Teaching Abroad

The Guilt Complex of Teaching English Abroad

Imperialism is dead, right?

We certainly aren’t grabbing land in the way our colonialist forefathers were, but I still can’t make this statement with absolute certainty. And it’s just this thought that inspired a discussion with other English language teachers and students about whether our presence in other countries is OK — morally sound and the like. As ESL teachers, we are also passing along our cultures and values, not just our language, and some worry that by doing so we are replacing equally valid cultural practices. That by making English the de facto language of international business, we are likewise creating a sphere where British and American standards of business conduct take precedence over others and become the “norm”. It implies hierarchy and hegemony.

But if we are to assume that, what linguist Phillipson refers to as “linguistic imperialism” — or the concept that a one-way transfer of language demonstrates assertion of power — is taking place, we are also making the assumption that non-Anglophone countries have no part in deciding if they want their populations learning English. We are also ignoring the value the international community has placed on knowing many languages, not just English.

Lesson Planning with Shaina in Costa Rica

Furthermore, this idea that ESL teachers may be doing something wrong and oddly neo-colonialist didn’t occur so much to my students as it did to my colleagues. Instead, the English language learners I’ve worked with and befriended have continually expressed that they view English as a way to interact with an international community and advance within their careers.

“With English, I can travel anywhere, talk to anyone” a student at a Korean test prep center told me last summer. And its (mostly) true. Unlike many other languages we have the option of learning, English gives students access not just to English-speaking cultures, but almost any culture they’re interested in.

So, should we feel guilty about teaching ESL abroad? Probably not — as language teachers we have the creative freedom to touch on a vast array of topics, meaning, if English has become the first step towards entering an international community, why shouldn’t our classrooms be as well?

Globally Focused Lesson Plan Ideas: This is a collection of “talking point” ideas aimed at getting your students to discuss a variety of topics. Not all are globally focused, but it’s worth sifting through. Mostly geared towards adult learners.

ESLflow: Here you can find a good collection of materials and ready-made lesson plans for discussing cultures and customs.

By Jessie Beck

SEO and content strategist with a passion for travel, bikes, and food.

7 replies on “The Guilt Complex of Teaching English Abroad”

Hi BeatNomad, and others,

I’d agree that, although the system in which English is the dominant language does constitute a form of linguistic imperialism, that’s the reality of the world today and English teachers are giving their students skills they want and need for increased economic (or other) opportunities.

Still, as someone who’s considering teaching English abroad, my concern is that I’m taking a job away from a local teacher who may not be a coveted native speaker but is still qualified and needs the job more than I do — say their options are more limited than mine and they don’t have the privilege of traveling wherever they want in the world and being able to find a job teaching their native tongue. (I’ve considered that it would be better for the students to have a native speaker, but to what extent? Is it worth putting a local out of a job?)

Curious to hear your (and others’) thoughts on this! Thanks!


Hi Jack — very valid point. Whenever we work abroad, we have to consider the implications of our presence there, and of course, we wouldn’t want to work in a country at the expense of local employment. I think whether or not you are taking away a job from someone highly depends on the location.

Also, I’ve gone back and forth between what’s better: an experienced teacher or a native-speaking teacher. Your students will only benefit from your native-speaking abilities if you have some knowledge of teaching (which is why getting TEFL/CELTA certified isn’t just good for your resume, but also to prepare you to be in the classroom).

Anywho, I’ve got lots more to say — so I may just turn this response into a whole separate blog post. Stay posted!


The most important thing for ESL teachers to remember when teaching anywhere in the world: You are giving the student another choice, another skill, hopefully for life.

Speaking of English as linguistic imperialism, then let’s turn to the Internet itself, where the alot of discussion, social media in that language. I don’t know how vibrant and diverse the discussion is compared to ie. Chinese…I can’t read it after all, even if it is my ancestral language.

From someone who learned English as 2nd language from kindergarten onward in Ontario. (even though born in Canada. :) It happens.)


Very interesting article! I actually teach English in Costa Rica, and have been here for almost 5 years now. I agree with what you and Mzee said, and just wanted to comment and say keep up the good work!


Beat Nomad,
You are right to question the ethics of what you are doing among other cultures, but I think your answer about not needing to feel guilty is the right one. As a native English speaker who has traveled to 110 countries on six continents, and who speaks two “foreign” languages French/Spanish) reasonably well and a smattering of 7 others (Japanese, Lao, Thai, Arabic, KiSwahili, Portuguese, Russian), I believe the importance your Korean student placed on Learning English to be well-reasoned, sound, and shared by millions of people all over the globe. I’ve lost count of the countries I’ve been in where there is a thirst for learning English. To many, it is a desire to reach out from their own limited experiences and communities and be able to communicate with the world. To not quench that thirst for knowledge would be tanamount to denying a starving person a meal.

Assisting such people is not imperialism. It is in my view a humanitarian service. Like it or not, technology (not imperialism this time) is making the world smaller. Being able to communicate effectively is a blessing, not a curse. You and your ESL colleagues have a right to be proud.

Also, having visited dozens of former colonies in Asia, Africa, and South America, perhaps the one gift of knowledge that imperialism did provide to people in those locations was the power and the ability to communicate with each other. In so many former colonies, both small and large, hundreds of language dialects were spoken, creating animosities, cultural distance, misunderstandings, and even wars. I know places in Africa (where I am now) that are still facing tremendous problems partially due to an inability to communicate and accept other cultures and peoples—ones that outsiders wouldn’t usually even consider to be different.

So continue to spread knowledge. Be proud you are teaching and not exploiting.
Mzee Kobe



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