English, globalisation and linguistic nationalism
How aware are we of the relevance of English in our complex linguistic environment?
— Satish Kumar Mahadeo
Among all international languages, English is agreed by many to have attained the status of a global ‘lingua franca’. Worldwide, there are over 1,400 million people living in countries where English has official status. One out of five of the world’s population speaks English to some level of competence. Demand from the other four fifths is increasing. The ever-growing need for good communication skills in English has created a huge demand for English teaching around the world. Millions of people today want to improve their command of English or to ensure that their children receive a good command of English.
The worldwide demand for English has created an enormous demand for quality language teaching and language teaching materials and resources. Learners set themselves demanding goals. They want to be able to master English to a high level of accuracy and fluency. Employers, too, insist that their employees have good English language skills, and fluency in English is a prerequisite for success and advancement in many fields of employment in today’s world. The demand for an appropriate teaching methodology is therefore as strong as ever.
Under the strong influence of globalization, Mauritius can hardly risk retreating from using English as the communication medium when facing the irresistible demands for getting contact with the larger part of the world. The process of globalization does not only change the way people use language, but also their attitude towards language learning. As people are treating languages as economic commodities, both their motivations for learning language and their choices about which languages to learn are affected, which in turn affects institutions’ allocation of resources for language education. This attitude of ‘commodifying’ languages can be regarded as one of the most significant implications brought about by the process of globalization.
Many intellectuals in non-English speaking countries, including Mauritius, have been educated and trained in various professions through the medium of English. These professions are usually those that form the backbone of government and business administration. English has therefore become a common medium for the professional standards of internationalization. It is these standards that have placed English in a culturally advantageous and dominant position among other Western languages.
We seem in Mauritius to cultivate a mindset which equates language with ethnicity, but the globalization of our economy forces us to reframe languages as forms of economic capital rather than as identity markers. In this context of globalization and the knowledge economy, the definition of nationalism itself has shifted from that of linguistic nationalism to that of ‘knowledge-driven nationalism’ and ‘development-oriented nationalism’. This shift ironically was conceptualized by Dr Mahathir, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, who established Bahasa Malay as the national language, language of administration and the language of education of Malaysia during its immediate post-independence period. In our present times, linguistic nationalism is driven by national development forces – the acquisition, mastery and innovative use of knowledge and information in the fields of science and technology – forces that are essential for the development of a nation like Mauritius.
English plays a key role in the Mauritian educational system, not only as an important subject, but specially as the medium of instruction. The Ministry of Education and Human Resources, which is the largest provider of English language education, has the responsibility to (re)define a clear English language policy in this age of globalisation with a view to, enhancing (a) infrastructural resources, which include, among other things, language learning materials and, especially, professional competence of teachers, (b) sociocultural factors such as providing substantive exposure to English out of class, and (c) curricular and pedagogical practices that will provide incentives for students to learn English for communicative purposes.
When there is a lack of clarity of vision regarding the objectives for teaching and learning English, when most English language teachers are themselves not very clear as to the status of the English language and its future position in the country, this has several implications. First, it is very difficult to plan a viable and long-term language teaching methodology without a clarity of vision. Second, it is difficult for a government to commit itself materially and in terms of manpower if it is not clear what importance or role English has in the country.
Mauritius should follow the example of Singapore where success in educating students through English challenges the assumption of the supremacy of instruction through the mother tongue. English was the native language of virtually none of the Singapore population in 1965. However, although English had little basis there, its high status and international economic value allowed it to be accepted as the main medium of education, and it is not far-fetched to link Singapore’s language education policy to its high level of economic prosperity in the South East Asian context. Lee Kwan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore cited economic reasons as the impetus behind the nation’s retention of English as an official language. He determined that only mastery of English would bring Singapore the international trade, investment and access to Western science and technology it needed.
Clarity of direction is an essential component in the implementation of language policy and language management to avoid confusion so that there is synergy in expectations between the policy makers (i.e. the Ministry of Education), the implementers (i.e. the language teachers) and the ones most directly impacted by any policy – the students who are at the receiving end, and who are directly affected by the manner in which policies are implemented.
Satish Kumar Mahadeo