Building a theory of language and its role in human social reality — and in American Cultural Insularity in the Center (ACIC)

People who speak languages of bigger more dominant and powerful groups are nearly always at a power advantage in terms of the global linguistic configuration of power. [Image Credit: Louise Mézel, Babbel.Com]
Few things are as central to human social being, identity and interaction as language (Fairclough, 2001; Lupyan, 2015). Language shapes the ways that we perceive of and understand “reality” (Morand, 2000; Sapir, 1981). Indeed, “reality” is itself a human concept that we encode via the so-called signifier “reality” in order to describe something “out there” and assign it meaning so that we can begin to make sense of that thing.

Without language of some kind – with language here broadly defined to include all forms of signed and spoken language, including facial expressions, etc., we humans would have no way to communicate with each other about this thing we call “reality.”

Most human beings – probably nearly all – spend vast amounts of their day thinking, and, for the most part, they are thinking in language – talking to themselves and to others endlessly, and internally, in a near endless loop of internal talk and speech (Vygotsky, 1984).

Not only can we not collectively and socially refer to, and communicate about, something called “reality” without some sort of language, we can’t really make sense of the world in which we live, both the natural and social world, without language. We are constantly in the act of naming and categorizing things. We use these names and categories to create meaning and we share our meaning(s) via the stories that we tell to ourselves and others about ourselves and about others as well as about the “objective” natural world (Geertz, 1973).

Language Central to Human (Social) Being
Language is so central to human social being in the world that we frequently lose sight of how central it is. It is rather like the breath: We rarely pay attention to our breathing, at least in part because it is so integral to our being – we will die if we cannot breathe for more than a few minutes. The same is true of language: It is so thoroughly embedded in who we are, how we think, how we access “reality” and how we interact and socialize that we typically barely even notice it.

Yet language, and, more specifically, different kinds of languages, meaning categories or forms of language that we name “English” or “Mandarin” or “Spanish” or “Arabic” or “Norwegian”, etc. are not only central to our being in the world, but also central to the hierarchical social power structures that we as humans collectively, and seemingly inevitably, build. That is, language and power are inexorably linked to the type of language(s) one speaks, and, especially, to the type of language one reads and writes, or does not speak, read or write, and this type of language that we use positions us distinctly and clearly vis-à-vis larger social relations of power (Bernstein, 1962; Crowley, 1989; Hymes, 1996; Labov, 1972).

Linguistic standardization has historically been a form of considerable social control. [Image Credit: Trans4Move.Com]
So, for example, in the United States, if the so-called mother tongue, or dominant language that you speak, read, and write aligns closely with something that is often referred to as Standard American English, then you are positioned more powerfully, and higher up the social hierarchy than if your mother tongue or dominant language is something that is often labeled as African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Both forms of English have specific rules and patterns and neither is inherently “superior” to the other, though many people falsely believe so.

But one, Standard American English, the dominant language of the dominant fundamental cultural and socio-economic group in the United States, has been officially codified as “the” language of the United States. Its power position as a “superior” form of English has been codified in dictionaries, in grammar books, in standardized tests, and in mainstream everyday life. That is, it is expected that Standard American English be used in contexts of power such as public schools, standardized testing, legal documents, mainstream media, and job interviews – and these are just some of the power contexts where so-called Standardized American English prevails, or, really, often is imposed.

Standard languages are fundamentally a mechanism for the reproduction of hierarchical human social relations that privilege and advantage some people over other people. While, broadly speaking, there is something we can call “language,” meaning a mechanism for expression and communication, or what Hall (1980: 17) has described as “the medium for the production of meaning,” it is much less clear what “a language” is. As Simpson (2002) explains, “Linguistics cannot tell what ‘a language’ is and so the meaning of what would appear to be one of the basic terms has, so to speak, disappeared. There is no precise definition of a language available” (33).

The fact that academic linguists dismiss the category of “a” language does not mean this category has no social reality. Globally, billions of people believe clearly delineated markers exist between languages. These people live their lives as if the notion of “a” language is real. They thereby (re)produce a social reality in which particular and “distinct” language varieties and forms assume a very clear social and power reality.

What Is a “Standard” Language?
If, technically speaking, there is no such thing as “a language” it follows there is no such thing as “a standard language”. But while this may be true from a theoretical perspective, it is certainly not true from an ideological, political, or an everyday life perspective.

As Milroy (2001), has noted, “Certain languages, including widely used ones such as English, French and Spanish, are believed by their speakers to exist in standardized forms, and this kind of belief affects the way in which speakers think about their own language and about ‘language’ in general. We may say that speakers of these languages live in standard language cultures” (530).

TESOL tests administered to non-mother tongue speakers of English who typically want to study at a university whose classes are held in English are grounded in standardized American and British English. This reproduces the linguistic hegemony of the English-speaking “center” countries of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland and at least partially marginalizes other forms of English such as, for instance, Singaporean, Bahamian, or Indian English which so far have not been allowed into global domains of power such as international higher education or academic publishing.

More concretely, contending there is no such thing as Standard American English and, therefore, suggesting that taking the TESOL exam, which is written to assess test-takers’ ability in Standard American English, is “irrelevant” or “unnecessary,” will not help you avoid taking the TESOL exam in order to gain entrance to an American, or even an international university, which uses TESOL to screen prospective students. Nor is writing and then submitting an academic article in Bahamian or Indian English to an international journal such as Journal of Sociolingistics or World Englishes likely to aid you in your quest to get published internationally.

Thus, while it may be true, on an abstract level, that there is no such thing as “a” standard (global) English it is quite clear that a standard English (or German, or Japanese, or Arabic, etc.) can, and, in fact, does exist on a practical social level. At a broad level, linguistic standardization, reflects a human tendency toward: a) imposition; b) imposition of uniformity; c) homogenization; d) “efficiency”;  e) valuation. According to Milroy (2001):

Standardization consists of the imposition of uniformity upon a class of objects . .. . There are, however, other commonly used meanings of ‘standard’, one of which is roughly ‘measure of achievement’. In this usage a value-judgment is normally involved, as the standard here is a measuring rod or yardstick used to measure relative levels of achievement (as in ‘examination standards’, ‘keeping up standards’, etc.) (531-32).

Trudgill (1999) offers a useful definition of language standardization, describing it as, “Consisting of the processes of language determination, codification and tabilization” (119).

Language and Power Relations
Language is ultimately a primary mechanism whereby particular, and also arbitrary – arbitrary means things could be other than they are — social relations of power are reproduced, codified and encoded into larger society. This reproduction of particular and always hierarchical relations of power by way of language, and, in particular, by way of the imposition of particular forms of standardized language on a society and its members constantly recreates specific relations of power between different sociolinguistic groups on local, regional, national and international levels.

Globally, the language of power is very clearly Anglo-American Standardized English with literally billions of people around the world being taught typically Standard American or Standard British English in the classroom. This hegemony of Anglo-American Standardized English is encoded into, and reproduced by, various primarily educational mechanisms, from standardized tests such as the TOEFL test to decisions by various “global” organizations such as IBM and Amazon and Apple and governmental organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union to use Anglo-American Standardized English within, and outside of, their organizations.

University of Winnipeg Professor Peter Ives has explored the ways in which Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci’s theory is very useful in terms of theorizing the intersections between language and power in his book Language & Hegemony in Gramsci.

In terms of language, power, English, and globalization, I view the global expansion of English – a social phenomenon most pronounced in global domains of power such as business, science and technology, international politics, and higher education (Graddol 1997; Pennycook 2001; Phillipson 1992) – via a Gramscian notion of hegemony. The Italian theorist and thinker Antonio Gramsci saw language as central to establishing, and to understanding, the “organization of consent” (Ives 2004).  In fact, “The spontaneous consent given by the great masses to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group” (Gramsci 1971: 12) captures the ways in which the global growth of English has become largely a matter of heavily directed choice.

Piller and Cho (2016) are among those who have noted the ways in which English, in this case, in South Korea, is very much a matter of directed choice: “There is no doubt that proficiency in English can confer advantages on South Koreans and that its benefits are real (Park 2011). However, the benefits of English language proficiency in South Korea are not the result of the free global market in language choice as which it has been naturalized. On the contrary, assessment mechanisms . . . constrain the ‘choice’ of English so heavily that it can hardly be described as (a) choice at all” (29).

While Piller and Cho concentrate on the hegemony of English in South Korea, in terms of building a theory of ACIC, I am more concerned with the relation between English’s global hegemony and so-called “native” (monolingual) elite users of English in the United States. Cox, an international relations scholar, proposes that, “A world hegemony is . . . in its beginnings an outward expansion of the internal (national) hegemony established by a dominant social class” (1993: 61). In drawing from Augelli and Murphy (1993), one might say that one of the primary things this ACIC web site seeks to do is to examine the discursive means whereby dominant national social groups seek to articulate their global “hegemonic [linguistic] aspiration,” to themselves and to global “others.”

The Unacknowledged Advantage & Privilege of “Native” English Speakers
The basic fact of the global hegemony of English – the placement of, and the constant recodification of Anglo-American Standardized English as the world’s pre-eminent language – a fact that is not changed significantly despite the emergence of thousands of forms of English around the world as more and more non-English speakers learn, and use, and often are forced to use, English, places Americans at the top, and center, of the global linguistic hierarchy, simply by default. If you are born into a middle-class or upper-middle class white American household and grow up speaking and using Standard American English in your everyday life, in your education, in your workplace, etc., you are positioned in what we could call the “pole” position vis-à-vis the global linguistic system and global linguistic configuration of power. All of this without having to do much of anything other than live your normal life, and certainly not anything extra, other than live and talk in the way that you have been raised to live and talk – and read and write.

Only a few groups, and, in terms of the total population of 7.5 billion globally, only a relatively small percentage of the total population of the world have this largely unrecognized and unacknowledged privilege, or, basically, a comparatively small number of socio-economic and educationally privileged mother tongue speakers of Standardized English in a handful of countries in the world with the United States and the United Kingdom preeminent among these.

This privileged and powerful linguistic positionality of socio-economically and educationally and socio-linguistically advantaged Anglo-Americans plays a HUGE role in what I define as American Cultural Insularity in the Center (ACIC). Indeed, it is precisely because “their” language predominates globally and because these people rarely have to, and also rarely choose to, become highly fluent in a language other than English, that privileged Anglo-Americans around the world are the most likely group to be the most insular in their consumption of cultural media products.

Many of the South Korean “K-Pop” group BTS’ biggest global hits have been sung in English. [Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons Photo]
This is a double “whammy” or double-layered phenomenon: Because “their” language, and culture, predominate, comparatively speaking, the cultural media products that tend to be most globally dominant are also their own and/or are produced in English. Thus, for example, even though, for instance, so-called K-Pop, or Korean Pop, has made considerable inroads vis-à-vis American and British music globally – though those inroads are less apparent in the center, meaning in the United States, than in many other places in the world — most of “global” K-Pop is still sung in English, which is both the globally dominant language, and the “home” language of the members of the Dominant Cultural Group (DCG) in places such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.

Comparatively speaking, members of the privileged, centralized DCG, meaning socio-economically, educationally and linguistically privileged Americans, Brits, Canadians have to do little extra language work in accessing dominant global cultural media products. This is because these products are typically produced in their “home” language. This contrasts sharply with the position of people around the world who first have to learn English – at considerable time and economic expense – in order to gain the same, or similar, kinds of access to that globally dominant culture.

Dominant Cultural Groups’ One-Way Approach to Culture & Language
Generally speaking, as I note in other places on this web site devoted to ACIC, members of the DCG generally do little in the way to accommodate people who are from less dominant cultural or linguistic groups: They typically know much less about the culture of members of those groups than group members of less dominant cultural groups know about their culture, and they typically have comparatively little linguistic ability beyond their own dominant language while members of the non-dominant groups typically know the dominant group’s language, indeed, they are often required to learn it.

In many ways, this is not at all surprising: Membership in a DCG has always entailed a privilege and, typically for most members of that group, a considerable ignorance and arrogance, with the former being deeply intertwined with the latter. That is, human beings build, establish, and maintain their (group) dominance based upon a basic premise: That their ways of doing, thinking, being, talking, writing, speaking, etc. are essentially superior to other ways of doing, thinking, being, talking, writing, speaking, etc. Indeed, this presumption of (cultural and linguistic) superiority becomes both the basis of, and the justification for, dominance.

A DCG group member’s sense of superiority is not necessarily deliberately chosen or selected – though it certainly is by many DCG members. But the presumption of some sort of superiority is nonetheless there, even among those who might, really, would/will recoil at the suggestion that they harbor any sense of superiority: It is present by way of their general lack of knowledge about cultural and linguistic others, apparent by way of their general lack of desire to learn about those cultural and linguistic others and, finally, by virtue of a decided lack of effort invested into cultural, and, especially, linguistic reciprocity, meaning most DCG members, even the most “humble” of these members, invest little effort into deeply and meaningfully achieving the kind of fluency in non-English languages that billions of people around the world have invested in order to achieve often very high levels of fluency in English, the language of the Dominant Global Cultural and Linguistic Group.

The one-way nature of this approach to life is itself an indication of a sense of superiority and arrogance – even if many people might/will refuse to acknowledge this. Indeed, the likely indignation that the charge of a sense of cultural and linguistic superiority will raise among many is also an indication of the reality of this sense of superiority. It is a recognition of intertnal embarrassment and shame for not having put in the effort – for a variety of often admittedly complex reasons – to turn the global cultural and linguistic system into more of a multi-way and reciprocal system rather than continue reproduce it as a mostly one-way, top-down/center-out cultural and linguistic system.

In sum, language is integral to human social being in the world, integral to human social identity and identification, integral to larger, hierarchical (global) human social relations of power and therefore also integral to DCG behavior, attitudes and (in)actions and also integral to a deep, wide, long-running and extremely stubborn American Cultural Insularity in the Center (ACIC).


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