English Does (Not) Exist
8 min read

English Does (Not) Exist

English Does (Not) Exist
Photo by Andrew Stutesman / Unsplash

Colonialism is a specter that hangs over the world at large — inescapable, yet also often unrecognized. It is the proverbial elephant in the room. As power structures in the modern, post-colonial world are still centered in their inherited locales (the Global North, the West, …), they perpetuate systems of colonialism and colonialist ideologies. However, these systems and ideologies are no longer forced by martial means, but more insidiously through culture, marketplaces, and education. This imperialist approach uses many of the same means of oppression that early colonialism used, though, primary of which are assimilation and language.

Language itself as a colonialist/imperialistic power is an uncomfortable proposition, but has a well-documented history clearly showing its very creation as a means of social control (it is worth noting that, domestically, shared language practices can be vastly beneficial, but exporting these ideologies and then using them to oppress others is, obviously, not). Assimilation goes hand-in-hand with language practice in two ways: By means of forced assimilation of others through same-language requirements (thereby establishing a de facto Other) and as a means of erasure by absorbing an other into the society/culture of the majority.

This all raises an alarm for English’s prominence in an increasingly globalized society, its status as a lingua franca, and its continued education — both the model of the education and its purpose(s). It is to this model of English education that I issue the challenge of decoloniality: To extract it from its history, free the education of classical (colonialist) linguistic framing, and reinvent the practice to center the speaker instead of the ideal of the English speaker. To explore this issue, I will summarize a history of colonialism from a linguistic perspective and then incorporate the conversation around the decoloniality of English education in support of my position. To close, I will be so bold as to suggest a means to an end and concretize all of this as something actionable.

Europe’s colonialism began in 15th century and continued well into the 20th century — many of Portugal, Spain, and Britain’s (to name a few big players) final colonies are hardly out of their hands even now. This is an important and sobering fact to begin with, since the concept of “post-colonial” is, in fact, still very new as both a time period and a practice. During these five hundred years, the “discoveries” of the Europeans and their subsequent domination of those “discoveries” ordered the world into a Eurocentric point of view, which is still echoed today in many smaller forms (the classic Mercator map projection issue — an incident of a cartographic impossibility that inevitably transmits and structures geopolitical thought).

More pertinently, systems and structures of “language” were exported as well. To presume the prevailing linguistic and historical view of what and how people speak to one another is what we understand as language is to ignore the colonialist action undertaken by one mode of thought and then enforced on other people. Makoni and Pennycook (2005) describe the effect of this succinctly: “…a major aspect of the British colonial project in India was to turn Indian language, culture and knowledge into objects of European knowledge, to invent an India...in Britain’s image of what India should be like” (p. 142). This is the practice that occurred throughout the world, where missionaries, military leaders, and governors set out to objectify that which is not Western and thereafter categorize it as such. This reveals the systematics and systemics of linguistics to be predicated on the objectification of other, “non-” languages that have to be restructured and given form by an allegedly superior language. Makoni and Pennycook (2005) again capture this: “We start with the premise that languages…are inventions…Thus, an ideology of languages as separate and enumerable categories was also created,…” (p. 138). This is the foundation of a decolonial praxis in English education. To go back to the beginning and strip down the system itself to reinvent the practice into something holistic and amorphous — away from the strictures of Western ownership and toward a decentralized method of communication.

To complicate this history with a modern issue, Balfour’s examination of South Africa’s attempt to create a standardized South African English points to these sorts of inherited problematics that English carries with it if there is an attempt to integrate it without critical forethought. Interestingly, Balfour cites many of the same sources as Makoni and Pennycook (and, later in this essay, Kumaravadivelu), but he very deftly rejects the conception of a constructed linguistics and the invention of language. Part of that invention is useful for him, but he is more interested in the realities of South Africa and access to language that allows for communication and social/economic mobility — surely far more pertinent than a theorizing of “language” and its role in global power structures. To close, Balfour (2002) positions prior research in second language acquisition as his target, claiming

[this research] has profound implications for how and why we should teach competence in the L1, and in what contexts and for what purposes English…is appropriate….since it seems damaging to privilege some research and thereby suggest…that any applied linguistic research has the status of scientific fact, whereas it clearly does not (p. 28).

Balfour, Makoni, and Pennycook are certainly in conversation at least textually, as Makoni and Pennycook call for this same sort of suspect treatment of prior linguistic knowledge. Balfour, in exploring this issue, asks an important question: Who are these speakers? This is a topic that Kumaravadivelu views as central to his work in second language acquisition.

Kumaravadivelu introduces three important pieces to a decolonial praxis in English language education: identity, globalism, and the concept of a epistemic break. Identity and globalism are increasingly inextricable to Kumaravadivelu and uses the intertwining of these as his call for break from prior knowledge systems to reframe English language acquisition, specifically, as something responsive to modernity and reality and not shackled to past constructions.

Identity is integral to questions of language acquisition. By asking who is learning a language, we can also ask why. Kumaravadivelu’s discussion of identity through structuralism and post-structuralism ground his inclusion of a globalized identity — an intrinsically socialized identity at once becoming more complicated and more easier to navigate as identities are broadcast internationally. This extends crucially to English language education: “How participants’ subjectivities shape classroom climate, and how might potential tensions be negotiated have become an important issue in [English as an international language] teacher education” (Kumaravadivelu, 2012, p. 13). With this, Kumaravadivelu places the responsibility of expanding the field on those directly in the field: It is not enough for the conversation to exist, but something must be enacted at the smallest level as well. But how?

An epistemic break is a “thorough re-conceptualization and…re-organization of knowledge systems” (Kumaravadivelu, 2012, p. 14). This is not a totalizing shift that completely replaces a system of thought (maybe comparable to the shift from a geocentric to heliocentric conception of the solar system), but instead a multilateral, atemporal suggestion that can be used and applied contextually. This is the fulcrum around which English language education can swing to affect change — not by a reconstruction of the field, but a case-by-case peeling back of (a)historical buildup and residue; a scraping off to make a more responsive praxis.

An epistemic break is what Makoni and Pennycook gesture at in using invention as a lens for viewing language’s colonialist history and what Balfour, I think, is looking for while broaching English in South Africa and his rebuttal to the presumed fidelity of research. This concept is uniquely positioned at the forefront of decolonial practice in English language education, in that in can be applied backward and forward — as a way to undo epistemic and even ontological histories and a means to an end, a reframing of the field entirely.

Kumaravadivelu (2016) discusses his marginality as a Tamil person in the field of English language research and goes on decry the centrality of English language teaching through its means of methods and materials. He marks a difference throughout between the “Center” and “Periphery,” a way to center certain (in the case of English language education) speakers and means of knowledge and push others (non-native speakers, for example) to the periphery and thus de-emphasis them. This is a useful framing to conceptualize the issue of a colonialist rhetoric and how something like an epistemic break can be used not to flip the center, but remove it entirely; to conceive of a field that has no center or periphery. This can be placed in conversation with Sprecher’s (2011) overview of decolonial education, wherein she defines the role of a decolonial educator as

[deconstructing and resisting] the assimilative project of colonial pedagogy, once aimed at deculturalization of indigenous and enslaved African peoples, that continues in contemporary schooling through Western, Eurocentric curricula, pedagogies, and regulatory educational structures (p. 218).

However, Kumaravadivelu (2016) argues for the abandonment of coloniality by his fellow non-native speakers, directed peer researchers and professionals alike, by means of an epistemic break. Sprecher directs her notes at educators in any classroom and presumes something like an epistemic break is not necessarily — or that it will occur naturally through analysis and careful reflection.

This is an important distinction between the (non-native speaker, professional) subaltern (Kumaravadivelu, 2016, p. 76-79) and hegemonic, presumed white educator to whom Sprecher is speaking. For the educator who can chose decoloniality from the Center, there is time and space, but for the subaltern educator, there is the Periphery or decolonial action, the epistemic break or nothing. In the spirit of an epistemic break looking to rupture the Center, we must also necessarily eliminate the periphery and the status of subalternity.

How is this practiced, though? For a native or non-native speaker in a locale where English is not the first language, it can be very easy to imagine a classroom that does not source or center Western materials nor uses the native speaker as the ideal. Even just these vague ideas can fight against integrative motivation failures (Kumaravadivelu, 2012) and create new communicative practices outside of the hegemonic idyll of English education. Harder to imagine, however, is the role of English language education in a place like the United States. Sprecher’s focus on decolonial education lights a path forward to inform teachers’ own actions.

To be a decolonial educator is to first educate oneself in colonialism as a whole. For those educators within the United States, this means interrogating the very structures from which the educator has (probably) benefitted. This type of analysis, as Sprecher (2011) observes, “[recognizes] the socio-historical, colonial dynamics from which such relations have emerged, and [connects] theories of capitalist hegemony to concepts of ontology and ethics” (p. 220). So an educator must first educate themselves in order to be truly equipped to educate others. This education readily equips educators to “strategically prioritize curricula that presents both critical analyses and subjugated knowledges in order to decenter dominant paradigms” (p. 222, emphasis mine) — in other words, educators need to be ready and equipped to effect epistemic breaks within the classroom.

What does this look like? English as a second language programs in the United States can appear assimilationist and as modes of erasure; by some means, eliminating a child’s history and part of their identity to instead make an American, an agenda pushed by exclusionary language education practices. An English as a second language teacher, then, should instead by default resist this: It is not enough to say a child is learning English to excel at the English-only school, but instead to guide them in understanding how to conceptualize a world and education where their first and second languages — and identities — coexist. The crux here, however, remains teacher education. To truly cement the practice of decoloniality across education, teachers need to be given the tools to critically analyze and take a stand against inherited colonialist positioning and policy.


  • Balfour, R. (2002). Post-colonial twilight: English as a failed Lingua Franca. The English Academy Review, 19(1), 20-32. https://doi.org/10.1080/10131750285310041
  • Brutt-Griffler, J. & Samimy, K.K. (1999). Revisiting the Colonial in the Postcolonial: Critical Praxis for Nonnative-English-Speaking Teachers in a TESOL Program. TESOL Quarterly, 33(3), 413-431. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3587672
  • Makoni, S. & Pennycook, A. (2009). Disinventing and (Re)Constituting Languages. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies: An International Journal, 2(3), 137-156. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15427595cils0203_1
  • Kumaravadivelu, B. (2012). Individual Identity, Cultural Globalization, and Teaching English as an International Language. In Alsagoff, L., McKay, S.L., Hu, G., & Renandya, W.A. (Eds.) Principles and Practices for Teaching English as an International Language (9-27). New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Kumaravadivelu, B. (2016). The Decolonial Option in English Teaching: Can the Subaltern Act? TESOL Quarterly, 50(1), 66-85. https://doi.org/10.1002/tesq.202
  • Sprecher, K.M. (2011). Revisioning Multiculturalisms for a Global Age: Bringing Decolonial Education into Praxis. In Decolonial Multiculturalism and Local-global Contexts: A Postcritical Feminist Bricolage for Developing New Praxes in Education (Doctoral dissertation, 203-240). Retrieved from the Graduate School at Trace: Tennessee Research and Creative Exchange. https://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_graddiss/1129
  • Vafai, M.M. (2017). Introduction to the Theme Section: Language, Identity, and the Legacy of Colonialism. The CATESOL Journal, 29(1), 75-79. http://www.catesoljournal.org/volume-29-1/