Critical Perspectives in ELT

In a special issue of the L2 Journal (2015), various scholars offer “Critical Perspectives on Neoliberalism in Second/Foreign Language Education”. The introductory paper identified six features of the current second/foreign language education industry, and below is a brief summary, plus a few comments. 

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1. Language as a technicized skill

Language is seen as a commodified, technicized skill (Duchêne & Heller, 2012; Heller, 2010) and individuals are seen as human capital, developed through the acquisition of skills.  Language skills lead to social mobility and economic development, and language becomes essential in order to compete in the global economy. Decisions about which languages to teach and to learn; when, where, and how to teach them depend on the market.

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2. Culture as a commodity

As language becomes a job skill, akin to knowledge of spreadsheets or word processing, culture is increasingly mythologized (Barthes, 1972) as a product used to market nation-states and to encourage learners to cultivate desires to consume. For example, the Eiffel Tower becomes the symbol of Paris that denotes the romantic atmosphere of the city. Food such as pasta, tacos, sushi, and kimchi are introduced as the representation of authentic, traditional culture. Natural environments including mountains and beaches are not simply to be appreciated but to be viewed as commodities to be developed, advertised, and sold. This conceptualization of culture implements “a tourist gaze” (Kramsch & Vinall, 2015) which is carefully modelled in the layout, graphics and texts used in coursebooks.

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3. Language teachers as expendable and replaceable knowledge workers

Teachers are no longer salaried professionals whose job is to help learners psychologically, socially and intellectually to become more mature individuals. Rather, teachers are increasingly zero hour contract workers paid a minimum hourly rate, with no job security, sickness or pension rights, by those who control the language skills industry. They have been converted into expendable and replaceable knowledge workers, as demonstrated by the increasing reliance on this type of staff in language schools and in higher education in general.

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4. Language learners as entrepreneurs and consumers

Learners are pushed to choose languages that will make them more competitive: what language you speak and what culture you embody demonstrate your market worth. Thus, learning a language becomes an act of investment. Within the classroom students also practice participation in the market. Coursebooks emphasize routinized, truncated dimensions of language used in particular settings (e.g., socialising, shopping, travelling, business interaction) and stereotypified culture. Learners are encouraged to see social phenomena as transactions, to maximize their self-interests, and to contribute to the global economy with their language skills.

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5. The creation of a global language teaching industry

While language teachers are treated as expendable and replaceable knowledge workers, paradoxically, language teaching has become highly profitable and increasingly privatized. According to a report by the British Council (2015), the global market for English language learning alone is worth around US $200 billion. The global language teaching industry presents language in prepackaged, standardized forms in response to the needs of the free market. Rosetta Stone, for instance, advertises that they teach more than 30 languages around the world online (or through a CD) and that one can be fluent in a language in three months. In addition to these corporations, nation-states, including the UK (through the British Council),  Mainland China (through the Confucius Institute), Germany (through the Goethe Institut), France (through the Alliance Française), and the United States continue to invest large amounts of resources to promote their languages and cultures globally.

Teacher training is part of the huge money-spinning industry. In the USA, a bachelor of arts or science degree is usually a prerequisite for doing a specialised course, such as a Masters in TESOL or in applied linguistics, or a TEFL certficate. In Europe, a university degree is not a pre-requisite. The University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES) offers the most popular course: CELTA, while Trinity College, London, offers the rival Cert TESOL. Other options are Masters courses and DELTA. As the British Council report puts it (2015, p.9),

although there are some 12 million English teachers active in the world today, this masks a huge global shortage.

The shortage has generated what John Knagg of the British Council referred to as

an almost insatiable demand for qualified English language instructors accross the globe.

All these teachers – hundreds of thousands of them – are trained to teach English by using coursebooks. While many of those who design, write, and supervise the training become rich, only a minority of the teachers will find well-paid, secure, satisfying jobs.

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Global English

To those currently running the ELT industry, the fact that English is the global lingua franca is a “good thing”. Just about everybody giving presentations during the 2018 Conference Season sees the spread of English as a liberating, empowering, democratizing force in the world; a way of evening the playing field by providing greater access to knowledge and opportunities to all those it reaches. Those in charge of the ELT industry (the British Council, the publishing companies, the training bodies, the examination bodies, the big private school chains), and their paid spokespeople (the managers, writers, trainers, conference stars) see little wrong with the current state of the industry. For them, the commodification of ELT, with its coursebooks and high stakes exams and CELTA training courses; its huge profits for the few and precarious conditions and pay for so many, might not be perfect, but it’s still, as Penny Ur might say, the most sensible, most practical way to organise things. The conferences will be generally up beat; the usual suspects will talk about newer, improved ways of doing more or less the same thing, and everybody will somehow convince themselves that, contrary to the evidence, little by little, things are getting better and better.

Meanwhile, those contributing to the special edition of L2 Journal take a more critical perspective on the global spread of English. They see it as a reflection of complex processes of globalization  which lead to the privileging of elites, a widening gap between rich and poor, and linguistic as well as cultural homogenization. This, in turn, results in cultural loss and threatens the vitality and survival of local languages. With May (2011, p. 213), they call attention to “the relationship between English and wider inequitable distributions and flows of wealth, resources, culture and knowledge— especially, in an increasingly globalized world”.  As evidence, they point to the experience of all those people who learn English in hopes of moving to an English-speaking country, but are then denied access, and of all those people who have been let down by those who sold them English.

The global spread of English is more hegemonic than democratic, it oppresses more than it liberates, it threatens more than it empowers, it serves the interests of a small minority of the world’s population and betrays the interests of the rest.  Again and again throughout the special issue of the L2 Journal, studies report on participants who were let down by the false promise of learning English (Kubota, 2011). Most of the subjects of these studies set out to learn English so as to improve their job opportunities, or to gain respect in the workplace, or admission to top universities, or participation in the global marketplace, and most found that these rewards never materialized.

Directly tied to this false promise of English is the notion that gains made in one context are not recognized in another, as particular varieties or repertoires of English are valued differently in different markets or fields. In one study, Gao and Park point out, for example, that

the English learned by young South Koreans living in Singapore is not valued in South Korea, a great disappointment to their mothers who sought standard English for their children only to find that they had come home speaking “Singlish” (Berstein, et al, 2015, p. 12).

Similarly,  in another study, Jang points out how the communicative skills sought out overseas by South Korean students do not, in the end, trump the TOEIC exam results.

South Korean students who return from studying in Canada have difficulty documenting their new skills in ways that are meaningful on the job market, although it was the demands of the job market—for workers who show flexibility, collaboration, and global sensitivity—that sent them to Canada in the first place (Berstein, et al, 2015, p. 12).

In a third study, Hsu notes that

although many Filipinos are native speakers of English and are marketed as such by the Philippine government in its bids to attract corporate call centers to their country, when Filipinos arrive in the United States, they are seen as foreigners and English learners, with incomprehensible accents (Berstein, et al, 2015, p. 12).

The issue concludes with two articles dedicated entirely to modeling approaches to resistance. Davis and Phyak’s paper illustrates how researchers in various contexts can work with local populations to make changes in hegemonic language policies and practices. Ramírez and Hyslop-Margison’s manuscript provides specific tools for deconstructing texts that draw their authority from hegemonic discourses—in their case, those of crisis and neoliberal austerity.

Together, the papers in this special issue move beyond “critique;” they take us toward action, toward alternative discourses, and toward other possibilities for imagining language in education (Berstein, et al, 2015, p. 13).


Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. (A. Lavers, Trans.). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Bernstein, K., Hellmich, N., Katznelson, E., Shin, J. & Vinall, K. (2015) Introduction to Special Issue: Critical Perspectives on Neoliberalism in Second / Foreign Language Education. L2 Journal, 7(3)

British Council (2015) The English Effect.

Duchêne, A., & Heller, M. (Eds.). (2012). Language in late capitalism: Pride and profit (Vol. 1). Routledge.

Kramsch, C., & Vinall, K. (2015). The cultural politics of language textbooks in the era of globalization. In X.L. Curdt-Christiansen & C. Weninger (Eds.), Language, ideology and education: The politics of textbooks in language education (pp. 11-28). London and New York: Routledge.

May, S. (2011). Language and minority rights: Ethnicity, nationalism and the politics of language. New York, NY: Routledge.

6 thoughts on “Critical Perspectives in ELT

  1. Roland Barthes, Geoff? Careful – you start dabbling with a bit of Barthes and you end up hooked on Derrida …

  2. Hi Neill,

    The citation to your chum Roland Barthes is by Berstein et al (2015). I felt queezy writing it 🙂

  3. I had a copy and actually read a few of the essays – one on red wine, I think! Too “French intellectual” for me, Neil; I’ll take your contryman Hume any day.

  4. Hi Geoff,
    I will need to read the papers to see how irrefutable the arguments are. The problem with these kind of arguments is that they are often reductionist. Single causes get attention and other variables are downplayed or ignored. They become slanted. Arguments are charged with personal experience / interest. I am now finishing my second decade living in Chile, a case study where all these arguments can be wonderfully dissected. I have become more careful in judging this way or that way. If I had to agree to a common denominator, irrefutable, it is this that something corrupt, and corrupting, is innate to our species so that when opportunity presents itself there is no lack of monsters ready to make life miserable. It seems to be just natural. I’d side with Voltaire and lock up Rousseau.


  5. Hi Thom,

    “Irrefutable” was a bad choice of word. “Persuasive” maybe.

    We’re talking about politics, where it does seem that power corrupts. While it’s difficult to avoid cynicism, we need to remember that things can change.

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