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The Childhood, Law & Policy Network (CLPN)

Interview with Rosemary Salomone about her book, The Rise of English: Global Politics and the Power of Language

Our member, Prof. Rosemary Salomone (St. John's, US), talks about her book, The Rise of English: Global Politics and the Power of Language (Oxford University Press, 2021).


Q: What is this book about?

This book is about the spread of English as the dominant lingua franca and its effects on national identity, the global economy, and educational policies and access, both past and present. Proceeding in three parts, the discussion starts in Europe, where the European Union has used multilingualism to promote integration and economic mobility, and indirectly to temper the spread of English. It looks at conflicts in France, Italy, and the Netherlands over using English in university programs. 

It moves on to the postcolonial world beginning with an intense look at France and a brief look at China as they compete to override English and maintain or gain influence in Africa. From there it shifts to former French-speaking colonies, particularly Rwanda and Morocco, and their measured moves toward instruction in English. It next turns to South Africa and India, two multilingual and relatively young constitutional democracies with low academic achievement linked to race and class, and where disputes over English and education reveal longstanding grievances and the inequities of politically motivated language policies. It then crosses to the United States to deconstruct the monolingual mindset and examine how the stars are aligning in unexpected ways to slowly turn that mindset around with French influence once again in the forefront. 

The book concludes with a look at popular market-driven arguments embraced by educators, parents, and policymakers supporting the advantages of both English and multilingualism. In the end, it calls for key decisionmakers to recognize English as a core component of multilingualism and decisively move toward educating informed world citizens who can transcend linguistic and cultural borders.

Of particular interest to members of the Childhood, Law & Policy Network would be the extent to which the book underscores the connection between language and educational opportunity and mobility for children across the globe; the lingering impact of historical conflicts on wavering language policies; and the downside, especially in less privileged settings, of policymakers and parents wrapping children’s identity and future in the mantle of English proficiency while ignoring the linguistic and cultural capital that children carry with them to school.

Q: What made you write this book?

As a linguist and a lawyer, I have long been interested in questions of language, identity, and educational equity. My book True American, published in 2010, examined the education of immigrant children in the United States. It ended with a chapter on Europe, which is where the current book begins.

What serendipitously brought me to “the rise of English” were two legal disputes in 2013. In France, it was a legislative proposal to allow university courses taught in a language other than French. In Italy, it was litigation challenging a plan to switch all graduate courses to English at Milan’s prestigious Polytechnic Institute. Both cases revealed that, despite all the benefits of a common global language, there were significant inequities especially for students in its distribution and consequences for national identity and national languages.

As I dug deeper into the research on English as a lingua franca, it became clear that there was a far broader story on globalization and educational access to be told. That tentative beginning ultimately took me on a seven-year journey through seven countries, seven languages, and a vast store of scholarship. Along the way, I encountered the work of activists, political philosophers, jurists, economists, linguists, and literary icons within and beyond the western canon. My aim was to capture what I learned into a book laying bare the spread of English across the arc of history and global politics that would be accessible to an interdisciplinary and international audience.

An excerpt from the book:

Nowhere have these concerns over English been more vigorously debated than in the arena of education, where national identity and educational access and quality have become increasingly salient and controversial. That fact is not surprising. Government-operated schools promote national stability by instilling in future citizens a shared sense of values. A common language is considered key to this common project. It is generally believed that speaking and writing the same language help create social and political cohesion. Schools are the primary mechanism for making that goal a reality. This thinking goes back to the nineteenth century with the dawn of the nation-state, when the ideology of a national language, aided by print technology, took hold in western Europe. By mastering the dominant language, speakers demonstrated that they were willing to be part of an “imagined community” bound by a shared history and culture tied to a shared language. A common language was intended to make the inhabitants of a country feel like they were “members of the same nation.” In reality, many Europeans had to relinquish their own regional languages and identities in the process.

As already noted, western European powers carried that ideology to the lands they conquered. By will or by force, most countries embraced “one nation, one language” as a core principle. Whether the people actually benefited remains contested. The extent to which the colonizers succeeded in planting their language on colonized soil varied widely depending on how they selectively educated their subjects and on the multiplicity of languages they found. Yet unlike western European nations, these countries typically had no single ethnic-linguistic identity for building a national identity or a system of schooling. In Africa, in particular, that situation was partly the result of the way European powers had carved up the continent. Just as many countries were gaining their independence in the 1960s, English and its role in shaping a global economy appeared on the scene and further complicated language policies in the process of decolonization. The policies adopted mainly reflected the agendas of those in power, often motivated by an overriding interest in attracting foreign investment and loans to secure their political position rather than concerns for educational quality or workability.

Six decades later, the idea that English can be a partner with and not a substitute for indigenous languages is only slowly gaining traction. The foregone choice in many countries to use a colonial language as the medium of instruction has led to wavering education policies, gross inequities, and widespread language loss throughout the developing world. In various contexts and points in time, English has led to acrimonious debates over language and identity in newly independent colonies. English continues to push aside national and other languages in the name of economic progress. At the heart of the language problem lies the inequitable access to linguistic capital that English and other dominant languages carry and the parallel cost to smaller, less prestigious languages.

At the same time, English has helped in reframing school knowledge to conform to the world of work, setting aside humanistic ideals like the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. These changes align with the neoliberal drift of education and the emphasis on accountability and measurable outputs in standardized test scores geared toward a global economy. The importance that teachers, parents, policymakers, and the media place on results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the standardized survey of performance among fifteen-year-olds, is clear evidence of that trend.

State-run schools and universities are conventionally thought to be a force of liberation and social leveling. Yet they can merely reinforce class differences depending on how language, including English, is used from primary schooling upward. The elite, educated in well-resourced private English-medium schools, reap the consequent benefits of higher education, rewarding careers, and social status. Even beyond schooling, young people from economically secure and well-educated families are exposed to English through books, newspapers, films, computers, and travel abroad, all of which foster academic achievement and the ability to move freely in the global economy. Meanwhile the less advantaged are fed, at most, a diet of low-quality English instruction in state-run schools due in part to the uneven English proficiency of teachers.

English represents what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu termed “cultural capital,” using the concept of the “market” to symbolize the social context of language. For Bourdieu, language was not just a means of communication or knowledge sharing; it was an instrument of power. Along with the ability to use language, individuals acquire attitudes, knowledge, and ways of viewing the world through family and community socialization. These attributes, he maintained, bear cognitive and attitudinal consequences that benefit the most privileged. Looked at in reverse, as Bourdieu brought to light, the “combined effect of low cultural capital (including language) and the associated low propensity to increase it through educational investment condemns the least favored classes to the negative sanctions of the scholastic market, i.e., exclusion or early self-exclusion induced by lack of success.”

But there is another side to this story. Taken to the extreme, the emphasis on English as representing “high cultural capital” can also prove counterproductive, most notably in countries where economic inequality is deeply entrenched. The global trend in introducing English at increasingly earlier ages inevitably leaves behind children in the poorest countries, including billions in Africa and South Asia. Many parents push their children into English-medium schools or classes from the beginning to prepare them for university programs in English and for the global economy even where there is no English support in the home and community. They ignore or simply do not comprehend the conventional wisdom that first and second languages are mutually supportive and that children need to learn and initially develop literacy in a language that they understand. Once children have developed a certain proficiency threshold in their first language to succeed academically, they can then transfer those skills to the second language.



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