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Review of  Unequal Englishes

Reviewer: Paula Prescod
Book Title: Unequal Englishes
Book Author: T. Ruanni F. Tupas
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 27.2435

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Unequal Englishes” edited by Ruanni Tupas, is a 267-page volume bringing together 13 chapters, 2 of which are co-authored. It is divided into 4 parts of 3 or 4 chapters each. There is a list of figures and tables, a forward by Arjuna Pararama, acknowledgments, notes on the contributors, and a 3-page index.

The introduction written by Ruanni Tupas and Rani Rubdy sets the tone for the volume. In their examination of the notion of inequality, the authors claim that the attitudes we entertain about the use of English are inherited from a long tradition of thinking that only ‘Inner Circle’ speakers can claim English as their own, and that other users of English are illegitimate, having corrupted the language. According to the authors, attempts to counter these deep-seated beliefs have resulted in reinforcing the supremacy of native-speaker Englishes, and in the marginalizing of varieties that dare usurp the label “English” to refer to a language which arose out of the contact between peoples and cultures through colonialism and globalisation.

Tupas and Rubdy revisit the question of whether ‘Inner Circle’ users or ‘native speakers’ own English. While we have come to accept the plurality of English, it is our trust in notions like functional linguistic equality (Hymes 1985:v) and language diversity that has shaped the hegemony of English (p. 2). Thus hegemony, entwined with political factors, has rendered the legitimacies of Englishes uneven. The authors acknowledge the role played by scholars like Kachru, McArthur, and Bhatt, who have underscored the necessity to reckon with local Englishes. Nonetheless, neither the notion of World Englishes nor the concentric model approach captures the social and linguistic pluricentricity of English. Instead, such ideologies as ‘native speaker’, ‘standard English’ and ‘nation state’ have gone unchallenged. Consequently, it is difficult to supplant these concepts despite the attempts made by scholars like Kachru to foster the use of more democratic notions.

The chapters in Part 1 take a theoretical approach to linguistic inequality. Chapter 1, written by Ryubo Kubota, proposes a critical examination of approaches that underscore the pluricentricity of English. The author draws on critiques of liberal and neoliberal multiculturalism and outlines the paradox of the heightened interest in research on the diversity of English inasmuch as it is linked to ideologies that claim to foster diversity but which reinforce the notion of World English. Although they recognise homogeneity, pluralist approaches are purely essentialist because they disregard power relations among racialised groups. Consequently, they are comparable with liberal and neoliberal approaches to multicultural education. Liberal multiculturalism in education recognises the need to respect diversity but the approach often results in an awareness for diversity which is not coupled with a critical appraisal of the hierarchical relations that accompany diversity. Besides, instead of promoting diversity and openness, neoliberal multiculturalism blurs relations of power among ethnicities. According to the authors, concepts like World Englishes, English as a Lingua Franca, and postcolonial performativity do not account for power imbalances but instead leave unchallenged the ideology of normativism.

Rani Rubdy’s contribution explores whether language equality is not utopian since language use is inextricably linked to human capital. Given the roles English has played in colonisation and globalisation, the author wonders whether English is not itself the root-cause of inequalities. (p. 43). Politico-historical, economic and ideological factors explain why we rely heavily on ‘Inner Circle’ ‘native speaker’ norms, why we fail to recognise language-internal variation, and why we continue to hierarchise Englishes based on speakers’ ethnicities. In addition, the rise of a variety to standard status is associated with the way the elite users of the variety endow it with power and prestige. The call is therefore made to rethink standard English by debunking established myths about it, to problematise monolingual, normative approaches, and to relocate centre-based perspectives on teaching English particularly in TESOL. The author invokes Kumaravadivelu’s (2003) differentiation between decolonisation and nativisation and the need to operate a shift from nativisation to decolonisation to expunge English imperialism (p 50). Professionals in TESOL would nonetheless need to strip the discipline of ‘native-speakerism’, to use their own experiences to assert their identity, status, and employability (p. 51). While the author does not deny the importance of standards, she calls for the use of more democratic and equitable terms to qualify language varieties.

Chapter 3 is written by Joseph Sung-Yul Park. The author hypothesises that subjectivity, involving personal and mundane feelings of affect, emotion and sentiment regarding English, occupies a substantial part in learning the language in South Korea. Besides influencing learning outcomes, it also reproduces and sustains inequalities of English. Building on Raymond Williams’ (1977) ‘structures of feelings’ – of how the English frenzy ‘yeongeo yeolpung’ concerns not only the importance of having a high proficiency in English as an index human capital (p. 62) but also the valorisation of white native-speaker Englishes, considered to be the only legitimate models Korean learners should emulate – the author stresses that the consequence of such mind sets is unequal Englishes, whereby the English spoken in South Korea becomes stigmatised, delegitimised as ‘Konglish’. The ensuing sentiment of linguistic insecurity manifests itself bodily via palpitations and perspiration, psychologically via a panoply of structures of feelings including anxiety and embarrassment, socially via resorting to metalinguistic talk about the experience of learning and practising English, and ultimately it has economic consequences since Koreans see themselves as being forced to invest huge sums of money to learn mainstream American English. According to the author, reflexive engagement with the dimensions of subjectivity Koreans manifest in relation to English should foster the development of a critical metalinguistic awareness of these feelings, in order to help transform inequalities of English.

In Chapter 4, Peter Ives examines whether inequalities lie between languages themselves or in the relations among language users. The author confutes the argument that the ground of linguistic power is occupied by language users, contending instead, contra scholars like Pennycook and Canagarajah, that languages, rather than their users, are unequal. The author’s approach diverges from those of Wee and Pupavac to the extent that they conclude that the pair equality / inequality applies not to languages but to their users, and that they insist that approaches like those of Phillipson and Skutnabb-Kangas, which advocate language rights, ultimately infringe on the speech rights of majorities. Yves considers this tangent as an obstruction to the civil and political rights deemed necessary for creativity and originality in language. The author looks to analyses of language politics and the works of scholars like Kymlicka, and particularly May, who purports that it is linguistic democracy rather than equality that initiates political change regarding minorities. He maintains that the charge of inequality cannot be levelled at language users but that it must be extended to language varieties.

Part 2 comprises three chapters which examine how inequalities in English proficiency and practice arise from deep-seated socio-cultural, socio-political and socio-economic factors. In Chapter 5, Eric S. Henry studies the effects of self-effacing comments and negative language evaluations on the proficiency of Chinese speakers of English. The author explains the development of metapragmatic discourse, and shows how such talk about talk is often enrobed in joking narratives. According to Henry, the increased importance of English for young Chinese is a breeding ground for the dissemination and maintenance of joking narratives which feed negative social evaluation. Consequently, they engender and strengthen relations of linguistic inequality. The author relates how one English instructor chooses to relate jokes about Xiaoming, a random Chinese speaker of English in the USA, who miscues English expressions and ends up in humiliating situations. Such narratives which portray Xiaoming’s use of English as pathological send a message to the students: the only way to spare themselves the embarrassing situations Xiaoming experiences is to target ‘Standard English’ and to avoid Chinglish, portrayed as a devalued, ridiculed, backward and stigmatised variety that does not have its place beyond China’s borders.

Glenn Toh’s contribution focusses on the discomfort felt by Japanese speakers of English for reasons stemming from Japan’s ‘Right leaning politics’ and its socioeconomic and cultural history. The author shows that ridding the nation of the ideological inequalities that are entwined with English is a difficult task. For one thing, the subjectivities and post-war racialist attitudes towards foreigners are still present. Moreover, native speakers of American English are also revered, and the mere thought of a Japanese variety of English is inconceivable. Nonetheless, motivated by Pennycook’s alternative epistemologies, the author suggests that a local form of English is the outcome of localised activities and local practices, and that it is refashioned in Japanese art. English in Japan animates, resonates, and enlivens local meanings and performative practices. Nonetheless, the Japanese remain undecided about the space English should occupy and caution about turning to English to the detriment of national unity and integrity. The nationalist ideologies that surfaced during the post-war period and the US-led occupation of Japan fostered the rejection of non Japaneseness, Paradoxically, they view English as a threat to Japaneseness. Yet, they tend to have a sacrosanct view of a dominant monolithic English which bars any inclination toward the plurality of English. In line with the paradox, Japanese youth are encouraged to aim for native level ability in English but are cautioned to contain their attachment to English for fear of losing their Japanese identity.

In her contribution, Aileen O. Salonga examines the performance of gayness as it relates to English performance in call centres in the Philippines. Although it would appear that homosexual men are preferred recruitees given their willingness to index traits associated with empathy, politeness, and cooperation, in actual fact, these qualities are not enough to get even homosexual males past the recruitment process. What is interesting in this industry is that the linguistic control exercised by managers at the interview stage serves to heighten the possibility for linguistic agency, according to the author. Even more interesting is that one finds men who are willing to engage in a speech style that is culturally indexed as feminine. The crux of the matter is that socioeconomic aspects must be factored into the analysis because the Filipinos who are able to imitate the desired accent and to perform femininity in performing their duties have graduated from the prestigious schools, have access to native speaker accents, via cable TV, and are able to procure for themselves printed learning resources. It is in this sense that English functions as a gatekeeper. Needless to say, the realities in the call centre industry are a reflection of wider societal inequalities where only those who are endowed with the linguistic capital afforded by economic conditions can have access to valuable assets.

Part 3 addresses the functions English plays in multilingual spaces which are being forced to transform under the pressure of globalisation. Christina Higgins’ contribution portrays Hawai’i as typically reflecting diglossia, à la Fergusson, where non-official and vernacular languages are often associated with informal, low prestige status and private spheres, alongside official languages that occupy public spheres. In Hawai’i, coexisting with English and Hawaiian is Hawaiian Pidgin, a language that is erroneously considered an inferior variety of English. The inequality it endured was sustained by a race-based stratification system, and institutions like English Standard Schools that enrolled only speakers of non-pidgin influenced English. Today, Hawaiian Pidgin is a marker of local identity and solidarity, and it occupies public spaces, being used in socio-political arenas, advertisements and signage on administrative sites. There has also been a shift from covert to overt prestige. Moreover, the language has moved from having the status of a mere lingua franca to one that has a more positive status, associated with local-style and pride. According to the author, Hawaiian Pidgin has been instrumentalised to construct authenticity ‘that is tied to politicized concerns about the local ecology’ (p. 149). As can be seen from the commodity-oriented documents in Higgins’ corpus, Hawaiian Pidgin is commodified in advertisements targeting local consumers. It therefore occupies an essential space in the local symbolic economy, authenticating local identity, with very little regard for, if not in complete defiance of, the pressures that tend to force globalisation and cosmopolitanism onto states.

Chapter 9, written by Lin Pan, also deals with linguistic signage. Using as her research context the globalisation and modernisation plans carried out in Beijing to prepare it for the 2008 Olympic Games, the author claims that different forms of English used in commercial signs in Dashilan are the result of an ‘unequal process of glocalization’ (p. 163). The inequality is palpable as much in forms of English as in the way these forms are displaced. According to Pan, Dashilan is a good example of the hybridisation that results from globalisation, since the use of English is best analysed as having been delocated and relocated in a new ecology, taking on new forms, functions and values and affecting the forms, functions and values of local languages. The use of English forms displayed in the signs advertised by the 4 shops investigated in Dashilan falls in line with the local development plans that seek to showcase a modernised district. For Pan, incorporating into signs features reminiscent of English serves to daze and elude foreign tourists who know English better than they do Chinese, given that the English used is generally not what they may be familiar with. In this sense, English has brought social inequality to the locality.

In Chapter 10, Catherine Chua Siew Kheng underscores Singapore’s sociolinguistic and ethnic diversity where English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil are the official languages. In recognition of the Singapore’s multicultural fabric, and to foster bilingualism, schools have instituted the English+1 policy, whereby they offer English as a first language, and a second language which is generally a ‘mother tongue’. The policy has however paved the way for a number of ideological frames that compartmentalise races and cultures. It also shows a stark preference for English since all save ‘mother tongue’ examinations are conducted in English. Besides, children are exposed solely to English at pre-school. Access to English is also unequal at home due to the presence of Singlish and heritage languages used by maids and grand-parents to socialise children. To iron out these imbalances, families invest in extra private tuition in English. Paradoxically, despite reflecting the state’s multiracial, multicultural and multilingual realities and thus Singaporean identity, Singlish is the subject of hostile attacks by the authorities who argue that it impedes the ability to learn standard English. The author observes that globalisation, changing trends in migration, and intermarriages would require Singaporean residents to learn not only English, but also Singlish. Yet, this parameter is neglected in the education policy.

The chapters in the final part explore the notion of inequalities of English as it pertains to TESOL and to teacher training, teaching resources and pedagogical practices in general. In Chapter 11, Vaidehi Ramanathan adopts a postcolonial perspective to explore the degree of English vernacularisation in postcolonial contexts despite efforts, on the part of the authorities, to separate English from local languages, and ultimately the effectiveness of vernacular pedagogical practices in learning and teaching English. The Raj’s divide and rule policy, devised by the colonial government to treat Indians differently – and to keep locals in subservient positions – is based on government classification of individuals along the dichotomies Christian / Heathen and English / Foreign, and subsequently depends on ethnicities, skin complexion, language and religion. The idea of linguistic apartheid is applicable here. In deciding that a small number of Indians would be given access to English to help the British in their governance, the colonial government endowed these Indians with ‘symbolic power’ and ‘cultural capital’ over those who were educated in the vernacular. The article addresses the implications for the teaching and practice of English in Gujarati-medium settings and for TESOL teaching worldwide. It is shown that teachers of English actively partake in the vernacularisation of English by drawing on vernacular resources to make western concepts and forms of language more accessible to learners of English, thus contesting the divide and rule policy, and breaking down the inequalities.

In Chapter 12, Phan Le Ha focusses on the consequences of internationalising English education at the tertiary level, and the implications for offering international interaction in English-medium programmes. She then measures these against the perceptions and expectations of students who travel abroad to attend English-medium universities. The study reveals that Asian students attending an Australian university in Malaysia expect to be ideally prepared for communicating with native speakers of English, whom they regard as the legitimate guardians of the linguistic norms and cultural values of ‘Inner Circle’ English-speaking countries. These perceptions of native speakers as arbiters bring to the fore the ideologies and myths about native speaker superiority and legitimacy, and confirm the unequal statuses of English speakers. The study shows that, because they pay huge sums of money for tuition, the students expect to interact mostly, if not exclusively, with English native speaker teachers and classmates, in addition to having tuition in English provided solely by native speakers. However, while they would embrace these opportunities, the students would rather choose which western values, practices and modes of critical thinking they should be exposed to, to ensure that they remain within their comfort zone. By holding on to these imaginary constructs, the students deny themselves what could turn out to be enriching intercultural experiences.

In the final chapter, Ian Martin and Brian Morgan present the evolution and structure of the programme dubbed the Diploma of Teaching English as an International Language at the Glendon College in Canada. During this undergraduate programme, which aims to train prospective English teachers, candidates are required to do a 3-week international practicum at the E. A. Varona Higher Pedagogical University in Cuba. On arrival in Havana, the Canada-based students are required to carry out observations in English-learning classrooms under the supervision of Cuban English teachers who serve as their mentors. According to the authors, the structure and content of the BA Honours programme allow the students to develop a critical perspective and to debunk such entrenched constructs as native speaker superiority and mother tongue prestige. This augurs well for repositioning Englishes and accents of Englishes not in terms of which is better and more prestigious but in terms of the ‘personal preferences’ of those who are brought to practise them.


The volume engages its readers to consider and weigh the challenges faced by a wide range of users of English in their everyday lives, in their workplaces, education or social lives. The countries serving as the background for study – where English is an official language – are all ‘de jure’ multilingual states (Hawai’i, India, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia). In the case of the other studies, English is not typically a medium of instruction (South Korea, Cuba, Japan, China). This quick overview reveals that the major focus is on Asian countries. The chapter focussing on Cuba stands out as a loner. One cannot help but wonder if this penchant for Asia was an editorial imperative. While the studies cover a diverse array of subtopics, the lack of contextual diversity is unfortunate. For instance, studies on English-speaking Africa and the Caribbean are conspicuously absent. Disappointing too is the failure to appreciate Schneider’s (2007) dynamic model in the theoretical approaches to unequal Englishes, inasmuch as Schneider’s volume deals extensively with the sociolinguistic outcomes emerging from the transplantation of languages during the colonial epochs, and involves some of the very same spaces investigated here.

The editors have succeeded in making the volume cohesive and well-balanced, having aptly divided the contributions into 4 subthemes that interconnect subtly with the title of the volume. Only on rare occasions does one lose track of the central theme to the point of questioning whether we are in fact dealing with the hierarchisation of Englishes or inequalities with respect to individuals’ access to English (Chapters 8 & 11). That being said, even those chapters give a good sense of how vernaculars play out alongside English.

Although notions like standard and native-speaker English continue to flourish, one cannot help but agree with the idea that these are myths (Lippi-Green 1997: 44), abstract, artificial, and “impersonal and anonymous like the official uses [they have] to serve” (Bourdieu 1991: 48). Overall, the chapters entreat the readership to adopt a more balanced appreciation of language varieties, be they English-influenced or in contact with English, and to work towards deconstructing these hard-and-fast ideologies. “Unequal Englishes” joins the already rich array of literature on the politics of Englishes in postcolonial settings to provide valuable research data for teachers of English in multicultural spaces, but also for TESOL professionals and students, and for those interested in postcolonial studies.


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991. Language and symbolic power, trs. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson. MA: Harvard University Press.

Lippi-Green, Rosina. 1997. English with an accent. Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. London & NY: Routledge.

Schneider, Edgar. 2007. Postcolonial English: Varieties around the world. Cambridge: CUP.
Paula Prescod, previously an ESL and EFL teacher in the Caribbean and in France, moved on to the positions of Part-time lecturer in English linguistics at the Universität Bielefeld and Associate Professor of French pedagogy and linguistics at the Université de Picardie Jules Verne. Her research interests are the linguistic description and sociolinguistic phenomena of Caribbean English-based creoles, and Applied linguistics. Her most recent publication is ''Language issues in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines'' (ed., VEAW, John Benjamins, 2015).

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