The Politics of Language Education: Individuals and Institutions

The Politics of Language Education: Individuals and Institutions

by Charles Alderson (Editor)


View All Available Formats & Editions
Usually ships within 6 days

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781847691422
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 03/15/2009
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Charles Alderson is Professor of Linguistics and English Language Education at Lancaster University, UK. He was Director of the Revision Project that produced the IELTS test; Scientific Coordinator of DIALANG (; Academic Adviser to the British Council’s Hungarian English Examination Reform Project; and is former co-editor of the international journal Language Testing and the Cambridge Language Assessment Series (Cambridge University Press). He has taught and lectured in over 50 countries world-wide, been consultant to numerous language education projects, and is internationally well-known for his teaching, research and publications in language testing and assessment, programme and course evaluation, reading in a foreign language and teacher training.

Read an Excerpt


Setting the Scene




At recent conferences in the UK, around the presentations of papers, over coffee breaks, in bars and at dinner tables, I heard the following stories, all allegedly true:

A famous language pedagogue and head of department is frequently invited to exotic places to deliver lectures. He writes one new lecture per year, which he delivers wittily in a myriad of places. Meanwhile, back home, his colleagues have to substitute for him, decisions are deferred until he returns, students are unsupervised, and the Centre is out of control as factions, both external and internal to the Centre, tear it apart.

When a colleague who had run a successful local project attempted to make a proposal for a continuation of the same project on a geographically much wider basis, the proposal was hijacked by her superiors, presented by them (unchanged) for funding and they then took all credit for the success of the bid. The original proposer was then obliged to implement the new project: all the work and none of the praise.

A researcher is investigating the admissions process at his university, and interviews the admissions officers. He discovers that although the process normally follows explicit guidelines, exceptions are occasionally made, either because a particular candidate has an important position back home, and he could influence whether more students come from his institution, or because the student is recommended by colleagues, and it is awkward to challenge a colleague's claim that the student is sufficiently qualified and experienced to be admitted to the course. Another student has received a scholarship from the British government, and there is pressure to admit the student because he is a useful contact for the British Council and Embassy in that country.

A British Council Country Director decides, shortly before leaving his post, that the staff should work in open offices to enhance communication, so, without consultation, he arranges for the walls to be torn down and open offices to be created. The new incoming Director dislikes open offices and arranges for the walls to be rebuilt (at tax payers' expense). Another British Council Director arranges, at considerable expense, for the refurbishment of the reception area of the building. Within two years the new Director turns the reception area into a computer centre, at considerable expense to the UK taxpayer. One year later, the British Council vacates the building and opens new premises elsewhere.

Such tales are not unfamiliar in language education; they are never published, yet they remain part of the folklore of the field. Other scenarios are well known, yet often accepted as a normal part of life in language education:

A new three-year teacher training programme was set up in a European country, which was by all accounts highly successful, which devoted far more time than traditional preservice programmes to teaching methodology and teaching practice. However, after a few years, the traditional language departments managed to have the three-year programme closed, and all budding teachers had to attend the traditional five-year literature and linguistics programmes, with only a bare minimum of teaching methodology and teaching practice.

An international organisation was set up by a group of language examination providers to promote their language exams. One key rule of the organisation was that each language could only be represented by one sole examination provider testing its national language, unless that examination provider did not object to another national language provider joining the organisation. The national providers of French and German exams had no objection to other French and German examination providers joining, but the provider of English exams has to date not allowed other English exam providers to join, despite the fact that English is by far the most widely tested language in Europe, and virtually every nation has examination bodies that test English.

Expatriate 'expert' teachers clash with principals and colleagues in their institution, causing great recrimination and hurt, but are easily able to take up a post in another country, which they have never visited and whose culture they know nothing about.

University experts in applied linguistics jet into language education projects in exotic locations, deliver several lectures on the need for more up-to-date methods of teaching, both inspiring and frustrating the local audience in equal measure, and then fly back to their universities never to be seen again.

In one Southern European country, where certificates in English are generally regarded as a passport to university entrance and to good employment, public education in English is in a lamentable state, and parents prefer to send their children (from ages as young as seven or eight) to private language schools, since the state system is widely believed to be terminally inefficient. Yet many of the teachers in the private language schools also teach in the state system, and the suspicion is that they teach quite differently in the two systems.

The language textbook industry, especially for English, has a huge market, and publishers have no scruples in claiming that products developed for one part of the world are equally relevant and useful in completely different societies. Since the Common European Framework of Reference (Council of Europe, 2001) has become almost the standard European reference for curriculum development, exams and textbooks, publishers have wasted no time in claiming that their textbooks are suitable for learners at B1 or A2, without any evidence whatsoever that their content has changed, much less been aligned to the Common European Framework of Reference.

A major non-governmental organisation (NGO) involved in language education claims that it 'values people', is 'a valued partner for the provision of English', and 'people are its greatest asset'. It is currently involved in making radical cuts in its staffing levels, without consultation, but the posts that are most costly – those of expatriate directors and assistant directors – are protected, and only relatively low-paid local staff are to lose their jobs.

The language education literature

In language education, especially in such a commercially successful enterprise as English language education, we hear and read more about the positive, the exemplary, the success stories, than about the negative, the normal, the failures. We hear much more about the Good Language Learner than we do about the Bad Language Learner. We certainly hear more about The Reflective Teacher than we do about The Unthinking Teacher, and we read more about the Communicative Syllabus and the Communicative Classroom than we do about the Confused Syllabus or the Confusing Classroom. Our 'professional' literature prefers not to deal with the 'unprofessional', other than implicitly, by contrast.

We hear much less, if anything at all, about those individuals who are not innovators or original thinkers, those who do not lead, those who are not paragons. Just ordinary human beings: the barely competent, those who resist change, the lazy, the less than ambitious, those who just want a quiet life and want to be with their family, to earn enough money to live on, and a bit on the side to brighten up an otherwise normal, maybe dull, certainly normal, life.

Similarly, there are many 'normal' institutions, with their weaknesses and foibles, their sins and their 'dirty linen'. Yet again, we rarely read about such institutions in the literature. We do not read about unprofessional or dubious behaviour, unscrupulous practices, ruthless treatment of rivals, competitors or clients. Yet surely they exist.

In many walks of life, we know that there are conspiracies, there is wilful negligence, there is incompetence, there are hidden agendas, there is unethical behaviour. Indeed, there is even criminal behaviour. Laws and the justice system exist to deal with such anti-social (albeit quasinormal) behaviour, just as codes of practice and codes of ethics exist to define acceptable behaviour (even if such behaviour is not normal). So, one might argue, unprofessional, unethical, dubious or even criminal behaviour is the province of the courts, or of the professional organisations that regulate their profession's behaviour and practices. Maybe, but where and when in our profession do we read or learn about such practices?

Often we read about unethical or dubious practices in other fields, in the media: investigative journalism, it is often called. History is full of biographies of politicians and their lust for and use of power. We even read about such characters in literature, where they are often fictionalised, to protect both the individual and the author. In our field there are not many examples of this, although the novel Rates of Exchange by Malcolm Bradbury is based on the life of a well-known applied linguist. But even that fiction does not directly address the dubious practices, the unprofessional, the negligent and the incompetent; it merely mildly satirises the vain, self-seeking itinerant charlatan.

It is my contention that in order to understand language education and its development and change, effectiveness or ineffectiveness, we need to scratch beneath the surface of the theory, the exemplary cases, the vaunted successes. We need to describe and understand the mass of ordinary human beings and their motivations and actions, for better or worse, and the agendas of the institutions that employ them.

Need for theory?

One might argue that we lack an adequate theoretical account of the politics of language education, as well as an adequate methodology for describing such politics (but see Alderson, Chapter 11). However, this view over-privileges theoretical accounts, especially in the present state of our knowledge, and it ignores the fact that many different theoretical perspectives are needed to understand the complexity of the issues which I argue should be investigated. Indeed, the need for a plurality of theoretical and disciplinary approaches is the main theme of this chapter.

Before we can develop a theory of the politics of language education, we need descriptive studies of the politics of language education, with an emphasis on developing suitable research and reporting methodologies. We cannot develop any theoretical understanding of phenomena without first describing them. We need to problematise the whole area first, before we can seriously attempt theoretical underpinnings. So what follows in this book is a series of such case studies. First we must admit what we do not know, then explore the area before attempting grand generalisations and theorising. And I am not alone in arguing this position of 'first research, then theorising'. Goldstein and Woodhouse in the context of criticisms of school effectiveness research in the UK that it lacks a theoretical base, argue:

It is not incumbent upon every research endeavour to provide a strong theoretical basis of the kind that allows interesting predictions and shapes our interpretation of the world being studied. There is, for example, often an important period during which empirical evidence needs to be accumulated before coherent theories can be developed. (Goldstein & Woodhouse, 2000: 360)

In this chapter I do not present a coherent theoretical overview of approaches to politics in language education. Rather, the aim of this chapter is to explore briefly those aspects of relevant disciplines in the social sciences that might throw light on topics addressed in subsequent chapters, to offer insights from different perspectives in the hope that some will resonate with readers. Not all ideas will resonate with every reader or context, but I hope that all will be stimulating of thought, and that some aspect of some of the ideas might inspire readers to explore the field further in order to enhance our understanding of the unexplored field of the politics of individuals and institutions in language education.

In this chapter, I will first briefly deal with macropolitics and distinguish this from micropolitics. I go on to discuss those features of individuals their personalities – which may contribute to politics. I next describe the individual in groups, leadership and management theory. I then describe social and cultural influences that may also play a role in the politics of language education. Finally I address the nature and role of politics in commercial and quasi-commercial organisations, the topics of change and resistance to change and the nature of micropolitics in educational contexts.

Macropolitics vs Micropolitics

Issues to do with the macropolitics of English language education have been discussed in applied linguistics since the early 1990s at least, although Pennycook shows that English has played a dominant role in many countries for over 400 years.

Whereas once Britannia ruled the waves, now it is English which rules them. The British empire has given way to the empire of English. (Pennycook, 1994: 1)

As the English language has spread globally, local varieties of English have developed, which Kachru and Nelson (1996) have characterised as the Inner Circle/Outer Circle/Periphery of English as an International Language. Debates rage about standards of correctness of World Englishes and the role of the non-native in teaching and using English (McKay, 2002; Medgyes, 1994; Phan, 2008). A 1979 brochure for a chain of private language schools – International House, cited in Medgyes, (1994: 3) claimed 'Once we used to send gunboats and diplomats abroad; now we are sending English teachers'. The British Council Annual Report, 1968-1969, proclaimed 'There is a hidden sales element in every English teacher, book, magazine, film-strip and television programme sent overseas' (Medgyes, 1994: 10-11).

Some see in this an imperialist conspiracy. Phillipson (1992), for example, argues that English has committed linguistic genocide by dominating the world's languages, as a tool of linguistic imperialism, of colonial, then neo-colonial and latterly commercial hegemony. Although Pennycook is somewhat critical of Phillipson's argument, seeing it as too deterministic, nevertheless he uses a similar rhetoric of colonial expansion, British domination of trade, and Anglicist and Orientalist attitudes to language to explain the colonial and post-colonial global role of English.

This volume is less concerned with the macropolitical role that English has played (and still plays) and with issues to do with English as an International Language. We do not address the acceptability or otherwise of local standards of English, except insofar as it affects the issues surrounding native/non-native English speaker individuals. Unlike Pennycook, we are not directly concerned in this volume with free markets, international relations, poverty, multinational companies and the global diffusion of certain forms of knowledge, culture and thinking, although clearly these are important issues that impact on a global language like English and which are themselves affected by the role of English in the world. Indeed, we are not in principle concerned with English language education but with language education more generally, since, although most examples in this volume do indeed concern English language education, we believe that in principle the issues addressed are generalisable beyond any particular language. However, we would be foolish to claim that matters like the claimed dominance of English for science, medicine and commerce, or the role of English in gate-keeping and in economic success do not play some part in the politics that we are interested in – micropolitics and the role of the individual, and individuals in institutions, in such politics. Nevertheless, in several of the case studies that follow this chapter, it is evident that macropolitics often provides an important context for micropolitical behaviour, and this is especially true in the area of development aid, and projects in language education. Inevitably, macro and micropolitics are frequently intertwined.

Blase defines micropolitics as follows:

Micropolitics is about power and how people use it to influence others and to protect themselves. It is about conflict and how people compete with each other to get what they want. It is about cooperation and how people build support among themselves to achieve their ends. It is about what people in all social settings think about and have strong feelings about, but what is so often unspoken and not easily observed. (Blase, 1991: 1)

Furthermore, Tollefson (1995: ix) claims that 'power and inequality are central to language teaching and learning. What happens in the language classroom is intimately linked to social and political forces and practitioners must understand these links if they are to be fully effective in their work'. Each article in his edited volume 'examines ways in which language policy and language education around the world are linked with the distribution of political power and economic resources' (Tollefson, 1995: 1).


Excerpted from "The Politics of Language Education"
by .
Copyright © 2009 J. Charles Alderson and the authors of individual chapters.
Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter One: Setting the scene - J Charles AldersonChapter Two: Professional advice vs political imperatives - Alan DaviesChapter Three: Micropolitical issues in ELT project implementation - Tom HunterChapter Four: The politics of ELT projects in China - Ron KerrChapter Five: Teaching immigrants the language of the host community: two object lessons in the need for continuous policy development - David Little and Barbara Lazenby SimpsonChapter Six: The commercialization of language provision at university - Glenn FulcherChapter Seven: Micropolitics in multinational language assessment systems - Mark CrosseyChapter Eight: Challenges and constraints in language test development - Gary BuckChapter Nine: The politics of examination reform in Central Europe - Karmen Pižorn and Edit NagyChapter Ten: Language educational policies within a European framework - Neus FiguerasChapter Eleven: The micropolitics of research and publication - J Charles Alderson

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews