Cultural and Imperialistic Divides between English Literature and Learners in the MENA Region

Authors: Chandrika Balasubramanian , C. J. Denman (Sultan Qaboos University, Oman)
Speaker: C. J. Denman
Topic: Applied Sociolinguistics
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The study of Inner Circle literature in the classrooms of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been characterised by some scholars as an expression of neo-imperialism furthering Western political and economic objectives. From such perspectives, Western values contained in Inner Circle literature and the English language may be problematic for learners, especially when they are diametrically opposed to their own. Subsequently, exposure through Inner Circle literature to Western “normative baggage” may result in unwelcome personal, academic, and social outcomes, such as increased levels of student resistance to their studies, the integration of harmful values into learners’ identities, and the marginalisation of first languages among the region’s most educated and socially mobile.

These beliefs have been challenged by those scholars who maintain that the central role English plays in globalisation and economic development means it operates more as an instrument of access than identity marker. This has been argued to be especially true in MENA countries for those students with a strong sense of their own selves. Further, recent research suggests that, although the English language and Inner Circle literature may be viewed somewhat negatively by a certain proportion of learners, overall, students and teachers do not believe their influence to be detrimental to Arabic/first language use or learners’ identities. In fact, the limited amount of literature specifically focused on English majors in the MENA region reveals mostly positive attitudes towards the language and Western cultures, in addition to limited concern with language loss and cultural deracination arising from exposure to English and its cultural products.

It is within this context that the current paper reports the results of an investigation into the impact of studying English Language and Literature on learners’ language preferences and socio-cultural identities at the national university of a MENA country. Data obtained through a 76-item questionnaire administered to 120 English majors and 12 semi-structured interviews revealed that, although participants’ believed they were exposed to harmful foreign values, they were largely equipped to identify, ignore, and/or reject these when encountered. Participants further noted that such values could be mediated by expanding the repertoire of literature studied, including by integrating more works from Outer and Expanding Circle nations. These outcomes lend support to growing calls for the decolonisation of English literature curricula through diversifying sources and admitting marginalised voices. Further implications, with reference to the research site, the MENA region, and other developing contexts, are offered.

Keywords: World Englishes, cultural/imperialistic divides, language preferences, learner identity, Middle East and North Africa (MENA), English majors