The Cultural Politics of English (Alastair Pennycook)

In WRI395, titled Re-languaging: Writing Across Cultures and Languages, the readings for the course explore the concept of how speakers perceive language and translation. The professor for the course is Josh Dittrich.

The second reading in the course—the first chapter of Alastair Pennycook’s 1994 book The Cultural Politics of English as an international language—helps solidify this abstract concept. The book discusses the presence of English as an international language in colonization, politics, and postcolonial lives and literature. The reading explores the process of language translation. Translation, according to professor Dittrich, does not occur from one language to another. The vocalization of thoughts is also a sort of translation and neither language nor translations are ever unbiased.

The first chapter, titled “The World in English,” explores the imperialism and worldliness of English, as well as its reputation as a global, beneficial, and neutral language. Pennycook elaborates on how English dominates popular culture and academic knowledge, acts as a gatekeeper in many different situations, and how this can possibly entail linguistic curtailment or worse, linguistic genocide.

Myself, along with three other classmates, were responsible for reading this chapter and preparing six questions to guide class discussion on Pennycook. None of my group members, myself included, grew up speaking English as our first language. As a result, we have a lot of shared experiences in our navigation of a country and culture dominated by English and native English speakers. In each other, we found kindred spirits who understood the sense of dehumanization that often accompanies when pieces of your identity—your name, religion, and nationality—are mispronounced, who related to the self-doubt that comes with constantly being mocked and corrected for your accent, and who sympathized with the heartache that comes with the realization that assimilation and acceptance comes at the cost of your language. Language, as I learned through Pennycook’s words, carries the weight of a culture with it.

As a diaspora child from a previously colonized country, I am aware of the Eurocentrism that permeates the society I live in. Yet it was through Pennycook—and the discussion his work stimulated, both in and outside of class—that I realized Eurocentrism also permeates every word I use. The medium I use to convey my message, whether it is in my thoughts or in my spoken or written words, carries with it a violent, imperialistic, and biased history.

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