The Responsibility of Teaching English Abroad

“The number of private and government initiatives that invite native speakers of English to travel to Latin America as volunteers to teach English is increasing These volunteers are usually motivated by a desire to make an impact on poor communities where they can change the lives of underprivileged children or teenagers though the work of NGOs. Additionally, contact agencies present them with the benefits of travelling to exotic places, meeting new people and learning Spanish. These are the usual benefits that ‘backpacker’ EFL teachers expect from their teaching experience (Lengeling and Mora Pablo, 2012)”

As quoted in the research article, “Bilingualism and globalisation in Latin America: fertile ground for native-speakerism,” by Adriana González, Universidad de Antioquia, Medellín, Colombia & Enric Llurda, Universitat de Lleida, Spain.

Nobody chooses what their first language will be, just as no one chooses into which country, or social class they will be born. For those of us who were raised in an English-speaking family and for whom English was the first language we became fluent, we were undoubtedly oblivious to the fact that the language we were learning held such an eminent, indeed monopolistic hold on the world’s linguistic landscapes in the decades after our birth. In my experience, this protected perspective felt even more acute in the United States where we could feasibly travel more than 2.5 thousand miles, from coast to coast, without ever wandering into an area where the English language wasn’t dominant. Sure, the accents varied, almost on verge of being incomprehensible to my ears, but nothing coming close to the variation we would hear driving along the northern coast of Spain, for example.

Part of the potpourri of privilege I inherited as a white American male born into an upper-middle class household, was the fact I spoke English on top of all that. A little cherry of entitlement, so to speak. And because English has become the lingua franca of the global community (the reasons for which I won’t attempt to discuss here) lives like mine are made all the easier, as it seems much of the world is scrambling to learn the language we have been speaking since we were in diapers. The global market for digital English language learning products reached $2.8 billion in 2015 and is expected to surge to $3.8 billion by the year 2020[i]. There is little doubt that this figure will continue to rise alongside the global population, as more and more people vie to gain access to the global market, a market tacitly carried out in the English language.

English’s rise as a global language is not without precedent. For nearly 1000 years, Latin took center stage as the language which commanded the mediums of intellectual and religious communication, and was spoken widely across Europe, parts of northern Africa and the Mediterranean. Before that, Greek was the world’s most widely spoken language, and into the 17thcentury French was most important language of diplomacy and international relations[ii]. All of this is to say, the trends of global languages had existed before the current tide of English began sweeping across continents, and it is possible that in the future, English might be surpassed by a language like Mandarin. But the fact of the matter is that right now, English is the language to which much of the world’s population must conform, pay into, and work towards in order to gain entry into a world that native English speakers were born into.

Since coming aboard as the Pedagogical Director at Volunteers Colombia, I have been putting a lot of thought into the concerns raised by the authors at the beginning of this post. There is no doubt that there is privilege attached to being a native English language speaker. It can allow us to travel the world, take in new cultures, see remarkable sights, and even get paid for any effort we extend trying to teach people around the world to use the language we were born speaking. But our responsibility to teach English must eclipse the benefits we reap personally from speaking it. In our roles as English teachers, we have a unique opportunity to afford others with a capacity to more easily and successfully realize their own ambitions, and access worlds of possibility that would be much more difficult if they did not have such skills. In short, it is not about us.

After having arrived in Bogotá, almost exactly a month ago, a question has lingered on my mind, how we can do this type of work in a way that does not perpetuate the same inequities of power that led to the rise of English in the first place. And the more I have thought about it, the more it has become clear that we, as native English language teachers, must adopt a certain mindset before we enter the classroom. As one of the volunteer teachers put it to me recently in a conversation over the phone, “a good teacher is a good student.” Just as a native Spanish speaker enters the English classroom know very well that they have much to learn, we must enter our classrooms in the same way. We must enter this work with humility and openness. Our goals, our ambitions, our personal desires to see the world and learn languages on our own cannot be the fuel that drives us to teach English. Rather, we should instead be motivated by a desire to learn from those that we teach, to lift up and amplify the voices of the students and teachers we work with, and do what we can to make their goals central to our own efforts as teachers. What makes a good teacher in our context, I believe, is the same thing that makes a good teacher anywhere. It is the instinct to make students, and what is most relevant to their lives and learning, the driving force of our teaching.

This effort to learn from our environment can be especially hard when we see students struggling. It can feel helpless when we see school being canceled for trivial reasons, or when we see teaching that fails to engage the creativity and energy of young students. However, part of this feeling is also a type of transference of what we define to be “good” education and a judgment, however slight, of a system that is not our own. How do we learn from it instead of evaluating it? How do we use it instead of dismiss it? Each individual we work with has a depth of experience and knowledge that we don’t, and can’t, have access to. Our job as teachers, in my opinion, is to tap into that knowledge, and give it expression. Ask more questions, treat our students and teachers as the experts they are. Once we do that, we may begin to see what our classrooms can become.

[i] Adkins, Sam S. (2016). “The 2015-2020 Worldwide Digital English Language Learning Market”. Ambient Insight.

[ii] The World's 10 Most Influential Languages.12 March 2008 at the Wayback Machine. Top Languages. Retrieved 11 September 2018.

#volunteering #english #teaching