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.