A Brief Explanation of Linguistic Imperialism

India, West Bengal, Calcutta (Kolkata), Edouard 7th statue before Victoria memorial
LEROY Francis / hemispicture.com

Linguistic imperialism is the imposition of one language on speakers of other languages. Also known as linguistic nationalism, linguistic dominance, and language imperialism.

In our time, the global expansion of English has often been cited as the primary example of linguistic imperialism.

The term linguistic imperialism originated in the 1930s as part of a critique of Basic English and was reintroduced by linguist Robert Phillipson in his monograph Linguistic Imperialism (OUP, 1992).

In that study, Phillipson offered this "working definition" of English linguistic imperialism: "the dominance asserted and maintained by the establishment and continuous reconstitution of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages" (47). Phillipson viewed linguistic imperialism as a "sub-type" of linguicism.

Examples and Observations

  • "The study of linguistic imperialism can help to clarify whether the winning of political independence led to a linguistic liberation of Third World countries, and if not, why not. Are the former colonial languages a useful bond with the international community and necessary for state formation and national unity internally? Or are they a bridgehead for Western interests, permitting the continuation of a global system of marginalization and exploitation? What is the relationship between linguistic dependence (continued use of a European language in a former non-European colony) and economic dependence (the export of raw materials and import of technology and know-how)?"
    (Robert Phillipson, "Linguistic Imperialism." Concise Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, ed. by Margie Berns. Elsevier, 2010)
  • "The rejection of the linguistic legitimacy of a language--any language used by any linguistic community--in short, amounts to little more than an example of the tyranny of the majority. Such a rejection reinforces the long tradition and history of linguistic imperialism in our society. The harm, though, is done not only to those whose languages we reject, but in fact to all of us, as we are made poorer by an unnecessary narrowing of our cultural and linguistic universe."
    (Timothy Reagan, Language Matters: Reflections on Educational Linguistics. Information Age, 2009)
  • "The fact that . . . no uniform British empire-wide language policy developed tends to disconfirm the hypothesis of linguistic imperialism as responsible for the spread of English. . . .

    "The teaching of English by itself, . . . , even where it did take place, is not sufficient grounds to identify the policy of the British empire with linguistic imperialism."
    (Janina Brutt-Griffler, World English: A Study of Its Development. Multilingual Matters, 2002)

Linguistic Imperialism in Sociolinguistics

  • "There is by now a well-entrenched and very respectable branch of sociolinguistics which is concerned with describing the world of globalization from the perspective of linguistic imperialism and 'linguicide' (Phillipson 1992; Skutnabb-Kangas 2000), often based on particular ecological metaphors. These approaches . . . oddly assume that wherever a 'big' and 'powerful' language such as English 'appears' in a foreign territory, small indigenous languages will 'die.' There is, in this image of sociolinguistic space, place for just one language at a time. In general, there seems to be a serious problem with the ways in which space is imagined in such work. In addition, the actual sociolinguistic details of such processes are rarely spelled out--languages can be used in vernacular or in lingua franca varieties and so create different sociolinguistic conditions for mutual influencing."
    (Jan Blommaert, The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge University Press, 2010)

    Colonialism and Linguistic Imperialism

    • "Anachronistic views of linguistic imperialism, which see as important only the power asymmetry between the former colonial nations and the nations of the 'third world,' are hopelessly inadequate as an explanation of linguistic realities. They especially ignore the fact that 'first world' countries with strong languages seem to be under just as much pressure to adopt English, and that some of the harshest attacks on English have come from countries which have no such colonial legacy. When dominant languages feel they are being dominated, something much bigger than a simplistic conception of power relations must be involved."
      (David Crystal, English as a Global Language, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2003)