A Global British Language: The Supply and Demand for English-Language Learning Materials

Amid decolonization and the global Cold War, the market for instructional materials for English-language learning exploded. Into this market stepped an array of American and British firms competing for influence and access to consumers across former British territories in Africa and Asia. These businesses promoted English as an inclusive and malleable language that anyone in the world could take up and use, regardless of national differences. Yet, despite the portrayal of English as a global language, national-level differences in the nature and content of instructional materials prevailed: American firms sought to teach “American English,” British businesses angled for “British English,” and local actors on the ground in different regions of Africa and Asia lobbied for recognition of local variants. The juxtaposition of pressures for international English-language instruction and the sustained differences in what firms provided offers the starting point for this paper. In brief, I examine why the market for English-language instruction uniquely exploded in the postcolonial era and how British and American businesses competed in this new space. Mobilizing archival materials from businesses, government officials, and local agents in the United Kingdom, the United States, and East Africa, I argue that the demand for and sustained success of British-based instruction – despite the far greater size and reach of American firms – had its roots in the colonial period and the particular structures of British rule. In Britain’s former colonies, the memory of the imperial cultural project provided British businesses a comparative advantage in the language market while making British English relatively attractive. Britain’s ability to compete in English-language instruction thus offers a way of examining the imperial legacy after the end of formal empire, while underscoring that new forms of imperialism – such as those practiced by the United States – first had to overcome the legacy effects of prior socio-political structures.