Teaching English Abroad- My (Rambling) Thoughts

First off, I apologize for the long post, I just have lots of feels about this particular subject! Also- 2 days until I’m off!

A lot of people ask me how I can teach English in Bosnia without being able to speak the language there. I have a few responses ready to talk about my specific situation. “Oh, we’re working alongside coteachers from the University of Sarajevo who are native speakers of Bosnian.” “Oh, most children there speak English anyway.” “Oh, we want to learn Bosnian but there aren’t any programs or books we can use.” All our easy answers aside, there’s a deeply unsettling moral ambiguity about what we’re doing. Isn’t it very brash, very imperialistic, very American of us to waltz into another country and demand that its residents learn our language without bothering to learn a word of theirs’?

There’s a rather disturbing trend among recent graduates (especially in the liberal arts) to spend a year or so teaching English abroad before returning to the harsh realities of the job market, student loans, and graduate school. Undergrads interested in teaching abroad can apply to a variety of programs, including prestigious government positions such as Fulbright English Teaching Assistantships and the Peace Corps, reputable volunteer programs such as World Teach, and various other NGOs and volunteer programs. These programs all offer various degrees of training and support, and I know many people who had wonderful experiences in these programs. I am considering several of these programs after I graduate, and I believe that they can beneficial for the Americans who participate in them (I’m not yet sure about their benefits for the students). However, these programs seem to be predicated on two ideas: 1) the idea that anybody can teach without teacher training and 2) the idea that native speakers of a language (regardless if they can speak the local language) are the best teachers.

As an education student, I am fundamentally opposed to the idea that anyone can become a teacher without training. I base my opposition to this idea on my own experience: I began volunteering as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher to adults in January 2012, one year before I started taking education classes in January 2013. I started out as a painfully nervous and awkward teacher, but I have definitely improved since then. Some of my improvement is due to experience, but I learned some basic strategies and principles in my ESL methods classes that I had never even considered beforehand. Although I’m not 100% convinced that all of my education coursework is completely applicable in the classroom, I do think I am a much better teacher because of my ESL classes. Many students interested in teaching internationally explain that they have not taken education classes because they have no interest in becoming a certified teacher in the US, but many schools offer classes for students interested in teaching English that do not lead to certification (such as the TESOL minor at my school). Some schools offer classes such as “Teaching English Abroad”–I took a class like this last semester, and it was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken–so there’s really no excuse for would-be international ESL teachers not to get some kind of training.

The idea that native speakers of a language are the best teachers is related to the “everyone can teach” mentality. I also find it somewhat debatable. In my experience learning languages, I’ve had native-speaker teachers who were fantastic and also native-speaker teachers who were terrible. Along the same lines, I’ve had wonderful foreign language teachers who spoke English as their first language, and I’ve also had terrible foreign language teachers who spoke English as their first language. It really depends on the individual teacher. Intuitively, however, I think that teachers who have learned the target language as a second language are actually much more effective–they know the tricks of acquiring the language later in life, and are much more likely to explain nuances in detail or offer memory tricks. Teachers who are native speakers of the target language tend to be less thorough or unable to accurately explain nuances of the language; furthermore, they might not fully understand the education culture that their students are familiar with (such as my first Arabic professor who focused exclusively on reading translation rather than conversation).  Being exposed to a native teacher does help students develop a native-like accent, but research has found that language learners usually do not develop a native-like accent (even if they are fluent!) unless they learn the language before they turn 14 or so. Having a native-speaker teacher will only help a small segment of students in this respect.

All of these concerns don’t even touch the biggest issue–isn’t going into another country to teach your language a form of cultural imperialism? For my own experiences, I’ve mitigated this issue with my personal philosophy–I keep on telling myself this (very clunky) mantra: “I’ve been invited to Bosnia to teach, but I was drawn to this experience because of the opportunity  to learn about the Bosnian education system, culture and language. It’s important to learn from people that have life experiences that differ from my own.” Once I’m in Bosnia, though, I have to make sure my actions reflect my goal of being a learner rather than a teacher. Also, I find the fact that many Bosnians see learning English as a key to economic success (and understanding their favorite television programs) very encouraging (although I do worry about the system that rewards learning English above other foreign languages). Still, I worry that the growth of English as a world language is a form of neo-imperialism. I really want to feel comfortable teaching English abroad–after all, I would love to spend the rest of my life (ok, the next decade or so) traveling and teaching English and learning about the cultures of all different countries. Overall, though, teaching English abroad is a very bold, brash act–one with implications that most Americans typically don’t think about–and even though it’s my dream career, it’s a field that I’m deeply uncomfortable with.


3 thoughts on “Teaching English Abroad- My (Rambling) Thoughts

  1. Pingback: Send Dutch applicants abroad back home! | Learning and teaching English in the Netherlands

  2. Dear ‘arhartly’, thank you for this very intelligent post. You manage to balance among various contradictory ideas. Well-done! I also agree with almost all your ideas and opinion.

    Personally, I don’t think teaching English abroad is per se neo-imperialism on the part of native speakers, but yes, it may seem so if some of them try to just go out and teach without being trained and with little interest in the locals. Teaching is partly skills, partly imagination and art based on experience and experimenting over time, and only partly talent.

    You are definitely correct saying that trained non-native teachers are often, if not mostly, better at drawing the attention of learners to aspects of the language that may evade the attention of natives. I have the same experience with a Dutch friend who has helped me a lot speaking Dutch. He is old, but has a flexible and open mind, and is repeatedly surprised by my questions regarding his language, saying, “I haven’t thought about this yet, that’s a very good question.” He’s not bootlicking, seriously. But I may also not be able to teach my own language as well as I can teach English, although I am aware of differences between the two. But I am a lot more aware of the ins-and-outs of English. A non-native has gone through the same chores that other non-natives have to go through learning it, so of course, I know a lot about it, much more than most who have taken it with their mothers’ milk.

  3. Pingback: Teaching English: Making My Dream to Travel the World a Reality | Butterfly Jewel

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