Category Archives: Althusser

The Globalization of the English Language

*All images were ‘borrowed’ from google images, from actual agencies advertising ESL products/classes.

I have recently started a new employment position teaching foreign students ESL in Toronto. Previously, I taught overseas in Taiwan in a similar position, although now I am teaching adults and in the past I was teaching children.  The majority of the classes I currently teach emphasize presentation style, accent reduction and conversation skills. For one of my morning classes last week, I prepared a presentation for the students to illustrate the style and tools I wanted them to use in their own subsequent presentations. My presentation topic was the Residential Schools of Canada, not just because my friend had this presentation ready to go from a previous class but because I thought it would be a good introduction for the students to First Nations groups of Canada.

In my ill equipped, overheated classroom, I started up the powerpoint presentation and went through the various slides outlining the tragedy of the residential schools. Butchering the complexities of the residential schools I presented the topic in the necessary basic English, and it sounded something like this:

  • The aboriginal peoples of Canada were taken away from their families
  • They were put into schools run by non-aboriginals
  • They were given English names
  • They were not allowed to speak their own languages
  • Their cultures were presented to them as backwards, while whiteness and ‘European’ culture were presented as the right way

As I went through my presentation, I saw the perplexed looks on my students’ faces. While the end of my presentation was met with silence, I wondered if any of the information made sense. Then a student slowly raised his hand asking, ‘So, do you think the residential schools were a good or bad thing?’. That made very clear my failure at simplifying my presentation topic, sorry aboriginal groups of Canada. I tried to reiterate the above points and while my second attempt may not have provided any clarity to my students it did sharply bring out the parallels between residential and current ESL schools. Before I address these, here is a necessary disclaimer:

**Note to everyone reading this entry, it is not my intention to lessen or in any way diminish the cruelty and devastation cause by the residential schools in Canada. I firmly acknowledge the wide reaching impact of the residential schools on aboriginal communities, which is not comparable to ESL schools around the world. The parallels I observed between residential schools and ESL schools is not to suggest that they come from the same history, unravelled the same way and have had the same impact. This blog entry materialized from the presentation I gave on the residential schools and my consequential questioning of the globalisation of English and the relationship ESL schools have with power**

The loose parallels I observed were these:

  • ESL students, many from ‘Asian’ countries (the majority of my students are from South Korea) often leave their homes and families not by force, by rather out of necessity to learn English in order to succeed in their chosen career path.
  • The teachers in these schools, whether in Asia or in North America are of ‘western’ origin
  • The students are almost always given, or have user friendly English names, Yu Rim Kang= Agnes, Seong Man Ryu= Owen, no need for the English teachers to bother with the pesky pronunciation of their given names
  • Both schools I have taught at are English immersion, students speaking in their mother tongue are punished
  • English and western cultural customs are often presented as more valuable than their own languages and customs (get rid of those chopsticks, time to use a fork)

As the English language has become the basis for international business, it is arguably necessary for those from countries where English is not the first language to learn it. Comparing this global domination of the English language and subsequent explosion of ESL schools, to residential schools of Canada speaks to ideas of power and social control. While many may argue they are completely incomparable, I would suggest if forms of power and control are examined, similarities can be identified.

I have been involved in heated debates regarding the character of power and social control. As is evident through mainstream discourse and images, power and control are still often portrayed as an overt force ie: those ‘third world’ military regimes with their oppressive methods, Muslim countries who force women to wear headscarves etc. In comparison those of us in relatively peaceful, western societies do not encounter these types of social control and are therefore ‘free’ to live how we want etc.

I am not claiming that the above scenarios are not forms of control or oppression, but rather these easy to identify means of power/control are not the only forms. There has been a plethora of work done on covert forms of social control, which is often refered to with the term ideology. Marx, Gramsci, Althusser and Foucault are only a few scholars that theorized about power/control. Althusser’s idea of the RSA (Repressive State Apparatus) and ISA (Ideological State Apparatus) calls into questions forms of control in so called peaceful societies. In very simple terms, the RSA exerts control through violence while the ISA controls through the dissemination of specific ideologies.  Althusser’s concept of ISA is explained as:

Our values, desires and preferences are inculcated in us by ideological practice. Ideological practice consists of an assortment of institutions called Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), which include the family, the media, religious organisations and, most importantly, the education system.[51] We derive beliefs about ourselves through learning what it is to be a daughter, a schoolchild, black, a steelworker, a councilor, and so forth ( /22247455/Louis-Althusser).

Althusser therefore argues we are not born with an innate ability to know how we should function and be in society but learn it through certain mechanisms. For example images on television, in magazines and from observing parents or other members of society, may be a way individuals ‘learn’ how they must act in society (ie our goals in life should include having a career where you make money, buying a house and a car, having a few children and perhaps some animals). Althusser and many other academics argue that this ISA is a form of social control in many societies. Using ISA as a basis to analyse ESL as a necessary second language in relation to development speaks to a few points. The intertwined nature of development and international business with English, makes it necessary for individuals or nation states that want to ‘succeed’ to adopt the language. This domination of the English language, while not an overt form of control surely allows for specific powers to have advantages over others. Especially in relation to development, the globalisation of the English language often means that development projects implemented overseas are communicated in English. How many NGO websites claiming to help the rural poor of a ‘third world’ village, are only in English? This domination of English is also related to a whole range of issues about respecting individual culture, identity etc.

While I am very interested in Althusser’s theory of ISA and discussions regarding oppression/ control, this blog entry has been sitting on my desktop for far too long and my ability to neatly tie up the end of it has failed. So instead what I want this blog post to do is to question western ideals of social control and to push readers to question the dominance of the English language and its use in development practices.

If I can stop just one Korean student from adopting the name Susie, then I will have succeeded.


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Filed under Althusser, Canadian residential schools, Development, Economics, ESL, International Development, ISA, Politics, Power of Whiteness