David Block on the commodification of English

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 - hancockmcdonald.com/blog/archive/201302

David is a sociolinguist at the University of Lleida, and this talk was a critical evaluation of the concept of "English", including the way the language has become commodified.

He began with a tour of the acronyms EFL, ESL, EIL, ELF, EAL (English as an Additional Language) and WSSE (World Standard Spoken English), with a brief discussion of the differences between them. He went on to a fuller critique of just one of these, namely ELF (English as a Lingua Franca). He suggested that we would be wrong to characterize ELF speakers as a disempowered underclass in need of our benevolent protection. For example, many ELF speakers are powerful individuals in the world of business, quite capable of looking after their own interests. He suggested that there is no sociolinguistic evidence to back up the idea that ELF is a variety in its own right, and that it is actually more of a process. Consequently, it's not a model, but rather a skill - the ability to accommodate. He pointed out that ELF discourse is often characterized as cooperative, with speakers taking a 'let-it-pass' attitude to their interlocutor's use of language, and he suggested that this characterisation is not always accurate. There was clearly a lot more to be said on this topic, but since it was not the main focus of the talk, David now moved on to the next topic: commodification.

For me, this fascinating part of the talk alone would have justified the journey to Barcelona. David began by briefly outlining Marx's concept of value, before turning to the author who was the real protagonist in this section: Monica Heller. From her work, David took the idea that a language can shift from having use value to having a marketable exchange value. In Heller's work, the discussion was of the status of French in Quebec, but David gave the example of Catalan: this language can shift from being something simply used as a tool to communicate to a code with a gate-keeping function - in for instance, a job interview. Extrinsic motivators such as jobs or exams have this tendency to push the value of the language from use to exchange - or to put it another way, commodify the language. This gives institutions with the opportunity to cash in on the language/culture, as in the case, for example, of the British Council. Britishness can be packeaged a saleable commodity.

David went on to illustrate, with a bizarre example, how Teachers of English can be commodified too. The example was from Hong Kong, where some English teachers have been elevated to celebrity, almost rock star status, appearing on TV shows and massive advertising hoardings around the city. These celebrity teachers, such as Richard Eng or Kelly Mok, have emerged in a competitive environment where the (perceived) need for English has become hyper. Its gatekeeping force in the job market has become so great as to push the demand for it to hysterical levels. The celebrity teachers that have emerged out of this are crassly merchandised like any other product. You can see a BBC video about these 'Tutor Kings' and 'Tutor Queens' here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-20496462 (a thought: to what extent can speakers at conferences also be commodified in this way?)

The talk was perhaps overambitious in its scope, so that the third part was rushed and unclear (to me, at least). So I will not attempt to summarize the final section, which was about how English "travels" (issues of prestige varieties), based on the work of Jan Blommaert.

On the map, I'd locate this talk in the centre north, near the town of Global Issues and the temperament area of Critical.



whetted my appetite - of course; can you recommend any sources? you mentioned a Monica Heller, anything on her, - or shall I google her exchange values have permeated all forms of social relations; use values have become practically irrelevant thump the tub

Thanks for this Mark, sounds fascinating
Mark Hancock's picture

Your google's as good as mine, Simon... I'll take a look at some point.

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