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Response to ‘E LT and ‘‘the spirit of

the times’’ ’
Adrian Holliday

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It is important to distinguish superficial political correctness from the need to
address destructive phenomena such as cultural chauvinism directed at ‘non-
native speakers’. Because of the deep-rooted and often hidden nature of this
chauvinism, evidence for its existence is not straightforward, but derives from
a broad range of interconnected data. This evidence is supported by sociological
facts concerning the ideological nature of professions and the position of E LT
within an unequally structured postcolonial world. At the same time, the assertion
that much of our practice is chauvinistic is not an attempt to disqualify it, but to
bring greater awareness to its practice and the discourses which underpin it.
Ironically, the hegemonic political correctness which Waters critiques may be more
deeply rooted in English-speaking Western E LT ’s established desire to ‘liberate’
‘non-native speakers’ who do not need liberating, than in acting against
chauvinistic attitudes towards them.

Introduction Waters is right in his critique of the simplistic repackaging of older practices.
He is also right in suggesting that superficial political correctness can suffer
from the same sort of narrowness—where it becomes de rigueur not only to
protect the ‘oppressed’ by not speaking about them in a certain manner, but
to believe that a superficial linguistic régime is sufficient. We need, however,
to distinguish superficial political correctness from the need to take action
against chauvinistic perceptions which do have a serious, destructive
impact. Waters rightly perceives that empirical evidence is a key factor. In
his article he suggests that my own proposal that English-speaking Western
(which Waters calls ‘Anglophone’) ELT is marked by cultural chauvinism
directed at ‘non-native speakers’ (Holliday 2005) does not deserve attention
because the evidence is weak. In this regard, he draws attention to a
particular incident which is representative of my argument—a conference
presentation in which an English-speaking Westerner describes the
national culture of an East Asian country to an audience of other expatriates
who work there (ibid.: 25). (The East Asian country is referred to as Ex to
protect the identity both of the conference participants and the country.)
For the most part of this response I will demonstrate that both the evidence
and theoretical support for the claims set around this incident are sufficient
to show, despite good professional intentions, that chauvinistic native-
speakerism is very real. I will then explore Waters’ very serious claim
that political correctness has become a major ideological force in

360 E LT Journal Volume 61/4 October 2007; doi:10.1093/elt/ccm054


ª The Author 2007. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.
English-speaking Western E LT, and consider why the need to take action
against chauvinism is very different to superficial political correctness.

Interconnected The conference event must not be seen in isolation, but as part of a thick
evidence description which extends across the whole book within which it is
presented. ‘Thick description’ is employed in qualitative research and
ethnography as a means for presenting deeper meanings on the basis of
a broad range of interconnected data (Holliday 2007: 74, citing Geertz). The
analysis of the event is thus made in the light of a broader picture emerging
from email interviews with 36 colleagues from 14 countries, descriptions of
professional behaviour in conferences and other events, two ethnographic
studies of teaching and training in British E LT (Anderson 2003; Baxter

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2003), and my own personal narrative of professional experience as
depicted in documents and reconstructed events. The growing recognition
of the creative nature of these methods as a means for uncovering hidden
cultures and ideologies is argued in Holliday (2004).
The role of personal narrative was particularly important in seeing the
conference presentation as a critical incident within the thick description.
The presentation claimed that there were problematic features of Exian
culture which were an obstacle to teaching English, and which could be
traced throughout aspects of Exian society, from education to driving. I was
struck not only by the naı̈vety of this representation of a complex society, but
by the degree to which it shared very similar, negative characteristics with
my own perception of Middle Eastern Iran in the 1970s, as well as with other
descriptions in the E LT literature of ‘cultures’ from Latin America, through
Southern Europe and North Africa, all the way to East Asia (Holliday 2005:
20, citing Pennycook and Kubota).
It could not be true that most of the world outside the English-speaking West
and a slice of North West Europe shared the same deficient culture. It was
more likely that what was common to the descriptions was the orientation of
the describers, who shared the professional discourse of English-speaking
Western ELT—thus imagining a generalized Other to suit their own
preoccupations. It does indeed make sense that what we see and what we
choose to notice has much to do with how we look at things, which is in turn
to do with who we are. My early perceptions of Iran were coloured by my
struggle as an uneasy newcomer foreigner trying to teach English in an
environment for which I had negligible understanding. Furthermore,
a significant number of ‘foreign’ family, friends, and colleagues, including
some of my 36 interviewees, made it clear to me that the most significant
factor in my perceptions of ‘foreign’ students, colleagues and ‘cultures’ are
my own ‘English’, ‘Western’, professional preoccupations.
Since writing about the conference event I found further evidence for
interpreting it in this way in Nayar’s (2002) analysis of the discourse of
the popular T ES L- L discussion group, which links very similar negative
cultural stereotyping specifically to an ‘us/them’ element in the
native-non-native-speaker divide:
The naming in this discourse underscores the binariness of the two
communities of NS and NNS by taking on and Us and Them pattern,
where Us is variously named as native speakers, Americans, BANA

Response to ‘E LT and ‘‘the spirit of the times’’’ 361


(acronym for British American New Zealand Australia) culture,
instructors, mentors, teachers, trainers, specialists, and implicationally,
the providers of knowledge, wisdom and expertise. Frequently used
terms for naming Them are non-natives, immigrants, people from other
cultures, internationals (including various nationality adjectives),
learners, ESL students, trainees etc., and by implication everything that
we are not. They don’t know (¼ are ignorant) or have limited proficiency;
they have problems and difficulties; they make (silly) errors, they come to
us and they look up to us. We teach them not just our language and our
culture, but also how to behave, how to communicate properly, how to
think critically, and so on.

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I have also found Kumaravadivelu’s similar reference to a range of literature
which employs the same ‘stubborn persistence of cultural stereotypes in the
TESOL profession’, which he considers to be a basis of a racist society (2003:
715). The short step from the ‘us/them’ stereotyping of the ‘non-native
speaker’ to racist discrimination is also being catalogued in a number of
recent accounts of the unequal politics of employment (e.g. Kubota et al.
2005).

The naı̈vety of basic The argument I have presented so far suggests that the people in the
information conference event cited by Waters were either not aware, or temporarily
putting aside their awareness, of the deeper political significance of the
description of Exian culture. This notion of some sort of false consciousness
has several implications with regard to Waters’ argument.
His suggestion that people working in an unfamiliar ‘new culture’ need
‘some basic information about it, in order to begin to get to know it better’
sounds sensible. However, I do not think it is possible for cultural
information ever to be neutral or to escape from the chauvinism described
above. As with the writing of history, it is always going to be constructed,
whether consciously or unconsciously, around political agendas. Waters
does to some extent acknowledge the difficulty when he later refers to the
‘cultural ‘‘mask’’’. But it seems to me to be counterproductive to begin with
bias that has to be undone before better understanding can be achieved.
The work of Kubota et al., Kumaravadivelu, and Nayar (all op. cit.) shows us
the degree to which biased descriptions are so easily sustained despite all the
further investigation that takes place. I am elsewhere reporting on an
analysis of recent literature in intercultural communication which, despite
claiming that much past cultural stereotyping is over-simplistic, still
continues to maintain ‘us/them’ descriptions which are traceable to the very
narrow research of Hofstede (for example, 2003), which has remained
almost unchanged in 23 years. They are sustained because they are
conveniently easy to describe, and can be transmitted in a quantifiable,
accountable manner in training. There is now a substantial critique, under
the heading of ‘critical cosmopolitanism’, of the long ‘methodological
nationalist’ tradition of social science which has been preoccupied with
stereotypical national differences that do not reflect the complex
multiplicities of identities and blurred boundaries found in the real world
(for example, Beck and Sznaider 2006). Rajagopalan (1999: 204, citing

362 Adrian Holliday


Kachru) and Kumaravadivelu (2007) have launched a similar critique of
applied linguistics and ELT.

The problem with The idea that there can be ‘basic information’ about culture is therefore
interviews naı̈ve. Waters’ suggestion that interviews might have provided reliable
evidence for what was going on in the conference event is also naı̈ve. Getting
the participants’ views would indeed have been an interesting research
project; and with care and persistence interesting data might well have been
collected. However, because of the complex ideological nature of the event,
interviewing the participants would only have revealed a very small part of
the story, especially where people may be deeply unaware of their own
chauvinistic behaviour even though it is very evident to observers.

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Interview data has acquired an unwarranted superiority over descriptive
data, especially in applied linguistics. And yet, what people choose to say to
interviewers, and what the researcher then chooses to select from this, and
then what to make of it, will be mediated by so many circumstances—from
the way the interview was set up, to how the interviewees wish to play it, and
the preoccupations of the researcher—that the dimension of subjectivity
may be little less than in ethnographic descriptions (Holliday 2007: 61,
citing Block amongst others). Much can be learnt about an event from
a description of what happens—of what can be seen as well as what is
heard—as long as this description is set alongside other descriptions and
other forms of data within a thick description. It will always be possible to
collect more data with regard to any event, opinion, or text. Qualitative
researchers and ethnographers have to work with the fragments of data they
can get access to, and must accept these limitations. In the complex and
uncertain world of human intention, where the total range of possible
evidence will always be elusive, whatever the researcher can glean, which
helps to contribute to a broader thick description, will make a contribution.

Sociological facts I am very aware at this stage that I may have said little to convince Waters. It
may simply be the case that we are working from two irreconcilably different
perspectives. Until recently I would have argued that I was following
a postmodern paradigm; but, being pressed by both Waters and my current
group of MA students, all asking for evidence, I am inclined to be more
objectivist. I feel we can derive a series of sociological facts from what has
been learnt from a postmodern perspective—that traditional truths are
mediated by ideology—rather than sinking into the anarchy often
associated with postmodernism. One of the founding fathers of sociology,
Emile Durkheim, defines sociological facts as ‘ways of acting, thinking and
feeling which possess the remarkable property of existing outside the
consciousness of the individual . . . which are invested with a coercive power
by virtue of which they exercise control over him’ (1982: 50). Whilst I do not
follow Durkheim’s thesis to the extent that individuals are completely
determined by these facts, I think they can offer explanations for behaviour.
The sociological facts I would like to propose, as the basis for believing that
cultural chauvinism against ‘non-native speakers’ in E LT is a reality, are as
follows:

Response to ‘E LT and ‘‘the spirit of the times’’’ 363


1 Ideology is always present in social life, and manifests itself within
everyday language and behaviour.
2 Professional discourse hides ideology by projecting technical superiority
through constructing its beliefs as neutral.
3 In a postcolonial world there continues to be an ‘us/them’ relationship in
which a Western Self imagines a culturally deficient foreign Other. This
relationship is sustained through cultural and linguistic imperialism and
constructions of confining regional, religious, and ethnic cultures.
Fact 1 is a universal, about the nature of social life in general; and facts 2 and
3 are special cases of 1, concerning a particular aspect of social life and
current global politics respectively. Facts 1 and 2 are supported by the work of

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critical discourse analysts such as Fairclough and go back to Foucault, and
by the understanding we have of false consciousness from Marxist
sociology. Fact 3 is supported by postcolonial literature, which makes the
point that 18th and 19th century art, literature and social science
emphasized an always positive Western Self which contrasted with an
imagined, culturally deficient, foreign Other which needed to be improved
through colonization (for example, Said 1978), and by critical applied
linguists such as Pennycook and Canagarajah.
As a professional discourse, English-speaking Western ELT is governed by
sociological fact 2; and its international involvement with a language that
has postcolonial impact means that it is also governed by fact 3. On the basis
of this connection, a series of things begins to make sense. The notion of (a)
a chauvinistic, native-speakerist ideology, and a desire to correct undesirable
cultural behaviour, which are (b) generally unrecognized in favour of the
neutrality of native–non-native-speaker categories, cultural descriptions,
and a technically neutral methodology, fits well with fact 2. This also goes
some way to explaining the apparent false consciousness in the conference
event. The people taking part may be fully critically aware of how ideology
works in their non-professional lives, in such as advertising, the media, and
political spin; but this awareness may be subdued by professional ‘truths’ in
their professional lives.

Dilemma and irony While I do not think there is a lack of evidence for the claim that chauvinistic
native-speakerism is a feature of English-speaking Western E LT, I think
Waters is right that there is a broader, superficial, political correctness
movement that has acquired a hegemonic hold. The imaginations
generated by sociological fact 3, that non-Western people are culturally
deficient, can easily lead to an imagination that they are also oppressed by
inequalities in deficient social structures or social or religious values, and
can then lead to a missionary quest to improve their lot. In such cases,
people can feel victims, rather than beneficiaries, of the so-called ‘liberation’
which the West brings them. This is an easy trap for well-intentioned
English-speaking Western educators to fall into. Waters’ reference to the
English as a lingua franca movement is relevant here—though the problem
might be less to do with taking insufficient heed of sociopolitical contexts
than with teachers around the world feeling peripheralized by what they see
as yet another Centre pronouncement. This is evidenced by Kuo’s angry
statement about the English as a lingua franca movement—‘listen to

364 Adrian Holliday


this—I prefer to speak for myself !’ (email interview, Holliday 2005: 9). It is
for this reason that English-speaking Western researchers like me must not
presume to speak for, or to represent colleagues or students who locate
themselves on the periphery, but simply to learn what they tell us about our
own discourse (ibid.: x). That the West’s impositions of what it calls
‘democracy’ is currently being rejected in several world locations shows that
this is not only an ELT phenomenon. English-speaking Western ELT is not
unlike other Western institutions that have good intentions but wield awful
power because of presumptions of cultural superiority.

The real hegemony of The irony here is therefore that it is chauvinistic native-speakerism itself,
political correctness not the opposition to it, which may be the product of the hegemonic political

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correctness which concerns Waters. In this case, English-speaking Western
ELT is a particular instance of sociological fact 3; and the ‘non-native
speaker’ mistakenly represents the culturally deficient Other which
therefore needs to be ‘liberated’ and ‘improved’. Following sociological fact
2, the discourse of ‘learner-centredness’ provides the blanket rules about
what people can and cannot say, which are characteristic of superficial
political correctness; and the ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’ labels
are the major means of dividing our colleagues into two groups. This
discourse is however so longstanding that it has become ‘normal’ within the
profession.
The force of Anderson’s (op. cit.) thesis is that ‘learner-centredness’ has
become a discoursal icon which becomes a rallying point for the British
teachers in his study to place themselves in ‘us’-‘them’ opposition to ‘non-
native speaker’ teachers who are perceived as immorally ‘teacher centred’.
False consciousness becomes apparent as other icons of practice such as
‘monitoring’ and ‘learner training’ are perceived by them to underpin their
‘liberating’ methodology, whereas in fact they represent the scrutiny and
correction of cultural behaviour. We know of the power of such
‘technologized’ discourses from critical discourse analysts such as
Fairclough—where labels take on an engagingly technical force which
underpins professional identities.

Final reflection Waters sees political correctness in E LT as a movement to redistribute power


from the imagined oppressor to the imagined oppressed—and in this sense
anti-control, anti-teacher, and in the case of native-speakerism, anti-‘native
speaker’. I do not see it this way. I have no problem with teachers consciously
and openly directing and controlling the process of learning for the good
pedagogic reasons that Waters cites. The issue is instead with teacher
control which pretends to be something that it is not, and with teaching
which inappropriately tries to correct culture. Deep in my own thinking on
these matter is Waters’ own distinction between learner and learning-
centredness (Hutchinson and Waters 1984), where the latter term seems to
me to be far less culturally intrusive.

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Holliday, A. R. 2005. The Struggle to Teach English as The author
an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Adrian Holliday is Professor of Applied Linguistics at
Press. Canterbury Christ Church University. He supervises
Holliday, A. R. 2007. Doing and Writing Qualitative doctoral research in the critical sociology of E LT
Research (Second Edition). London: Sage. and has published in the areas of intercultural
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Stein, E. Lee, and H. Shin. 2005. ‘Race and Email: adrian.holliday@canterbury.ac.uk
nonnativeness in English language teaching: a brief
report.’ NNest Newsletter 7/2.

366 Adrian Holliday