Vol. 35 No. 1, 2011
Published: August, 2011
ISSN: 2395-9908

The English Language in Development*
Hywel Coleman
 British Council
* A paper commissioned by the British Council, 2010 This article was originally published on the British Council website www.teachingenglish.org.uk, copyright by the British Council.
Abstract: This paper attempts to identify the roles which the English language has been given (successfully or otherwise) in development. It begins with a brief discussion of how understanding of the concept of ‘development’ has changed over the last six decades and concurs with Amartya Sen’s view that ‘Development can be seen … as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy.’ The paper then examines four different roles that have been given to English: for employability, in international mobility, as a key for unlocking development opportunities and as a neutral language. The paper concludes that whilst there is evidence that English is important in these four roles, some caution is needed as well: English can be dangerously overused, it is not the only international language and there is a tendency to exaggerate its role. More research is needed before we can understand both the real value of English in development and the risks of using it inappropriately.
Keywords: Development, roles-of-English, international-langauge

Resumen: Este documento intenta identificar el rol desempeñado por la Lengua Inglesa (exitosamente o de cualquier otra forma). Inicia con una concisa discusión sobre la manera en que el entendimiento del concepto “desarrollo” ha evolucionado y cambiado en las últimas 6 décadas. De acuerdo al punto de vista de Amartya Sen, ”Desarrollo puede ser entendido… como el proceso de expandir de la libertad real que la gente disfruta”. El escrito examina cuatro diferentes roles que se le han dado al idioma inglés: para aumentar oportunidades de contratación, para la movilidad internacional, como clave de oportunidades de desarrollo y como un lenguaje neutral. El análisis concluye que mientras hay evidencia de la importancia del inglés en estos cuatro roles, se debe tener cierto cuidado: el inglés puede ser utilizado en exceso, que no es el único lenguaje internacional y existe la tendencia a exagerar su rol. Es necesaria más investigación antes de entender el valor real del idioma inglés en el desarrollo y los riesgos de un uso inapropiado del mismo.

1 What do we understand by ‘development’?

The British Council believes that:

English is critical for countries’ successful participation in the global economy, that it provides individuals with access to crucial knowledge, skills and employment opportunities and enables organisations to create and sustain international links.

It is well recognised that there is a positive relationship between education and development: for example, if women are literate, they tend to have fewer children, are healthier and are better able to look after and educate the children they do have.1 But where exactly should we look for evidence of a relationship between English and development?

First, we need to agree on what we mean by ‘development’ itself. Over the last sixty years paradigms of development have undergone rapid change, from simplistic Cold War era expectations that the ‘Third World’ could and should be persuaded to follow a ‘First World’ economic model in preference to communism, through a growing awareness of the interdependence of ‘North’ and ‘South’, to the present concern with the relationship between good governance and poverty reduction.2

Current thinking is that development must accommodate both economic and social elements:

… economic growth is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for development. Without redistribution of income and wealth, inequalities are not going to be reduced, and there is much evidence that it is inequalities that hurt. Thus, development must be regarded as synonymous with enhancing human rights and welfare, so that self-esteem, self-respect and improving entitlements become central concerns.3

The Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen shares this perspective, arguing that development must focus on the ‘entitlements’ which society grants to its members and the ‘capabilities’ which derive from these entitlements. Income per se is not necessarily an accurate guide to an individual’s (or a group’s) entitlements:

Development can be seen … as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. Focusing on human freedoms contrasts with narrower views of development. … Growth of GNP or of individual incomes can, of course, be very important as means to expanding the freedoms enjoyed by the members of the society. But freedoms depend also on other determinants, such as social and economic arrangements (for example, facilities for education and health care) as well as political and civil rights (for example, the liberty to participate in public discussion and scrutiny). 4

In a word, freedom is essential for development.

To return now to the question of where we can look for evidence of the relationship between English and development, one place to start is in the proceedings of the Language and Development Conferences (www.langdevconferences.org). Since 1993 these meetings have taken place approximately once every two years in different places in Asia and Africa and have provided opportunities for specialists in development, education and language to exchange experiences and ideas with each other. Just a few of the conference findings can be seen in Box 1.

From these three examples we can already see English being given three different functions: as a medium for accessing information, as a means of international communication between researchers and as a neutral language in a particular multilingual context. These and some of the many other roles that English is asked to play are examined in greater detail in the discussion that follows.

2 English for employability

Early attempts to explore the relationship between English and employability struggled to address questions such as:

-What are the economic benefits of English language teaching, in so far as we can separate them from the benefits of education in general?
- What is the economic cost to a country of deciding to adopt English as a medium of instruction when English is not the mother tongue?
- Is there an economic cost in deciding not to use English as the medium of instruction in favour of retaining the indigenous language?8

Some researchers recommended the use of cost-benefit analysis to answer these questions.9 But others believed that the questions were ‘virtually unanswerable’ because of differing interpretations of development and because of the number of intervening variables.10

Three efforts to look at the English-employability and the English-development relationships, all dating from the early 1990s, are summarised in Box 2.

More recently, however, researchers have begun to explore alternative ways of looking at English-employment/English-development relationships. These are summarised in Box 3. Their findings are generally less inconclusive than were those of researchers working in the early 1990s.

Early economically driven attempts to identify the impact of English on development – and, specifically, on employability – were largely unsuccessful. In recent years, however, research has managed to show that in specific circumstances English does indeed have an impact on individuals, in particular industrial sectors and at the national level. It should be noted, though, that some of the studies reported here have been carried out only in advanced economies; further investigation is needed to establish whether similar patterns can be seen in poorer economies as well.19

One major implication of these studies is that a broad-brush approach to the English-development relationship is probably not very useful. Instead, a more fine grained approach is required, looking at particular types of economy and particular sectors of activity. For example, it has been suggested that service economies are most likely to have a widespread need for English language skills, whilst in manufacturing economies it may be that only a relatively small number of personnel concerned with international trade will require English. Meanwhile, in rural economies the need to possess English language skills may be limited to a very small proportion of the population.20

3 English, international mobility and development

Any discussion of development or of English in the world must consider the phenomenon of globalisation and, in particular, that of international mobility. We will look at three aspects of international mobility here: international tourism, international student mobility and international migrant working.

International tourism

International tourism is already a huge international commercial undertaking. In 2008 there were 922 million international tourist arrivals. In the same year US$944 billion (30% of the world’s export of services) was generated through international tourism. Despite occasional fluctuations in line with world economic trends, tourism is expected to continue to grow rapidly and by 2020 it is predicted that there will be 1.6 billion international tourist arrivals.21

The importance of English in international tourism is well recognised. There is a dynamic commercially driven response to the need in the form of English language training provided as part of tourism training programmes and in the publication of English language course books designed particularly for those engaged in the tourism industry.

Tourism is particularly important to developing countries. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation recognises this importance through its ST-EP (Sustainable Tourism – Eliminating Poverty) Programme which provides assistance for the development of tourism in poor, rural and marginalised communities. Examples of current projects include English language training for the staff of tourist lodges in Mozambique and for the staff of a complex of 200 caves in Laos.22

International student mobility

The movement of students from their country of origin to universities elsewhere is also a well recognised phenomenon. In 2008 there were almost three million international students worldwide, an increase from two million in just seven years.23

Approximately 45% of the world total of international students are studying in just four countries: USA, UK, Australia and Canada. These four destinations are said to be attractive not only because of the perceived quality of their higher education institutions but also because they use English. Many international students believe that by studying in one or other of these nations they will be able to achieve not only the qualification for which they have enrolled but also an improved degree of competence in English.

A further 27% of international students are studying in France, Germany, China and Japan. It is likely that many – if not the majority – of these students are also studying through the medium of English.

The importance of English in international student mobility has been well recognised for many years, as manifested in the international English language competency tests - IELTS and TOEFL - which most receiving institutions and many visa issuing authorities require students to pass.24 But further investigation is still required to measure the impact on developing countries – both economically and in human development terms – of their young people and early career professionals studying abroad. Are the capital outflows which are incurred recouped when graduates return to their country of origin? What percentage of students from developing countries never return to their country of origin?

International migrant working

The third aspect of international mobility – that of international migrant working – is much less well recognised compared to international tourism and international student mobility. There were 900 million people working away from their place of origin in 2009. (As we have seen above, the total number of international tourist visits per year at 922 million is almost exactly the same as this figures, whilst the number of international students - approximately 2.6 million - is less than 0.3% of the people worldwide who work away from home.)

But in fact the majority of migrants are internal migrants who are moving within their own countries, in search of work, to avoid conflict or to escape from natural disasters. Only about 70 million people (7.8% of all migrants) originate from developing countries and work in developed countries. According to the United Nations Development Programme:

… development and migration go hand in hand: the median emigration rate in a country with low human development is below 4 per cent, compared to more than 8 per cent from countries with high levels of human development.25

In other words, mobility is a freedom (an ‘entitlement’, in Sen’s argument) which is enjoyed to a much greater degree by the populations of highly developed countries. The populations of less developed nations experience much higher barriers to international movement.

The value to the economies of their home countries of the remittances sent home by the 70 million migrant workers from developing countries is extremely significant. The total was estimated to be in the order of $192 billion in 2007, equivalent to four times the total amount of official aid received by developing countries.26

But what are the implications for English in all of this? A study using extensive census data for male migrants in Australia (and supplementary data from the USA, Canada and Israel) examined the relations between migrants’ language skills and their earnings. It was found that:

- The more a migrant has used the ‘destination language’ (English in Australia and USA, English or French in Canada, Hebrew in Israel) in their home country before departure the greater their fluency tends to be in their destination country.
- The higher the level of schooling reached by a migrant in their home country the greater their fluency in the destination language tends to be in their destination country.
- The younger a migrant is when they leave their home country the greater their fluency in the destination language tends to be in their destination country.
- Fluency in the destination language is associated with higher earnings (9% higher in Australia, 11% in Israel, 12% in Canada, 17% in USA).27

On the basis of these findings it is possible to estimate the rate of return to an investment in developing the language skills of potential or recently arrived migrants: 9%-18% for Australia, 11%-22% for Israel, 12%-24% for Canada and 17%-34% for USA. The younger the migrant at the time of arrival the higher the rate of return will be.

Now let us bring together the findings regarding migrants’ remittances with the conclusions from the study of migrants’ target language competence and level of earnings. We can see that by providing target language improvement opportunities to migrants before they leave home or soon after arriving in their country of destinations it is likely that they will be able to make a greater contribution to the target country economy, their earnings will be higher, the remittances they send home will be greater and the economy of the developing country from which they originate will benefit to a larger extent.28

In all three aspects of international mobility (tourism, students studying abroad and people moving abroad to find employment) English has been shown to play a crucial role. There is general consensus regarding the role of English in the first two of these areas, but the role of English in international migrant working has received relatively very little attention.

4 English as a key for unlocking development opportunities and accessing crucial information

The role that English plays in facilitating access to information and to development opportunities is well recognised but is worth restating here. It can be illustrated with the three items of evidence in Box 4, all of which come from Indonesia.

A very different – but crucially important – aspect of accessing information concerns the interpretation of scientific findings and communicating them in a meaningful way to communities who are likely to be affected by these findings. The UK Enhancing Learning & Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA) Project is currently sponsoring research to investigate how a local non-government organisation in Sumatra, Indonesia, interprets scientific research concerning the likelihood of major seismic events in the area and passes this information on to local communities in such a way that they can make informed decisions about appropriate action:

A greater understanding of how agencies access, absorb and respond to scientific research pertaining to geophysical hazards could potentially lead to the implementation of mechanisms which have long term benefits towards the development of more robust mitigation and preparedness procedures.31

The scientific research referred to here is published in English whilst communication with local communities takes place in local languages.

5 English as an impartial language

In certain institutional and national contexts where inter-group rivalry is severe, to the extent that development is hindered, English has been given the task of acting as a ‘link’ or neutral language. In this way, it is hoped, inter-ethnic tensions and frustrations can be eased and the energies of the institution or country can be focussed on development.

We have already noted the decision by a non-governmental organisation working on the borders of Burma to deliver community development training through English. Three more examples follow, in Box 5, in which English has been proposed as an impartial language, starting with Afghanistan and then moving to Sri Lanka and Algeria.

The case studies in Box 5 demonstrate that, in a small number of institutional and national contexts, English has had ambitious new developmental roles thrust upon it. In each case it is intended that, through the adoption of English for certain functions, communication between rival groups should become easier, thus helping to create a context which is more conducive to national development. In Afghanistan, Burma and Sri Lanka, it remains to be seen how successful these efforts will be, whilst in Algeria a very modest degree of success has been reported. 41

6 Some conclusions

English plays many roles in development

We have seen that English plays many roles in development, by, for example,

- increasing individuals’ employability
- enabling international collaboration and cooperation
- providing access to research and information
- facilitating the international mobility of students, tourists, workers and others
- facilitating disaster relief and disaster preparedness
- acting as an impartial language in contexts of disharmony.

English is very powerful, but …

English, then, has many significant and influential roles to play. But we must avoid hubris, for a number of reasons.

- First, important as it is, English does not provide all the answers. In particular, special care must be paid when policies regarding the medium of instruction in primary education are being determined. Despite what appears to be widespread parental demand for the use of English in primary schools, there are very strong arguments for making sure that children achieve literacy in their mother tongue first. Furthermore, if English is to be used as a medium of instruction at a later stage in a child’s education, then the child must be helped to move gradually towards that stage rather than being faced with a sudden shift from one language to another (for example at the transition point between upper primary and lower secondary).42 Mother tongue literacy development may also have considerable empowering benefits for adults and may have an immediate impact on individuals’ ability to participate in the informal economy.43
- Secondly, we must not forget that English is not the only international language. There are several others which are also used for international communication (Arabic, Chinese/Mandarin, French, Fula (Fulani), Hausa, Malay, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swahili, for example), although English probably has a wider reach than any of these.
- Thirdly, there is some evidence that when English is selected as the medium for international communication (for example, within a multinational company) significant communication problems may be experienced.44
- Fourthly, English is sometimes said to be the language of the internet. This may indeed have been the case in the early years of the internet, but it is now clear that other languages are increasingly widely used. A survey of more than 3200 internet home pages in 1997 found that 82% were in English, 4% in German, 2% in Japanese and another 2% in French. Chinese did not appear in the list of home page languages found. However, another study the following year showed that fewer than half of new websites were using English45 whilst a further survey found that by 2000 English was used in fewer than 10% of websites in Latin America.46 It has been predicted that, in the not too distant future, Chinese will be the most common website language.47
- Fifthly, whilst there is a huge amount of goodwill towards English in many parts of the world, there is a risk that this goodwill may be squandered through the association with the ‘war on terror’ which the language is beginning to develop in the minds of some observers.48

We don’t yet know enough

- Despite the considerable sums of money spent on development projects (including English language projects) there are very few studies of their long term impact.49 In other words, we still have relatively little information about the influence which English language teaching has on individual and national development. Even when the impact of development activities is investigated the role of language is often ignored or taken for granted.
- There is therefore an urgent need for more research. What is the reality behind the rhetoric of ‘English for development’? What are the long-term benefits of learning and possessing English, for a nation, for communities and groups within the nation and for individuals within those communities? What are the side effects and what are the risks? This research should be carried out collaboratively by a team of specialists in language, education, development and economics (or at the very least a language education specialist working with a development economist).


Acquiring real competence in English is a privilege which in many contexts seems to bring with it many of the ‘entitlements’ and ‘freedoms’ which are attributes of development. However, ‘access to English is far from equally distributed’50 and even well-intentioned efforts to promote English for development purposes may end up being restricted to a privileged elite. Returning to Sen’s formulation of development which we considered at the beginning of this paper, any ‘entitlement’ to English as a passport to development must be strictly available to all who desire it, otherwise it becomes a means of barring access to the less privileged.51

English undoubtedly plays a major role in various aspects of development. Nevertheless, it is important that we should not exaggerate the importance of English nor should we undervalue the importance of other languages. We must temper our enthusiasm for English with a sense of responsibility towards those who do not have easy access to it.


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1 Sen 1999:198-199.
2 See Dodds 2008. These paradigm shifts, it must be said, have tended to reflect changes in the priorities of the First World (the North, the developed world) rather than in those of poorer countries.
3 Desai & Potter 2008:1-2.
4 Sen 1999:3.
5 Kenny & Savage 1997:7.
6 Golinowski & Raab 2000:82.
7 Sproat 2002.
8 Iredale 1992:9.
9 For example, Iredale 1997 and MacBean 1997.
10 Abbott (1997:100).
11 Chambers & Erith 1990.
12 The extracts are from Nuttall (1997:117 and 1992:14 respectively). These are summaries of a report on a study of the relationship between ELT aid and educational, social and economic development. The study was commissioned by the British Council and executed by the London School of Economics, but the report itself was never published.
13 Smith (2000:28). Smith’s chapter is a synthesis and discussion of an unpublished report (Williams & Cooke n.d.) on a study commissioned by CfBT and carried out at the University of Reading.
14 Grin 2001:73. Incidentally, Grin predicts that in the long term the labour market value of English, relative to other skills, will erode as possession of English language skills becomes more widespread.
15 Ford & Strange 1999. However it should be noted that this study looks only at the selection of possible host countries within Europe. Similar research needs to be carried out in other parts of the world.
16 Doh 2005.
17 Roggeveen et al. 2007.
18 Suárez 2005:459.
19 It should also be noted that there may be undesirable educational and social consequences associated with the recommendations made by the authors of some of these studies. For example, an implication of the national level study described in Box 3 appears to be that an English medium education policy should be adopted in Puerto Rico, to replace the present mother tongue Spanish medium policy. This is not a recommendation which can be upheld in pedagogical terms (see footnote 43 below). Issues of nation building and national pride are also likely to count against the adoption of an English medium policy.
20 I am grateful to Prof. Thandika Mkandawire for this observation (personal communication, 26 January 2010).
21 See the website of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) for up to date statistics on international tourism (http://www.unwto.org/index.php).
22 United Nations World Tourism Organisation 2010.
23 Institute of International Education 2010.
24 For IELTS, the International English Language Testing System, see 25 United Nations Development Programme 2009:2.
26 United Nations Development Programme 2009:162. According to the World Bank (2006, quoted by Willis 2008), the figure was US$167 billion in 2005. The significance of overseas remittances can hardly be overstated. For example, the remittances received by Sénégal are worth twelve times the foreign direct investment which the country earns. The remittances flowing in to Moldova constitute 45% of the country’s GDP and 38% of that of Tajikistan. There are twenty developing countries which earn more through remittances than they do from their main commodity export (UNDP 2009).
27 Chiswick & Miller 1995.
28 These conclusions may have far reaching implications. For example, developing country X may calculate that in the long term it is more cost effective to subsidise pre-departure English language tuition for two million migrant workers rather than for 50,000 civil servants and university lecturers who are going to do postgraduate studies abroad. The former generate a capital inflow of US$6 billion a year in remittances whilst the latter create a capital outflow of approximately US$1 billion in course fees and living expenses. (These figures are adapted from a real case.)
29 Marpaung & Kirk (1997:241), quoting Sinclair & Webb 1985.
30 Coleman 2008.
31 ELRHA 2009.
32 UNESCO Institute for Statistics 2007.
33 Lewis 2009.
34 Malcolm Griffiths, personal communication, 02-12-2009.
35 13th Amendment to the Constitution of 1978, Chapter IV, Paragraph 18 (Sri Lanka 1987).
36 Coleman 2002, Hayes 2002.
37 Lunt & Hamlyn 2007.
38 Kennett 2010, Kennett & Westaway 2009. In an echo of the Swedish-funded infrastructure project mentioned in Box 1 above, Walter Keller, Senior Adviser to the Sri Lanka Performance Improvement Project, is quoted as saying, ‘It may seem unusual that the Germans are funding English, but the German-English cooperation mirrors the Sinhala-Tamil cooperation we want to promote through our … programme’ (Kennett 2010).
39 Lewis 2009.
40 Benrabah 2007.
41 A survey of the perceptions of over 1000 secondary school students in Algeria in 2007 showed that 59% of respondents considered that a combination of Arabic, English and French offered ‘the best choice of languages to allow me to live and prosper in Algeria and elsewhere’ (Benrabah 2007:243). This is interpreted by Benrabah as evidence that the generation educated since 1993 now has a somewhat broader international perspective than do their elders.
42 See for example Benson 2005, Clegg 2005, 2007, 2010, Idris et al. 2007, Kosonen & Young 2009, Pinnock 2009.
43 Bruthiaux argues that ‘discussion of the role of English in development fails to recognise the success of … community-based projects in which basic L1 literacy rather than English education is the goal’ (2002:275). A similar suggestion was made a decade earlier – though more tentatively – by Abbott 1992.
44 Marschan et al. 1997, Marschan-Piekkari et al. 1999.
45 Crystal (2006:229-237) quotes a study by Babel carried out in 1997 (
http://alis.isoc.org/palmares.en.html) showing that 82% of websites were in English. But by 1998, Crystal says, of all newly created websites, the majority were in other languages.
46 Graddol 1998.
47 Crystal 2006. Moreover, whilst the future of many minority languages is undoubtedly under threat (see UNESCO 2009 for details of the 2,500 languages - about 36% of the world’s total of 6,900 living languages - which are in danger of disappearing by the end of the 21st Century), there are at the same time some glimmers of hope that the internet may offer new opportunities for small languages. The internet, like local radio, is a largely unsupervised and unregulated space in which people can make language choices which are spontaneous and empowering. Local languages which lack official recognition can be freely used in the internet and so achieve a validation which they have never possessed previously.
48 Karmani 2005. According to Gordon (1985:141-2), in Lebanon English is so closely associated with Sunni Muslims and Greek Orthodox Lebanese that it has ‘served to reinforce cultural diversity … between those who spoke only Arabic and those who were bilingual or trilingual’. Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia government plans to introduce the teaching of English in primary schools in 2002 gave rise to considerable parental hostility, characterised by a belief that this would lead to a gradual decline in the use of Arabic and would expose children to undesirable moral influences (Coleman 2002:13).
49 Coleman 2002.
50 Lamb & Coleman 2008.
51 Coleman 2009a, 2009b.