Teaching the Conqueror’s Language in the

In “rejecting the Iraq quagmire” (PB Floyd, #79), its duplicity and failures and lies, we should also be opposing the recruitment of North American, British and Australian ‘experts’ to help implement the ongoing ‘reconstruction’ and creation of an American puppet plutocracy in West Asia. An integral component of the “colonialist shell game” Floyd calls attention to is the occupiers’ need to impose English as a working language for the occupation and future satellite. This article looks a bit at imperial English in connection with this latest conflict in America’s drive to implant its culture & power & megalanguage across the globe.

The anti-occupation movement should be pressing on campuses and in professional organizations for those with ‘needed skills’ to refuse to cooperate with this monstrosity. And that means teachers of English as well as ‘professionals’ in a hundred other disciplines. And ordinary American taxpayers from all walks who foot the staggering bills for this ‘transfer of expertise.’ Who watch their kids get sent as soldiers to protect it.

An Influx of “Know-How”

The Pentagon already needs entire battalions of interpreters — or brigades of imported teachers of English as a foreign language (EFL) to administer the “rebuilt” Iraq now on the drawing boards. The lucrative “market” for EFL being opened up by our generals will be a windfall for teachers from Sydney to Seattle. Experts from numerous other fields are also being recruited to “reshape” Iraqi education, from kindergartens to universities. And platoons of Western researchers, including grad students, will soon descend on a ‘pacified’ Iraq as transnational foundations seek to fund new projects. North American, British and Australian universities will attempt to set agendas for “collaboration” and research in Iraqi academe. In this complex picture, I want to concentrate on the predictable massive infusion of what Chinua Achebe called “the world language which history has forced down our throats.”

EFL on the March

American hegemony — its geopolitics driven by the key assumption that it has defined the way of life that must be adopted by all — must rely on the learning of its language in order to maintain and cement its control. In Iraq and Afghanistan, as elsewhere (Pennycook 1994;1999). While EFL suffuses at a dizzying pace along the Gulf, generating a veritable boom in lucrative positions for “native-speaker” EFL teachers and applied linguists, Iraq has for two decades remained an impenetrable fortress. Now those walls have been razed, quite literally, and the scramble for jobs to teach EFL and other academic specialties in Iraq is in the offing.

EFL administrators and “teacher trainers” in the British Council and U.S. Dept. of State are beginning to lay the groundwork for what they may call “Operation Iraqi English Literacy”. That is only in “pragmatic” hands-on character for the BC and the Education Office within the Department of State — they are after all a proven arm of the British and American governments in the implementation of cultural policy centered on spreading the blessings of the hegemonic language. The English Language Fellow Program funded by the Dept. of State will probably soon announce big-bucks “openings” in Iraqi academe. The commercial “EFL industry” from Melbourne to Maine is now gearing to set up a whole chain of private schools and language centers in the ruins to aid the Anglo-American firms already cashing in on their bonanza. Peace Corps planners doubtless hope to realize an old dream: penetrating the high schools and villages in a major country in the Arab East, gaining a foothold in a region where the PC is still largely outside. American universities are also scouting the Iraqi terrain for appropriate sites to set up “branch campuses” (like City U/Seattle across Eastern Europe) to promote democracy, teach business management and of course EFL, molding the new pro-American Iraqi “elite” in the image of Wolfowitz, Halliburton & Co. Helping to consolidate an Iraqi economy and polity coupled like a caboose to the US engine. And masterminded by educators, planners, economists, engineers, consultants and other ‘professionals’ from the states.

Hegemony’s Machine

As Hodge (2002) has put it: “The “new world order” is a Disequilibrium Machine, a manic device which produces exponentially increasing inequality (of power, wealth, health, conditions of life) on a planetary scale, affecting all nations and peoples, transforming political and cultural relations between people, changing the relations between humans and all other species, between humans and the life processes of the planet itself. It is a single process at every fractal scale.”

This is the device — its imaginary and brutal reality — we are now up against and must struggle to counter. As our “gunfighter nation” regenerates itself through violence and unilateral conquest on ever new ‘frontiers’ (Slotkin 1993), the English language teaching profession in particular needs to interrogate its vested interest and central role in the maintenance and reproduction of the language of Empire and its pax Americana (Phillipson 1992; Pennycook 1998).

Academic Moratorium?

Students, educators and others who are outraged by this war and the values it represents must question any ‘complicity’ by their professional organizations and universities in the “transfer” of knowledge and skills under the occupation. Under conditions of “neocolonial” reconstruction and semi-military administration, the first imperative is an academic and professional boycott or moratorium on expatriate personnel recruitment for projects and employment in Iraq, and on participation in externally generated and uninvited “research.”

The complicity of the ‘knowledge industry’ in the planning and oiling of the Occupation and Iraq’s ‘satellization’ and subjugation has to be focused on, as it was during the resistance campaign against the war and American presence in Vietnam — and the ‘secret war’ (1964-1973) against the people of Laos, where I work. And where the effects and residua of that American bombardment, the heaviest against any rural population in human history, are still felt, still visible, still dangerous.

Suffocating the Space of Capitalism

What the vast majority of ordinary Iraqis need at this disjuncture is autonomy. And like the Palestinians, oxygen to survive. Help in what Zapatistas call “suffocating the space of capitalism” (Esteva 2001). In any new beginnings in education, the bottom line should be self-reliance, dignity and sustainability: Iraqi educators will have to lead the way, with their priorities, at their pace. Wary of “imposed imports” and “research projects” from the Anglo-American West. In this process, Iraqi language educators will need time to come to critical grips with the cultural politics of English as an international language, its inherent aporia: the problematic linkages between the diffusion of English and social inequality, English as a narrow-door gatekeeper to privilege and power (Dua 1994; Pennycook 2001). And English as a Trojan horse that helps to deepen and perpetuate their dependence on our imperial periphery.

Grassroots Pedagogies of Resistance

One progressive alternative for us is to join in hands-on solidarity with people’s grassroots movements in Iraq as they crystallize. In ‘reclaiming the commons,’ the principal right for all Iraqis, the kind of education that should be created need not be in the mold of what Western ‘developers’ deem necessary — as a tool for their own neo-colonial penetration of the society and economy. What is needed is to generate opportunities for practical learning beyond the classroom in changing Iraq from the bottom up. Zapatistas are doing this across Chiapas and Oaxaca. Even in arrangements for learning, its content and social ‘certification.’

Such autonomous, holistic community-rooted education is at the heart of Madhu Suri Prakash & Gustavo Esteva’s exciting book, Escaping Education: Living as Learning Within Grassroots Cultures (NY: Peter Lang 1998). It’s one all anarchists should read. A brief excerpt is available at http://www.multiworld.org/m_versity/althinkers/gustavo.htm . We have to be thinking about alternative landscapes of learning for those who constitute the majority of the people on this planet, what Prakash & Esteva call the Two-Thirds World. We need to be talking about anti-authoritarian approaches to the regeneration of soil cultures, and building resistance to indigenous cultural meltdown in the global classroom. To help people take creative steps in “escaping the certainties of development, progress and education; recovering their own truths” (ibid.: 73).

Especially those of us who teach on those dominated ‘peripheries,’ to which Iraq has now been added. Learning from what Prakash & Esteva term the ‘refusenik cultures’ and ‘grassroots postmodernism,’ the ‘diversity of liberation in the lived pluriverse’ (ibid.; 35-85): “Postmodernism at the grassroots describes an ethos of women and men who are liberating themselves from the oppression of modern economic society. The reign of homo educandus and homo oeconomicus go hand in hand. Liberation from one cannot occur without liberation from the other” (81).

Pedagogies of Rerooting

One prime component in this pedagogy of localization (ibid.: 129-131) is the people’s right to their own language, learning to “fashion a voice for themselves from amidst the deafening channels of domination” (Canagarajah 1999: 197). To be multilingual, OK, sure. That’s cultural hybridity. A fact of our era and its geopolitics. But to ‘conscientize’ learners to withstand and oppose the agendas of Empire and McWorld (Freire 1993), learning to ‘read the wor(l)d’ critically. And to interrogate the headlong dominion of English. As Canagarajah (1999: 2) reminds us, the resistance perspective opens doors to the possibility that “the powerless in post-colonial communities may find ways to Ö reconstruct their languages, cultures, and identities to their advantage. The intention is not to reject English, but to reconstitute it in more inclusive, ethical and democratic terms.” Anti-authoritarians should help define what that reconstitution can mean.


Canagarajah, A. S. (1999). Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching. Oxford: OUP

Dua, H. (1994). Hegemony of English. Mysore: Yashoda Publications

Esteva, G. (2001, May). “Interview with Gustavo Esteva, by Sophie Style.” ZMag, http://www.zmag.org/ZMag/articles/may01style.htm

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum. The translator M. B. Ramos notes there that ‘conscientizaÁ„o’ refers to “learning to perceive social, political and economic contradictions and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality” (17)

Hodge, R. (2002). “Monstrous Knowledge in a World Without Borders.” borderlands e-journal, 1 (1), 14, http://www.borderlandsejournal.adelaide.edu.au/vol1no1_2002/hodge_monstrous.html

Pennycook, A. (1994). The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language. New York: Longman; _______. (1999). “Development, Culture and Language: Ethical Concerns in a Postcolonial World,” http://www.clet.ait.ac.th/hanoi_proceedings/pennycook.htm

_______. (1998). English and the Discourses of Colonialism. London: Routledge

_______. (2001). Critical Applied Linguistics: A Critical Introduction. Mahwah, N.J. Erlbaum, esp. pp. 46-73

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: OUP

Slotkin, R. (1993). Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York: HarperPerennial, esp. pp. 10-21, 654-660


An earlier version of this appeared in ZMag, June 2003. The author is based in Vientiane, Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Email: CategoriesIssue #80: Feb/March 2004