The Cultural Politics of Americanization Here and Abroad

by Maria Alvarez / Nov 22, 2011 / 0 comments

I can’t imagine that the majority of wandering educators who teach English to speakers of other languages haven’t at some point encountered the cultural politics of ‘Americanization’, whether wandering the States - or a variety of countries abroad. I chose this as one of the topics for the ESL (1) Educators Blog Carnival this month because I believe it is important that teachers of English as a foreign language understand the cultural politics of language; and also question the ideologies associated with language. Why do we teach English as a foreign language and why do we teach English abroad?

Since language defines a cultural group it is used for nation building; and every nation needs to communicate in at least one common language to maintain a sense of order and mutual understanding. Most nations even identify an official language. So why are we teaching English in places where it is not the official language; and what are we promoting when we teach and travel? What are we exporting?

Curiously, English has been the dominant language in the USA, but it is not the official language. The framers of our Constitution did not designate English as the official language; and yet there is a revived and growing "English Only Movement" [EOM] in the USA - and along with it, a fair amount of xenophobia. The great irony is ESOL teachers are in fact, contributing to the spread of English as a language and cultural identifier here and abroad, but we do not share the xenophobia the EOM promotes. Most ESOL teachers in the United States, and those teaching abroad, promote the English language and the sharing of cultures - not the isolation of the English language and U.S. culture as superior to all others…at least this has is my hope and expectation.

Certainly a common language helps unite different cultures, different races, and people of different national origins; but using one common language as a way to build a nation ceases to be ideal if the promotion of one language restricts the use of all other languages spoken within the dominant language community. If this is the underlying agenda, promoting a common language to unite people then becomes rhetoric for racist and discriminatory policies. The truth is, there are very few linguistically homogeneous societies in the world. The United States certainly has a long history of linguistic and cultural diversity. It is the demographic changes we consistently experience that make this country such an interesting place to live. Contrary to the perpetuated myth, immigration does not threaten the use of English. Immigration enhances our cross-cultural awareness so we make room for other languages, embrace difference, and develop an appreciation for cultural diversity. True cultural exchange promotes peace, not prejudice.

In the 1800s and leading into the 1900s ethnic enclaves in both urban and rural areas of the United States created schools where languages other than- or in addition to - English served as the language of instruction. It wasn’t until bureaucratic policy makers in the United States started to standardize education that the push for English language dominance emerged. For a number of reasons the effects of war and bigoted ideologies created a push for cultural homogeneity and English only instruction, which resulted in Americanization as national policy. Schools ‘Americanized’ children of other cultures, promoted English and ‘American’ culture as the ideal culture, and severely punished children who used their native language.

The repression began with Native Americans. Government agents sent the children of the many Native tribes, then considered ‘uncultivated savages’, to institutional Indian boarding schools, which educationists unapologetically created to tame and civilize the Native children by denying them access to their families, tribal elders, their cultural traditions, and their native languages. Americanization enforced a climate of superiority among the dominant white classes, and emphasized the English language as the only language necessary.

Can there really be any question that Americanization helped create and perpetuate the resistance to the study of other languages in this country, a disdain for other cultures as inferior, and the unfortunate sense of superiority many United States citizens export to other countries when they travel? As ESOL teachers we need to remember that the practice of teaching English to speakers of other languages in the United States originated with the need to ‘Americanize’ Native Americans; and shortly thereafter, the growing influx of immigrants from all over the world. Our profession was born of controversial origins.

It isn’t a coincidence that the field of teaching English as a foreign language abroad emerged simultaneously and developed quickly through initiatives to train teachers from within the USA as well as teachers from other countries. In 1941 the University of Michigan began research on teaching English as a foreign language, the first program of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. According to the University of Michigan English Language Institute [ELI] website, the number of international students had grown from “a handful” to 25,000 after WWII. In response to President Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy”, the State Department and the Rockefeller Foundation helped the fledgling ELI program at Michigan grow and expand its language and cultural programs with the goal of building solidarity in the Western Hemisphere. It wasn’t long before Michigan’s ELI programs and initiatives grew and spread to Latin America and then on to other countries. Research based findings improved practice.

The growing interest in teaching English as a foreign language initiated continued research to design and develop new curriculum, better instructional methods and materials, a better understand of how new languages are acquired, sound methods of assessing language acquisition, and the creation of world friendship and peace-keeping programs like the U.S. Peace Corps Training program, which has sent volunteers to serve in as many as 139 countries. The expanded research on teaching English to speakers of other languages and the growth of training programs has certainly been one of the more positive aspects of the not so positive Eurocentric ideologies that birthed the trend to ‘Americanize’ and assimilate Native Americans and immigrant children.

Nevertheless, the lasting effects - both positive and negative - of Eurocentric ideologies, Americanization, and assimilation, continue to resonate not only here in the United States but also in many countries all over the world. As teachers of English as a foreign language we must be aware of the impact we currently have on the cultures we teach, the impact the English Only Movement might have here in the United States, and in general, the impact the English language has had on other cultures here and abroad. It has been my experience that not all people welcome the teaching of the English language in their country - especially in rural areas; and often ESOL teachers arrive unaware of the animosity that exists because we naïvely and idealistically assume we are exporting a valuable commodity. This simply may not be the case.

Societies around the world are not stagnant just as our own society is not stagnant. What may have been true in the 1950s, in 2000, or last year, either in the USA or abroad, may no longer be true. As ESOL teachers we must question all aspects of globalization and remain sensitive to cross-cultural differences as well as the emergent issues in our field. It is good practice to periodically check in with our personal goals and ask ourselves if we teach English as a foreign language here or abroad to promote Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy” and the peacekeeping sharing of cultures, or if we are unwittingly engaged in the ongoing but maybe cleverly disguised trend to ‘Americanize’ people around the world.


End notes

(1) In this essay I will be using the phrase English to speakers of other languages (ESOL) rather than English as a Second Language (ESL) because for many students here in the States and abroad, English is a new language- not necessarily a second language. Using ESOL rather than ESL is my own personal preference. Clearly both are used often and interchangeably in our field, but for me the subtle difference in terms merits making the distinction.
2 Adams, David Wallace. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience (1997)


Maria Alvarez is the ESL Editor for Wandering Educators.

This is part of the ESL Educators Blog Carnival for November. Please click through to read more thoughts from ESL Educators on the English Only Movement.