AuthorInterview: Alastair Pennycook

We caught up with Alastair Pennycook to discuss his book, The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language. Read on for our exclusive interview with Alastair to find out what inspired Alastair to write the book back in 1994, what makes this book so significant, and how it is still important today.

"Reissued with a substantial preface, this Routledge Linguistics Classic remains a landmark text."

Alastair Pennycook is Distinguished Professor of Language, Society and Education at the University of Technology Sydney. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the  Centre for Multilingualism in Society across the Lifespan at the University of Oslo, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

Alastair has been involved in language education for almost 40 years in France, Germany, Japan, China, Canada, Hong Kong and Australia. He is well known for his work on the global spread of English, particularly the classic text  The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language. Also well known is his work on critical approaches to language education and applied linguistics, outlined in Critical Applied Linguistics: A critical introduction. His recent work has focused on urban multilingualism – metrolingualism – described in the (2015) book with Emi Otsuji, Metrolingualism: Language in the City, which was shortlisted for the BAAL book award in 2016. His 2012 book Language and Mobility: Unexpected Places was awarded the BAAL Book Prize as were both his 1994 and 2007 books (The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language and Global Englishes and Transcultural Flows).

Global Englishes and Transcultural Flows (2007) takes up another theme for which he has become known – connecting popular culture (especially hip hop), sociolinguistics and education – themes that are also discussed in the edited book (with Samy Alim and Awad Ibrahim) Global Linguistic Flows: Hip Hop Cultures, Youth Identities, and the Politics of Language (Routledge, 2009). He is currently working on two new books, one, with Sender Dovchin and Shaila Sultana, Popular Culture, Voice and Linguistic Diversity: Young Adults On- and Offline, and another, Posthumanist Applied Linguistics (Routledge), which follows on from arguments in books such as Language as a Local Practice (Routledge) (also shortlisted for the BAAL book award) that we need to reconsider language in relation to people, places and things.

When not writing, teaching and researching, Alastair likes to get on or under the water. He holds an Australian Yachting Federation Coastal Skipper Certificate and can be found out onto Sydney Harbour and elsewhere when time and weather permit. He also likes to get under the water in Sydney Harbour and elsewhere. He holds a PADI Master Diver Certificate and is involved in marine ecology and reef preservation projects such as Saving Philippines Reefs (SPR) as part of the Coastal Conservation and Education Foundation, based in Cebu in the Philippines. And if you ask (or even if you don’t) he can bore you for hours with his underwater photographs. 

What was the context in which you wrote the first edition?

This book emerged from a confluence of influences. I had been teaching English for a number of years, most recently in China in the late 1980s. Like many people, I tended to keep my academic world of applied linguistics – communicative language teaching, language acquisition and so on – quite separate from my political world – a commitment to a more equitable world, a critical stance towards global inequalities and the dominance of particular regions of the world. But several things came together as I moved from rural China (Xiangtan in Hunan Province) to Toronto in Canada to start a PhD. I had been reading Michel Foucault, who seemed part of another world, far away from English teaching and applied linguistics, but he had taught me to think otherwise – penser autrement - as he put it. And as I started working towards my PhD, I realised (greatly assisted by Roger Simon, my late, great supervisor) that all this could be brought together – the global spread of English, critical politics and thinking otherwise. This was also helped by a remarkable group of students who converged around the same time in Toronto – Bonny Norton, Ryuko Kubota, Angel Lin, Brian Morgan, amongst others. Together we started to develop a distinctive approach to critical pedagogy and critical applied linguistics. And this book emerged from that context as I tried to understand in different ways what it meant to be involved in English language teaching.

What is the most significant idea which formed the book? Is there anything controversial about it?

At the heart of this book is an argument that we need to understand the global English language teaching enterprise as a form of cultural politics. Rather than viewing the vast expansion of English as natural (it just happened by chance), neutral (it’s just a language with no other ramifications) and beneficial (it can only be to everyone’s advantage to have an international language), this book argued that we needed to look much more carefully and critically at the impact of such a language on people, languages, cultures and forms of knowledge. This wasn’t to argue that English was necessarily in itself a destructive force – we do need to understand the ways in which it has been taken up and used for multiple purposes – but rather that we need a framework for looking critically at English in its many contexts. One could never be ‘just an English teacher’, I suggested, since teaching was always a moral, cultural and political act, and English was always about far more than just words and grammar.

How is the book still relevant today?

A book that seeks to locate the global spread of English in its cultural and political contexts might, it is possible to assume, have become somewhat dated. This book was written not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and at the time the salient shift in global politics appeared to be the final ascendancy of the USA as the preeminent global power. The years that followed saw globalization become the dominant framework for understanding the world, with English the language always in ascendancy. Those years also saw the rise of neoliberal ideologies as well as the massive growth of digital communication, with English once again intertwined with these developments. Now, however, in the second decade of the 21st century, things have started to look rather different, as the global centre is shifting eastwards towards China and Asia more generally. Right now this looks as if it will be the Asian century, and languages such as Chinese are on the rise.

And yet, there are at least three reasons why this book remains as relevant now as it was when it was first written. The first is that it laid out a way of thinking about the global spread of English through an understanding of cultural politics. The global spread of English, with its connections to colonial exploitation and the contemporary inequalities fostered by globalization and neoliberal ideologies, cannot be understood without looking at these cultural, political and ideological forces. And English language teaching (ELT) – the global project that supports the spread of English – is therefore inescapably caught up in questions of power. And second, even if we are potentially seeing a shift from English to Chinese as the major language of globalization, English remains a massively dominant language of global relations that continues to threaten other languages, cultures and forms of knowledge, to disrupt the educational aspirations of many and to contribute to the reproduction of many global inequalities. And third, the arguments laid out in this book do not need to apply only to English; they can equally well be applied to any dominant languages.

What are your top 5 online resources for researching this subject?

There are plenty of good books, but I’m not sure what online resources there are for researching this subject.

About the book

The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language

The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language

By Alastair Pennycook

A much-cited and highly influential text by Alastair Pennycook, one of the world authorities in sociolinguistics, The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language explores the globalization of English by examining its colonial origins, its connections to linguistics and applied linguistics, and its relationships to the global spread of teaching practices.

Format – 2017-03-13