University building with text "Decolonize This" overlaying it

UC Berkeley Sather Clock Tower Tony Webster, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By John Churchley, Education

Long ago I was an international student. I was a Canadian doing my doctorate at a university in the UK – an English speaker studying in England. I was one of only a couple English-first-language speakers in my program. Just like my multi-lingual classmates, I struggled to read the primary source literature in our philosophy of research course and worked hard to write erudite papers. I was impressed and humbled by their skill in reading/writing in an additional language. Years later I became a graduate instructor working with international students and marking their written work. It seemed to me that their English wasn’t as good as my UK classmates and I spent a lot of time critiquing, editing, and basically micromanaging their writing so that it looked like my writing. I thought I was doing them a favour by coaching them in the right way to write English. I now realize that I wasn’t – I was continuing the unworthy tradition of linguistic imperialism.

Linguistic imperialism is a type of colonization where a language (usually English, but others as well) is used to establish power and control over another people (Phillipson, 1998). This is not just a 19th century phenomenon in the far-flung British Empire. It is recent and ongoing. It happened in my lifetime in my city with Indigenous children being forced to go to residential schools and use English – being punished for using their traditional languages. It happens in our classes every day, as folks mock and belittle apparent English language errors or unfamiliar accents, and mispronounce non-English names.

Academic publishing, the ultimate goal of academics, can also be an extension of linguistic imperialism as it requires a very specific type of English which typically reflects a North American/UK origin and a significant level of academic privilege (Trahar et al., 2019). This disenfranchises several groups of people: those that learned English as an additional language and haven’t the experience in this type of English (I call it IELTS level 99); those that learned English as a first language, but in a cultural context other than entitled white UK/North America which includes different versions/dialects/accents of English; and those that didn’t grow up in a situation where privileged academic English was used. Think of Susan in Educating Rita or Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion as a couple of genteel examples from fiction – but it’s a much more serious issue for first-generation university students trying to find a place to belong, thrive, and succeed.

Decolonizing academic writing means not privileging academic North American/UK English above other Englishes. It means focusing on the depth of intellectual connections and the support of those connections with evidence, not on language usage or grammar.

I grew up as a Faculty child in the third generation of a family where both parents had a minimum of one university degree. On top of that, my home and school were in a high-income community that claimed to be “more English than England”. …And then I did my doctorate in England. I was a little upset that EU students got a better tuition deal than I did as a Commonwealth national, who even shared the same Queen! These opportunities and colonial attitude were part of my unearned privilege. I acknowledge that privilege and attitude. I am committed to shifting my thinking, to decolonize courses that I teach and to respect equity, diversity, and inclusion so that all my students have the opportunity to learn and succeed.

This is my goal: to ensure the students I teach are doing graduate level work while still honouring their English(es). They are smart people and my responsibility is to provide them with learning opportunities and assessment according to the course learning outcomes – not to judge and micromanage their English usage. I expect from them a depth of thought (application, analysis and higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy). I also expect evidence to support their statements and claims. Students as writers have a responsibility to communicate the depth and sources of their learning to an audience. As a reader of their work I also have a responsibility – to understand what they are saying and the voice they are using to express it. Understanding is a two-way street.

This song is my letter to these students to express my commitment to decolonizing academic writing in our classroom:



Phillipson, Robert (1992), Linguistic Imperialism, Oxford University Press.

Trahar, S., Juntrasook, A., Burford, J., von Kotze, A., & Wildemeersch, D. (2019). Hovering on the periphery? ‘Decolonising’ writing for academic journals. Compare: A Journal of Comparative & International Education49(1), 149–167.