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Teaching the Language of the Conqueror
T he new handheld electronic device known as a Phrasealator, first tried by U.S. troops in Afghanistan, is a graphic emblem of the practical difficulties of diffusing American hegemonic power across the globe. The 1,000 phrases on the Phrasealator menu— such as “come out with your hands up”—are translated instantaneously by this magic box into a spoken message, screeched out in Pashtu, Dari, Urdu, or, in this case, Iraqi Arabic. Its limited repertoire is designed for “crowd control, law and order and emergencies.” But of course there is no way the American “liberators” can understand what the “natives” say in reply: “The marines have brought the whole encyclopedia of military technology with them to Iraq.… The equipment necessary to talk to Iraqis, understand their problems and respond to their needs, however, seems to have been left on the quayside in California.” Indeed, the Phrasealator offers a kind of metaphor for Western one-way communication with Arab and West Asian societies and, more broadly, for Eurocentric social science and its Western-generated theories of democracy, economics, and 100 other domains.
An Influx of Expertise
T he Pentagon will need either entire battalions of interpreters or brigades of imported teachers of English as a foreign language (EFL) to administer the “reconstructed” Iraq now on the drawing boards. Most likely the second option will be promoted: the lucrative market for EFL being opened up by our generals will be a windfall for teachers from Sydney to Seattle. Experts from numerous other fields will also be recruited to reshape Iraqi education from kindergarten to university. Platoons of Western researchers, including graduate students, will likely descend on Iraq as transnational foundations seek to fund new projects. American universities will attempt to set agendas for collaboration and research in Iraqi academe.
The Marine with his or her one-way Phrasealator points up the extent to which American hegemony must rely on the learning of its language in order to maintain and cement its control. While EFL suffuses at a dizzying pace along the Gulf, generating a veritable boom in lucrative positions for EFL teachers and applied linguists (witness the meteoric growth of TESOL Arabia www.tesolarabia. org), Iraq has for two decades remained an impenetrable fortress. Now those walls are being breached, quite literally, and the scramble for jobs to teach EFL and other academic specialties in Iraq is in the offing. As a posting on an online job discussion board in January 2003 predicted: “The future of big bucks in EFL is in Iraq. The U.S. will set up a UN-approved puppet government and oil will flow again. Multinational corporations will move in with the blessings of the UN. Then you’ll see a need for English teachers the likes of which no one has ever seen.”
Complexity of Complicity
T alk inside the British Council and elsewhere about the role of English language teaching in the reconstruction of Iraq raises a central question about the politics of EFL in a conquered land, indeed the ethics of any kind of involvement as an academic or researcher from abroad in the architecture of occupation and development. It’s a casebook illustration of the “complexity of complicity.” Opposition to this war, and the ideology of the New World Order of unilateral U.S. military supremacy behind it, entails opposition to all postwar arrangements under the gun: “because the war itself is illegal, any post-war U.S. occupation will be illegal too. That means the United States should not be allowed to claim any power to rule or determine economic, political or social arrangements in post-war Iraq.” A colleague’s recent response underscores the quandary professionals face: “As language teachers we see ourselves as playing a key role in development in all its senses. That is where our skills are and therefore where we feel we can genuinely do something constructive. If you take that away from us, what is the best way forward to act positively for those negatively affected by the war?”
Positive Ways Forward?
E FL administrators and teacher trainers in the British Council and United States Information Agency are likely poised to hitch a ride into Basra and Baghdad on the back of the tanks, laying the groundwork for the Operation Iraqi English Literacy to follow. The English Language Fellow Program funded by the Department of State will probably soon announce openings in Iraqi academe. The commercial EFL industry is now gearing to set up a whole chain of private schools and language centers in the ruins to aid the Anglo-American construction firms already charting their bonanza. Peace Corps planners are doubtless hoping to finally realize an old dream: to penetrate the high schools and villages in a major country in the Arab East, gaining a foothold in a region where the Corps is still largely unrepresented. American universities will also be reconnoitering the Iraqi terrain for appropriate sites to set up branch campuses to promote democracy, teach business management, and of course EFL, molding the new pro-American Iraqi elite.
Y et North American educators and researchers who are outraged by this war and the values it represents will have to think hard about how they, their professional organizations and universities, should cooperate in the “transfer” of knowledge and skills under the coming occupation. As our “gunfighter nation” regenerates itself through unilateral conquest and overkill, the EFL profession in particular needs to (re)interrogate its vested interest and central role in the maintenance and reproduction of the language of empire and its Pax Americana.
In any new beginning in education, the bottom line should be self-reliance and sustainability: Iraqi educators will have to lead the way, with their priorities, at their pace, wary of imposed imports and research projects from the Anglo-American west, the dangers of “educational imperialism.” In this process, Iraqi language educators will need time to come to critical grips with the downside, indeed quandary, of the cultural politics of English as an international language: the problematic linkages between the diffusion of English and social inequality, English as a gatekeeper to privilege and power, and the certain future gap between the “globally educated” and the masses in their own society, set to be widened and deepened by expanding the teaching.
It will take time for wounds and memory to heal. But conquered Iraq will be a protectorate for the foreseeable future—initially, from what the Pentagon intimates, along the lines of Japan 1945. Under conditions of neocolonial reconstruction and semi-military administration, the first imperative is an academic boycott or moratorium on expatriate teacher recruitment across the disciplines and on participation in externally generated and uninvited “research.” Inside the anti-(post)war movement, we need to raise and elaborate that call.
Bill Templar is at the Lao-American College, Vientiane/Lao PDR and Dubnow Institute for Jewish History, University of Leipzig.
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