Saturday, August 31, 2013

Is Teaching English a Form of Imperialism?

NOTE: Lizzy is a New Trier American Studies "grad", currently studying abroad in Mendoza, Argentina for the semester, trying to become fluent in Spanish through immersion. We are thrilled to have her guest-post [edited for length]. As we have discussed how difficult it is to examine our own society in a critical manner, think about how her experience in another country gives her a novel perspective on the USA (OC and Mr > B). 

Since apparently being bedridden with a strange Argentine flu...I am not going to be allowed to volunteer at an elementary school during my time here....But now I am going to try to tutor some kids in English, as a favor to a friend....

All of the locals seem to want to know more about American culture and they all want to practice their English whenever they talk to me. At the weekly “cultural exchange” night, I am routinely asked if Americans really eat bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning (Nope. I don't, at least.) And if college is really like the movies (usually not, but occasionally yes). And once I got on the wrong bus with a couple of friends around the time that middle schools were letting out, and we ended up hanging out with a bunch of very loud 13 year-olds and being barraged with questions about what different dirty English phrases meant. I assume these questions stemmed from watching TV, YouTube videos, and listening to "Blurred Lines". 

It was pretty funny to be asked these kinds of questions while so far from what I would call “United States culture”. But really, the mass culture of the US is everywhere with[-in] an internet connection. And seeing Walmart and McDonald’s here bothers me. But before, I was always just tickled by hearing peoples’ broken English — it made me feel better about my own Spanish abilities. It did, at least, until a girl from my program (who is American, but whose parents were born in South America) told me that she considers the spread of English to be a spread of American imperialism. Yes, it’s funny that it’s from the “British Council”.

And I have to say that I agree with her. American culture is flashy and it’s easy to get young people from other countries hooked on it. But the opportunity cost is that they have less energy to devote to their own heritage. It’s especially a big issue in places where there are indigenous languages that are dying out because English is perceived as a more worthwhile thing to learn.

The spread of English and the culture of the United States is gobbling up the culture and language of other places. But does this mean that I am not going to teach English? No. Every day, I have people here tell me that I am blessed to be a native English speaker. With English, they say, you can travel anywhere. To be a doctor here, you have to learn English. To be a scientist, you have to learn English. To be a businessperson? English. There are entire majors in the university built around “technical English”. 

And it is not for me to decide that I have the right to know the language, but that, as it is destroying other cultures, I also have the right to try to prevent that by refusing to teach. Practically thinking, there are plenty of other willing English teachers. But also, who am I to tell someone to be content with who they are and that they have the responsibility to preserve their culture for future generations? That is not my decision to make for them. Because for me to make that decision would be just another manner of me imposing my values on others.


Anonymous said...

As the official lingua franca of the world, English dominates not only as a language but culture as well. The globalization of American culture, I agree, threatens the cultures of other nations. Some may not see the need to preserve the cultural heritage of different nations. However, we must ask ourselves, do we really want a homogeneous world? I certainly do not. What makes humanity progress is our differences, for differences in culture create differences in people, governments, and economic systems. The unique identities of nations are values we must work to preserve.

Anonymous said...

An additional idea just came into my head! I looked back at the title "Is Teaching English Imperialism" which made me think about the economical value of culture. The United States promotes it's own cultural economy by shipping Hollywood, iTunes, Home Depot, and The Gap abroad. This could very well be seen as a discreet form of Imerialism (defined as an unequal relationship based on ideas of superiority and practices of dominance). As the dominant culture of the world and one could argue that the intentional spread of American culture extinguishes other cultures, therefore causing America to become the superior culture and allowing us to dominate the social, cultural, AND economical aspects of the world.

Audrey Kim said...

I believe that teaching English in other countries is not a form of imperialism. People want to learn how to speak english not because they want to give up their culture but because they want to become successful. Knowing the language doesn't make people "better," but it is a tool that will lead people to more opportunities. Being part of the 1.5 generation, my mother knew that learning English was a necessity in order to pursue her aspirations. Although she is very westernized,she still knows about and practices her native culture. Many accomplished people give back to their native countries and use them as a part of who they are. As Lizzy is teaching in Argentina, she gives an influence that shifts the natives' understanding of the United States, but she also soaks in a new culture foreign to her.

David H. said...

I do not believe that teaching English in foreign countries is a form of imperialism, because no one is requiring anyone to learn it. But, I do think this brings to light the larger issue of whether America is "imperializing" the world. While teaching English abroad is not a form of imperialism, people feel the need to learn the language because of America's widespread influence across the world. Examples of this are how American food and clothing chains have spread to every corner of the globe, and how English is spoken in more countries than any other language. Also, the United States gets involved and tries to control foreign affairs, just like what we are seeing in Syria right now. So I do not believe that teaching English in foreign countries is imperialism, but I feel that learning English has become a necessity worldwide because of how widespread other forms of American imperialism have gotten.

Josh Sussman said...

I agree with David, teaching English is not a form of imperialism. It is true that many people around the world want to Americanize by eating American food, wearing American clothes, and most of all learn to speak the American language, English. Why American culture though? Wouldn't people want to keep their own culture and heritage? I think the reason goes back to the formation of the United States. I think people want to be part of a culture leaning towards an American society.