Canagarajah, Suresh. Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching. Oxford Applied Linguistics;. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

  • This publication comes out of a series dedicated to language educators’ stories of their L2 literacy experiences.
  • This work is an in-depth case study of the everyday language engagements both inside and outside the classroom of a community of Tamils living in a post-colonial context.
  • On method:  Canagarajah adopt a critical ethnographic methodology that is heavy on the thick description and looks to recognize the role/positionality of the researcher in the community he is working with (hence the critical).  C. chooses critical ethnography through thick description because it provides multiple points of view.  These different perspectives point out now only how the micro-practices of teaching engagements operate in the L2 classroom but also how larger sociopolitical forces shape teacher epistemology/subjectivity.  Said differently, the book presents “a critical ethnography of the sociolinguistic acts of resistance to what Phillipson has termed ‘linguistic imperialism'” (Bhatt 631).
  • Premises/principles of C.’s book:  1) language isn’t neutral . . . as such, any ELT curriculum that is developed in a Western/center country cannot be simply mapped over/onto periphery countries because it has been shaped for the center context.  As such, ELT must be developed locally/contextually; 2) students and teachers in the periphery should resist the teaching of mainstream ELT because it prevents them from taking a political/critical stance about the imperial nature of language; and 3) while resisting ELT pedagogies from the center, students and teachers should also appropriate English in order to meet their own local contexts.
  • On method:  C. provides a criticism of Robert Phillipson’s work Linguistic Imperialism because it concentrated to heavily on the macro level.  As a remedy, C. sets out to do a detailed micro-level study of the ways that English functions in a post-colonial Tamil community.  His critical ethnography includes classroom observations, interviews, analysis of marginalia found in student textbooks (graffiti), and detailed case study of three graduate students.
  • What is C.’s eventual conclusion?  ELT should be taught contextually so that the deployment of particular Englishes meets the needs of particular situations (this includes the teaching of SE); however, in this process of emphasizing the contextuality of Englishes, students will also discover that there are a variety of possible Englishes that can be used for a variety of different purposes.  Optimistically, according to C., the “pluralization of standards” concerning what counts as a legitimate English will result in a democratization of access to the language (and its varieties) itself (181).


  • Reproductive orientation – a deterministic perspective on linguistic power that views students as passive recipients who lack agency to manage the linguistic and ideological conflicts that arise through the process of education.  Language itself is seen as monolithic, unproblematic, abstract, and ideologically neutral (in its homogeneousness).  This criticism is developed out of structuralist/Marxist work.
  • Resistance perspective – a perspective that sees student (and teacher) subjects as agents who can negotiate different linguistic/cultural/political ideologies in order to empower their own ability to act.  This perspective has a liberatory potential for critical thinking as it can enable individuals to rise above different forms of domination and oppression by critically engaging with language to make it work for their own purposes.  The idea here is to reconstitute English – not reject it.  The process of reconstitution will realign English toward more just ends for peripheral users in particular contexts.  Developed out of poststructuralist work.
  • In this book C. wants to “reflect on the diverse interests and motivations of individuals while investigating the strategies they employ, with varying levels of success, in order to negotiate their linguistic conflicts in community and classroom contexts” (4).
  • Core questions of chapters 4-7:

Chapter 1: Adopting a critical perspective on pedagogy

  • Chapter one provides a theoretical account of what counts as a periphery subject – and in that positioning, C. highlights how different theories of resistance can provide those in the periphery the ability to “gain agency, conduct critical thinking, and initiate change” (22).
  • Chapter one problematizes learning as a primarily cognitive activity in order to situate learning in a broader sociocultural milieu that includes school, work, and home (13).
  • In resituating learning for the non-center context, C. poses some interesting binaries between MP (mainstream pedagogy) and CP (critical pedagogies):
    • learning as detached cognitive activity vs. learning as personal (MP assume learning happens in the mind while CP (critical pedagogy) claims that learning occurs at the intersections of the social/individual.
    • learning as transcendental vs. learning as situated CP situates learning in sites of sociality and material practice.
    • learning processes as universal vs. learning as cultural – this is value free education vs. situated practice that brings to light the preferred ways of thinking by dominant communities.
    • knowledges as preconstructed vs. knowledge as negotiated – knowledge, like everything else, is situated and agreed upon . . . it is rhetorical.
    • learning as instrumental vs. learning as political – CP understands that if learning is shaped by curriculums and practices of the dominant social group then the ideologies of the status quo will permeate the worldview gained in the process of education.  As such, learning is a political activity that enculturates folks into particular epistemologies, values, and politics.

Chapter 2:  Challenges in researching resistance

  • This chapter is explicitly about method.  C. provides a critique of Phillipson’s Linguistic Imperialism by calling attention to the micro-level of practice in the classroom.  He also discusses how this criticism of Phillipson motivates a critical ethnographic method in order to follow the small existences of English in on periphery community (Tamil) in Sri Lanka.  C. claims to be doing grounded theory – or a study that is motivated by “the lived reality and everyday experience of periphery subjects” (5).
  • C. is researching from a “resistance perspective” (39).  This means that the act of research itself is a commitment to particular ideal social or educational conditions that are informed through clear ideological/theoretical standpoints and motivated by an urge to see particular kinds of social action.  This orientation is an explicit recognition that knowledge is situated and political; as such, the production of knowledge is a political act that must be approached with an appropriate ethics.
  • C. is careful to not let Phillipson off the hook for his take on the supposed neutrality of language (it is only powerful/harmful when used) by noting, “The dominance of English is therefore not only a result of politico-economic inequalities between the center and periphery, it is also a cause of these inequalities” (41). [1. What do we do with the center-periphery distinction that C. makes as opposed to the three circles approach to English that Kachru argues for?  Seems like one provides a more nuanced point of view. . . but I don’t know if it is all that accurate/necessary].
  • Final note on method:  “This book will therefore offer a comprehensive description of periphery instructional contexts, locating the study in a clearly defined setting over an extended period of participant observation in order to develop an insider perspective” (46.  Also, C. spends a good deal of time to elucidating the history of English use in colonial/postcolonial Sri Lanka because he wants to ensure he isn’t charged with creating a description of an ethnographic present or a time where culture existed once (at the time of description) but is no longer valid.  As a cure, he wants to historicize his research site/subjects in order to argue that the ethnography he conducts is more durable than those considered ethnographies of the present.

Chapter 3:  Resistance to English in historical perspective

  • This is a history chapter that discusses the role of English education in colonial and post-colonial periods.  In the end C. demonstrates that the teaching of English was both an linguistically imperialist enterprise but also an exercise in the cultivation of resistance and appropriation.  This idea is best summed up by Pennycook’s term critical ambivalences.

Chapter 4:  Conflicting curricula: interrogating student opposition

  • In this chapter C. demonstrates how the educational materials developed in the center are ideological in that they embody conceptions of language as value-free and autonomous. . . able to exist outside of context and experienced without the histories of oppression and imperialism embedded in their use.  This chapter also demonstrates how students use marginalia in their textbooks (the center textbooks) to instantiate resistant discourses to the center-focused authoritative text.

Chapter 5:  Competing pedagogies: understanding teacher opposition

  • This chapter looks specifically at ELT pedagogies by considering how local teachers in the Tamil context attempted to incorporate task-based methods in their teaching (task-based methods recommended by the center textbooks/educational think tanks).  In the end, C. claims that teachers actually appropriate different aspects of the task-based approach in their teaching; however, they tend to adapt these pedagogical recommendations to meet their own contexts.

Chapter 7:  Contrasting literacies: appropriating academic texts

  • In this chapter C. considers the clashing of academic discourses in graduate student dissertations.  C. argues that students that are multilingual/peripheral need more than just instruction in the formal aspects of genre; rather, they need the ability to recognize the values and ideologies embedded in particular academic discourses so they can negotiate the pitfalls of each in order to create a more responsive, effective research text.
  • Approaches to ESL writing:

Chapter 8:  The politics and pedagogy of appropriating discourses

  • C. argues here for “critical negotiation” and appropriation in ELT.  The “third way” is useful for peripheral students (and one wonders of center students) because it allows students to use the language(s) of power but for their own needs and on their own terms.  In the end, C. again falls on the side of contextuality . . . being successful as a peripheral writer/scholar means understanding what discourses are appropriate for what situations and how to modify those discourses successfully (rhetorically) in order to do justice to their own subjectivity in the face of the hegemonic center.
  • C.’s position:  “while we must recognize the contextual appropriacy of different Englishes and teach students as many variants as possible (including more formal, public, and institutionalized variants – some of which are presently ‘owned’ by the center-based communities), it is equally important to teach students that any dialect has to be personally and communally appropriated to varying degrees in order to be meaningful and relevant for its users.  This would lead to the pluralization of standards and democratization of access to English” (181).
  • In developing an appropriative pedagogy, C. recommends not just teaching the communicative aspects of language use; rather, he instead wants to place an emphasis on the sociolinguistic competence of the learner  –  cultural conflicts should be exposed and considered in order for students to develop a more critical approach to the ways that culture (and with it language) operate in particular contexts (189)[3. This seems to have real import for your consideration of transnational composition.  By looking to different forms of writing instruction from different places you might be able to move your pedagogy toward a critical consideration of how writing operates at those sites.  In the process, students will not only become familiar with different cultural norms/expectations through writing exercises/textbooks, they will also possibly discover how writing functions and for what purposes in those contexts.  This says a lot about the relationship between culture and language and could provide some practical examples of how to go about developing a transnational composition praxis.].  Here’s the section where C. describes what this would look like on the ground:

  • C. provides a lot of recommendations for how to instantiate his brand of CP in the conclusion.  This includes the aforementioned point, work that allows students to operate in their L1, valuing and encouraging the establishment of academic undercommunities in the composition classroom where different modes of critique can operate, etc.
  • A closing note on the work C. does in this book:  “Appropriating English while maintaining vernaculars makes periphery subjects linguistically competent for the culturally hybrid post-modern world they confront . . . . The simplest gestures of code-switching and linguistic appropriation in the pedagogical safe houses [Pratt’s contact zones] suggest the strategic ways by which discourses may be negotiated, intimating the resilient ability of human subjects to creatively fashion a voice for themselves from amidst the deafening channels of domination” (197).

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