Internationalisation on campus – or is it?

This post was contributed by Louise Rolland, a NewRoutePhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

linguistics_50_finalProfessor Jennifer Jenkins presented a talk on the 18 March as part of a series of talks celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication at Birkbeck. Professor Jenkins gave a brief introduction about her early career in English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) and shared the first experience that triggered her passion in this field. She gave her take on the development and trends of ELF and then  talked about her recent projects in details.

Professor Jenkins started her career as an English as a foreign language (EFL) teacher and taught large groups of students from all around the world. During her experience in teaching EFL, she made a keen observation of students’ ability to apply the English language rules very well in classrooms and exams but hardly ever elsewhere. She noticed that even though the students were not applying those rules outside classroom premises, they still managed to communicate successfully with each other. This struck up a question for Professor Jenkins as to why it would be necessary to teach students ‘native English’ when they were effectively capable of using English in their own way. This question has led Professor Jenkins on a journey to explore  non-native students’ use of English among each other, i.e. their use of English as Lingua Franca, in her PhD and  a number of publications such as English as a Lingua Franca, Attitudes and Identities (2007, Oxford University Press) and English as Lingua Franca in International Universities (2013, Routledge).

The 2014 monograph is based on her research project which she outlined in-depth in the talk. It investigated the following aspects of the use of English in international universities using different data collection methods ranging from analyzing website data to open ended questionnaires and unstructured interviews:

  1. The prevailing academic English language policies and practices of universities around the world that teach partly or entirely in English medium, in respect of any stated or implicit attachment to native academic English norms
  2. The academic staff’s dominant beliefs about non-native academic English
  3. The perceived effects of current English language policies and practices on international (including mainland EU) and home students

The project findings as a whole pointed to the fact that international UK universities demonstrated a lack of critical thinking about language on the part of many who work or study there. Some of the main conclusions from the study indicated that positive orientation to diversity was rarely extended to English. Native English speakers among management and staff showed little awareness of difficulties faced by non-native English speakers operating in their second or third language and had no sense of linguistic fairness.

Professor Jenkins thought that  Doiz et. al.’s (2013) comment in their conclusion of their book Global EMI (English as a Medium of Instruction) on diversity echoed her views on ELF. They quote that “diversity does not prevent the emergence of many commonalities between the different case studies presented” (p.213); but rather “Every context has its own characteristics and, therefore, studies rooted in each specific context will be much welcomed. Results from other contexts may always be helpful and enlightening, but every situation should carry out its own research, which ideally will lay the foundations of the most appropriate language policy for them” (p. 219). This inspired her to start her second on-going project by comparing practices in universities (now nine universities in nine different countries have joined the project). Data will be compared and contrasted to answer the following questions:

  1. To what extent do language practices correspond to stated language policies in the partner institutions?
  2. What are the overt/covert English language expectations of/made of students and staff, and how far do students and staff feel they meet these?
  3. What similarities, differences, and implications from questions 1 and 2 emerge across the nine research settings? Are there any particularly noticeable differences between the EM and English dominant settings, and/or across the nine settings, or across the two English dominant settings?

Professor Jenkins concluded her talk on a positive note. She explained that despite the two massive obstacles in English in HE, i.e. academic publishers and international exam boards such as IELTS and TOEFL, there are many signs of change in relation to ELF. The Editorial of the Journal of English as a Lingua Franca stated that “We see no need to insist on conformity to native-speaker usage for its own sake… . We have therefore removed conventional publisher’s submission guideline … and simply ask that authors submit manuscripts writing in an English that will be intelligible to a wide international readership.” (Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, Editorial, Vol 1, issue 1). In addition, McNamara (2014) stated that “The distinction between native and non-native speaker competence, which lies at the heart of the movement, can no longer be sustained; we need a radical reconceptualization of the construct of successful communication that does not depend on this distinction.”


  • Doiz, A., Lasagabaster, D., & Sierra, J. M. (Eds.). (2012). English-medium instruction at universities: Global challenges. Multilingual matters.
  • Jenkins, J. (2007). English as a lingua franca: Attitude and identity. Oxford University Press.
  • Jenkins, J. (2013). English as a lingua franca in the international university: The politics of academic English language policy. Routledge.
  • McNamara, T. (2014). 30 Years on—Evolution or Revolution?. Language Assessment Quarterly11(2), 226-232.

See the online recording of the lecture here.

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Birkbeck’s Big Ideas: Slavoj Žižek

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Winyard, of Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

Why do we so consistently act against our best collective interests? As the deleterious effects of climate change and the ecological disaster of unsustainable neoliberal models of economic growth become undeniable, why do so many of us take refuge in an affected cynicism, pouring scorn on plutocratic elites while allowing them to continue enriching themselves at the expense of the people and the planet? Why is our response to the democratic deficit evidenced by the crisis in the Eurozone and the global financial crisis one of weary resignation and sardonic inactiveness? In other words, how do we explain human passivity in the face of overwhelming provocation to organise, protest and affect change?

11004113_10155242752270634_1031773294_nBirkbeck’s Big Ideas events consider thought-provoking issues in history, politics, literature, education and philosophy. The current series of five lectures, delivered by Birkbeck and the Whitechapel Ideas Store, explore the work of the theorist Slavoj Žižek, wrestling with some of the philosophical challenges he has thrown at us and considering how he might help us interpret and change our contemporary moment.

Žižek is a something of a superstar and a ubiquitous presence, frequently publishing books (he currently has over 50 titles to his name), penning numerous articles, giving frequent lectures and interviews, and voicing his opinions on countless aspects of modern life. He is also the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. Although popular, prolific and perspicacious, Žižek is also a famously abstruse thinker, melding German philosophy, Marxist politics and French psychoanalysis to produce idiosyncratic analyses of present-day woes that can be wilfully dense, confusingly complex, blistering and enraged, ludic, larky and purposefully perverse. He is a thinker derided as much as he is admired, starkly dividing opinion with his fiercely erudite approach, his shabby prankster media persona and his forceful, contrary pronouncements.

The first lecture in the series introduced Žižek and considered how he is an important and useful thinker. After a useful biographical sketch from Dane Pedro, a PhD law student at Birkbeck, Jeff Smith-Hayzer of the Whitechapel Ideas Store, a self-proclaimed Žižek fanboy, elucidated some of the key ideas of the ‘Elvis of cultural theory’.

Žižek grew up in communist Slovenia and studied philosophy in Ljubljana and psychoanalysis in Paris. He is unfashionably Marxist, foregrounding the class struggle and deriding capitalism and its politics of consumerist passivity. Although Žižek’s theoretical concerns align him with other ‘postmodern’ thinkers, he is scornful of the idea that we exist in a ‘post-ideological’ world or that we have reached the ‘End of History’, as Francis Fukuyama famously termed it, in which liberal democracy and economics have rightly triumphed as the only effective, logical and ‘natural’ structures for governing and living. Instead, Žižek urges, we must creatively refuse political ‘realities’.

Deploying psychoanalytic frames of reference, Žižek considers how our unconscious fantasies structure reality. For Žižek, modern subjectivity and politics are characterised by a disavowal or split in which we deny or refuse to believe those things that we know. Central to Žižek’s work is a persistent questioning, an unpicking, of the assumptions that shape how we live our lives and his insistence that we traverse the fantasies that shape the Symbolic, the social world of language, ideology, relationships and the law (which Žižek, following the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, calls ‘the big Other’). For Žižek, these psychic mechanisms are appropriated and exploited by ideology and our knowing cynicism actually signifies our thrall to the big Other. The imperative we most guiltily obey these days is ‘Enjoy!’, but, for Žižek, the constrained freedom we exercise within power structures – our ‘freedom’ to choose this or that product, holiday, house – contrasts with the actual freedom to ‘choose the impossible’ and intervene to alter the status quo.

Professor Bill Bowring

Professor Bill Bowring

In the second lecture, Birkbeck’s Professor Bill Bowring considered what Žižek means when he deploys the notoriously slippery and difficult term ‘ideology’. Starting from the OED definition of ideology as a ‘system of ideas and ideals’, Bowring considered how ideology presents society and its institutions as unified, unitary, fixed, unchangeable, rational, natural and universal. We know that our politicians make terrible decisions, but we believe that, ultimately, our governing structures tend towards the good, disavowing the truth of our social reality. Bowring also considered how Žižek has modified and expanded Marx’s notion of ‘commodity fetishism’, which describes the reduction of human worth and social relationships to the level of economic and monetary value. Žižek takes commodity fetishism, by which the oppressive social relations that structure capitalism are made opaque, and aligns it with the Lacanian observation that we disavow that which we know while the fetish conceals the lack around which the Symbolic order is orientated. Bowring also explained how Žižek has taken Lacan’s observation that Marx invented the psychoanalytic notion of the symptom and made this idea central to his work. In psychoanalysis, repressed desires find alternative modes of satisfaction and emerge as symptoms, which are usually debilitating or detrimental to the individual, such as anxiety or obsessive compulsions. For Žižek, the symptom is a universal condition of human life that can never be overcome, only enjoyed, so his work focuses on uncovering those symptoms in culture and politics. This gives his work an almost limitless field of analysis and partly explains his famous intellectual profligacy.

The next lecture in the series will be on Tuesday 24 March when Maria Aristodemou, Senior Lecturer from the Birkbeck School of Law, will discuss how Žižek marshals the psychoanalytic theories of Lacan to explore how consumerism extends and exploits our unconscious fantasies.

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Carlos Reyes Manzo’s “Dwellings” exhibition opens eyes to unjust world

This post was contributed by Paul Donovan, and was originally published on his blog Between the Lines.


Guests at the opening evening of ‘Dwellings’

An excellent photographic exhibition from photojournalist Carlos Reyes Manzo focusing on “dwellings” has been unveiled at the Peltz Gallery in London.

Carlos has brought together many images from across the world, displaying the lives of struggle of so many people.

Some of the images show no more than shacks, others formerly substantial dwellings then destroyed. One of the latter images concerned a house destroyed by the Israeli Defence Force.

The exhibition is also a chronicle of Carlos’s journalistic journey, taking in the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 to Ethiopia in the 1980s and Iraq and Afghanistan in the early part of this century. There are also contrasting images of England, including scenes from Brighton and London streets.

The exhibition shows struggle and hope – concern that things don’t seem to be getting any better across the world as the decades go by, yet the resilience of people to survive and, wherever and however, prosper.

Reyes Manzo greets guests at the opening event

Reyes Manzo greets guests at the opening event

Carlos told of his own journey, as someone who was expelled from Chile to Panama, after being held in  the Tres Alamos concentration camp in Santiago  by the murderous Pinochet regime. Carlos eventually arrived in Britain, where he lived in some of the worst sort of dwellings in Britain at the time, as he started his journalistic journey. “I realised what was happening in Britain then was happening all around the world,” said Carlos, who recalled graphic images of war in Afghanistan with people losing their legs and the struggle of Roma families against discrimination.

One image shows a dalit woman in India standing with dignity, despite having stood and been ignored for four hours.

Chilean ambassador Rolando Drago paid tribute to how Carlos’s work illustrated the suffering of humanity across the world, the lack of opportunity and need for human rights.

The exhibition has been organised by the politics department at Birkbeck College as part of its ongoing work on housing issues. The other collaborators in the work are the Birkbeck Centre for Iberian and Latin American Visual Studies.

The exhibition runs until 20 March at Peltz Gallery, Birbeck School of Arts, 43 Gordon Square London, WC1H OPD

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“English as a lingua franca: Fetishism and critique” by Dr John O’Regan

This post was contributed by Alexandra Shaitan, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

linguistics_50_finalAs part of the ongoing events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication at Birkbeck, Dr John O’Regan was invited to give a talk on “English as a lingua franca: fetishism and critique.” Dr. O’Regan is Senior Lecturer in Languages in Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. He is an alumnus of Birkbeck, where he graduated with an MA Applied Linguistics in 1994. It was a great opportunity for the students to get familiarized with Dr O’Regan’s research related to English as a lingua franca (ELF) and hear his arguments. The lecture was very interesting and generated a variety of diverse questions from the audience. As O’Brien admitted during the Q&A session, the study stirred a controversy among the academics in the field, where, at times, he was labeled a ‘Marxist’.

In this blog, I will attempt to present O’Brien’s (2014) study to make his arguments clear for my peers and the audience who is interested in the ‘ELF’ movement. I will thus refer to the actual study to provide the readers with the evidence from the article.

Dr O’Regan presented his recently published article in the journal of Applied Linguistics (2014) “English as a Lingua Franca: An immanent critique.” In his article he debunks the ELF movement from the perspectives of Marxism, globalization theory and postructuralism by means of an imminent critique. The main argument of the article is that the ELF movement is ideologically conservative, is inconsistent in its arguments and is lacking in theorization (O’Regan 2014: 2).

Furthermore, in this article both the theory of ‘ELF’ and the historical context for the claims of the ELF movement are closely examined with the purpose of showing not only how ‘ELF’, as presented by the ELF movement, is theoretically inadequate to its own concept but also how by allowing the social conditions of the historical context, that is globalized neoliberal capitalism, to ‘invade the inner logic’ of ELF theory, makes it possible to highlight several lacunae and problems within the ELF movement’s theorization of English in a globalized world (O’Regan 2014: 3).

Why is the immanent critique then? The author employs the immanent critique as a type of close reading whose purpose is to highlight the inconsistencies and contradictions issuing from the self-representations of an object of knowledge. It may take the form of a textual as well as philosophical argument, an ideology, a theoretical concept, a discourse, an individual text, or a combination of these.

By placing under the scrutiny the discourse and the texts of the ELF movement, the articles underscores that the ELF movement is inconsistent and misleading in the claims that it often falls into contradiction. Additionally, by utilizing the concept of ‘lingua franca fetishism’, the study highlights how ‘ELF’ can be conceived as a type of ‘false consciousness’ to which the ELF movement adheres for it claims.

Moreover, O’Regan masterfully debunks the myth of the ‘ELF’ as a thing-in-itself, meaning that users of English-of whatever stripe-in multicultural settings become speakers or users of an hypostasized ‘ELF’, one which projects ‘ELF’ into material existence, often by means of a noun phrase (p. 4). According to O’Regan,hypostatization…is a form of reification in which abstract concepts are artificially concretized and made real. The author thus clearly demonstrates that ‘ELF’ cannot be treated as a solid or systematized thing-in-itself.

As a rationale for using the immanent critique, the study utilizes Marxist and Foucauldian theoretical perspectives in highlighting the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in the ELF project” (O’Regan 2014: 4). In particular, the thinking of Marx related to the nature of the commodity under capitalism. According to Marx, commodity is “the form of appearance’, it is the visible thing which appears to our senses…and the content which is distinguishable from it and obscured, i.e. making it ‘products of labor’ (p.128).  Thus, it exists as a ‘thing’ even as it obscures the social relations which produced it. Additionally, Marx refers to the commodity as being one off fetishism in which the physical commodity exists as a mystification of the real social relations which produced it, and from being the product of a definite social relation, the commodity becomes simply a ‘thing’ to be bought and sold (p. 165).

According to O’Regan (2014: 7), ‘ELF’, like the commodity, is a mysterious thing…here and yet not here, fluid and yet congealed, normative and yet hybrid – appears to exist in some reified and yet simultaneously liminal space in the circulation of Englishes in the world. The author further claims, rather than in its real form as Englishes of various kinds in contact, ‘ELF’ appears instead as an irreal and especial hypostasized form, or in Marx’s words – in the fetishism of English as a lingua franca the linguistic pragmatic interactions of speakers of different first languages assume the nature of a fantastic relation between speakers of an hypostasized universal code. The author makes a fundamental distinction between commodity fetishism and what he labels the lingua franca fetishism of the ELF movement is that where the commodity is a real entity in a fantastic relation with other commodities, the obverse is true of ‘ELF’, which is only artificially made real through the hypostatization of an abstraction. In a concluding remark, the author demonstrates that, “ the hypostatization and fetishism of ‘ELF’ as a thing-in-itself thus constitutes the irreal mystification, or projection, of a real content which is obscured, and so in classical Marxist sense maybe said to designate a ‘false consciousness’ or ‘abstract objectivism’ in relation of the circulation of Englishes in the world” (p. 8).

A very important point highlighted by O’Regan is related to the access to social, cultural, linguistic and economic capital, which plays a decisive role in determining where users of ELF are located on the cline (p. 16).

From a diachronic historico-social perspective, the ELF movement neglects the history and reality of capitalism – and more recently -neoliberalism – and the unequal manner in which it allocated economic and linguistic resources across social classes, and gendered and racial groups, within nations and within the world-system (p. 16).


Marx, K. 1976/1867. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1. Penguin.

O’Regan, J. P. 2014. English as a lingua franca: An immanent critique. Applied Linguistics; doi: 10.1093/applin/amt045. First published online: January 15, 2014.

O’Regan, J. P. 2014. Intercultural communication and the possibility of English as a lingua franca. In Holmes, P. and F. Dervin (eds.).  The cultural and intercultural dimensions of English as a lingua franca. Clevedon: Channel View Publications. (Forthcoming)

You can view a recording of the lecture online.

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