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Linguistic imperialism

For the book by Robert Phillipson, see Linguistic Imperialism. For broader coverage of this topic, see Cultural imperialism.
Transfer of a dominant language to other people as a demonstration of power

Linguistic imperialism or language imperialism is occasionally defined as "the transfer of a dominant language to other people". This language "transfer" (or rather unilateral imposition) comes about because of imperialism. The transfer is considered to be a demonstration of power; traditionally military power but also, in the modern world, economic power. Aspects of the dominant culture are usually transferred along with the language. In spatial terms, indigneous languages are employed in the function of official (state) languages in Eurasia, while only non-indigenous imperial (European) languages in the "Rest of the World". In the modern world, linguistic imperialism may also be considered in the context of international development, affecting the standard by which organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank evaluate the trustworthiness and value of structural adjustment loans.

Since the early 1990s, linguistic imperialism has attracted attention among scholars of applied linguistics. In particular, Robert Phillipson's 1992 book, Linguistic Imperialism, has led to considerable debate about its merits and shortcomings. Phillipson found denunciations of linguistic imperialism that dated back to Nazi critiques of the British Council (European aristocracy was, at the time, agreeing on the use of English), and to Soviet analyses of English as the language of world capitalism and world domination. In this vein, criticism of English as a world language is rooted in anti-globalism.


Linguistic imperialism is a form of linguicism which benefits and grants power to the dominating/oppressing language and its speakers. As summarized by linguists Heath Rose and John Conama, Dr. Phillipson argues that the defining characteristics of linguistic imperialism are:

  1. As a form of linguicism, which manifests in favoring the dominant language over another along similar lines as racism and sexism.
  2. As a structurally manifested idea, where more resources and infrastructure are given to the dominant language
  3. As being ideological, in that it encourages beliefs that the dominant language form is more prestigious than others. These ideas are hegemonic and internalized and naturalized as being "normal".
  4. As intertwined with the same structure as imperialism in culture, education, media, and politics.
  5. As having an exploitative essence, which causes injustice and inequality between those who use the dominant language and those who do not.
  6. As having a subtractive influence on other languages, in that learning the dominant language is at the expense of others.
  7. As being contested and resisted, because of these factors.

Although it is not easy to determine the intentions of specific policies which have led to linguicism, some scholars believe that intent can be proven by observing whether imperialist practices are continued once their sociolinguistic, sociological, psychological, political, and educational harm of other languages are made aware.


Phillipson defines English linguistic imperialism as "the dominance of English... asserted and maintained by the establishment and continuous reconstitution of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages." English is often called a worldwide "lingua franca", but Phillipson argues that when its dominance leads to a linguicide, it can be more aptly titled a "lingua frankensteinia".

Phillipson's theory supports the historic spread of English as an international language and that language's continued dominance, particularly in postcolonial settings such as India, Pakistan, Uganda, Zimbabwe, etc., but also increasingly in "neo-colonial" settings such as continental Europe. His theory draws mainly on Johan Galtung's imperialism theory, Antonio Gramsci's social theory, and in particular on his notion of cultural hegemony.

A central theme of Phillipson's theory is the complex hegemonic processes which, he asserts, continue to sustain the pre-eminence of English in the world today. His book analyzes the British Council's use of rhetoric to promote English, and discusses key tenets of English applied linguistics and English-language-teaching methodology. These tenets hold that:

According to Phillipson, those who promote English—organizations such as the British Council, the IMF and the World Bank, and individuals such as operators of English-language schools—use three types of argument:

Other arguments for English are:

Another theme in Phillipson's work is "linguicism"—the kind of prejudice which can lead to endangered languages becoming extinct or losing their local eminence due to the rise and competing prominence of English.

Other languages

At various times, especially in colonial settings or where a dominant culture has sought to unify a region under its control, a similar phenomenon has arisen. In the Roman Empire, Latin—originally the language of a limited region in central Italy—was imposed first on the rest of Italy and later on parts of Europe, largely displacing local languages, while in Roman Africa Latin was dominant only until it and the native languages were displaced by Arabization.

Anatolia had similar linguistic diversity when it was ruled by small native states. Under the Persian and Hellenistic empires, the tongue of the conqueror served as the lingua franca. The indigenous Anatolian languages disappeared.

In the Far East, Africa and Latin America, regional languages have been or are being coercively replaced or slighted—Tibetan and regional Chinese varieties by Mandarin Chinese, Ainu and Ryukyuan by Japanese, Quechua and Mesoamerican languages by Spanish, Malayo-Polynesian languages by Malay, Philippine languages by Filipino/Tagalog and so on. Arabization has eliminated many indigenous languages in North Africa and restricted Coptic to sacred use.

The English language during the Middle Ages was an object of linguistic imperialism by the French language, particularly following the Norman conquest. For hundreds of years, French or Anglo-Norman was the language of administration (See Law French) and therefore a language of higher status in England. Latin remained the tongue of church and learning. Although many words introduced by the Normans are today indistinguishable by most English-speakers from native Germanic words, later-learned loanwords, copied from Latin or French may sound more "cultured" to a native English-speaker.

Following the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire over much of present-day Germany and Central Europe, the German language and its dialects became the preferred language of many Central-European nobility. With varying success, German spread across much of Central and Eastern Europe as a language of trade and status. This ended with World War II (See also Germanization.).

French has also expanded. Languages such as Occitan, Breton, Basque, Catalan and Corsican have been slighted in France. This process, known as Francization, often causes resistance amongst the subject peoples, leading to demands for independence. Examples of this can still be found in Brittany and Flanders (Belgium).

Spanish and, to a lesser extent, Portuguese colonization, made these languages prevalent in South America and in parts of Africa and Asia (the Philippines, Macau and for a short time Formosa). In Iberia, Castilian Spanish, as spoken in the kingdom of Castile spread and was imposed on other peoples and territories of Spain, becoming the only official language of the state from the 18th to the 20th century. It was labeled "the companion of the Empire" by Antonio de Nebrija (1492) in the introduction to his Gramática de la lengua castellana.

Russian linguistic imperialism can be seen in Belarus both in the former dispute over the name of the country (Belarus vs Belorussia) and in the common spelling of the name of their president. English transcription has overtaken the Russian form Alexander Lukashenko instead of Belarusian form Alyaksandr Lukashenka.


Many scholars have participated in lively discussions of Phillipson's claims. Alan Davies, for instance, envisions the ghost of Phillipson haunting the Department of Applied Linguistics in Edinburgh:

'Round up the usual suspects', he cries, outing those who have pretended all these years merely to teach applied linguistics, but who have really been plotting with the British Council to take over the world.

For Davies, two cultures inhabit linguistic imperialism: one, a culture of guilt ("colonies should never have happened"); the other, that of romantic despair ("we shouldn't be doing what we are doing"). Rajagopalan goes a step farther and maintains that Phillipson's book has led to a guilt complex among English language learning and teaching (ELT) professionals.

Davies also argues that Phillipson's claims are not falsifiable: what "if the dominated... wanted to adopt English and continue to want to keep it? RP's unfalsifiable answer must be that they don't, they can't, they've been persuaded against their better interests." It has thus been argued that Phillipson's theory is patronizing in its implication that developing countries lack independent decision-making capacity (to adopt or not to adopt ELT). In the context of Nigeria, Bisong holds that people in the "periphery" use English pragmatically—they send their children to English-language schools precisely because they want them to grow up multilingual. Regarding Phillipson, Bisong maintains that "to interpret such actions as emanating from people who are victims of Centre linguistic imperialism is to bend sociolinguistic evidence to suit a preconceived thesis". If English should be abolished because it is foreign, Bisong argues, then Nigeria itself would also have to be dissolved, because it was conceived as a colonial structure.

Furthermore, the assumption that the English language itself is imperialistic has come under attack. Henry Widdowson has argued that "there is a fundamental contradiction in the idea that the language of itself exerts hegemonic control: namely that if this were the case, you would never be able to challenge such control". Additionally, the idea that the promotion of English necessarily implies a demotion of local languages has been challenged. Holborrow points out that "not all Englishes in the centre dominate, nor are all speakers in the periphery equally discriminated against". Irish English, for instance, could be regarded as a non-dominant centre variety of English.

Some scholars believe that English's dominance is not due to specific language policies, but rather as a side-effect of the spread of English-speaking colonists through colonization and globalization.

Thus it could be argued that, while those who follow Phillipson see choices about language as externally imposed, the other camp sees them as personal choices.


Those who support the arguments favoring the existence of linguistic imperialism claim that arguments against it are often advanced by monolingual native-speakers of English who may see the current status of English as a fact worthy of celebration.

Those who see the increasing spread of English in the world as a worrying development (which lowers the status of local and regional languages as well as potentially undermining or eroding cultural values) are likely to be more receptive to Phillipson's views. Alastair Pennycook, Suresh Canagarajah, Adrian Holliday and Julian Edge fall into this group and are described as critical applied linguists.

However, Henry Widdowson’s remarks on critical discourse analysis may also be applied to the critical applied linguists:

It ought surely to be possible to say that an argument is confused, or an analysis flawed, without denying the justice of the cause they support. My view would be that if a case is just then we should look for ways of supporting it by coherent argument... And I would indeed argue that to do otherwise is to do a disservice to the cause. For the procedures of ideological exposure by expedient analysis... can, of course be taken up to further any cause, right wing as well as left.... If you have the conviction and commitment, you will always find your witch.

In Ireland, the issue of de-anglicising the influence of English has been a topic of debate in the country even before independence. An argument for de-anglicisation was delivered before the Irish National Literary Society in Dublin, 25 November 1892; "When we speak of 'The Necessity for De-Anglicising the Irish Nation', we mean it, not as a protest against imitating what is best in the English people, for that would be absurd, but rather to show the folly of neglecting what is Irish, and hastening to adopt, pell-mell, and indiscriminately, everything that is English, simply because it is English."

According to Ghil'ad Zuckermann, "Native tongue title and language rights should be promoted. The government ought to define Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander vernaculars as official languages of Australia. We must change the linguistic landscape of Whyalla and elsewhere. Signs should be in both English and the local indigenous language. We ought to acknowledge intellectual property of indigenous knowledge including language, music and dance."


Some who reject the idea of linguistic imperialism argue that the global spread of English is better understood in the framework of appropriation—that English is used around the world for local purposes. In addition to the example of Nigeria above, the following examples have been given:

Such an "internationalization" of English may also offer new possibilities to English native-speakers. McCabe elaborates:

...whereas for two centuries we exported our language and our customs in hot pursuit of... fresh markets, we now find that our language and our customs are returned to us but altered so that they can be used by others... so that our own language and culture discover new possibilities, fresh contradictions.

Other topics

  • Anglicisation
  • Critical applied linguistics
  • Cultural hegemony
  • English as a second or foreign language
  • Esperanto
  • International auxiliary language
  • International English
  • Language immersion
  • Language policy
  • Language planning
  • Language revitalization
  • Language death
  • Linguistic purism
  • Language secessionism
  • Monolingualism
  • Bilingualism
  • Multilingualism
  • Code-switching
  • Translanguaging
  • Official language
  • Untranslatability
  • World language
  • Father Tongue hypothesis
This article uses material from the Wikipedia article Linguistic imperialism, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (view authors).

Date of last edit: 2021-01-28T19:25:05.000Z