Political economy of language learning: Beyond neoliberal commodification

Organizer: Joseph Sung-Yul Park, National University of Singapore
Disscussant: Ryuko Kubota, University of British Columbia


A large body of applied linguistic research on the political economy has been driven by the neoliberal transformation of society that we are witnessing in the context of globalization. For this reason, much research has focused on recent transformations through which language is ideologically conceptualized as a commodity with value in the workplace, education, and specific domains such as tourism. Other research, however, has suggested that this emphasis on the “newness” of commodification of language has led the field to overlook the continuity in enduring conditions of capitalism (Holborow 2015; Simpson & O’Reagan, 2018). This panel thus brings together scholars whose work situates the political economy of language and language learning within deeper historical and social context. In particular, it jointly considers how various historical conditions that have greater time-depth than contemporary neoliberalism—such as colonialism, nationalism, and ongoing struggle against capitalism and state violence—must inform our analysis of the way neoliberalism appropriates language in its intensified pursuit of profit across all domains of human life. For instance, how do colonial relations of racial inequality contribute to economic valorization of certain varieties of language or ways of speaking? How do specific social, cultural, and political conditions of national economies shape the trajectories by which language comes to be imbued with economic value? How do neoliberal discourses extend and build upon the longer history of class struggle and state violence? By addressing these questions and more, contributions to this panel collectively seek ways to extend applied linguistics’ critique of neoliberalism, situating it within richer historical, political, and material context, and thereby reflecting on limitations of previous research and considering possibilities for moving forward. 


Decentering language in the political economy of language

Ruanni Tupas, University College London

This paper explores the possibilities of reconfiguring the political economy of language through a broader contextualization of the interplay of history, politics and material conditions within specific social organizations. This means suspending talk on language and instead mapping the intricate historical, political and material relations and conditions within which language, its speakers and other social variables and phenomena operate. This critical historiographical, rather than political economic, lens allows for an understanding of language as deeply entangled with other semiotic and material resources which are mobilized within particular polities or social organizations. This paper applies the decentering of language approach to an examination of the colonial and sociopolitical conditions of Philippine society at the turn of the 20th century when, after having brought down 333 years of Spanish colonization through protracted resistance movements culminating in the establishment of the Philippine Revolutionary Government in 1898, Filipinos saw themselves overpowered by the imperial technologies of the United States. After winning the Philippine-American War, the new colonial government formed commissions tasked to plot its colonial design for the Philippines, producing and then legitimizing particular discourses and practices concerning race, identity, language and the nation. This paper then tracks the production, circulation and development of these discourses and practices, and how they have evolved through political and material transformations in society. It is in such evolution where we see language, literacy and education deeply imbricated in historical and political economic conditions, including the gradual penetration of hegemonizing neoliberal ideologies and practices through the intensification of capitalist globalization. In this sense, the paper is ultimately concerned with unframing language from the privileged “intellectual rubric” (MacLeavy 2014:137) of neoliberalism in political economy, not to discredit its constitutive role in paradigmatic changes in capitalism but, in fact, to highlight its insidious rootedness in the complex politics, coloniality and materiality of everyday life.

Locating English and its economic value within sociopolitical conditions, ideology, aspirations, and celebrated models of success

Phan Le Ha, Universiti Brunei Darussalam and University of Hawaii at Manoa

This paper draws on my autoethnographic narratives and reflections to examine the intersections of sociopolitical conditions, ideology, desire, and neoliberalism that have enabled the sustainability of capitalist value attached to English, English learning and teaching. It recalls my encounters with English as a child growing up in a university faculty housing unit in Vietnam in the 1980s and 90s, seeing poor teachers of English and much better off teachers of French and Russian living side by side. I situate this sense of economic divide in the broader theoretical discussion of the sociopolitical and ideological conditions associated with each of these languages. I then continue to conceptualize how this economic attribute of English has been solidified and accelerated since the historical moment of the Doi Moi Reform (Open Door policy) introduced in 1986 and progressing and thriving in the 1990s and early 2000s in Vietnam.  Vietnam’s aspirations to be friends with the world beyond the socialist allies have legitimized its adoption of the market-oriented approach to economic development and industrialization. English has been identified as the language of education and modernization reform. More recently, the so-called Singapore model of economic and educational success has injected new aspirations into the Vietnamese society. Singapore’s celebrated policies of early exposure to English and introducing English-medium instruction (EMI) at all educational levels are often cited as ‘the right things to do’ by policy makers, educators and the general public in Vietnam. Singapore’s prosperity and embrace of English has become a source of aspirations and a promoted model for many Vietnamese, as a result. Bringing together all the above narratives and reflections, I discuss how the capitalist value attached to English, English language teaching and learning is much broader and more complex than the mere neoliberal drive.

The online activism of mock translanguaging: Style, stance and social class in a culture of faking in China

Shuang Gao, University of Liverpool

This paper examines the relationship between language and political economy as shown in a case of online activism. In late 2019 in China, a form of language became a national laughingstock online. It takes the form of AB(A) wherein A is written in Mandarin, B in English and (A) being the literal translation of B into Mandarin placed in round brackets. Chinese netizens call this Jiang Yiyan Style (江一燕体), named after an otherwise little-known Chinese actress Jiang Yiyan who received media spotlight after announcing that she had won an American Master Architecture award. The news triggered an immediate debate online as to the credibility of the award, but netizens also reacted by drawing attention to her language style in her autobiography published years ago. By approaching the Internet in China as networked sites of symbolic politics (Sarcinelli 2008), I show that netizens mobilize emotions and perform collective action by constructing an iconic relationship between translanguaging and fakeness, thereby revealing linguistic and social inequality in China. Specifically, I identify three semiotic processes that are key in enabling netizens to formulate their case-based social critique: entextualization, stylization and typification. Entextualization involves identifying circulatable and replicable resources for symbolic politics; stylization deconstructs the social meaning and persona associated with the language style while mobilizing emotions and building solidarity; lastly, through typification netizens point to a larger culture of faking in unequal China. These semiotic moves turn language into power, allowing netizens to articulate discontent against the rich amid increasing disparity and lack of trust in a neoliberal society.

Precarious labor and commodification of language: Learning from Korean workers’ struggle against irregular employment

Joseph Sung-Yul Park, National University of Singapore

One prominent condition of neoliberal South Korea is the precarity of labor, in which nearly half of the workforce are employed in various forms of insecure, contingent, and underpaid labor, commonly referred to as “irregular employment” (bijeongyujik). Widely recognized as a source of exacerbating socioeconomic inequalities, the problem of irregular labor has emerged as a point of major political contention, as labor movements demanding abolishment of irregular labor gain increasing momentum. The struggle over irregular employment potentially opens up a space for applied linguistics’ engagement. This is because discourses of language commodification indirectly contribute to such contention, as backlash against the movement to convert irregular positions into regular ones often appeal to ideologies of human capital development, which neoliberal valorization of English helped promote in the first decades of the millennium. Based on such ideologies, regular workers opposing the transfer of irregular workers to regular positions present the demands of irregular workers as immoral, arguing that it is unfair to the regular workers who have gained their position through intense investment in commodifiable skills and qualifications, including that of English. This paper, however, argues that tracing the political struggle over irregular employment reveals more than the pervasive impact of neoliberal commodification of language. For instance, irregular workers and unions opposing the regime of irregular employment highlight the legal and moral responsibility of capital and the state to provide more stable conditions of employment to all workers, pointing out the more fundamental role that the discourse of human capital development plays in facilitating the exploitation of labor in the capitalist system of production. This suggests how a focus on struggles surrounding irregular employment allows us to understand precarity as a more general condition of capitalism, in which insecure and contingent modes of employment serve as a key element of capitalist accumulation.

Transnational cooperations among peripheries: The search for linguistic value amidst necropower

Daniel N. Silva, Federal University of Santa Catarina

This presentation builds on ethnographic work in the Complexo do Alemão, a group of favelas in Rio de Janeiro where some 80,000 people live. The neighborhood has the lowest Human Development Index in Rio de Janeiro, and yet its cultural production and solutions for everyday life are outstanding. As many residents sustain, the favela is itself an icon of survival to a colonial history of State neglect and violence: these neighborhoods were created by their own residents in the late 19th Century, when slavery was abolished without any policies of housing and labor for the freed slaves. Currently, different language ideologies, cultural practices, and practical solutions for the living in these spaces iterate forms of practical reason that have been carved out in centuries of dispossession within the perduring unequal frameworks in Brazilian political economy. In this talk, I want to engage with a particular instance of this practical reason: The vignette revolves around an event that I followed in November, 2013. A year ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, activists from the Complexo do Alemão hosted a debate with Bandile Mdlose, an activist from Abahlali, a South-African township movement, and Dara Kell, the director of “Dear Mandella”, a documentary about the Abahlali’s legal struggle to stop evictions ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. In a translingual interaction, Bandile explains to her peers in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro how her group has resisted continued human rights violations in South Africa; she also elaborates on the search for symbolic and economic value in the Abahlali struggle. While correlating the value of semiotic forms with violent and unequal frameworks, Bandile does not merely resort to rhetorical figures that would imbue her narrative with efficacy. On the contrary, she seems to offer an important inference for studies of the political economy of language, namely that linguistic markets are not subject only to existing neoliberal norms, but also to the necropolitical configurations (Mbembe, 2003) of contemporary capitalism. Following paths, alliances, and reflexive tropes produced by subjects who dwell on (and survive) these violent arrangements may be an interesting avenue to grapple with forms of practical reason that neither romanticize resistance, nor succumb to inequality.