« Teaching English Grammar? Some Reader Recommendations | Main | Comments on "ESL Instruct" - December 2005 »

December 23, 2005

When English Teaching Promotes Cultural Imperialism

"I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land." - Mark Twain, A Pen Warmed Up in Hell.

Strong words indeed from such an overly-identified and stereotypical "American" fantasy writer.

Hello friends,

I just finished reading an article by Andrew Osobka on the topic of Cultural Imperialism . . .

. . . in the English language classroom (here). I found it in a comment left for Patricia Dean on her ESL-SCHOOL October entry entitled "Planning For ESL's Future."

Cultural Imperialism.gif

I'm always glad to see this topic addressed, especially when the writer seems to have some first-hand experience with the issue. Osobka asks the seemingly rhetorical question "Should teachers teach the British and American culture in the EFL classroom?" Many of us have strong opinions on both sides (if there are, in fact only two sides) of this "problem" as can be witnessed on some of the threads going on about Western concepts of discrimination, for example, over on ESL-Jobs-Forum [here]. Osobka's point is, and I "block" quote:

Since English has become a lingua franca of the global village, so indispensable in the business world, it has reached every classroom around the globe as a primary foreign language to be learned. All those wishing to keep abreast with the modern global society need to have a good communicative competence in this language. But learning a foreign language does not mean memorization of a few grammar rules and thousands of words. To understand a Brit or an American is to have some basic knowledge of their culture and the way these people think. Looking at these two nations historically, both of them have had a great cultural impact on the entire world, whether it's in music or fashion, theater or film, science or fiction, human rights or military intervention. The list is endless. Both countries have been dominating this planet for ages and there is no sign in the universe that would predict any change in the foreseeable future. Post-socialist countries of the former Soviet block have a great sentiment for these two cultures. Intoxicated by the American dream, they are creating a society that compares any aspect of their life to the American model. MacDonald's signs attached to XVII-century historical buildings and Johnny Camel puffing at monuments of their heritage are becoming landmarks of a new political system in place that so much wants to be identified with anything that reminds these people of America. Is there a danger that these countries will loose [sic] their own identity over time by succumbing to the charm the English-speaking nations yield? Will they loose [sic] their own traditions and customs, replacing them with the more “superior” as a result of this intervention? Should the EFL teachers introduce a cultural element into their classrooms and further reinforce the current trend?

All good questions that Osobka raises and ones that are discussed daily in the more liberal Western universities (such as mine). The consensus here is that Imperialism of any kind is dangerous and undesirable so it is interesting to hear of cases when a thriving language market, like that of Post-Communist Europe for example, seems to want this element of "instruction" in their langugage/culture class.

My opinion, of course, is a bit old-fashioned in that with regards to ESL, language instruction is language instruction and there are cultural studies departments, such as British Studies or American Studies, that can give students interested in these topics the full monty. I can see where cultural elements in the English language classroom might help to "explain" certain oddities of language use or to help foster interest, especially with younger pupils, but in general I don't like the idea of "imperializing" anyone. I realize that there is an entire community of volunteer, Missionary-type religious workers that offer free ESL training in third-world countries that do just that. Can we hear from anyone on that subject here?

I have, in the past, certainly been guilty of giving "holiday" lesssons, for example, for topic-based ESL classes. They are generally successful too, I must confess. On the other hand, I have always asked the class for permission to do such a class since I am sensitive to the fact that some subjects frighten or offend the citizens of a host country. I generally need the full consensus of the class to do a "Halloween" themed class, for example. Ironically, I have often times been "asked" to do such classes by the students, so I find Osobka's comments intriguing.

This does deserve some more thought. For anyone really interested in Western cultural imperialism, I recommend books such as Benjamin R. Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld. For readers new to the concept of "the death of diversity" and "the colonized mind" why don't you start with an easy to read article like the New Internationalist's Walt's World: A Reader's Guide to Disneyfication and then explore from there.

By the way, I don't want you to get the impression that I'm a complete radical here. I am interested to hear every side of the issue. Of particular interest to postcolonial theory, is why "some" nationals who are NOT occupied by a Western power still value Western mores, as is evidenced by Osobka's comments, marketing trends and my own experiences where ESL students ask me to explain the concept of "Santa Claus" for example.

With hopes that some good discussion will come from this,


Posted by lhobbs at December 23, 2005 01:18 PM

Readers' Comments:


It's important to distinguish between teaching culture and imposing it. In my experience, students are very curious about my (western) culture. For me to refuse to teach it in order to "protect" them from imperialism seems patronizing and, ironically, imperialistic. It's also worth noting that ideas of imperialism are themselves products of culture. Non-western countries often have very different perspectives on the whole topic.

My impression in Japan was that people were much more focused on immediate practical concerns than they were on broader political issues- which led to some tragic outcomes occasionally. Somehow though, whenever I started to speak out about those kinds of choices I felt like I was being... imperialistic.


Posted by: Nigel Fogden at December 23, 2005 05:43 PM

Note from Lee:


Your argument about the ironic nature of the imperialist position: "that ideas of imperialism are themselves products of culture" is definitely worth considering. I think there might be an academic paper in there somewhere if you are willing to work with it.

I only wanted to say, in my own self-defense, that my ideas of postcolonial theory are informed not from Westerners but rather Easterners such as Edward W. Said (born in Palestine, educated in Egypt) and Homi K. Bhabha (a Parsi from Bombay). For reference, please consulte Said's "Orientalism" from 1978 all the way up to Bhabha's "Location of Culture" [sorry this thing won't let me underline in here] from 1994 for starters. There's a lot of discussion about them on the internet so you won't have to go far to find them.

Although I'll concede that this particular discourse of cultural imperialism is presently "happening" - from our point of view - in Western intelligentsia circles, I've still understood this as a legitimate theory which had non-Western origins. From the evidence of recent symposiums and conferences on the subject, I think the discourse is also taking place in the East. If what you're saying is that you need a yang to define a yin then I understand where you're coming from.

Now where this gets interesting is when we start applying these Eastern ideas of the West's cultural imperialism to other "Western" nations such as those of post-Communist Europe.

Maybe there's something key that I'm missing here?

Very good points though Nigel, it will be interesting to see this discussion continue.

Posted by: Lee at December 23, 2005 08:45 PM

I may be mistaken but I believe when Said began talking about Cultural Imperialism it meant something different from what you mean. If you read his book "Culture & Imperialism" you'll find it's a pretty hardcore Lit-crit text most of the way through. This is because for Said, "Cultural Imperialism" meant the ways in which "Culture" (art, literature, print media, entertainment, and politics) collude with "Imperialist" agendas in imperialist nations -- mainly, in the case of Culture & Imperialism, the British, but also the French and so on. Interestingly, it's not necessarily only about "blinders" being put on the imperialised society -- though there is an element of that, and Said like many finds great interest in how the "blindered" take up the literary and cultural forms of the Empire -- but also how blinders are put upon the whole of the society whose interests are forcibly chained to the fate of the Empire.

In any case, I think that a certain degree of teaching "culture" is inherent in teaching language. I also think that a certain degree of teaching culture can be interesting to students. I think approach matters a great deal. Outsiders showing up and sharing things like writing systems, printing technology, and a literary history to draw upon are one thing; adding things to someone else's resources is never a bad thing. It's when you try to put down or obliterate what people already have in order to force them to adopt what you're bringing them, that's when it becomes bad.

It's a very difficult thing to live in a society that is not your own, among people who expressly feel it is not your society, but to wish to be a responsible citizen whilst living there. If you speak out about something, people immediately accuse you of not understanding, or knowing too little, because you're an outsider. If you complain, people -- who in the same circumstances would complain privately too -- will castigate you for being so ungrateful at your host nation.

The killer is when people are privately willing to agree with the criticism, and remind you that plenty of others within the local society feel that way, but lack the political will or empowerment to feel they can do anything. Long as it been since I realized that if societies can be imperialised by outsiders, they can also be imperialised by their wealthy, powerful elites -- and they most usually are. The elites want to make learning foreign languages as hard as possible, because it provides avenues of escape and also provides access to models of highly empowered citizens in other nations. Elites love to keep people ignorant, to give them a terror of learning about other cultures , because once you stigmatise any foreign learning, and make necessary continual nationalistic proclamations and self-affirmation as a true, untainted local, your society is immediately much more controllable. And then you find any and all criticism by outsiders is rejected not on the grounds that the criticism is faulty, but because criticism from a foreign is simply deemed not worth listening to. (Even if a foreigner knows of what he speaks... not meaning me, but meaning anyone.)

Of course, there's no boardroom of elites in the back of some building deciding this stuff; but to pretend that forces within all societies don't produce these kinds of outcomes is folly. Or, so is my observation from living in Canada and Korea alike.

So rather than stigmatise the teaching of culture or language, I regard it simply as contributing to the toolbox of young people living in a society that, in reality, is predicated upon limiting their toolbox as much as possible. English for English's sake, that's just useless. But English for the sake of giving people new ways to get information and ideas, to express themselves, to find new models for how to relate to one another, and a kind of empowerment that comes with the aggregate of all educational experiences... to me, that's the only reason to teach anything at all.

Another thing: I think attitude can change things. Imperialist-type teachers would be decanting their own culture into the "empty vessels" of their students, and that would be offensive to anyone. But when confronted with a teacher who has worked at learning the language, studying the local history and politics, tried to really understand the local culture, then students sometimes are more equipped to "get" it. Monomaniacs taught by a foreign monomaniac tend to become resentful monomaniacs. Monomaniacs taught by a sensible, compassionate, and interesting cosmpolitan at least stand a chance of picking up some of the cosmpolitanism and trying it for themselves.

Posted by: gordsellar at December 23, 2005 11:00 PM

Note from Lee:

Excellent remarks Gordsellar, thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. It's evident to me that you really know your postcolonialism theory.

I'm particularly interested in something you mentioned in the final paragraph of your comment. That being, your surprising depiction of the "monomaniac" - an individual with a "pathological obsession with one idea or subject* " - as a student (as well as a teacher). This sounds absolutely fascinating. What experiences have you had with monomanicism the English language classroom and what are some good strategies for "handling" it?

*Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

Posted by: Lee at December 24, 2005 11:15 AM


Imperialism is an interesting topic. It does get a bad rep. Besides British expansion and dominance of America others such as Rome and Japan had Empires.

I think here in Korea Japan is often still hated for taking Korea over and especially for forcing the Koreans of that time to become slaves for Japan. Some might argu that Japanese technology brought Korea out of poverty and built a railway. However it is hard to argue for the positive forces Imperialism brings.

Even so it does seem natural for people who develop systems of government that allow for superior technology to be developed to keep to themselves. Even Romans, Greeks and Empires as far back as Alexander the great spread across continents spreading their beliefs and advancements.

Anyway as someone who has French and Irish ancestry who can't speak either of those languages, I feel somewhat assimilated myself. I was just reading about the Acadians on Isle Madame. http://users.andara.com/~grose/isle.html

Language imperialism though is not all evil. English is taught as empowering and it is not in most cases that someone wants to become American but that someone wants to be more qualified for a position than a competitor.

A few American teachers in Korea have the notion that Koreans want to become American or that the American way is better. I think though that Koreans in general think Korea and their way is better for Korea. Recently in Korea the scandal surrounding the stem cell researcher Dr. Hwang Yoo Suk is a great example of nationalism.

Many stood behind him and still support him even thought he admits his work was faked. The row over Dokdo is another where Nationalism is fanned to the point where many of my students would rather go to war than have Japan claim ownership.

I think Nationalism is more of a threat than Imperialism these days.

I wonder if the Iraqis are learning English too?


Posted by: Kevin Landry at December 26, 2005 03:27 AM

Note from Lee:


With regards to your question about the Iraqi ESL market, it would indeed be interesting to learn some legitimate statistics on the actual "wanted" versus "needed" demand for ESL. You don't have to look far, however, to see the demand for ESL in other nearby Southwest Asian countries - such as Saudi Arabia - for instance, see the ads on display here. That topic will definitely be good fodder for a new thread of discussion.

I'm not sure if the mutual distaste for both nationalism and imperialism are contradictory - anybody want to jump in here? - but it seems to me that the first one has the historical tendency to evolve into the second one. I'll end my remark to your comment with a quotation from our famous friend Albert Einstein: "Nationalism is an infantile disease, the measles of mankind." Although I know Einstein must have thought on a global-scale, he did escape from a country turned Nazi that was first nationalist and then, horrifically, imperialist. I suggest that the planetary watch-dogs keep a cautious eye on both.

Posted by: Lee at December 26, 2005 11:37 AM


Oh yeah I think when we look back Nationalism and Imperialism does blur together. Both have horrendous results but what I'm sort of thinking now is that at the time the leaders had some sort of vision for the world and probably believed they were making it a better place.

Again I'm not sticking up for these people but trying to get into their heads. I think for example English teachers feel they are helping their students even if a policy is replacing their first language with a foreign one.

If we look at religion I think the evangelical nature of spreading the word can be harmful to earlier societies. Even so the intentions of the faithful may be good.

Anyway what I'm trying to say then is that we see it as negative but at the time the rise of a language or country has many benefits for both the newly acquired and earlier establishment.

The causes are very noble such as expanding trade and making roads or makin the world safer.

Yeah building a nation can be the same as imperialism but it does depend on the nation in a sense. It could be protective or resisting joining other people. I guess Imperials want to expand and have others join them but Nationalists seem to make a country that is against others.

How about another post on Globalization?


Posted by: Kevin Landry at December 26, 2005 08:28 PM

Note from Lee:

Thanks for that clarification Kevin.

With regards to Globalization, I'll have to wait until I can think of something to "add" to the debate before I do another topical entry. So much has been said already, it seems. However, there's always a new light shine on any subject. Give me a few days to think of something.

In the meantime, be sure to read Patricia's respons to my entry from the ESL School perspective (link should appear in my "trackbacks" for this column).

There's a ton of good articles on the various "positions" ESL teachers and others have on the issue of ESL and Globaliztion in an edition of Sandy & Thomas Peters' Topics Magazine here: http://www.topics-mag.com/globalization/page.htm

Thanks again for your input!

Posted by: Lee at December 27, 2005 02:03 PM


Are you aware of the teachings of Niall Ferguson? This is one of the most influential historians of our day, a Scottish guy who - brace yourself - believes that the solution to the world's problems is for America to become more Imperialist! Thing is, a lot of what he says makes a lot of sense! Have any of your bloggers our there heard of him, and what is your take on his theories? This is no raving lunatic as he's cheif historian and Harvard and very highly regarded.

So, in short, do you agree with a Niall-ist approach to Imperialism?

ESL Nerd

Posted by: ESL Nerd at December 29, 2005 09:06 PM


In your introduction you suggest that language and culture are two things that can be detached and dealt with separately. In reality the situation is not so black and white. As writers such as Phillipson and Pennycook have noted, language is not neutral - it is always associated with the views and the values of the society it comes from and thus carries an inbuilt ideological message.

This message can be conveyed overtly and covertly. A program such as the US embassy’s explicitly named Future Leaders Exchange program (FLEX) is one which carries an overt message. The British Council are fairly open in their promotion of British culture and commercial interests. The more covert message can be the promotion of an aspirational western lifestyle in global coursebooks or the use of language teaching by missionaries to gain the confidence of learners in many parts of the world.

To pick up on the point of ‘volunteer, Missionary-type religious workers’ offering free ESL classes, I can confirm that they are active in the former Soviet Union. It is not only ESL tuition that they are offering but also other skills such as computer training. In addition, they open libraries and resource centers in order to attract potential converts. Sometimes specific ‘aid’ programs targeted at schools have had a strong religious message. These missionaries prey on young people and the vulnerable who have missed out on the fruits of the transition to capitalism. They often ingratiate themselves with local communities by learning local languages. It is not only mainstream Christian missionaries who are actively seeking converts, the Hare Krishnas and Jehovah’s Witnesses are also out in force.

On a different note, Osobka talks about the post-Soviet bloc states having ‘a great sentiment for’ British and American culture. Whilst this may be the case for some European countries in this category, it is not the case for the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. To take Uzbekistan as an example, it is certainly not ‘intoxicated by the American dream’. You may be able to buy Coca Cola, but there are none of the other trappings of globalization such as McDonald’s, Starbucks or Pizza Hut. Hollywood may now dominate the cinema screens of Uzbekistan but on the whole it is still Russia that people turn to for other forms of popular culture. The Uzbek authorities want some of the advantages that knowledge of English can bring such as access to modern technology and ideas, education, and international trade, but they do not want the wholesale imposition of the values they view as alien, such as democracy, freedom of speech and respect for human rights, stressing instead the need for a gradual approach towards these issues, taking account of Uzbek traditions. This policy can be put down to the authoritarian Uzbek government’s desire to maintain its totalitarian grip, but the fact remains that neither the government nor the people are necessarily ‘intoxicated by the American dream’.

I think that language teaching can have an important role to play in authoritarian societies as it can be used as a medium to introduce the learners to alternative ways of seeing the world without necessarily saying culture X is superior to culture Y. It can help learners to take a more considered view and make up their own minds. Cangarajah in his Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching suggests ways that English can be reclaimed and used to counter the negative effects of imperialism.

To return to the question of whether or not to teach about, say, Halloween, I feel that talking about culturally-specific festivals is valid as long as it is done in the context of allowing the learners to talk about important festivals in their lives. In business English there is often a strong focus on cross-cultural awareness, in order to avoid some of the potential pitfalls when doing business with people from other cultures. Culture is not a one-way street – it is important to get an understanding of cultures other than your own in order to come to a better understanding of the world and to see that deep down we are not all that different.


Posted by: Paul Bartlett at January 5, 2006 04:58 AM


Take great care when discussing culture.

If your teaching responsibilities cover History also, then by all means, introduce some topical culture.

In Thailand for instance, not a lot of Thais realise that there is an actual world out there with different countries and cultures. My students didn't even know that there were - and still are - starving people in Africa for instance! They could not imagine anyone doing without a bowl of rice.

In addition to English I also taught History. Victorian Britain. And the Thai kids were fascinated. It was ESL and comprehension, admittedly at a very slow pace, but the children could not believe just how UK kids were treated in Victorian times. Great lesson - great subject.

Interesting stuff. When in a foreign land it can be dangerous to preach - but not to TEACH - about your own culture. Preparation of written material and exercises go a long way towards different cultures' understanding and accepting of one's own cultures and traditions.


Posted by: jim hollerin at January 5, 2006 11:42 PM


The key to success is simple. Make people dream. Gerard de Nerval


Yes, cultural imperialism, intentional or accidental, warrants some serious thought - I've been on four or five sides of this particular issue.

On one extreme, we could encourage English teachers to stay home and leave other cultures alone. I'm not sure what purpose that would serve - except leaving other cultures in far more mercenary hands.

On the other hand, we could go out to the world as cultural evangelists leaving our students in awe of our freedoms and unlimited prosperity.

How about a semi-reflective middle ground where we go abroad as teachers and equip our students for success in a demanding, puzzling and sometimes offensive English speaking future?

Can we help it if the international community uses English? Shouldn't we be thankful and do our best to help those who were not as fortunate as most of us, to be born in an English speaking culture?

Many people in England are offended that the English language has been co-opted by America. Perhaps America too, will "lose" its own language as it becomes the world's language instead of our own.


Posted by: M. Morford (Morf) at January 6, 2006 05:18 PM


I'm so tired of hearing about the world's fear of "Disneyfication" and "The Almighty Dollar" taking over the world like some sort of evil pre-meditated Nazi blitzkrieg.

The fact is that making money has been the main driver of human history, even while america was an undiscovered (by europeans) forest. Columbus only made his journey west to find a cheaper way to import spices etc., and later Spanish expeditions were primarily to steal gold and silver from the native peoples. When that ran out, the rush was on--by private companies like the Hudson Bay Company and the Dutch West India Company--to gain access to beaver furs, real estate to plant tobacco, a place to grow sugar and sell slaves, etc.

To say that America has created the attitude of blatant and unwelcome global commercialization is ridiculous. Human beings in search of wealth thru trade (and its ugly cousin, warfare) have brought about almost every technological advance you can name, from the written alphabet, to the internet you are now reading. It is, for the time being, dominated by the Americans because of geographic and historical reasons, but the torch will eventually be passed on to the next superpower, who will be subject to the same criticism, I suppose.

If the American astronauts had discovered acres of diamonds and pots of gold on the moon in 1969, rest assured that private enterprise would have established colonies and daily flights to the moon by now.

It's like saying, "Who is to blame for all this progress?" The answer: Homo Sapiens.


Posted by: kurt peterson at January 8, 2006 01:02 PM


My university students want to learn more about my western background. They often ask me questions about the United States. Some of them plan to work or study in America in the future. Why should I not help them?

I encourage them to ask even controversial questions. As a teacher I address all kinds of topics. In Asia many students are too worried about losing face by making mistakes in class, but this dialogue allow them to practice English in a more comfortable way. They speak about topics they are attracted to. Sometimes this will include my own culture.
Students ask me for rather personal information or criticize the foreign policies of my government. I want to them to feel free to discuss whatever issue that is important to them.

So what does all this have to do with cultural imperialism? My point is that, in a global village, English is a valid tool for sharing. The English language can be used as a common tongue that connects people. The spreading of the English language is not part of a conspiracy for world domination. In fact, it helps people to speak on a more common level.

By accident of birth, I was born as an native English speaker. This has opened up many employment doors for me. I like to think that I am contributing to the development of other nations. When I accept a small salary to teach English, it helps to lift an individual student to a higher level. This is not a relationship based on dominance. I have the power to give students a grade, but lack the ability and desire to place them in chains.

I do believe, however, that wealthy nations should invest more in English teachers. Why should the citizens of impoverished counties foot most of the bill?

There is incentive for the United States to send English teachers rather than bombs abroad. One totally destroys and the other improves lives. English teacher add a human face to all the negative media broadcasts.

Wealthy nations should accept a greater share of the financial burden. Afterall, a common tongue will help to improve trade and international relations. The U.S. government could start by reducing or paying off the student loans of citizens who teach in a foreign land. They could also offer more scholarships for foreign students to study at American universities. Education is the solution to imperialism, not the cause of it.


Posted by: Ken May at January 12, 2006 01:28 AM

Hello Lee,

Thank God I found your blog! I'm preparing an exposition in a Congress of English Teachers in Quito, Ecuador, on the topic: "Cultural and Intercultral Aspects in the English Classroom". My point is that Ecuadorian students have a vast cultural heritage that is often ignored in the English classroom for the benefit of "learning" the "target language".

I know, from experience, that students are the best ambassadors the country has to talk about the historical, artistic and politcal background of the country. Thus, I wrote my own textbook "Getting to Know Ecuador." The book is a success at the school where I work. My students have created "protest" songs, made videos of our colonial legends, and work on many projects.

But guess what, most English teachers of other schools prefer not to use my book as a complement of their classes. They claim to be busy preparing their students for the First Certificate, the TOEFL, and many other excuses.

The underlining problem is the low self-esteem that Ecuadorians have.
Anyhow, I'm glad to get to know you. I'd be very happy if you browse my web-page and let me know your comments: www.gettingtoknowecuador.com

Hope you can share some other insights with me.

Posted by: Consuelo Páez at January 25, 2009 07:34 PM

My Blog

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Some rights reserved. 2006.