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Can we disentangle TEFL from its colonial past?

Yes, says Alice Rodgers, but first we must be aware of it

I was only about 20 when I moved to Colombia for a year to improve my Spanish and carry out research for my Bachelor thesis. It was an exhilarating, scary and challenging time in my life; I moved there without knowing anyone. But did I mention I was 20? I braced myself for the anticipated challenges and got stuck into making connections with people who eventually became friends.

It was also around this time that I started teaching English. It wasn’t part of my plan, but when a friend of a friend offered me the gig, I eagerly took it. My lessons were OK for someone with little to no experience. I relied mostly on my ‘skills’ as a (British) native English speaker and was able to correct my students’ mistakes when they made them, even if I was barely able to explain why it was that their sentences were grammatically wrong. I have a distinct memory of feeling like I was learning with my students; having my own “aha!” moments, when we would read through a worksheet or a grammar explanation together.

I began to love working as an English teacher, but I still saw it mostly as the perfect means to make a bit of extra cash. You can imagine how strange it was then, when suddenly I started getting approached by people in my friendship circle who would enthusiastically say things to me like, “Wow, how incredible that you’re teaching English to Colombians. You’re really opening so many doors for people!”

I found this odd and I struggled to convince myself that I – a now 21-year-old whose main life achievements at this point revolved around being able to handle my aguardiente (a Colombian anise-flavoured alcoholic drink) and learning how to dance salsa – had suddenly transformed overnight into some sort of altruistic humanitarian worker. I started to ask myself what was going on here and couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in fact being praised simply for having by sheer luck been born a native speaking, white, British person.

“The very fact that it’s only through attaining adequate English language 
skills that people are able to achieve social advancement is extremely 
troubling”

It was then that I started to reflect on the inequality inherent within the world of TEFL. Yes, those friends of friends were right that learning English could open many doors for Colombians in terms of education and job prospects. But the very fact that it’s only through attaining adequate English language skills – a privilege that, due to the high costs of private tutoring and international schooling, is usually only accessible to a small privileged group – that people are able to achieve social advancement is extremely troubling. We find ourselves, as teachers, actually contributing to the global political, social and economic inequalities that torment so many people in this globalised world today.

To understand what’s really going on here it’s crucial to take a look at the history of TEFL and its inextricable connection to the colonialist projects of the British (and later American) empires.

Until the 19th century, Britain was a major colonial power, having built a worldwide system of dependencies and stripping indigenous peoples of their lands and diverse cultures. Aside from violence, the spread of disease and causing famine, another technique the British used to assert control over populations was through education and the teaching of white European superiority, part of which included teaching English.

English was seen as a means to ‘modernise’ and ‘civilise’ indigenous peoples.

But it was actually during the historical period after colonialism (so-called ‘post-colonialism’, although the idea that there has ever really been a ‘post’ period to colonialism has been hotly contested by scholars and writers alike) that the spread of English as a lingua franca really flourished. Post-colonial theory maintains that this was a time during which empires were looking for methods of conserving the subservience of previously colonised countries (see Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction by Robert JC Young, 2016). As Suhanthie Motha explains in her book Race, Empire, and English Language Teaching (2014), this is what is stamped on the profession that we, as TEFL teachers, occupy today.

This idea that English is a tool for the enlightenment and civilisation of certain uneducated people still persists. A great deal of research has gone into analysing the prevalence of this sort of neo-colonialist thinking within TEFL materials (see Linguistic Colonialism in the English Language Textbooks of Multinational Publishing Houses by Jairo Eduardo Soto-Molina and Pilar Méndez, 2020, for example). It is common to see the reproduction of old colonial notions of Self and Other (a concept developed by Gayatri Spivak in her essay Can the Subaltern Speak?, 2010). We see presented a modern, forward- thinking, educated (English-speaking) society, which is contrasted with a society that is static, conservative and uneducated. One acts as an active transmitter of knowledge and the other a submissive receiver of knowledge. There is little room for interculturality and English is presented as the dominant, most economically useful global language.

Within this we see the glorification of the native speaker who, regardless of educational or professional experience, is appraised as the worthier teacher. This is something that Robert Phillipson famously discussed in his book Linguistic Imperialism (1992). He looked at how ‘native-speaker supremacy’, as well as English- only policies within the classroom and the idea that using other languages in the classroom reduces English standards contributes towards the hegemony of English.

Motha crucially points out that these endeavours are not only highly political, but also commercial, and we just need to look at how much money is to be made from ELT (the sector generates around £1.4bn in income for the UK each year) to be convinced of this. She also points out that despite this, English is portrayed as an entirely neutral enterprise and one that exists purely for the benefit of helping people escape from poverty and attain economic betterment.

A lot has happened since I was 20 and living in Colombia, living my best life. Not only have I grown professionally as an English teacher, but also as an activist, and my knowledge and awareness of global inequalities and unjust

“The question remains: considering TEFL’s problematic legacy of 
colonisation, is it possible to continue to work in this field and not 
contribute to neo-colonialist practices of Western domination?”

societal power relations has grown massively. But then the question remains: considering TEFL’s problematic legacy of colonisation, is it possible to continue to work in this field and not contribute to neo-colonialist practices of Western domination? Is it possible to continue to work as an English teacher in a way that is anti-racist, ethical and responsible?

This is a big question and I’m not going to claim to have all the answers, but if history has taught us anything, it’s that there has always been resistance to oppression and structures of inequality. As teachers of English, the primary place we can start is with educating ourselves and with having a solid understanding of TEFL’s dark history – a history that is so often hidden by claims of neutrality.

As Motha points out, the solution is not to stop teaching English altogether, since this would only serve to accord more power to those who already speak the language. English is, whether we like it or not, a valuable currency today and TEFL teachers have the ability to empower students to have their voices heard within the global landscape. But

“It’s important that students have access to English lessons that validate 
rather than erase their cultural identities”

it is imperative that we have an awareness of the ways in which our own privileges play out in the classroom, as well as in the global field of TEFL in general. Our practices with our students need to be conscious and we need to allow the students themselves to guide their teaching. It’s important that students have access to English lessons that validate rather than erase their cultural identities and that the material they are learning from is culturally relevant to them.

Learning English is not going to stop opening doors for people any time soon. But we need to bear in mind, as teachers and as people who are interested in making the world a better place, that it is the acquisition of knowledge, in all its facets and forms that truly opens doors for people. Knowing the history of English teaching and bringing that awareness into the classroom through anti-racist pedagogies is something we should all strive towards.

REFERENCES

Motha, Suhanthie (2014) Race, Empire and English Language Teaching, New York: Teachers College Press.

Phillipson, Robert (1992) Linguistic Imperialism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Soto, Jairo Eduardo & Mendez, Pilar (2020) ‘Linguistic Colonialism in the English Language Textbooks of Multinational Publishing Houses’, How Journal, 27 (1), pp 11-28.

Young, Robert JC (2016) Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction, West Sussex: Wiley- Blackwell.

Chakravorty, Gayatri (2010) Can the Subaltern Speak?, Columbia University Press.

Alice Rodgers is a Berlin- based English teacher and activist. She is also the creator of the website Hot Take English, which provides EFL resources for students and teachers who are interested in the news, activism and social justice.

Images courtesy of PHOTO BY SHUTTERSTOCK and Library
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