When discussing the development of some of the lower-income nations of the world, the English language has a tricky history. Some countries label English as their national language when a majority of their populations speak something else. There are also organizations, such as the Peace Corps, that teach English in developing nations with the intention of providing the students with more opportunities. However, some have widely debated the effectiveness of teaching English in other nations and its relation to development. This begs the questions: How might English improve a developing nation and what are some past results?
The intentions behind teaching English in lower-income areas are usually positive. In 2011, the British Council identified four benefits of the English language including that it improves employability, provides international mobility, is a key for unlocking development opportunities and is a neutral language. Here is a breakdown of each of these points.
- Employability: English for the purpose of employability assumes that someone with English skills will be more competitive for a job.
- International Mobility: English for the purpose of increasing international mobility assumes that people with English skills are able to travel to other countries more easily, through methods such as studying in international schools or working in other countries.
- Development Opportunities: English as a key for unlocking development opportunities assumes that a lot of published information and research is in English and that acquiring English skills can grant access to a lot of that information.
- Neutrality: English as a neutral language occurs when an institution or country has several dialects, possibly with complex social connotations attached to them, that hinder easy communication. People can use English as a linking language to unify groups.
These four roles outline how people could ideally use English to help developing nations, but history has proven that it is rarely that simple or effective.
Now, with the establishment of the theoretical ways that English can help people, here is some evidence to show if reality meets the expectations.
In regards to English’s ability to help employment opportunities, a Sierra Leonean wrote a piece in 2020 in which she discussed this very problem. Sierra Leone’s schools teach English and most government positions speak it, but a majority of the population speaks Krio, a dialect similar to English.
This writer labeled English as a “burden on a majority of citizens aged 18-40.” She stated that children struggle to learn due to its usage in classrooms and that jobs often go to unqualified people because they can speak English. Essentially, they feel that it is unfair that people have labeled English as such an important skill while teachers ineffectively teach it to students. She acknowledged that English can be an opportunity to make citizens more globally competitive, but that there seems to be a disconnect between the education system and the people. In this instance, the mishandling of the execution of teaching English did not measure up to the expectations.
Despite the structural shortcomings, there are some observed benefits for English in developing nations. A 2011 study that the British Council commissioned concluded that learning English in a developing country can increase an individual’s earning power by around 25 percent. The study gathered the data from five countries: Nigeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cameroon and Rwanda. The data revealed that the English speaking countries (Nigeria, Bangladesh and Pakistan) received more investment from other English speaking countries such as the U.S. and U.K. However, the report also shows that urban elites reap most of the benefits of speaking English, as they tend to have access to better schooling and higher-paying jobs.
Another benefit of speaking English is that some countries that outsiders previously did not visit, such as Sierra Leone, Mozambique and Ethiopia, are now growing tourist destinations. Many think that locals’ abilities to communicate with said tourists can increase interaction and commerce. In 2018, Africa accounted for only 1 percent of tourism earnings worldwide. Because of this largely untapped market, a lot of policymakers and business owners are hoping to find ways to appeal to more travelers.
African migrants often move to places such as the U.S. or the U.K. to flee economic hardships and human rights abuses. According to the 2019 census, African languages are the fastest growing in the United States.
However, English skills can greatly affect the success of African migrants entering English speaking countries. The BBC published a story in 2005 on Africans’ success in the U.K. It stated that “African-born immigrants are doing better than many other migrants.” It found that 81 percent of South Africans, 73 percent of Zimbabweans, 61 percent of Nigerians and 12 percent of Simoleans had employment. These figures deduced that English competency plays an important role in an African migrant’s ability to find employment in the U.K. and most likely other English speaking nations.
The Need for Balance
Essentially, what the evidence suggests is that teaching English as a tool for development could be beneficial, but currently there are a lot of obstacles surrounding the actual implementation process. English carries the stigma of colonization in several countries, so people often meet it with resistance. Conversely, in places such as Pakistan, people treat English as superior to native languages, which causes rifts between populations rather than unifying them.
Clearly a balance is necessary and there are specialists and organizations attempting that now. One method that seeks to maintain the integrity of native language while also presenting the opportunity to learn English is “Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education.”
A paper that Tove Skutnabb-Kangas wrote in 2013 cited examples of MLE in practice in Nepal, Sápmi and Ethiopia, and highlighted the positive effects the program had on students.
There are organizations, such as the Asia-Pacific Multilingual Education Working Group, that are currently attempting to utilize this method in places such as Thailand and Cambodia to strike a balance when integrating English in developing nations around the world.
English does seem to be a viable option for development in some instances, but in others, it can lead to added societal tension and obstacles for students. As implementation and teaching programs progress, hopefully, they will work out the negatives so citizens of low-income nations can just focus on creating more opportunities for themselves.
– Lindsey Shinkle