UNPOPULAR OPINION: Teaching English Abroad Is Neocolonialism

While I agree that English is being appropriated as a language for global understanding and learning it opens a lot of doors for people, it is a system of inequality that put it there in the first place.
Publish date:
October 15, 2014
unpopular opinion, teaching, going abroad, Neocolonialism

After teaching English in a former French colony, I struggled with the question of whether I was participating in a sort of re-colonization of a country still dealing with the effects of colonialism. I wondered whether I was wrong to work within a system that indirectly plays a part in the denigration of the country’s native language and culture.

I thought about English teachers in other countries too, like those who complain about the difficulty of finding a job because they didn’t “look” American/Australian/British. By that I mean white, obviously. I would have thought that learning from someone like yourself who has mastered a foreign language would be far more motivating than some stranger who was basically born that way.

At some point I came across the term linguistic imperialism: the process of constructing English as superior by reifying its dominance throughout structures and cultures. While I agree that English is being appropriated as a language for global understanding and learning it opens a lot of doors for people, it is a system of inequality that put it there in the first place.

So, yeah. I went through a moment of “OMG they’re going to revoke my Equity Studies degree” existential crisis (and before you say anything, yes I did major in the academic discipline of privilege-checking). Rather than bore you with the details, I’m going to give ESL teachers abroad a challenge.

Rise above the expectations of your host country. Don’t validate English -- and consequently Western culture -- as superior. Acknowledge your privilege and use a decolonizing pedagogical approach in your classroom. Here’s how:

1. Acknowledge your power and privilege.

In developing nations, English fluency is considered social and economic capital. You have proven this simply through your ability to travel the world with just a TEFL certificate, maybe even being paid more than local teachers that have teaching degrees.

You didn’t earn this privilege; you simply won the linguistic lottery.

I can’t say how many times I’ve heard fellow English teachers say how strange of an experience it was to be a minority for the first time. This may be true on a population level but in terms of power dynamics you are not a minority. You are not the Other because your success in the classroom can affect your students’ life chances. This is the antithesis of minority status.

Acknowledge that issues of power are enacted in the classroom: teacher over student, compulsory English learning, and so on. By accepting they exist you have already taken the first step to changing it.

2. Be aware of the issues involved with your students thinking English is the key to success.

In many countries, speaking, reading and writing English fluently is a status symbol. It can indicate your level of education and worldliness. Furthermore, English represents modernity and progress by enabling you to travel widely, have greater employment opportunities, and even operate technology.

Where this is the case, people who are not proficient in English but have it forced upon them can experience internalized oppression. They become ashamed of their own language even though they cannot communicate without it.

The next two steps are critical in helping your students rise above this.

3. Learn and use the language of students in the classroom.

In his book "Linguistic Imperialism," English professor and author Robert Phillipson identified rhetorical notions that underlie English language teaching methodology. Three of these notions are inherently oppressive: English-only policies in the classroom, the native speaker as the ideal teacher, and the concept that using other languages will reduce English standards.

While teaching in Martinique, a French Caribbean island, I was instructed not to speak French in the classroom or help students who asked questions in French. I understand that it forced my students to make more of an effort, but it often left them tongue-tied, embarrassed, and more likely to pretend they understood.

Rather than promoting multilingualism, prohibitions on native language use implicitly support the hegemony of English. The ability to ask and answer basic questions in your students’ language can make the classroom a safer and more welcoming space for language learning. Sometimes I would have my students teach me Martiniquais Creole from English because I was genuinely interested in it.

It valorises their language and rewards cross-cultural action and code-switching – a very sophisticated linguistic skill. At the very least, allow them to use their native language if it will encourage comprehension.

4. Use culturally relevant and decolonising approaches to teaching.

There is a notion in language learning that success depends upon the degree to which learners integrate themselves into a ‘native environment’ of the language; however, it is just as, if not more, important to teach to the realities of the community your students live in.

Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogy is an approach popularised by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings. This methodology places an importance on enabling your students to relate to course content in terms of their cultural context.

Teach English in a way your students will use and relate to their everyday lives. Use culturally relevant examples that put students in the driver’s seat of their learning. A lot of my students didn’t care about learning English so they could travel or get a job in America – they just wanted to understand some of the popular music they listened to and the TV shows they watched.

Learn what your students’ interests are, have them describe what good teaching is, and incorporate this into your lessons. Integrating information from students’ everyday lives validates their cultural identity as an important aspect of learning.

Obviously, you have to teach your culture as well – language and culture are often inextricable. Using this approach, however, you let students take ownership of their language learning and use their expert knowledge to incorporate it.

5. Don’t feel guilty.

Adrienne Rich, feminist essayist and poet, wrote: “This is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to you.”

Teaching English abroad isn’t all bad. The more people that speak it the less it will belong to one group of elites and that’s great news – but it shouldn’t come at the expense of other languages.

Don’t deny learners your expert knowledge. The authenticity you bring to the classroom as a native speaker is valuable. The neocolonial problem lies in the way in which English is valued above other languages and that native speakers are better able to teach it than non-native speakers. With multilingualism being today and tomorrow’s social reality, learning English is important. Help to empower them so their voices can be heard globally, in any language.

A version of this article originally appeared on Matador Network.