I’ve recently found myself browsing tons of blogs of people teaching abroad. And while they’re of course very interesting, they’ve also caused me to question the very idea of teaching abroad. I find the stock photos of a white girl grinning broadly amongst a group of dark-skinned Africans to be unsettling. The pretentious nature of outsiders attempting to describe a culture they have known for a few years (at most) is just awkward. The attempts to “fit in” seem pointless and weird, considering our eventual departures. The aversion to hanging out with fellow Westerners and pride in “local” friends is surreal. There are allusions to the awful history of imperialism or current day political tensions, alongside a statement that there is “high demand for native English speakers.”
Last year I had so many students who hated learning English. Their families didn’t speak it and they were rich enough here in their own country to see English-speaking places as places to maybe visit briefly, rather than lands of opportunity and wealth. Plus, Arabic is the language of their religion, which is deeply ingrained in their daily life, and the English translations of the religious phrases seem contrived. (“If God wills it” sounds ridiculously prudish next to “Inshaallah.” I’ve habituated so many Arabic phrases simply because the English equivalent is lame.) It’s extremely hard to express emotion in a second language, and Arabic was full of emotion as their first language. Instead, English is full of colloquialisms and slang and varying pronunciations. (How do you pronounce “pronunciation”? Pro-nown-see-ay-shun or pra-nun-see-ay-shun? Which is right? And can you explain why one is better than the other?) It’s a constant battle to not sound naive or non-native. Is it better to speak American or British English? Most people here prefer American, but how much effort should go into saying “kor-der” rather than “kwar-ter”? English was just not worth the bother.
And I get it! But obviously as their English teacher, I have to attempt to entice them towards the subject. But you know the only reason that logically made sense? “Well, English is the language of international business.” And I hated myself for saying that. Because what if they asked me why? Why the hell is English the language of global business? There are nearly as many native Arabic speakers as native English speakers. And there are definitely more native Chinese speakers. And native Spanish speakers. Why did English get to win? Why was their government forcing them to learn this language and hiring all these foreigners to invade to spread it? And the answer is probably “Because America and Britain run the show.” Which isn’t exactly a pleasant answer to anyone who isn’t American or British.
Remind me to learn Arabic one of these days. And find a new job. One that doesn’t push the American-British world-domination agenda so hard.