonising the Mind that the colonial relationship established by England continues to colonize the African psyche.  The literature that forms the worldview of the student, he demonstrates, deals primarily with attitudes and values important not to the African but to the Englishman.  Students grow up reading a value-laden worldview in which the social, cultural, political, economic and racial attitudes held by English writers are imprinted upon their minds.  In Moving the Center: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, Ngugi writes,

When nations meet on terms of independence and equality, they tend to stress the need for communication in the language of the other.  They choose the language of the other merely to ease communication in their dealings with one another.  But when they meet as oppressor and oppressed, as for instance under imperialism, then their languages cannot experience a genuinely democratic encounter.  The oppressor nation uses language as a means of entrenching itself in the oppressed nation…In such a situation, what is at stake is language as more than a simple means of communication. (31)

That the oppressor nation entrenches itself within the oppressed nation is a matter of colonial policy—England took over the economic, political and social space in every country it entered.  The colonizing nation, however, must colonize more than the natural resources of a nation if it is to maintain its hegemony—that is, its ability to control the infrastructure and worldview of the culture upon which it imposes itself.  It must also control the human resources through what Ngugi calls the colonization of the mind, what Macaulay called the rising up of an elite class of natives who would serve as intermediaries between the English and the majority of the population.  This is the root of Ngugi’s problem.  He adds,

English and the African languages never met as equals, under conditions of equality, independence, and democracy, and this is the root of all subsequent distortions.  They met with English as the language of the conquering nation, and ours as the language of the vanquished.  An oppressor language inevitably carries racist and negative images of the conquered nation, particularly in its literature, and English is no exception. (35)

Moreover, when African writers write in English, they tend to perpetuate the myth that English is the language of expression and civilization rather than the home language of the African student.  Consequently, Ngugi’s solution is to have the African writer engage his or her people through the written vernacular as a way of creating a literary canon in one’s native language and legitimizing that language as worthy of scholarship and study.  He writes,

We African writers are bound by our calling to do for our languages what Spencer, Milton and Shakespeare did for English; what Pushkin and Tolstoy did for Russian; indeed what all writers in world history have done for their languages by meeting the challenge of creating a literature in them, which process later opens the languages for philosophy, science, technology and all the other areas of human creative endeavors. (29)

 That African languages are not used as primary means of communicating Western philosophies, sciences and technologies has nothing to do with their incapacity for doing so, therefore, and everything to do with their lack of opportunity among the dominant discourses in the world.  After all, it is not the literariness of a language that brought about British dissatisfaction with it, for if literariness were what mattered, then Arabic and Sanskrit would not have attracted Macaulay’s attention; rather, it was the un-Englishness of the language and the culture that prompted British action for change.  Britain had to set up a system that was as like its own as possible in order to better manipulate it, but regardless of how closely the natives adapted themselves to the system, they did less to form equal partnerships than they did to insert themselves into the English pyramidal structure—somewhere nearer the bottom. 

If a people are to become producers of their own cultural imperatives, then they have to be in control of their own means of expression concerning them.  When an African writer writes in English, he or she is not empowering the majority of the population who might be illiterate in the English language. Moreover, the writer is actually catering to either the elite within the country or to the population of England and other English-speaking countries.  In either case, the writer is not communicating his worldview to the people of his own nation, nor is the writer able to fully express the national consciousness of the people, focused as he or she is on the foreign audience and the foreign linguistic paradigm into which his or her thoughts have to be forced.  Ngugi interprets these problems in "The Writer in a Neo-Colonial State" by simply asking,

For whom does [the writer] write?  For the people?  But then what language does he use?  It is a fact that the African writers who emerged after the Second World War opted for European languages.  All the major African writers wrote in English, French and Portuguese.  But by and large, all the peasants and a majority of the workers -- the masses -- have their own languages.  Isn't the writer perpetuating, at the level of cultural practice, the very neo-colonialism he is condemning at the level of economic and political practice?  For whom a writer writes is a question which has not been satisfactorily resolved by the writers in a neo-colonial state.  For the African writer, the language he has chosen already has chosen his audience. (73) 

 The African writer in English, according to Ngugi, is not writing for the majority of the country as Chinua Achebe contends.  The African writer in English is participating, therefore, in the same kind of neocolonial activities as those for which he or she blames the new governing class within the country.  Just as the neocolonial governor exports the best natural resources for foreign consumption, the neocolonial writer exports the best cultural resources for foreign consumption, and both deny the people their right to have ownership of their own natural resources.  Ngugi, as a result, now writes his original productions only in Gikuyu or Kiswahili, and explains his reason for doing so in his essay "From the Corridors of Silence: The Exile Writes Back,” where he writes,

I was a student at Leeds University in the mid-sixties when I first strongly felt a sense of despair at that contradiction in my situation as a writer.  I had just published A Grain of Wheat, a novel that dealt with the Kenya people's struggle for independence.  But the very people about whom I was writing were never going to read the novel or have it read for them.  I had carefully sealed their lives in a linguistic case. Thus whether I was based in Kenya or outside, my opting for English had already marked me as a writer in exile…The African writer is already set aside from people by his education and language choice. (107) 

 Ngugi’s move from the language of English into the language of the people was not merely a linguistic choice, in this case, but a political one, for it led to his detention by the Kenyan government in 1977 and, finally, to his permanent exile from his homeland.  The irony of Ngugi is that while he was living amongst his people who spoke Gikuyu and Kiswahili, he was prolific in the English language, and now that he is living in exile in an English speaking country, he writes only in Gikuyu and Kiswahili.  The example of Nuruddin Farah further demonstrates the irony into which exiles who insist upon writing in their native language are forced.  The Somali writer, the first to use the Somali language (which was an unwritten language as late as 1972) in literature with the 1973 serial publication of Tallow Waa Talee Ma, has found himself in exile for the same reasons as Ngugi.  This is because a writer who writes for the liberation of the people against a dictatorial regime in a language the people can understand is a threat to the political infrastructure while a writer who does it using the linguistic tools of the neocolonial state is a part of that infrastructure.

Ngugi and Achebe are both right about the fact that writers from former colonies of England have a responsibility towards the creation of national literatures expressive of the social realities of their people.  The difference between them is that Achebe views English as an African language, as a language that can unite Africans, while Ngugi views it as an alien construct into which African culture has been subsumed. Both assertions are true, for cultural expressiveness lies within the social realities of any people, and the greatest reality that English has engendered is its transformation of the consciousness of the people with whom it came into contact.  Kachru writes that

English has thus caused transmutation of languages, equipping them in the process for new societal, scientific and technological demands.  The process of Englishization has initiated stylistic and thematic innovations, and has ‘modernized’ registers.  The power of English is so dominant that a new caste of English-using speech fellowships has developed across cultures and languages.  It may be relatively small, but it is powerful, and its values and perspectives are not necessarily in harmony with the traditional values of these societies.  In the past, the control and manipulation of international power have never been in the hands of users of one language group.  Now we see a shift of power from the traditional caste structure; in the process, a new caste has developed.  In this sense, English has been instrumental in a vital social change, and not only in that of language and literatures. (295)

As a result, it is not enough to ask whether this transformation has been a good or a bad thing, nor is it enough to study the effects this transformation has had on the cultural imperatives of the people.  The social and linguistic trends have to be interpreted in order to provide some understanding of the directions in which writers ought to take their people. 

In order to engage the world, a people must become producers of the tools of cultural expressiveness, and this means not rejecting outright the lexicons that have shaped their development but transforming those lexicons into something of value for them and for their societies.  If 90% of the Kenyan people cannot read, write or understand English, then it is not a valuable medium for Kenyan writers trying to build a national literature whereas if 90% of the Nigerian people have this common ability, then there is a value in adapting the language to fit the social reality.  The attempt to do this in every post-colonial nation has led to the decapitalization of English into a myriad of global englishes where the authenticity of native language is bolstered by the inclusion of English contexts.  Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, in The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures, explain the situation as follows:

In African countries and in India, that is in post-colonial countries where viable alternatives to english continue to exist, an appeal for a return to writing exclusively, or mainly in the pre-colonial languages has been a recurring feature of calls for decolonization.  Politically attractive as this is, it has been seen as problematic by those who insist on the syncretic nature of post-colonial societies.  Syncreticist critics argue that even a novel in Bengali or Gikuyu is inevitably a cross-cultural hybrid, and that decolonizing projects must recognize this.  Not to do so is to confuse decolonization with the reconstitution of pre-colonial reality. (30)

 Moreover, because there is no going back to the pre-colonial reality, writers should try to reclaim their lost cultural heritage through an appropriate use of the cultural and linguistic tools available to them.  In this way, every novelist will nourish a sense of community among his or her own people. 

English has been and will continue to be used as both a source of empowerment and a tool of oppression. It is the responsibility of the writer who uses it to redeem it for his or her people.  George Lamming, in “The Occasion for Speaking, writes,

I am not much interested in what the West Indian writer has brought to the English language; for English is no longer the exclusive language of the men who live in England.  That stopped a long time ago; and it is today, among other things, a West Indian language.  What the West Indians do with it is their own business.  A more important consideration is what the West Indian novelist has brought to the West Indies.  That is the real question; and its answer can be the beginning of an attempt to grapple with that colonial structure of awareness which has determined West Indian values.  (16)

 The reclamation of an authentic national identity, then, does not mean that a nation turns back the clock but that the nation is willing to move ahead and learn to cope with its new place as part of the global community.  The choice of language, then, should show a distinct understanding of the purpose for which the language is being used. Writers who use English, therefore, should incessantly envision the world they are trying to create in accord with the audience for whom they are creating that world.