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Open Access Publications from the University of California


The L2 Journal is an open access, fully refereed, interdisciplinary journal which aims to promote the research and the practice of language learning and teaching. It publishes articles in English on all aspects of applied linguistics broadly conceived, i.e., second language acquisition, second language pedagogy, bilingualism and multilingualism, language and technology, curriculum development and teacher training, testing and evaluation.

Special Issue: Critical Perspectives on Neoliberalism in Second/Foreign Language Education

Preface and Introduction to the Special Issue

Preface to the Special Issue

I am delighted to introduce this fifth special issue of L2 Journal, titled Critical Perspectives on Neoliberalism in Second/Foreign Language Education, guest-edited by five doctoral students from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education: Katie Bernstein, Emily Hellmich, Noah Katznelson, Jaran Shin, and Kimberly Vinall.

Introduction to Special Issue: Critical Perspectives on Neoliberalism in Second / Foreign Language Education

This special issue, Critical perspectives on neoliberalism in second / foreign language education, has arisen from our collective, lived experiences as language teachers, as researchers, and as early career scholars. In particular, it comes from changes we have observed in: how languages are understood and taught; the ways that learners and teachers are constructed; the kinds of knowledge about language learning that is produced through research; and the perceived goals of language study within a larger framework of the increased privatization of education. As we noticed the extent to which neoliberal discourse—the discourse of the marketplace—has seeped into these various practices, we came to realize how much it has influenced our own constructions of ourselves, of our learners, and of knowledge itself. It occurred to us that a critical engagement with neoliberalism could help us to examine the changes we were living and to understand our concerns with these experiences.

In this introduction, we address the following central questions: What is neoliberalism? What does neoliberalism have to do with education, and specifically, with second/foreign language education? Why are we taking a critical perspective and what does this look like? We situate our responses to these questions within the field of applied linguistics and place them in dialogue with the articles in this issue. We begin by defining neoliberalism and articulating our goals for this special issue; next, we delve into how these manuscripts intersect with previous research. We conclude with an outline of the manuscripts that comprise the issue and an examination of the paradoxes and contradictions brought to light—and critical spaces opened up—by the special issue as a whole.


Mapping Conceptual Change: The Ideological Struggle for the Meaning of EFL in Uruguayan Education

Neoliberal ideology attempts to make all spheres of social life play by the rules of the market (Gray, 2000), and foreign language teaching is not an exception. The hegemonic role of English in the neoliberal project breeds it as a commodity that can satisfy non-native speakers' need to access the globalized world. In the 1990s, neoliberalism dominated the sociopolitical landscape of most Latin American countries. At the time, language policies in Uruguay sought to make English the foreign language par excellence, to the detriment of other languages such as French and Italian. The discourse of neoliberal language policies related the expansion of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) to a new global order that called for an instrumental language to help Uruguay become “a first world country,” and English was the key to open doors to globalization. During the first decade of the 21st century, however, the sociopolitical landscape of Uruguay shifted toward a left-wing ideology. Even though policies continued to promote EFL, they struggled to re-define its political meaning. As English was now seen as a symbol of imperialism (Phillipson, 1992) and colonialism (Pennycook, 1994, 1998, 2000), the only way for Uruguayan children to be critical of its hegemonic power was to learn the language through a pedagogy of empowerment. In this paper, I argue that the transition from neoliberal to left-wing ideology in central government brought about a political struggle (Koselleck, 1993, 2002) in which each ideology fought to (re)define EFL in its own terms. I will map this political struggle to define EFL in Uruguay by analyzing three official EFL-related documents written by policy makers and other stakeholders in the 1990s and 2000s, which represent the voices of neoliberal and left-wing policy makers, respectively.

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“More & Earlier”: Neoliberalism and Primary English Education in Mexican Public Schools

As global English expands, developing countries feel the pressure that, in order to remain globally competitive, they must increase the number of people with English proficiency.  In response, many countries have significantly expanded English instruction in public schools by implementing primary English language teaching (PELT) programs.  This is particularly true in countries in Southeast Asia and Latin America, where national Ministries of Education have taken a “more & earlier” approach, integrating English into the public primary curriculum.  Children start learning English younger and study the language more during their basic education.  The author argues that this language education policy shift toward expanding English in the public education curricula in developing countries is best understood as a shift from past models of elite English bilingualism to policies intended to support the macroacquisition, or general proficiency in English.  The rationale for this policy change is framed in terms of the “modernization” and “internationalization” of a country’s public education system, and hence should be understood as part of the response to align education curricula and programs with neoliberal policies.  The author examines Mexico’s recent national English program for public primary schools as a case study in the implementation of neoliberal language policy.

Language Learning as a Struggle for Distinction in Today’s Corporate Recruitment Culture: An Ethnographic Study of English Study Abroad Practices among South Korean Undergraduates

Young adults in South Korea are encouraged to constantly develop their skills and qualifications to meet the challenges posed by the job market in the country’s neoliberal post-IMF crisis economy. This paper examines the ways in which changes in South Korea’s labor market and corporate recruitment culture have affected the ideologies and practices of the country’s youth with regard to the English language. By drawing on Bourdieu’s concept of distinction and specifying the processes of distinction into replacement, opposition, and addition, this paper clarifies the ideological construction and effects of oral communicative competence in English through an ethnographic analysis of post-secondary learners studying English in a study abroad context. Influenced by South Korea’s recruitment culture, these learners distinguish primarily between learning English for standardized tests in South Korea and learning English for authentic communication while studying abroad. However, the efforts of learners who have studied abroad to develop their oral English skills bear limited fruit in South Korea’s recruitment culture, which does not fully appreciate the value of the job seeker’s experience of having studied English abroad. Thus, the limits of distinction function to impose the burden of English learning on individual learners.

Space and Language Learning under the Neoliberal Economy

Neoliberalism, as an ideology that valorizes and institutionalizes market-based freedom and individual entrepreneurship, derives from the logic of highly advanced capitalism, and thus must be understood in relation to the material conditions of our capitalist economy. One such material condition is space. However, the intersection of space and neoliberalism is yet to be explored in detail within the field of applied linguistics. This lacuna impedes our understanding of the social and geographical embeddedness of language, in particular the dialectic between language learning and political economy. The key question we address in this paper is: how are trajectories of language learning under the neoliberal economy shaped in spatial terms? Through looking at two cases—the re-invention of the countryside village of Yangshuo as the biggest English corner in China and the Korean phenomena of jogi yuhak [early study abroad]—we argue 1) that a heightened awareness of the link between language learning, space, and mobility will allow us to explore the material constraints and inequalities of language learning with greater sensitivity, and 2) that a focus on the spatial grounding of language learning can allow applied linguistics to make a unique contribution to the critique of neoliberalism.

Neoliberal Discourses and the Local Policy Implementation of an English Literacy and Civics Education Program

The issue of language, specifically access to English, has emerged as a key concern for both U.S. policy-makers and immigrant communities alike. Many of these debates are framed by neoliberal and human capital perspectives, which view English as a set of skills and linguistic capital that are inextricably tied to employment opportunities and economic mobility. It is within this socio-historical, political, and discursive space that adult English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) classes are envisioned, developed, and implemented in various communities across the U.S. For decades, the federal government had allocated monies for states to fund programs that linked teaching English with the teaching of job readiness and workplace skills. In 1999, however, the Clinton administration launched a $70 million state grants program that integrated English literacy with civics education (EL/Civics). This was a clear departure from language education policies that positioned adult immigrants simply as workers who needed the linguistic skills to participate in the labor system.

This paper argues that despite the purported aim to link English language instruction with broader notions of civic and political participation, a neoliberal agenda finds its way into the local implementation of the EL/Civics policy. Informed by poststructural and sociocultural theories as well as a transnational perspective, this paper draws on data from a 10-month ethnographic study of an EL/Civics program in Queens, NY. I employed ethnographic data collection methods such as participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and audio-recorded classroom discourse. Guided by the following questions, the analysis focuses on how neoliberal discourses insinuate themselves into the organizational practices and classroom interactions of an EL/Civics program: How are neoliberal discourses both taken up and interrogated by adult immigrant students? How do neoliberal discourses interact with enduring narratives of immigration? This work adds to the growing research on the critical role that language teachers and language learners play in responding to and remaking policies in their classrooms—a process that is mediated by actors’ identities, local contexts, and widely-circulating discourses of immigration and neoliberal logic. The paper concludes with a discussion of how we can begin to rethink EL/Civics programs and approaches and provide an alternative to the neoliberal model of adult English language education.

The Coloniality of Neoliberal English: The Enduring Structures of American Colonial English Instruction in the Philippines and Puerto Rico

This article highlights two relationships in regards to neoliberalism and second language. First, it examines the connection between English and neoliberalism. It focuses on the idea of English as a global language and the linguistic instrumentalism (Kubota, 2011; Wee, 2003) of English as a necessary tool for economic viability in the globalized market. Second, it explores this relationship by tracing English in the contemporary neoliberal context to the history of English as an element of overseas colonial rule. It employs Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano’s notion of coloniality of power (2000) to illustrate that the colonial context of neoliberal global English serves not merely as a historical legacy but as an enduring structure of oppressive power that continues to establish hierarchical difference through linguistic othering.

This article highlights the historical context of colonial English instruction to demonstrate how English imposition served as the foundation for the neoliberal privileging of English as a global language. Specifically, it presents the cases of American colonial English instruction in Puerto Rico and the Philippines as a developmental link to the current neoliberal status of global English. It illuminates how American colonial administrations established English instruction in a manner that mystified its imposed nature and the context of conquest. This article thus depicts both how English is bound with neoliberalism and how claims of global English’s neutrality belie the historic colonial inequalities, which created the conditions for its existence. It concludes with an examination of the coloniality of global English and the enduring colonial structures of hierarchical difference established through English.

In the Face of Neoliberal Adversity: Engaging Language Education Policy and Practices

Recent engaged approaches to language policy and practices (Davis 2014) suggest the urgent need for “on the ground” analyses of how global forces, such as neoliberalism, can and do impact local human welfare. An engaged approach further argues for moving away from simply reporting findings towards portraying dialogic processes that are always in a state of evolving and shifting meanings through growing awareness of changing local, national, and global conditions.  We more specifically describe here engaged language education policy making that draws teachers, students, parents, and communities into dialogic exploration of ineffective and marginalizing language policies and practices. This approach promotes counterpublic discourses that challenge dominant neoliberal ideologies while supporting practices that meet local language, education, economic, and human welfare needs.  Engaged processes effectively suggest local determination of schooling that recognizes language/identity fluidity and multiplicity while upholding the agency of all participants.

Neoliberalism, Universities and the Discourse of Crisis

Neoliberal ideology has enjoyed tremendous success over the past thirty-five years by discursively suppressing structural dissent among working and middle class citizens of industrialized countries. The general decline in economic conditions faced by contemporary workers, coupled with the 2008 global financial crisis, forced neoliberal advocates to become more aggressive in their defense of prevailing structural policies and precepts. The suppression of public dissent and the related implementation of austerity measures are frequently justified by a discourse of crisis. In this article and using the methodological as well as theoretical tools afforded by Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), we trace the rise of this discourse within universities as a mechanism to justify attacks on academic freedom, collegial governance, and democratic discourse. We also offer a SFL-inspired tool that critical language educators might employ to counter the neoliberal attack on universities as sites of democratic dialogue and debate.