Postcolonial Pedagogy and the Task of Decolonisation

Blog post by Stephanie Newell, with an introduction by Neelam Srivastava


Neelam Srivastava

This blog post by Steph originated out of an event I organised in May 2021, hosted by the Newcastle Postcolonial Research Group. Entitled ‘Postcolonial Pedagogy and the Task of Decolonisation‘, it featured two globally eminent scholars of postcolonial studies and African literature: Stephanie Newell and Ato Quayson. Steph was recently Leverhulme Visiting Professor in the School of English at Newcastle University (2019–2021). I invited Steph and Ato to speak not only as pioneers in the field, but also as hugely experienced teachers of postcolonial literature and theory. Decolonisation and diversity are by now buzzwords in Higher Education: both at Newcastle University and at universities around the world, ‘decolonising the curriculum’ has become a mantra. In many ways, of course, this is an extremely welcome development; a global public conversation is finally taking place around the need to rethink the teaching and transmission of western cultural heritage. Its influential reach is an acknowledgement that there is work to be done on provincialising and decentring the supposed ‘universality’ of the human subject within and across the disciplinary formations of university education. At another level, though, ‘decolonising the curriculum’ partakes in the slightly hypnotic and uncritical (or acritical) aspect of all mantras: it thus risks morphing into an ideological party line rather than maintaining a dynamic consciousness of decolonisation as a constant work in progress. The risks inherent in the party line are linked to the uses it is put to: how do we make sure that decolonisation stays faithful to its stated objective, i.e., working towards a collective project of liberation, rather than merely becoming a way to pursue individualistic or identitarian claims within the academy?

The event aimed to examine the intersections and divergences between recent debates on curriculum diversity and the values and principles of postcolonial literary pedagogy, which has long been asking students to think critically about the racial and colonial assumptions structuring academic programmes in the Humanities. The conversation with Ato and Steph centred on their experience of teaching postcolonial literature, from a time when it was still quite marginal to mainstream syllabi, to the current moment, when Decolonising Education has become almost a policy at the institutional level. We wanted to ask these scholars whether the inclusion of postcolonial literature automatically achieves the decolonisation of the curriculum or whether new forms of cultural subalternity and canonicity enter into play. How can university teachers negotiate students’ demands for the recognition of gendered, racialised, and economic oppression with the need to emphasise that there are often competing notions of marginality? Subalternity is a relational, never an absolute identity, and thus the goalposts are ever mobile. The conversation on screen evolved in fascinating and unforeseen ways, with both scholars sharing anecdotes and insights about their pedagogic experiences. The participants also chimed in with their own observations and questions; many said they were there to learn, as decolonisation was still a recent word for them. After the event, some wrote to me asking for reading lists and tips on how to decolonise a research topic without an apparent point of entry (for example, someone wanted to know how they could research the use of building materials in Indonesia from a decolonising perspective). This awareness was of course the necessary starting point for the educational journey of decolonisation. As one participant remarked, decolonisation is always unfinished, never complete, a constant effort to uncover and dismantle the founding stereotypes and institutional biases at the heart of what we call knowledge.

The Task of Decolonisation

Stephanie Newell

I started my lecturing career in 1994, just as the first two major anthologies of postcolonial theory arrived on the scene.[1] Critical race theory, Pan-Africanism and theories of colonialism and anticolonialism had been growing in impact within universities in the Global North throughout the second half of the twentieth century, but the appearance of these two anthologies put postcolonial studies firmly on the syllabus as a mainstream, or at least unavoidable, sub-discipline in English departments.[2] In the UK, the old ‘Commonwealth Literature’ syllabus, with its canon of Anglophone literary texts, was rapidly reshaped into the new field of postcolonial studies.

Nearly 30 years later, as the field of postcolonial literature gives way to world literature, I wonder what that institutional moment in the mid-1990s – better phrased, perhaps, as that moment of institutionalisation – produced in terms of epistemological breaks and complicities? The anthologies gave teachers and students a wide range of tools for recognising how imperialist and racist power operate structurally, institutionally, archivally and historically. Through the anthologies, an awareness of postcolonial literature and theory slowly filtered into English literature courses, inspiring discussions about the necessity for the diversification of the curriculum and giving visibility to non-Eurocentric perspectives, albeit often parked in ‘postcolonial’ corners of the syllabus rather than on foundational courses.

But a question remains: to what extent has the mainstreaming of postcolonial literature and theory in universities from the mid-1990s onward, with all the critical ways of thinking these works inspired, helped to move our departments and our universities in the direction of ‘decolonisation’? Without a doubt, the discipline of postcolonial studies has helped to diversify the syllabus, but how has it contributed to the ‘task of decolonisation’, that is, the removal of Eurocentric power structures, the diversification of knowledge production and the creation of spaces to take action against systemic racism and other forms of prejudice (see Cleary 2021; Bhambra et al. 2018; Gopal 2021)?

N-gram for ‘decolonisation’ from Oxford Languages data

The Oxford dictionary definition of decolonisation is ‘the action or process of a state withdrawing from a former colony, leaving it independent’ (Oxford Languages, OUP). The Oxford Languages data graph shows no usage of the word up to about 1940, and then a steady rise from 1955 onward (see figure). The real increase in usage occurred long after ‘the actions or processes of states withdrawing from former colonies’ between the late 1940s and early 1960s. Usage of the word climbed exponentially in the 2000s and continues on an upward trajectory. This is a term that has gained popularity as a consequence of its metamorphosis from the definition of a specific political process involving foreign territories into a powerful metaphor for recognising and transforming power relations in metropolitan institutions. In its contemporary usage, decolonisation still means ‘actions or processes’ involving the reconfiguration of institutional spaces, but what is being ‘withdrawn’ is more difficult to identify than in dictionary-definition decolonisations. Contemporary decolonisation processes involve critical, deliberative, space-clearing gestures within institutions by and on behalf of historically excluded groups, as well as the recognition of how racism and other exclusionary forms of power operate through multiple institutional spaces – ranging from schools to police forces – as well as through implicit and unconscious prejudices (see Bhambra et al. 2018).

In a recent article on ‘The English Department as Imperial Commonwealth’, Joe Cleary points out that English departments have tended to respond to calls for diversification by expanding their scope and provision rather than by questioning their power structures and histories. As a consequence, he argues, they adopt ‘additive strategies’ by which they ‘retain as much as possible of the core curriculum while opening new subject options and degree pathways’ (2021, p. 166).

While the ‘additive’ type of expansion is a good example of diversification, it falls short of decolonisation. To illustrate some of the problems with the diversification of the curriculum without an accompanying institutional decolonisation, I want to recount a teaching experience that illustrates some of the ways in which the diversification of the syllabus may produce the opposite of what it sets out to promote unless it is accompanied by an explicit critique of broader problems of structural racism and Eurocentrism.

In the autumn of 2017, the English Department at Yale introduced a new foundational course, ‘Readings in Comparative World English Literatures’. The initial course blurb read:

An introduction to the literary traditions of the Anglophone world in a variety of poetic and narrative forms and historical contexts. Emphasis on: developing skills of literary interpretation and critical writing; diverse linguistic, cultural and racial histories; the politics of empire and liberation struggles. Authors may include Daniel Defoe, Mary Prince, J. M. Synge, James Joyce, Claude McKay, Jean Rhys, Yvonne Vera, Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, J. M. Coetzee, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, Alice Munro, Derek Walcott, and Patrick White, among others.

By the standards of postcolonial literary study in the UK, our reading list was conservative and contained too few writers of colour. Within a few weeks of the start of semester, however, a reporter for the right-wing student media outlet, the College Fix, ran a highly critical piece on the ‘decolonization’ of the Yale English degree programme, arguing that this course enabled undergraduates to complete an English major without having to study Chaucer or Shakespeare.

On the same morning as the College Fix piece appeared, I received an unsolicited email, also on the theme of decolonisation (the senders’ names and email address have been removed):

Subject: Prospective student

Dear Ms. Newell,

Just a short note to thank you for ‘decolonizing’ your English department.  My brilliant high school sophomore daughter was, god knows why, actually considering Yale as one of her college picks next year. However, your recent actions concerning the English Department’s curriculum eliminated that choice for her, and my wife and I are eternally grateful. Our daughter, who reads (and treasures) all those hate-filled white demon writers, still understands and values the inestimable contributions those dead white men made to Western civilization, so there’s no need now for us to lose her to your Soviet-style cultural genocide—a manner of self-righteous, self-hating lunacy that we know is echoed throughout Yale’s various educational departments.

Sincerely:  we couldn’t be more grateful to you.

The man and woman who signed this email also contacted the Press Office, and one of them phoned the Yale English Department administrator to communicate the sentiments expressed in the mail. As I was not permitted to reply directly to the correspondents, I passed their message to the student-run Yale Daily News, which included it in an article on decolonisation debates in the English Department.

With all this going on, the eighteen undergraduates enrolled in ‘Readings in Comparative World English Literatures’ certainly felt as if a spotlight was focused on them. This may have contributed to an incident toward the end of semester, when a group of four or five white American women, one of whom had been especially vocal on the topic of global women’s rights, intervened in the discussion of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children to argue that the novel was evidence of Rushdie’s patronising and stereotypical ideas about Indian women, who he deprived of agency and depicted as inferior to men.

There were four students of colour in the class, one of whom, who identified as Southeast Asian, argued vociferously against the way these students appeared to be ‘speaking for’ Indian women in their critique of Rushdie. This student was later called a ‘misogynist’ by the most outspoken of the critics, although not in my hearing. Meanwhile, one of the other students of colour, who identified as Southeast Asian-American, interjected to say that Indian women did not have gender equality either at independence in the late 1940s, when Midnight’s Children is set, or in the early 1980s, when Midnight’s Children was published, so Rushdie should not be obliged to represent them as equal. She was shouted down. I attempted to problematise both sides of the argument: should Rushdie’s female characters be regarded sociologically at all? What were the problems with a reflectionist view of literary texts? Were there ways we could think about gender stereotypes, representation, postcolonial masculinities and discursive power without requiring ‘real’ Indian women as referents? But the students who identified as liberal feminists became increasingly vociferous for the remainder of the session while the students of colour became silent.

Four years on, I have some unresolved questions about this classroom altercation. Is it an example of the ways in which the diversification of the syllabus does not equate to institutional decolonisation (in spite of the claims of conservative commentators)? In terms of the problematics of identity politics, how significant is race compared with class, political persuasion, national identity and gender to understanding what happened? A handful of white liberal American women seemed to have taken the diversified foundational syllabus and filled the space it had cleared in the curriculum with what they understood to be universal truth–claims articulated on behalf of women globally. I wonder how different the encounter would be now, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement?

The following week was the final week of semester, giving very little time to address the fall-out from the Rushdie class. I gave students Achebe’s essay from Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975) in which western readers are urged to ‘cultivate the habit of humility appropriate to [their…] limited experience’ (1975, p. 9). I also brought Chandra Talpade Mohante’s ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’ (1988) and Sara Suleri’s ‘Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition’ (1992) to everyone’s attention. (Both of these essays are reproduced in the postcolonial studies anthologies of 1993 and 1995.) In a minilecture on these materials, I highlighted Achebe’s call for western readers to exercise humility, and offered a critique of liberal universalism that concluded with Frantz Fanon’s final appeal, in Black Skin White Masks, to become a person ‘who always questions’ (1967, p. 232). But as the course ended, it seemed to me that the vocal students had not experienced much self-doubt about the validity of their positions.

Clearly, the role of the teacher is crucial in maintaining an environment of individual safety and collective mutual respect where students can question their own and others’ preconceptions reflexively and non-aggressively. Consensus need not – indeed, should not – be a teacher’s objective in seminar discussions within arts and humanities subjects. Many scholars have written about how to create learning climates where individual discomfort can be safely expressed in the context of institutional power hierarchies and structural biases, ranging from Spivak’s powerful arguments for teaching as a decolonial intervention in classrooms in the Global North through to the many publications on anti-racist pedagogy and broader theories calling for agonistic pluralism in the western public sphere (Spivak 1993, Bhambra et al. 2018, Shim 2012, Mouffe 1999).

But in addition to the need for carefully facilitated discussions inside the classroom, the student interventions described above need to be positioned within a cluster of external, institutionally framed conditions arising out of the status of Yale English as a liberal arts department in an elite private university, a department dominated until recently by an adherence to New Criticism and an Old World literary canon, and regarded by many Americans as a bastion of tradition. In this context, the moment of diversification of the foundational syllabus in 2017 can be seen as both an ‘additive strategy’ that expanded the syllabus without addressing the systemic problems that accompany the ‘task of decolonisation’, and also as a ‘decolonising’ challenge to the methods and parameters of English Literature in elite American universities, especially as perceived by people outside the department who disapproved of the wider debates about curricular diversification.

Six weeks after the end of the course, the student who had been shouted down wrote an article for the Yale Daily News. I was intensely uncomfortable reading her account of our class on Midnight’s Children. In it, she indicated that institutional Eurocentrism had prevented a diversified syllabus from becoming much more than a tool for American liberals’ assertions of moral superiority over the rest of the world. I felt deeply implicated in the problems she identified.

A large number of further questions come out of this classroom experience, from the practical to the pedagogical, from ‘lived experiences of race’ (to borrow Fanon’s phrase) among students of colour at predominantly white institutions to white liberals’ unreflexive displays of what Emily Apter calls the ‘translatability assumption’: that is, an investment in the idea of a comprehensive world literature that is accessible to all, regardless of linguistic, political, cultural and institutional histories (Apter 2013, p. 347). As Apter argues, the belief system that gives rise to the concept of ‘translatability’ risks ignoring the ways cultural differences cannotalways be made explicit, nor conveyed cross-culturally through the medium of texts. Yet, as Priyamvada Gopal points out in her brilliant recent article, ‘On Decolonisation and the University’ (2021), the idea of cultural incommensurability should be treated with caution because of its danger of reiterating segregationist ideas that work against the articulation of global solidarities and shared anticolonial political agendas. In place of incommensurability, Gopal’s template for decolonising actions involves ‘mutually transformative engagement – between different cultures, traditions, and approaches to knowledge, bearing in mind structural disadvantages and historic power differentials. We might even call this process “relinking”’ (Gopal 2021, p. 20).

English Departments in the Global North have rapidly diversified their curricula in the last three decades, and demands for decolonisation have challenged university management in the wake of BLM. Institutionally, however, we need to think more deeply about the structural transformations we have yet to achieve, and who speaks for whom in this discourse of decolonisation. Gopal insists that decolonisation should not hold the status of a metaphor: it is not ‘a metaphor for social justice’, she argues, because it involves the dismantling of colonial orders through anticolonial critique and activism (2021, p. 15, pp. 13–14). She invites us to conceptualise ‘an anticolonial university … rather than a “decolonized” one’, in order to make visible and repair the gaps in understanding that accompany knowledge production in the Global North (ibid.). In short, Gopal’s proposal for the decolonisation of universities is for a ‘reparative’ project that acknowledges and transforms the ‘harmful conditions’ out of which so much knowledge has emerged in our institutions (17).

Given the contributions of postcolonial writers and theorists over the decades to make visible these ‘colonial’ conditions, some practical questions remain: who constitutes the ‘colonised’ in this more-than-metaphorical discourse of institutional decolonisation, and who is the ‘coloniser’? What are the next steps we should take to achieve a broad, reparative project of decolonisation at our different institutions, and how shall we go about collectively articulating our goals?


Achebe, Chinua. (1975) Morning Yet on Creation Day. London: Heinemann Educational.

Apter, Emily. (2013) Against Translation: On the Politics of Untranslatability. New York: Verso.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds. (1995) The Postcolonial Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Bhambra, Gurminder K., Dalia Gebrial, and Kerem Nişancıoğlu. (2018) Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press.

Cleary, Joe. (2021) The English Department as Imperial Commonwealth, or The Global Past and Global Future of English Studies. boundary 2 48 (1): pp. 139–176.

Fanon, Frantz. (1986 [1967]) Black Skin White Masks. London: Pluto Press.

Gopal, Priyamvada. (2021) On Decolonisation and the University. Textual Practice. DOI: 10.1080/0950236X.2021.1929561

Mohante, Chandra Talpade. (1993 [1988]) Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. In: Williams and Chrisman, eds. Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader.New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, pp. 196–220.

Mouffe, Chantal. (1999) Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism? Social Research 66 (3), pp. 745–758.

Shim, Jenna Min. (2012) Exploring How Teachers’ Emotions Interact with Intercultural Texts: A Psychoanalytic Perspective. Curriculum Inquiry 42 (4), pp. 472–496.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. (1993) Outside in the Teaching Machine. London & NY: Routledge.

Suleri, Sara. (1993 [1992]) Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition. In: Williams and Chrisman, eds. Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader.New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, pp. 244–256.

Williams, Patrick, and Laura Chrisman, eds. (1993) Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader. New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

[Stephanie Newell is Professor of English and Acting Chair of the Council on African Studies at Yale University. Her research focuses on the cultural histories of printing and reading in West Africa, including spaces of local creativity and resistance in colonial-era newspapers. The book project she started while being a Leverhulme Visiting Professor at Newcastle University between 2019–2020 is entitled Newsprint Worlds: Local Literary Creativity in Colonial West Africa.]

[1] Patrick Williams’ and Laura Chrisman’s Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader (1993) was swiftly followed by The Postcolonial Studies Reader (1995), edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. Williams’ and Chrisman’s volume had fewer, but longer, extracts from major works of theory; Ashcroft et al.’s volume contained a multitude of shorter extracts from diverse sources and genres, several of which overlapped with the first volume.

[2] Noticeably, Routledge (Taylor & Francis) published the majority of new works of postcolonial theory in the 1990s and played a critical role in defining the field.

Teaching world literature and decolonising the curriculum

By Christinna Hazzard and Filippo Menozzi

How does world literature contribute to the debate on decolonising the curriculum? World literature can put a new spin on the meaning of “decolonising” because of its dual critique of monolingualism and class blindness in contemporary academia. Indeed, world literature means linking the teaching of non-canonical works, including texts in translation, to an incessant critique of global unevenness, class privilege and economic exploitation. Accordingly, world literature can offer precious tools to resist the undervaluing of the humanities today. Without renouncing its oppositional vocation, it can make literary pedagogy inclusive, relevant and empowering.

The idea that literary studies, and the arts and humanities in general, are threatened by chronic underfunding and systematic undervaluing in our currently political and economic climate is by now well versed. World literature, as field of study and theoretical paradigm, has recently been brought into discussions around the validity and purpose of English studies in a world that is supposedly fully globalised and in an academic and political environment that, with its emphasis on profitability and value-for-money above all else, is increasingly hostile to the arts and humanities. In our view, a world literature rooted in cultural materialist theory offers a valuable and timely contribution to the current need and desire for global perspectives in literary and cultural studies, and has the potential to do so without compromising on the needed critique of our current political and social order, including the important task of decolonising the curriculum.

In this post we will focus on the challenges and possibilities of teaching world literature as part of an English studies programme. These reflections are based on our experience of teaching world literature at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU). Our third-year ‘World Literature’ module aims to reframe the study of English by drawing on a concept of world literature developed by literary critics such as Franco Moretti, and the Warwick Research Collective. This particular concept of world literature should not be seen as a new canon: rather, world literature is a system, a way of embedding the study of literature in the complex economic realities of the twenty-first century. The questions we raise in the module can be aligned with the general aim of decolonising the curriculum, as we propose international authors from minority and non-privileged backgrounds. However, world literature can put a new spin on the debate and help reimagine what we mean when we talk about “decolonising” the study of literature.

Translation: avoidable or necessary?

In our experience, there is a deep suspicion within English studies around teaching texts in translation, underpinned by an assumption that something will always be lost in translation.  As multilingual academics, we, of course, appreciate the satisfaction of working with literature across several different languages. However, this is not always an option available to our primarily monolingual students. In fact, one of the problems with debates discouraging the use of literary texts in translation, is that they often fail to adequately account for the complex politics of language in spaces where majority languages are not spoken. Certainly, in the Nordic region, which is the focus of the research of one of us, translation is unavoidable in the production and circulation of literature because the national literary canons are, quite simply, smaller, and often spill over national borders. This blurring of national canonical boundaries is itself a reflection of the region’s colonial history, including, for instance, the fact that Danish was the official language of the Faroe Islands until 1948 and Greenland until 2009. In both countries the revival of national languages was central to national independence movements, which necessarily involved translating foreign works of literature into Faroese and Greenlandic.

It is, then, a reflection of continued cultural hegemony of English, which is itself, of course, the result first of British and now American imperialism, that translated texts play such a small part in our literary culture. When teaching world literature to our students at LJMU, we found that exposing students to texts in translation invited them to reflect on the parameters of their subject by encouraging debate about what is included and excluded in the broad category of English Literature, and that discussions about the importance of decolonising the curriculum followed. If we want a curriculum that is truly decolonised and global in scope, reading in translation is therefore necessary, but we need to teach students how to approach translated texts, for they often lack the confidence to read and write about texts that deal with non-Anglophone cultures.

Decolonisation: ideology or critique?

Teaching translated works is a most productive and valuable starting point for linking world literature to the politics of decolonising the curriculum. It shows that ideas and narratives expressed in other languages can be highly translatable and relevant to students in the UK. Furthermore, our experience of teaching non-canonical texts, including works in translation, in a non-Russell Group, ex-polytechnic university can suggest many issues that headlines about decolonising English at Oxbridge have so far dramatically overshadowed. Indeed, the momentum of decolonising the curriculum should not be exhausted by the agenda of cultural diversity. Rather, it should challenge systemic inequality, shifting the focus from the individual and singular towards a more sustained engagement with the structural and the social. In contrast to other ways of studying English, world literature emphasises how texts are entangled in a global supply chain that enables the circulation of capital and commodities. It reveals the dark backstage of oppression of workers, communities and environments that makes our consumer economy possible. Against facile celebrations of multicultural tolerance or success stories of elite migrants, world literature involves an unrelenting focus on the exploitation, injustice and unevenness at the heart of our globalising world. Most centrally, teaching world literature in an ex-polytechnic can illuminate how the question of social class cannot be overlooked in attempts at contesting privilege and hierarchy. Thus, our current syllabus includes a study of NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008). In our module, we propose this text within a wider reflection on Liverpool and its place in a global shipping industry, linking it to pressing concerns about slavery and finance capital. In a ‘World Literature’ module, teaching about the legacy of the 1781 Zong massacre can be a way of discussing the politics of representation in relation to the commodification of human bodies and the exploitation of workers. It is also a way to remap the North-West of England in the wider frame of global capitalism and to find resonances across generations of workers from around the globe.

Teaching world literature to students from diverse and non-privileged backgrounds has taught us to make our curriculum relevant and empowering, mirroring the civic mission and the values of equality and inclusivity of our institution. In much the same way in which the fight for gender equality needs to contest the rise of neoliberal, corporate feminisms, so world literature needs to expand our consciousness about privilege. In an era of student debt, anxieties about job security and the growth of an academic precariat, world literature is the best way to reintroduce questions about cultural production, institutional critique, and social unevenness.

World literature can give the idea of “decolonising the curriculum” a new, revitalising tone: instead of mere politics of recognition and admittance, entry into the mainstream or diversification, decolonising should equal an incessant work of critique and the unlearning of academic race and class privilege. Decolonising should involve putting economic inequality and class domination back into the agenda. In an era of planned undermining of the humanities, world literature prepares us for strategies of resistance and opposition that are urgently needed to protect the future of our discipline and of our communities.

[Christinna Hazzard is sessional lecturer in the Humanities at Liverpool John Moores University. She has recently had a chapter on “Nordic Noir and the Postcolonial North” published in Noir in the North (2020) and is preparing a monograph proposal for her doctoral thesis titled Semi-Periphery Realism: Nation and Form on the Borders of Europe.]

[Filippo Menozzi is lecturer in world literature at Liverpool John Moores University, where he is also director of the MA English Literature. He is the author of Postcolonial Custodianship (2014) and World Literature, Non-Synchronism, and the Politics of Time (2020), and editor of a special issue of New Formations on Rosa Luxemburg.]

Decolonising the Philippine language: The ebb and flow of Spanish influence on Filipino culture

By Erica Lopez

‘You don’t look Asian. In fact I thought you were Latina.’

‘Oh, your surname’s Lopez, so are you Spanish?’

‘Nice! You’re from the Philippines, so you’re basically Spanish, right, if you think about it?’

These are just some of the questions and general exclamations of disbelief and confusion that I have encountered on numerous occasions since moving to the UK from the Philippines at the age of eleven. I have heard so many different variations of these phrases that, when I started university, I was not the least surprised when many university peers also assumed I was at least partly Hispanic/Latina. In fact, every one of those false assumptions I used to take proudly as a compliment, because it meant that I looked more ‘Westernised’ than ‘Asian’. It was not until I was in my late teens that I realise such thoughts were not always reason for celebration but were the result of a deep-rooted colonial rule of Spain over the Philippines for almost 400 years. I soon realised that these expressions and assumptions were mostly innocent mistakes; after all, the Philippines’ colonial era – or any other country’s colonial history for that matter – was not exactly a top priority in English history textbooks. But it is time to start deconstructing those boundaries of comfort and question how much of our viewpoints and education derive from the colonial period. Therefore, in this blog post, I want to share with you the richness of pre-colonial Philippines and, among the many aspects of Spanish post-colonial influences in Philippine cultural heritage, my focus will specifically be on language.

A brief history of the Philippines

Contrary to popular belief, the Philippine archipelago was not founded by Spanish explorers. As early as AD 1000, Chinese, Arabic, and Indian traders were already trading widely with local communities on the islands; yet, it was Spanish colonisation, ‘an alien force’ (Constantino & Constantino), that disrupted the growth of indigenous cultures. In 1521, Spanish explorers encountered many uncharted territories during their expansion into the East, and Ferdinand Magellan eventually arrived on the island of Visayas. These Spanish colonisers gradually combined hundreds of islands into a single colony, culminating in the creation of Las Islas Filipinas, a large community of cultural areas with varying degrees of familiarity with one another.

Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, who claimed this area in the mid-1500s for the future King Philip II of Spain, took possession of the islands and thus began 333 years of Spanish rule. Together with the imposition of Castilian colonial sovereignty came the transplantation of Spanish social, economic, and political institutions to the Philippine archipelago. The colonial powers compelled the native Filipinos to swear allegiance to the Spanish empire, where they had previously only had village chieftains recognised as ‘datus’; to worship a new God, where they had worshipped a pantheon of supernatural deities and divinities; to speak a new language, where they had  (and still have) a range of tongues and dialects; and to change their work patterns, abandoning their old mode of subsistence economy. Furthermore, the Filipino collective land ownership system was replaced by a Spanish landholding system focused on private ownership. As a result, when the Spanish rule ended in 1898, many previous aspects of the Filipino way of life were lost (Bauzon 1991). It is worth mentioning, however, that various social classes remained fiercely autonomous or indifferent to the coloniser; some appropriated and reinterpreted Spanish customs (Wendt 1998), while others laboured as slaves for the empire (Cortes et al. 2000).

This colonial era lasted until the 1898 Philippine Revolution, when the United States fought Spain during the Spanish–American War and took control of the Philippines. It was clear then that the islands had acquired a new colonial ruler, triggering the 1899–1902 Philippine–American War.

The Philippine language – past, present, and future

The pre-colonial baybayin and the Spanish abecedario

From the age of four, when I started learning how to read and write, I never questioned, nor did it ever cross my mind, why Filipinos did not have their own unique alphabet system like some Asian countries such as China, Japan, Thailand, Korea, etc. I simply thought it had always been that way.

Imagine my shock, then, when just two years ago I came across an Instagram post showing a Filipino artist reviving the country’s ancient language through art and discovered that we Filipinos did in fact have our own writing system, one that was eventually pushed out of the Filipino language by Spanish missionaries. I felt that a part of my Filipina identity was unlocked as I learnt that the history of the Philippines extends beyond the 300 years of Spanish colonisation often taught in history books. This revelation has since motivated me to read and discover more about it, as well as share and speak about it to more people.

That indigenous system of writing is called the baybayin. Borrowing from Hindu and Javanese sources, the baybayin is an alpha–syllabic script, meaning that some characters stand for either a single consonant or vowel, while other characters stand for an entire syllable.

The baybayin alphabets. Source: Artes de las Filipinas
The baybayin alphabets. Source: Artes de las Filipinas

Doctrina Christiana

The baybayin quickly went into decline and eventual extinction under Spanish colonisation. Converted Filipinos were taught Catholicism, the Latin alphabet, and the Spanish language by Spanish missionaries who acted as the islands’ first teachers. The first book ever written and printed in the Philippines, Doctrina Christiana (1593) (English: Christian Doctrine), is one example of this wherein the Latin alphabet was first used to explain the fundamental values of Christianity and Christian prayers in Spanish. The book was later translated into Tagalog (the majority language in the Philippines) in both the baybayin and Latin alphabets.

The Doctrina does not begin with prayers, but with a brief lesson in the Latin alphabet, a phonetic transcription, and its Tagalog baybayin counterparts. According to the Doctrina, the Latin alphabet is made up of the following letters:

A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, L, M, N, O, P, Q, RR, S, T, U, V, X, Y, Z

As one may have guessed, the letter ‘RR’ represents what in Spanish phonology is called a trilled ‘r’ or hard ‘r’ in words such as ‘arroz’ and ‘perro’. Colonised Filipinos began to follow the Spanish alphabet from the 17th century, referring to it as the abecedario, and eventually expanding it to 32 letters, including the ‘LL’ as in ‘caballo’, CH as in ‘chico’, and NG representing the sound in words like ‘manga’, ‘venga’ and ‘vincular’.

Today, in the Chavacano language alphabet, a heavily Spanish-based Creole (mixed Spanish/Native) widely spoken in Zamboanga City in Mindanao and in some parts of Cavite City in Luzon, the abecedario letters CH, LL, and RR are still used.

Filipinos were introduced to the English language and its 26-letter alphabet at the end of Spanish rule and the arrival of American-style public education during the American era. Today, English is more widely taught in schools than Spanish. Despite this, the abecedario remained in use as many phrases still used Spanish letters. Eventually, the letters of the abecedario were modified into the official Philippine alphabet now known as abakada:

A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, Ñ, Ng, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z

The present day

I never realised how many of the words in the native language I speak every day were derived from another language until I started studying Spanish in school. As Marlon James Sales, a Philippine-born translator and linguist at the University of Michigan, described it perfectly during an ABC interview: ‘Most Filipinos don’t realise they’re speaking Spanish’. Indeed, although the Spanish rule had long ended and English became the second most dominant language in the Philippines since Spanish was removed as a co-official language in 1987, linguistically the Spanish language remains influential. Despite the fact that only about 0.5 percent of the Philippines’ 100 million people speak Spanish, the country still has the highest concentration of Spanish speakers in Asia. Linguistically, approximately 4,000 words, or about one-third of vocabulary in Tagalog, are derived from Spanish words, including words and phrases like:

  • kumusta’ (‘How are you’, from Spanish ‘cómo está’),
  • puwede’ (‘can/could’, from ‘puede’),
  • bintana’ (‘window’, from ‘ventana’),
  • syudad’ (‘city’, from ‘ciudad’),
  • trabaho’ (noun for ‘work’, from ‘trabajo’),
  • alas kwatro’ (‘at four o’clock’, from ‘a las cuatro’).
Source: Alba Luna’s blog

At the same time, there are some ‘false friends’ (see figure), where the meaning in Tagalog is different from other Romance languages. Some other Philippine languages report a stronger Spanish influence, with the Visayan language having around 6,000 words coming from Spanish.

In recent years there have been campaigns to bring the baybayin letters back to Philippine culture. This includes modifications to modernise the letters to suit the many Philippine languages/dialects, such as introducing ‘D’ and ‘R’ sounds that were not in the traditional version:

On 23 April 2018, the Filipino House committee on basic education and culture approved a bill to make baybayin the national writing system and require baybayin translations for the following:

  • signage for streets
  • public facilities, buildings
  • hospitals
  • fire and police stations
  • community centers and government halls
  • labels of locally produced food products
  • mastheads of newspapers and other print publications

Filipinos have been expressing their opinions through social media debates, blog posts and news articles on this seemingly drastic national change.

My view is that the baybayin should not be used as a primary writing system just yet, but should eventually be rolled out in gradual changes. First, the Government should prioritise teaching it to educators as it would be difficult to pass on to future generations if teachers themselves lack proficiency. The next step is then to broaden it in the curriculum and teach it from as early as kindergarten, so that Filipino children can acquire it organically as a first language. Notably, other Filipino dialects like Kulintan, Tagbanwa, and others, also have their own scripts, which should be taught in the schools of their respective provinces.

Those opposed to the changes believe that it is a waste of time or simply impractical. As one commentator put it, ‘Filipinos are supposed to move forward with the communication systems, I just think this is a mile step back’. However, in light of the fact that the official Filipino language was removed from the core college curriculum in 2019, learning the baybayin provides a key opportunity for us to reestablish a link to the rich pre-colonial traditions and cultures of the Philippines and helps strengthen a proud Filipino identity. Above all, it reminds us that the Philippines is not a pale imitation of Spain nor of the United States. Just as globalisation pulls everyone closer than ever, allowing us to embrace ideas from other countries, it is equally important for former colonies to understand their roots in local or pre-colonial customs and homegrown traditions.

Final thoughts

Moving forward, as part of the decolonising initiative, I would love to see further advances in how Spain’s colonial legacy with its former colonies in all parts of the world – especially in the Philippines and countries in Southeast Asia during its quest for empire – is being taught and implemented in schools and universities in Spain and Spanish-speaking countries. I for one was shocked to find out from a Spanish classmate last year that this vital portion of Spain’s history is either being glorified or passively taught and researched in their school and university curricula. I believe in educating the current and future generations in their country’s colonial history, as this will allow them to gain a more critical understanding of their country’s past and, in a way, accountability and responsibility. It also goes without saying that Spain’s colonial legacy should also be taught in Spanish language modules in universities and schools across the UK.

It is clear that while Spanish colonisation catapulted the Filipino people, for better or worse, into the world of Spanish culture and civilisation, the Filipinos had also demonstrated their capacity to blend the country’s rich indigenous lifestyle with incoming Spanish influence, producing the beauty that is the Philippines today. I am not Hispanic, nor am I Latina; I am a Filipina. It is time to rethink and reevaluate what we know about our own histories and cultures and about one another. When we delve deeper into what we have been accustomed to, looking beyond the colonial point of view, we start to see the world we live in through multiple perspectives, multiple histories, and multiple cultures, and this is what ‘decolonising’ means for me.

‘Maraming Salamat.’ [Thank you.]


Bauzon, Leslie E. (1991) Influence of the Spanish culture. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 17 March 2021]

Constantino, Renato and Letizia R. Constantino. (2008) The first ‘liberation’. In: A History of the Philippines: From the Spanish Colonization to the Second World War. New York: NYU Press, pp. 10–23.

Cortes, Rosario M., Celestina P. Boncan and Ricardo T. Jose. (2000) The Filipino Saga: History as Social Change. Quezon City: New Day Publisher.

Wendt, Reinhard. (1998) Philippine fiesta and colonial culture. Philippine Studies 46 (1), pp. 3–23.

[Erica Lopez is currently a second-year student studying Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Translation, and Interpreting at Newcastle University. She has always been passionate about cultural representation and diversity, and is thrilled to be writing her first blog post on a topic that is very near and dear to her.]

British education: step up and break the chains of colonialism

By Jemima Ajayi

In November 2020, as part of the preparation for my Spanish interpreting class, I was researching Fairtrade just to pick up vocabulary that I could add to my glossary for the topic. Whilst on the Fairtrade Foundation’s website, I came across an article called ‘Why it’s time to decolonise the curriculum and diversify learning’. The title caught my attention, and the first line states that ‘research revealed that young people in England could leave secondary school without studying a novel or play written by a non-white author’. This struck me greatly because up until that moment I had never realised that, and it was a statement that was very true for my own education. I took both Drama and English Literature at GCSE and I continued with Drama for A-Levels, and amongst Shakespeare, Priestley and Steinbeck, not once did we study plays or books written by a person of colour – in other words, someone who looked like me. The curriculum did not reflect the diverse student population of my school, let alone the demographics and realities of the country. Looking into AQA’s current curriculum for AS and A-Level English Literature, out of the many novelists and poets on the list of recommended works, the African American author Alice Walker and the Indian author Arundhati Roy are the only writers of colour I could find, appearing as a tokenistic gesture. Worse still, even if these two authors are on this list, it is another question whether teachers actually choose to teach their work. As anecdotal evidence, three of my friends who studied A-Level English Literature between 2016 and 2019 said that their teachers chose not to.

Coming to the realisation that my English and Drama lessons had been so lacking in diversity and alternative perspectives made me reflect on the rest of my education. Unfortunately (although not surprisingly), a trend emerged: History classes did not explore Britain’s history of slavery and colonialism or their lasting impacts within British society and around the world; Spanish classes never even briefly mentioned how Spain – like Britain – was involved in the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism not just in the region today known as Latin America, but in Africa and Southeast Asia as well. It is clear, however, that the UK is nowadays more aware of its cultural diversity as exemplified by cultural events such as the Notting Hill and Leeds Carnivals celebrating Caribbean heritage, or the Lunar New Year celebrations that are normally celebrated in many of the country’s major cities. As a result, we have an education system that is out of sync with Britain’s realities.

What this means is that year after year there are cohorts of students leaving compulsory education with a very narrow vision of the world due to the serious gaps in our current curriculum. Students may be led to believe that the only literary works of value come from white writers of the Global North, unaware of writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Tomi Adeyemi or Khaled Hosseini. As for History, we cannot forget to teach students why Britain, the USA and Europe are considered the economic and cultural centres of the world, and what sort of historical processes were put in place to coerce and exploit the Global South into, for example, producing raw materials such as sugar and tea, thus forming the backbone of the West’s wealth. A key part in decolonising the curriculum involves looking at events in a global context: when studying a specific era of one country’s history, it is damaging to examine events in a void, and it is important to also look into what was going on elsewhere at that time to see how interconnected history has always been.

Bearing in mind the holes left after finishing compulsory education, I had hoped that university would fill in the gaps of knowledge and take a more decolonial approach in terms of content covered. As a student on a Modern Languages course specialising in Spanish and Portuguese, I had imagined that in our Spanish language classes – not just the optional cultural modules – we would discuss all of these important topics that had always been omitted from primary and secondary curricula. Unfortunately, this was not often the case. In our Spanish lessons, we did not talk about or debate the impacts of Spanish colonialism; we did not discuss, for example, African, Latin American, or Asian diasporas living in Spain.

Pelo malo (2013)
Credit to the artist

Through my own research, I have found many resources that broadened my view of the Spanish-speaking world: videos on the black experience in Spain and on discrimination still faced by indigenous Mexicans, an article exploring having Chinese heritage whilst growing up in Spain, a film touching on Afro-Venezuelan identity (Pelo Malo), and information on the Costa Rican writer of African descent Quince Duncan, dubbed ‘Costa Rica’s leading Afro–Caribbean writer’.

I understand that in specific cultural modules for Spanish, topics such as race and colonialism are included. With this blog reflection, however, I would like to propose that such discussions need not only be available in optional cultural modules but should have a tangible presence in our core language classes as well. For instance, linking back to the resources mentioned above, it would be great to include the voices of those marginalised in the Hispanic world: let’s discuss race and migration in Spain, indigenous cultures and activism in Latin America, or Spanish colonialism in Equatorial Guinea and the Philippines (there are no cultural modules discussing these two former colonies). Debating more complex issues in our language classes would not only be beneficial to the development of our verbal communication, but would also increase our knowledge of the histories and realities tied to the language.

Credit to the artist

As a counterpoint, my Portuguese language lessons have been more effective in their decolonising approach to teaching, through discussing contemporary indigenous Brazilian issues and activism with guest speaker Vanessa Pataxó, recommending the film Vitalina Varela which highlights a Cabo-Verdean viewpoint of life in the Portuguese capital, and reminding us of the scope of the Lusophone world including countries such as Mozambique, Timor-Leste and Angola. The result is that we are getting to know the Portuguese-speaking world through the eyes of many, not just the coloniser. Education at all levels plays an integral role in shaping how we view the world and interact with it. Consequently, in all areas of study, whether it is English, History or Modern Languages, educators should ensure that students have access to multiple perspectives of the content studied. In doing so, old colonial structures that continue to be reproduced can finally be broken down. It will not be easy, nor will it happen overnight, but it will be the genuine and committed structural changes from within our education system that will mark the first real step.

[Jemima Ajayi is currently a second-year student studying Spanish and Portuguese Translation and Interpreting at the School of Modern Languages, Newcastle University. This is her first ever blog post, and she is excited to share her thoughts on such an important topic.]