Image from The How to be British collection by Martyn Ford & Peter Legon (Lee Gone Publications)

Johnny Foreigner:
1. Anyone who isn't British.
2. Anyone likely to be given a metaphorical 'bloody nose' by a plucky Brit.
(definition courtesy of Urban dictionary)

Images of British Culture and the role of English Language Teachers

In 1998 Lord St John of Fawsley stated in the British House of Lords that alongside the common law and parliamentary government, English language and literature was the greatest contribution to world civilization. He added that “at the heart of all three lies the idea of liberty. I do not believe that we can export our institutions indiscriminately, but by informing people of how they work and flourish, by imparting thoughts about them, we can enhance the chances for freedom elsewhere”.

English language teachers applying the communicative method actively seek to show language in context through the use of authentic texts. This means that material has to be selected to illustrate not only fundamental grammar structures but also to depict images of Britain through its culture and customs.

If, as Lord St John Fawsley strongly suggests, these images are chosen with a view to selling the cultural superiority of British culture, it contradicts any notion that teaching English can be politically neutral.

In his 1992 book, Linguistic Imperialism’, Robert Phillipson argues that exaggerated patriotism, whether conscious or unconscious, leads to the phenomenon of ‘linguism’ which is defined as “ideologies, structures & practices which are used to legitimate, effectuate and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources (both material & immaterial) between groups which are defined on the basis of language” .

Particularly vulnerable are developing nations that look to the west for sources of economic wealth and sustenance. Yet the effect on other European nations cannot be ignored.

France has been the most vocal in seeking to stem the seemingly unstoppable tide of the English language.

This raises the issue as to whether English language teachers are humble messengers or cultural ambassadors.

A poll published by the British Council in November 2000 revealed that young people in other countries see Britons as arrogant, racist, xenophobic and frequently drunk.  One Italian portrayed the British as “having tea at five o’clock, having a Queen and always drunk”.

Teachers of English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) are well placed to improve (or reinforce!) this type of negative image. But is their role then to ‘spin’ the facts to present Britain in a more favourable light?

By doing this they would need to put a gloss on issues such as hooliganism and institutional racism. They would need to ignore or reject the numerous reports and surveys that highlight the appalling diet of the British and high levels of alcohol consumption. They would need to support the latest antics of the royal family.

In fields like science and education Britain can stand proud and my point is not that teachers should ‘dish the dirt’ on their cultural legacy. What I would like to see is a greater willingness to cast a critical eye over social institutions and to explore the roots of attitudes identified as uniquely British.

Cultures should be explored to reflect their diverse and dynamic characteristics. All too often the content of English language textbooks portray Britain in stereotypical terms disregarding these heterogeneous aspects. A highly traditional impression is given of a nation rich in heritage, steeped in history and independent in its outlook. The perspective is middlebrow and middle class. This is marked by a tendency to steer well clear of controversial topics and ignores radical or minority viewpoints.

In 1979 Margaret Thatcher expressed a wish to build Britain as a nation at ease with itself. Three decades on British society remains full of divisions and Thatcher’s only legacy is that anachronistic empire-building still dominates political thinking.