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Pickle Me This

April 13, 2005

English is also bustin out all over

Must draw attention to this article from This Magazine, which takes issue with “linguistic imperialism” and the ethical problem that has been my daily life for the past year. English has become a hot commodity and people are desperate to get it, paying massive fees and going into debt to do so. I think of one of my students, who works night shifts in a toothpaste factory and is usually far too nervous to speak in her English classes, another who had mental problems to begin with (and this is more common than you’d think among our clientele) and now has been admitted to hospital for the next three months. She has lost all the points she bought for English lessons as they’ll expire by the time she’s out. The number of students who feel utterly diminished by their lack of English skills, regardless of what other accomplishments they’ve managed in their lives, and so exalt people such as myself and my co-workers to a near-Godlike status for something we’ve put in no effort to achieve. The people who are desperate to learn idioms and slang, to sound “natural”, like a native speaker- and no one ever does. They want to sound and act Westernized, and at the expense of what? Their parents can’t help but be proud of them though. The article’s missionary metaphor is a successful one- blatantly as some teachers are eager to share their religious faith with students, and others (I am definitely not innocent here) try to share their ideals, which go against cultural grain. We challenge students to defy their parents, to stand up for themselves, to express themselves, to be individuals, on a daily basis.

It’s not all bad. I think there are many teachers who allow themselves to come away with a broadened perspective as a result of their international experience. In a country like Japan, exposing people to the rare foreigner does them a remarkable amount of worldly good. I think the idea of an international communication tool is a positive thing, even if I have to bear the guilt that it’s the language I was born with. Learning a second language is a worthy occupation. The problem is the business, which exploits its customers, preying on their inferiority complexes to make them open their wallets wide, all the while delivering a product that isn’t so entirely good. The problem is this insistence on “nativeness” that allows students to chase an unachievable-for-most goal, and gives companies an excuse to hire teachers (such as myself) with the bare minimum of qualifications.

I’ve had an incredible year like you can’t imagine and I wouldn’t want to take that away from anyone else. But I think it’s important that teachers maintain a realistic perspective on what it is we’re doing here, and so an article like this is a good thing.

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