Questioning the belief that English is a universal common language

January 28, 2020

Is English a universal language, proficiency in which guarantees a successful career? Or is this a language myth that needs to be set right?

Language Sciences member and Department of Language and Literacy Education Professor Ryuko Kubota and her research team interviewed 50 transnational workers between 2011 to 2016 to investigate. She discusses her findings, as well as the gaps between policy and scholarship when it comes to language education, and her current work in this area.  

Your scholarship questions the neoliberal ideologies attached to English, including that English is a universal common language and that English proficiency promises career success. How common are these beliefs, and why?

The “global language myth” and the “economic benefit myth” attached to English pervade societies especially where English does not have an official status and is learned as an additional language. No doubt, English has a global status, since it is used worldwide in various domains, including the media, entertainment, research, and  education. The belief that English proficiency boosts one’s social and economic competitiveness is reflected in the many educational services and products on offer, made available through neoliberal privatization.

Ability in English has become almost like a fetishized commodity.

Part of this research included interviewing transnational Japanese and Korean corporate workers. What did you find?

We interviewed 35 Japanese transnational workers with work experience in China, South Korea, or Thailand, and 15 South Korean transnational workers with work experience in China, Japan, or Vietnam – all countries where English is not the dominant language. We focused on the manufacturing sector as it encompasses different types of labor, from production to sales. We were interested in finding out our interviewees’ language choice and their views and experiences about communication.

If English were a global language, we would find English was predominantly used in these contexts. However overall, the universal utility of English was not found. The reported language choices were mixed, reflecting local factors (e.g., the presence or absence of local workers who speak the expatriates’ language), the work type (e.g., supervising factory workers who are typically non-English speaking vs. selling products worldwide), individual factors (e.g., willingness to learn the local language), and linguistic factors (e.g., linguistic and orthographic proximity between the local language and the expat’s language).

It was also interesting to find the predominance of Japanese use between Japan and South Korea, perhaps reflecting the legacy of Japanese colonialism.

Interviewees also placed more importance on communicative strategies and dispositions, professional skills, and cultural knowledge, than language proficiency measurable by tests.

What do you think will change about these beliefs in the future?

We have found a gap between what these workers’ experience and language-in-education policies in Japan and South Korea. The disparity is between the importance of plurilingual and intercultural communicative competence and the increased emphasis on the learning of English with a focus on becoming more proficient as measured by standardized tests. We also see a gap between the trend of monolingual teaching of English and the increased scholarly discussions on linguistic plurality in the field of language education.

It seems that scholars need to communicate with policymakers in order to make any significant change.​

Should people stop perpetuating these beliefs/ideas? What are you currently working on in this area?

One way of addressing the gap is disseminating scholarly perspectives through public scholarship. In 2018, I published a paperback in Japanese on the myths of English language education, discussing these findings in one of the chapters. Although my SSHRC funding has finished, we are also in the process of writing further about the data on Korean workers especially for a Korean audience.

We as scholars should keep making efforts and exploring strategies to communicate our research to wider audiences.


First Nations land acknowledegement

We acknowledge that UBC’s campuses are situated within the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh, and in the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Syilx Okanagan Nation and their peoples.

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