All posts by Alex Grey

Alexandra Grey was a legal researcher and advocacy trainer at a Chinese not-for-profit in Beijing from 2010-2013, continuing there after a stint with AusAID's Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development program. Back home (Australia), she has lectured in law and policy since 2010 and was a practising commercial solicitor before she moved into the NGO and academic arenas. Alexandra has studied Chinese (Mandarin) and Linguistics at postgraduate levels and is now a PhD Candidate at Macquarie University.

We do aid, not English!

Over a few years of involvement in the aid sector in Asia, I became aware that aid workers turn their noses up at ‘English work’. Managers from my Australian government volunteering program encouraged us not to be sucked in to being human dictionaries while on NGO postings. In China, where I was, the USA’s Peace Corps strategy of sending volunteers ‘only’ to teach English was the subject of bristling critique: ‘How linguistically imperialist!’, we thought.

However, our local colleagues at NGOs and so called ‘development-sector’ government agencies often made requests of us native English speakers: to speak English with them, proofread and draft reports, apply for grants, translate the organisation’s website, help with overseas university applications and tutor their friends’ children. This sparked complaints like ‘I feel like I’m here mostly to translate’ and ‘I’m doing proofreading and admin tasks which I don’t see as capacity building’.

It is frustrating to move overseas and find you are expected to provide little but ‘white face time’ or ‘foreigner cache’ in your job. (It’s worth noting native speakers are not all Caucasian, despite the assumption that this is the case in many countries where English is an ideal). But is English language aid underrated?

Discounting ‘English work’ doesn’t happen because aid workers are haughty. These people have professional training in fields like environmental science or public health and believe they were hired to contribute in those areas. Moreover, many native English speakers recognize that they have no professional language teaching experience. Most aid workers are conscientious global citizens, wary of being language imperialists. But these ‘good reasons’ are misconceived, I argue.

Wrong skills

Without teaching training, you are a less-than-ideal candidate to teach, no question. But in the regions I’m talking about, learners seldom get to select from a smorgasbord of English-speaking trained teachers and native English-speaking non-teachers. Even the Peace Corps receive some teacher training and teach in impoverished areas where TESOL staff-members are otherwise in short supply. Moreover, in all Second Language Acquisition (SLA), important learning is done beyond the classroom and after childhood: for instance, between aid workers and their adult colleagues. Psychologist Vygotsky showed peer group learning with ‘more knowledgeable others’ was a productive part of language acquisition, with no teacher needed. Modelling grammatical and pragmatically-appropriate language provides useful input for learners. In short, helping colleagues with their English tasks or even just conversing can be valuable for their language learning and is within any English speaker’s ability.


In many countries, people see access to a native English speaker as a boon. Why not give communities what they think would assist their upward mobility? The contribution to informal, out-of-classroom English learning these native speakers provide is something their colleagues and communities may find even more valuable than the specific aid project, especially as the expense, scarcity and systemic preference given to children’s classes make formal language learning inaccessible to many adolescents and adults who want it.

As Kamwangamalu notes of Africa – and I’ve found this in China, too – ‘stakeholders reject their own indigenous languages […] because they consider them insignificant and of no practical value in the linguistic marketplace’ (Kamwangamalu 2013). In this, local stakeholders are not wrong; English is indisputably of great value in many markets. Many (including me) would say this is evidence of linguistic hegemony and non-native English speakers are complicit in their own linguistic domination by prioritising English, embracing the coloniser’s model of the world. Even so, is it an incoming English speaker’s place to decide to attack hegemony by refusing to help people proofread?

Often, English is the language of power and funding, particularly for international aid, and non-elites may well perceive English as a resource monopolized by elites to preserve their status. For instance, Ghanaians ‘expressed the view that using the vernacular as an instructional medium was a subtle strategy employed by the elite to perpetuate communities’ marginalization from mainstream society’ (Mfum-Mensah 2005, p. 80).

Whether or not we oppose English’s dominance ideologically, it is beneficial to proofread co-workers’ donor reports, make templates for the office and attend events to speak for the organisation or those it assists, in English. The more co-workers are included in these activities, the better. That oft-encountered request to help a friend-of-a-friend with a personal English task should likewise be accepted, because language competencies can function as collective resources. Indeed, many linguists now advocate studying ‘actual linguistic, communicative, semiotic resources’ rather than ‘languages’ (Blommaert, 2010, p. 102). English resources can benefit networks rather than merely individuals. In expanding the networks around English resources, inequality and elitism is reduced.

Both national politics and international development are ‘Fields’ (Bourdieu, 1991). English is both economically and symbolically valuable in these Fields. Native English speakers – especially professionals doing aid volunteering – have an ability to use professional-register English at less expense (a Bourdieuian ‘Habitus’).  So it’s efficient for them to do tasks requiring professional English. Importantly, this is not short term efficiency at the expense of long term efficiency; helping out with English tasks now doesn’t preclude co-workers’ language acquisition in the longer term. Rather, it can play a part in their improvement so the ‘cost’ of professional English for colleagues will decrease over time. English-speaking aid workers, in doing ‘English work’, can improve their hosts’ access to material support and their ability to be heard in international forums.

The benefit of mobility of individuals, of organisations and across community networks is hard to weigh against the detriment of linguistic imperialism, but this weighing up should not be shirked, and nor should the ‘English work’ involved.

This article first appeared on Language on the Move.



Blommaert, J. (2010). The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and symbolic power. Cambridge, Polity.

Kamwangamalu, N. M. (2013). “Effects of policy on English-medium instruction in Africa.” World Englishes 32(3): 325-337.

Mfum-Mensah, O. (2005). “The impact of colonial and postcolonial Ghanian language policies on vernacular use in two northern Ghanaian communities.” Comparative Education 41(1): 71-85.

Literacy in Development: the flaws with using literacy rates to inform development policy (part 3)

Parts one and two recap: Literacy is not a universal skill gained through schooling with culture and home practices as irrelevant, especially in a minority language community. Nor is literacy an automatic catalyst for economic development. But a lot of development policy assumes so. This is a particularly complicated (but interesting) concern in China.

This week, the world’s first World Literacy Summit is being held at Oxford, and making a convincing economic argument for investment in literacy is high on the agenda. However, what may not be on is how we measure literacy and design appropriate interventions. Literacy rates are one such measurement, but do they tell us what we think they tell us?

Do literacy rates measure what we think they do?

Literacy measures often use school attendance as a proxy, i.e. they measure things like how many community members completed primary school. This is because reading and writing at a grade 6 level (for example) is seen as “being literate”. This misses what sociolinguists call “subaltern literacies”, which are those ways of engaging with text that happen outside the classroom. These often go very much under the radar because the people involved are the poorest of the poor and the most excluded. In particular, these “illiterates” are excluded from Culture with a capital “C”: they don’t glow with learning and literature and refinement. They speak dialects, they do manual work, they are adults without much education. So what these people do with text isn’t valuable to those deciding on the standards and collecting the data. In fact, schooling measurements don’t acknowledge that these Others engage with text at all.

Nevertheless, in many countries, many people like this are actually more literate than their “betters” assume. They are the “literate poor”, but if they are not visible in measurements, development policies are unlikely to be directed to them.

Schooling-centred monitoring also fails to explain the shared practices between literate and illiterate community members which determine when literacy skills will be made available to others. Such monitoring is therefore deficient as a basis for designing programs to harness literacy’s instrumentality, because the data doesn’t clearly reveal all those for whom literacy is an instrument. And such monitoring fails to tap into home and community practices and attitudes which might stymie children’s acquisition of schooled literacy: does everyone completing primary school have the same literacy? And why are some communities’ children less likely than others to even get to that point?

How can you maximise the use of literacy for development if you don’t actually understand how it is used by people together?

There is discussion amongst scholars – some of whom are also practitioners – about how improving the understanding and measuring of literacy could improve economists’ policies for development. It’s an interesting strand within broader debates about the quantification of development. (I know many whydev readers have an interest in those debates; please share your thoughts below.)

Here’s the difficulty: how can we get the quantitative data development agencies want if we accept that we have to start looking outside the neat boundaries of formal schooling to harness important literacy practices? Bryan Maddox, of the University of East Anglia, suggests moving to a statistical methodology using a transparent, multiple thresholds in a “set of valued literacy functionings”, which would  index the varied literacies in a person’s life to his or her development.  This thresholds approach sits more comfortably with Sen’s influential Capabilities Approach to development, which

“argues that illiteracy is a ‘focal feature’ of capability deprivation and human insecurity. Illiteracy is viewed as a pervasive feature of capability deprivation and inequality, and literacy (particularly women’s literacy) as a source of agency, autonomy and socio-economic mobility” (Bryan Maddox and Lucio Esposito)

That is, it provides a more nuanced measure of the range of deprivation but also agency one person can have in different parts of their life.

However, for the moment, the bulk of monitoring still treads lead-footed through governments’ literacy/illiteracy rates, themselves built upon the outdated ideas of autonomous skills and school attendance. One example of this is UNESCO’s monitoring of whether we reach the Millennium Development Goal of halving adult illiteracy by 2015. This happens because evaluating situated literacy is more complicated, but this approach loses a lot by prioritising simplicity.

Literacy t-shirt
And does anyone care if your parent can?

Anna Robinson-Pant, also of the University of East Anglia, suggests this approach to monitoring leads to perceptions that literacy and schooling are the same, and therefore that adult literacy should be about acquiring the formal literacy missed through lack of childhood school opportunities, without giving weight to many other important literacy practices in adults’ lives. She suggests this results in smaller development grants for adult literacy programs. To me, that brings home a problematic, real-world outcome of the datedness of the literacy thinking which informs development policy.

More nuanced views on literacy, and more nuanced data, require effort.  Monitoring methodology can be seen as the dull, back-office side of development work. But the room for methodological improvement is real, just as real as the changes such improvements could precipitate in the world beyond the stats.