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.