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How to Teach English Abroad and Not Be a Neocolonialist

by Alyssa James Nov 26, 2013

You just got your TEFL certificate. You’re feeling confident because you’ve received dozens of emails from recruiters who want you to come to their country and teach English to masses of impressionable children who will hang on your every word.

Congratulations, you now have to make a decision.

One option is to become what is essentially a neocolonialist missionary. You will reify English, and consequently Western culture, as superior. Another is to acknowledge your privilege and use a decolonizing pedagogical approach in your classroom.

Don’t worry — you don’t have to go with the first one because I’m going to give you some advice.

1. Acknowledge your power and privilege.

English fluency is social and economic capital. You’ve proven this simply through your ability to travel the world and probably get paid more than a local teacher for doing the same job unqualified.

You didn’t earn this privilege; you simply hit 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, that is not the case. You are not the Other, because what you do or don’t do 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. Think about how you can empower your students to take ownership of their learning.

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

Historically in the British Empire, the ability to speak, read, and write English fluently was a requirement for social mobility in the colonial hierarchy.

This ability is still seen as 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.

According to journalist and author Zubeida Mustafa, although there are at least eight major languages in Pakistan, “people believe that English is the magic wand that can open the door to prosperity.” Paradoxically, it is generally the wealthy elite that can afford the private education that allows for their children to become fluent in English.

Mustafa further explains that people who are not proficient in English often become ashamed of their own language though they cannot communicate without it. This is an example of internalized oppression — the process of accepting oppressive attitudes of others towards yourself and people similar to yourself.

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

3. Learn and use the language of your 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.

For example, while teaching English in a former French colony, I was instructed not to speak French in the classroom or help students if they spoke French. I understood that it forced my students to make more of an effort to speak English; however, at the end of the year, many of the students I worked with felt betrayed when they found out I spoke French fluently.

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. At the very least, allow them to use their native language if it will encourage comprehension.

A lot of schools, especially in East Asia, want English teachers who ‘look the part’ as well. Schools prefer to recruit from abroad despite there being local English teachers. Some people of color have found it more difficult to find work simply because they don’t look American / Australian / British.

I believe learning from someone with a similar background, who has mastered another language and immersed themselves in the culture, motivates that learning.

The neocolonial problem lies in the way in which English is valued above other languages, and the idea that native speakers are better able to teach it than non-native speakers. Multilingualism is today and tomorrow’s social reality, which is why learning English is important. Additionally, the more widely spoken English is, the less it will belong to one group. However, that should not come at the expense of other languages.

4. Use culturally relevant and decolonizing 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 popularized 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 in their everyday lives. Use culturally relevant examples that put students in the driver’s seat of their learning. My students really liked the television show My Wife and Kids, which was dubbed into French. They related to the African-American characters, and it was one of the few television shows about a family of colour. It’s also hilarious.

I brought a clip to class with a few characters in it, put the students into groups, and played the clip without sound. They had to write a script in English based on the acting before reading it over the clip. It was fun, but they were also able to direct their learning by writing what they wanted to know in English instead of what I felt I should teach them.

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.

Decolonizing pedagogy is commonly used in Canada when teaching in schools with Aboriginal populations. It involves helping learners become aware of colonization and undermining that structure while re-centering Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing. This approach focuses on regaining self-determination as well as reinforcing positive identities. In the Canadian context, oral storytelling is very important to Indigenous tribes. Learning traditionally happens through metaphor which has been known to put them at a disadvantage when Western ways of learning are applied to them.

Try to understand how your students learn through different media such as music or drama, then use it. Sometimes I would have my students teach me Creole from English phrases. It valorized their language and rewarded their cross-cultural action and code-switching — a very sophisticated linguistic skill.

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

5. Don’t feel guilty.

Teaching English abroad isn’t all bad. It’s a reality that English is being appropriated as one of the main languages used for global understanding. An excellent illustration of that is the number of English language signs used during protests in Syria and Egypt.

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

Aimé Césaire, a Martinican author, poet, and politician, is an exceptional example of this concept. By reclaiming the French language, he inspired a nation and brought post-colonial discourse to the social and academic forefront of his colonizers.

Don’t deny learners your expert knowledge. The authenticity you bring as a native speaker to the classroom is valuable. Do, however, teach your learners to navigate the neocolonial system. It empowers them so their voices can be heard globally, which is what we’re trying to achieve.

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