Some thoughts on being a language teacher: linguistic imperialism


I have been since I decided what I wanted to do, a language teacher.  I didn’t end up here by mistake.

The first place I went was Russia with Peace Corps.  Peace Corps had in high (sarcastic) comedy brought all these “teachers” to one of the most educated countries on the planet to teach the teachers how to teach English.  It was kind of hard to, as a young inexperienced teacher, to not confess to the 50-year old women I was “teaching” that they knew more about what they were doing that I did, in all reality.  But we would never, never do that.

So it was not unusual to find oneself at times with a bit of time on our hands.  And so much time to think.

By the time I got to Russia, I had also spent some time in Ecuador living with a host family.  The host family son, Diego said something along the lines of this to me early in my trip:

Some people I think might be kind of intimidated by you because you come from America, and it is such a powerful country.  And we are not such a powerful country.


From my (probably naive?) American perspective, one of “privilege”, I thought he was pulling my leg.  But after being pursued in Russia by so many schoolchildren asking me to sign their tetratchiki (small notebooks where they did homework) I wondered if maybe he knew something I didn’t.

And the college students wanted to hang out with me too.  Not always because I am so charismatic (tongue in cheek), but because my English was good for their careers.  And their career was their ticket OUT.

All this sunk in over the course of a couple years.  Some people kind of resented Americans and English, as illustrated by a song I heard in Ecuador called “Paren de venir” which basically means “Please stop coming to our country” and then rattles off a long list of American entertainment and cultural exports.

I realized that my teaching English had a sort of unspoken message of the pragmatics of language.  The message, unspoken was this:

English is the language of money.  We (America) have money and power.  Learn our language, it will help you to get out of your country, or at least have a better life.

Implicit in this was that the nationals did not have this money or power.  I actually started to feel a little uncomfortable with teaching English because there were all these vague reminders of this status that English represented.

And yet it was in constant tension with the fact that despite being native speakers of English, most of us really weren’t the real teachers in the classroom at this stage of our career.

I filed all these thoughts away when I left teaching overseas.

However, as a Spanish teacher, this whole linguistic imperialism thought returns.

Many curricula of Spanish teach kids how to go to Spanish-speaking countries more or less as tourists.  Buying handicrafts, staying in hotels, checking out museums and other “attractions”, ordering drinks at an outdoor cafe.  All lovely tourist activities, ones that I enjoy.  Perhaps I am a little sensitized to the issue.

The only reason I even notice it is because no one really mentions or discusses the elephant in the room;  the Latino population in our own communities.

And what would they say if they did, anyway?

The whole notion piqued my curiosity.  Is there a way to create a curriculum that at once met the realistic needs of the learner, and did not communicate the socio-economic realities of the relationship between the learners and the citizens of the target language?

I was thinking a little further on this subject and realized there was a little more to this.  When I was teaching English in Russia, the focus was typically serious.  Money, history, culture, colloquialisms, management, business etc.  The 19 year olds I worked with in Saratov Russia were training to be “managers”.  I had to work to be able to say that with a straight face.

Additionally, working with men from Daimler Chrysler, our subjects focused more on giving presentations, human resources, and topics that upper income earners might find interesting.  Like going to vineyards, and stores which sold equipment for small aircraft.

When I taught even for young students, the subjects were more general in nature, like parts of the body, objects in the home, around the town, health and school vocabulary (naturally).

What is in a curriculum does somehow communicate what is important either to the power structures that have decided the language be taught, or what is important for the learners to know.  A friend of mine who was learning Farsi was showing me a childrens book in Farsi (spoken in Iran).  On page one it said “Here is the town.”  then “Here are the homes where we live.”  then “Here is the market, where we buy food.” and went on until it came to the desert.  It said then “Here is the desert where we fight our wars.”

Both my friend and I were very surprised and had to look again, look at the front of the book and see if this was for real.   Neither of us knew what to make of it.

I can’t make more of this than is really there, but one wonders why when I taught at an American university the first chapter of  Spanish 1 teaches the student how to order a drink, rather than say, basic greetings.

Curriculum for English learners on the whole I suspect is more pragmatic and financially oriented, while Americans tend to learn “leisure” vocabulary. Certainly there might be exceptions to this (perhaps Berlitz?), but honestly, English is now where French was 30 or 40 years ago, enjoying position as an international language (particularly of money).

I love teaching a foreign language, because this is my area, I think Americans should know 2 or 3 foreign languages, at least, like the rest of the world does.  But really, they don’t have to.  Everyone young nowadays in populated areas at least are exposed at the very least to English, and in most urban areas, English is as important as say, Math.

Truthfully, my experience has not been that Spanish has led me to the big money.  I was told this alot, and even though it didn’t add up in my head, naturally I wanted to believe it was true.  I confess this with some hesitation because I told an older lady this once and she just snorted at me and suggested there was something wrong with me.  Spanish has led me to a job that I love though, and that is all I really ever wanted, so it’s all good.

I could go on and on with stories that in some way or another demonstrate this point;  the cabby who said that even though I was an American, he would always be richer than me (what had I done to provoke that comment?), the people who wanted to entertain the American (while my Sudanese friend told stories of rocks being thrown at her by children) etc.  Suffice it to say, there is a position that English and being an American holds in developing countries.  Inside our borders, for those of us who haven’t ventured out, how can we be aware of it?

I suppose my real surprise came at seeing this “position” in the international community be recognized even in curricula of language learning.  And then ultimately realizing that I was part of the very subtle message.  I wonder what language will be powerful after English has had its run, after all, French didn’t last forever, nor did Latin.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Zhenya says:

    Heather, you bring up an interesting question. I actually never really gave it a lot of thought until reading and thinking about your post. I am doing my practicum at a local community college where on a daily basis, the teacher teachers her adult students (in a careful way) what to do and say so to be more like Americans. She encourages them (at the end of almost every class) to watch American television. For what? I ask myself this every time she does this. There are other ways of listening to native speakers. I think that she wants them to get exposure to the American way of life, culture. She thinks they NEED this to fit in.
    I think that communicating the socio-economic relationships is inevitable when learning English as an immigrant to the country as it is needed to move up the socio economic ladder. It also will come up (as you mentioned) if the learning of the language occurs because of a need to get OUT to get a better life.

  2. Heather says:

    Zhenya your comment reminds me of a young lady I went swimming with in a small town in Russia who boasted strongly of all the American TV shows she watched, Santa Barbara and 90210 and Walker Texas Ranger. She spoke the most peculiar British/Californian English I ever heard.

    While I never watched much Russian TV, I have to admit, I felt a twinge of pride when one Russian woman told me I was practically a Russian girl at the end of my 2 years. And I have heard other people say this same thing in showing a sort of pride to adapting to their environment. When I arrived, people kept asking if I was Baltic.

    I only wrote this because all this has made/makes me feel a little uneasy at times to think I might be part of this.

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