In Defense of Teaching English Abroad

20 years ago, heading off to teach English in Cyprus or Vietnam might successfully startle your parents and give you a bohemian air. Nowadays, the plan carries no trace of the exotic: it's a conventional next step for the uncertain or idealistic graduate. America's massive exportation of inexperienced English teachers has been termed "linguistic imperialism," a means of propagating the cultural and ideological values of the West through marginalizing local language and culture.

Disapproval of some U.S. foreign-service programs derives from specific historical and political context; consider the Peace Corps, Kennedy's "tool of soft power" disguising the dubious interventions of America abroad. But criticism of the youthful surge of ELT stems from a more abstract distrust of the hegemonic potential of language. Sure, the world knowing English would serve American and British economic and political interests, but the reason behind the influx of teachers has less to do with American cunning and more to do with foreign demand.

From the Roman Empire on, language has been used to force political unity. In the good old days of colonialism, the establishing of language schools worked to delegitimize the colonized territory's existing regional, tribal, and linguistic identifications and divisions.

Then, pressure to use the colonizer's language blocked out the social reality of the pre-colonial world. Now, denying the usefulness of English obscures a social reality. Our globalized world requires preserving heritage and community in ways beyond attachment to language or physical place. Culture is embedded in language, but it cannot be reduced to language. We need international communication; speaking the same language no longer proves shared identity.

Discussion of "linguistic hegemony" focuses on English, for obvious reasons. Yet reactionary linguistic protectionism has caused more damage than the encroachment of English. Ostensibly a means of national unity, the promotion of one official national language often effaces linguistic variation and marginalizes their speakers. The harm of this strategy (seen at one point or another in China, India, Cambodia, Turkey et al.) results from the claim of authenticity — that one language represents the interests and culture of everyone. English makes no such claim. It's an outsider's language, connecting people rather than defining them.

The fear that learning English will dilute cultural identity is frankly silly. Learning a new language allows a more complex and intimate relationship with the mother tongue.  Translating requires attuning oneself more closely to the contours and snags of language. Around the world, untranslatable words become a source of pride and identity: Portuguese "saudade"; German "Weltschmerz." The giddy recognition that certain words can only belong to "us" are sparked by difficulties in translation. Exposing insufficiencies in a new language means recognizing the unique contributions of your own language. This ability exists alongside the tangible benefits of translating recipes, traditions, and songs that make up heritage.

In other words, most people learn English not to be accepted by its native speakers, but to introduce their own ideas to the widest possible audience. To think otherwise strips agency from the learners. A desire to learn English requires neither infatuation with the British Empire nor America. How could we explain its increasing popularity in countries, like China, that maintain an absolute sense of their culture's superiority?

Full disclosure: I am currently teaching English at a university in Malaysia, and terms like "linguistic imperialism" rankle for personal reasons. However, my experience teaching has reinforced my belief that English language learners are not in thrall to American culture: they prefer Korean soap operas, are dubious about Obama, and without a doubt want to eat their own country's food. They consider English a tool for their own use.

Rather than preying on the malleability of students, an English-language classroom exposes the malleability of the language. In the end, the English language may retain its position as international language not due to but despite its political and historical baggage. English is a open-source language, shaped by those who speak it. It becomes a site of cultural collision and negotiation rather than a means of maintaining insider/outsider distinctions.

The term "World Englishes" refers to the variations of English adapted to the priorities and characters of various cultures around the world. The concept of "World Englishes" might seem to recommend local teachers rather than "native-speaker" teachers. In reality, local teachers (who have learned English methodically) frequently insist on the most formal and traditional model of the language. A native speaker, versed in contemporary slang, postmodern literature or the playful elisions and distortions of rap music, is probably more comfortable with and conscious of English's plasticity.

More sensible criticism could be directed at the self-righteousness of some young teachers and fellows. This is a job —–a personally fulfilling and pleasurable one — not a benevolent act. The throngs of 20-something expats who teach abroad should be identified neither as heroes nor as agents of an American conspiracy of conquest and subjection.