Linguistic imperialism and teaching English as a foreign language

Reproducing the anonymous comment requesting this topic in full:

your thoughts on linguistic imperialism and people teaching english abroad, and people in asian countries learning english as a school subject – that sort of muddle
i have a lot of mixed feelings about it (i think it’s possible to teach english abroad in a respectful manner and have a lot of professors that i love who did so, but then again participating in the leftover effects of linguistic imperialism??) and would love to hear your thoughts on it :OOO

I am pragmatic about this, TBH. I have taught English as a second language in Asian countries myself, so it’s not something I’m likely to get too het up about, though I am conscious of the privileges that allowed me to do so. But that’s kind of the point, I guess. In the world we live in right now, being fluent in English gives you power. Being able to speak English that sounds “accentless” to “native speakers”, or that has the right kind of accent, is a privilege.

My parents chose to bring up their kids speaking English for a reason, and I can trace a lot of the benefits and privileges I enjoy in my life directly to being good at English. So yeah, to a certain extent teaching English to people in majority non-English-speaking countries is participating in a messed up system — the whole reason English is there in the first place is because of Western hegemony, right? But most of us don’t have the option of opting out of this system. It is the system we live in. We have to figure out how to make a living and look after our families within this system. So there are two things I think are the right things to do in the circumstances:

1) Help the marginalised navigate the system.

People teach English in non-English-speaking countries because people in those countries want to learn it. The people there want to learn it so they can get ahead in life. If they are able to become proficient in English then they have one more tool in their arsenal.

I wish speaking English were not the privilege that it is. But since it is, I’d want to spread that privilege around to everyone who wants to have it. The more people who have access to power, the better.

Obviously the flipside to what I’m saying is that I wouldn’t want English enforced on anyone who didn’t want it. Unfortunately that has kind of already happened and is still happening. People dump or are forced to surrender languages that don’t seem that useful anymore, and go with the ones that are. (I am also thinking of e.g. how Mandarin is preferred to dialect in Malaysia/Singapore.) So the other thing that has to be done is:

2) Resist.

Appropriate English. Preserve/promote/play with mother/other tongues. Watch TV in other languages even if it’s hard to follow at first. Read in other languages even if it takes forever. (Aside: if only I could take my own advice!) Defy prescription. Write stories and poetry that challenge readers who are used to “standard” English. Don’t make fun of people’s accents. There are a lot of ways of doing it and it’s whatever you’ve got time and energy for, and whatever feels right.

Anyway, those are my thoughts! I am conscious that I have only really addressed the broad point of whether it is OK to teach English in Asia etc. at all, and have not engaged with the detail of can it be done respectfully and so on. Nothing I’ve said above should be taken to indicate that I think it’s always done respectfully or well. On the contrary, I think the TEFL industry is exploitative and dodge as hell, and there are a lot of hinky power dynamics all mixed up in it. But I don’t really feel knowledgeable enough to get into it here — if you ever catch me in a bar, ask me and I will ramble about it! That is about the level of authority I feel comfortable assuming.


One thought on “Linguistic imperialism and teaching English as a foreign language

  1. rebecca rahi says:

    I am finishing my degree and am about to start a career (hopefully) in TEFL. This post eased my conscious a lot. Thank you.

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