The Burden of English

English class. Uganda, 2010.

Teaching English abroad is a billion dollar business. With English being the language of commerce, it’s an imperative skill. For persons from less developed countries, learning it can be a way to facilitate a move to a more economically viable place, or at least the chance to study in western schools. In wealthy countries, English is necessary for many of the same reasons. It’s the lingua franca of the upper class.

With language comes culture. Most people would argue that it’s impossible to divorce one from the other. Even if Anglo culture is not addressed in the classroom, a better understanding of the language will lead to a better understanding of English speakers.

Native speakers are recruited to teach around the world. Most instuctors are generally only a few years removed from university, if that, as careers and family interfere with one’s ability to pick up and move across the globe. English language instruction schools run the gamut between mom and pop shops with a handful of employees to multinational corporations with branches in many different countries.

Souciant recently spoke to a number of people who have taught English in countries including China, Malaysia, South Korea, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Germany, Mexico, and in the United States, to foreign nationals. While their experiences were not all that similar, some of the same stories were repeated, especially by those who taught in similar locations.



There are two main reasons given for non-English speakers to learn the language: the first is to move to a western country, which is often times the United States. This is a common assumption made about ESL students – that they’re learning English in order to emigrate. The teachers interviewed who taught in South Korea, Turkey, and in Western Europe dispel this greatly.

The second reason is related to English-learners employment in their own countries, especially when it comes to multinational corporations based there. Some might already have jobs and see English as a way to advance up the corporate ladder. These are usually people who have been in the workforce for a number of years. Related to this, there are those who are trying to get hired at a company where speaking English would be seen as an important skill. In today’s globalized world, that’s almost everywhere.

Helene Truesdale, who taught English for three years while living in Turkey, recalls that many of her students were factory workers who were approaching middle age and worried that they might lose their jobs to younger workers with a better command of English. This was in 2005, when Turkey was first getting attention regarding possibly joining the European Union. According to Truesdale, “… most of my students were there to save themselves from being fired and were studying English in hopes that it would improve their image as much as if not more so than their job skills.”

These were not people who intended to ever leave Turkey. They weren’t the executives at the local H&M factory, hoping to be able to better communicate with the boss back at headquarters in Stockholm. These were the rank and file working class who felt like their jobs were at risk and were hoping to stave off what they saw as the inevitable. While there is a certain amount of historical certainty to workers being replaced by the younger and more educated, the fact that there is a globalized and homogenized cultural aspect to this scenario speaks volumes as to the importance of English in the developing world.

Instructor in camos. South Korea, 2009
Instructor in camos. South Korea, 2009.

The concept of linguistic imperialism, especially how it pertains to teaching English as a foreign language, has been bandied about in both linguistic and anti-globalization circles for the past twenty years. The main treatise on the subject, Robert Phillipson’s Linguistic Imperialism, was written in 1992. While there are no end to articles and discussions online about the link between EFL and globalization, it seems like little is brought up to the actual teachers. Indeed, something that came up with a number of the teachers Souciant spoke with in researching this article was not realizing the extent of their power over the students, especially when it comes to cultural education.

Max Heidel, who taught mostly high school-aged students in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China, which is near Hong Kong, said that while he was very conscious of the cultural aspect to his classes, he never felt any guilt related to spreading western culture. According to Heidel, “I didn’t feel guilty at all, because it’s so fashionable there to be able to speak English, or have foreign things, or hang out with foreign friends. … They’ve taken so much from western culture already.”

Heidel’s thoughts were echoed by another American, William Cortez, who taught in China as well as in Malaysia. Cortez said that while he struggled with the notion that he was participating in any kind of imperialism, “when I looked at it from an outside perspective I saw that I was helping to give them an unfortunately necessary tool for their futures.” That explanation, that English is as important to a student’s education as mathematics or history – or perhaps more so – is inarguable. We live in a world dominated by western culture and language. The question then becomes not of the necessity of English but as to how it is being taught and the severity of impact upon local language and culture. Again, this depends on geography and economics.

Carrie Beemer, an American expat in Mexico City, has been teaching English there for the past three years. She told Souciant that her main classes are mainly made up of people between 20 and 45 years old who work for global or foreign-based companies. They’re studying English either because it’s required at their position or because they want to apply for a job where proficiency is expected. The school where Beemer teaches also offers test preparedness classes for TOEIC and TOEFL, where the students are closer to high school age. According to Beemer, “Some of the younger students want to study abroad, but most people don’t want to relocate, although nearly everyone has family in the United States and mentions that speaking English while traveling is an incentive to learning.”

Being directly over the border from the United States, Mexicans have a far more clear understanding of the culture and the economy there than any other non-English speaking country. There is an immense amount of traffic between the two countries, and Mexicans are inundated with media from the United States. Even considering that, and the fact that almost all Mexicans have relatives in the US, there are many misconceptions that Beemer has to address in the classroom. She attributes that in part to language-related barriers. In regards to tourism, which is more common amongst the middle and upper classes in Mexico, she said that, “many folks feel their experiences speaking mostly Spanish in the United States was somehow lacking. Many people seem, in some undefinable way, to be searching for a more Hollywood-like experience with United States culture.”

Language school advert. Paris, 2008.
Language school advert. Paris, 2008.

That experience is rarely alluded to in the advertisements for teaching English abroad posted to Website’s like Dave’s ESL Café  or on the individual school Websites. English First, an English language school that’s headquartered in Shanghai and has branches around the world, has included in their mission statement on their Website: “Today, barriers of language, culture and geography divide people around the world. Teaching abroad with EF will break down those barriers not only for you, but also for your students. The programs and courses we offer our students truly change lives. By teaching abroad with EF, you can help people of all nationalities and ages get better jobs, participate in the global economy and become citizens of the world.”

This push towards making the world a better place through English education has a number of qualifications, a major one being that only native English speakers get jobs teaching EFL. According to Diana Talyansky, who taught in South Korea, it goes further than that: “Canadians, Australians, anybody who spoke English with anything but a standard Midwest dialect was asked to speak in standard Midwest dialect” by the director of the school.

Race can be just as important as accent when it comes to the image of what you want your English teacher to be. Talyansky said that she witnessed a lot of racism and xenophobia during her time in Korea, including an African American being denied a job specifically because of the color of their skin. She attributed some of that to the reaction to the American military presence in the country, which is seen as an affront by many Koreans.

An article on NBC News’ website about teaching English in China expands on this. Candidates for teaching jobs were chosen based mainly on how they looked, not their academic backgrounds. Talyansky explained that especially when it comes to younger students, “They need these teachers to show the parents more than anything” academic. Image – and with that, cultural capital – becomes the most important thing a prospective teacher can bring to an interview.

However, according to Talyansky neither the dislike of the American military or the nationalistic fervor most Koreans feel towards their culture – the national film and music industries (The Korean Wave) are government subsidized in order to provide a kind of alternative to western culture as well as to serve to proselytize Korean culture around the world – doesn’t diminish their hunger for learning English.

Iraqi refugees learn English. Amman, 2012.
Iraqi refugees learn English. Amman, 2012.

Talyansky said that Koreans study English because, “You have to have English to get a good job to work for a big international company, which is the goal. Everybody wants to work for Samsung. Everybody wants to work for Hyundai. …That’s the light at the end of the tunnel.” There was less interest in western culture because the students did not want to emigrate. If that has to happen, Talyansky said, “They want to take as much as they can from other places and then bring it home and develop their own [culture].”

When foreign workers do come to the west for extended periods of time, they occasionally end up in English classes, depending on their level of fluency. Souciant spoke with two people who taught these classes in the United States, both of whom also have experience teaching English in Western Europe.

Benjamin Truesdale worked for the same multinational English school in Germany and the United States. The school, which he asked Souciant not to name, teaches mostly executives. Truesdale explained that the school has a mostly homogenous learning experience across all its branches. This is an effort at creating a culture or experience that can be replicated, which is important when you’re trying to teach thousands of executives at the same company who all live in different countries. For example, if everyone at every T-Mobile office around the world can speak English in the same way and have the same general knowledge of western culture, that would facilitate communication on a company-wide level.

On the lessons the school offered, Truesdale stated, “Business English, while pretending to be this language that everyone can speak, is euphemized American English: the values are still market capitalistic and ego-driven and based on really archaic models of personal patronage that still shape that particular system. … That’s really what’s being coded and interwoven into so much of the language in this culture. And that’s what I was asked to teach.”

As far as teaching in the United States, Truesdale said that some of what he was doing at the school was explaining cultural differences and helping the students cope with their new environments. His students there were not just the executives who were in the United States for a short stint but their families who often had less command of English.

Ian Winter has been teaching at a similar school in Philadelphia for the past three years. He described his students as being here for the purpose of learning English and then returning home or perhaps studying at an American university first. The classes are not segregated by country of origin and can be quite multicultural according to Winter, which might be a new experience for some of the students. Asked about ethnic tensions in his classes, Winter said there are few problems because of the economic background of the students: “When you have an English class of people who are coming here for a temporary period of time and going back, you’re getting people who are more middle class, you’re getting people who are already open to this idea of a new experience.”

Winter told Souciant that although he doesn’t feel much guilt about teaching English as a foreign language in the United States, that it’s not feasible to separate the language and culture: “Nobody would pay me to teach them English if the United States wasn’t a capitalistic imperialist power in the world and a cultural imperialist power in the world.”

The Chinese economy is one of the fastest growing in the world. Chinese culture has also been creeping into the international market, especially when it comes to tie-ins and collaborations with western-based cultural industries. For example, more Hollywood films are being set partially or entirely in China, as that industry tries to capitalize on the popularity of cinema there. Ironman 3, with its scenes shot in Beijing and the use of well-known Chinese actors, is a perfect ideation of this. Still, even with all this happening, Winter cannot imagine a world where Chinese language and culture are dominant in the same way English is now.

“A lot of people have this idea that English is really important because of the American economy,” he said. “And I think that that’s true but that really for most people that I meet on a day-to-day basis that they’re not really concerned with the economy as much as they’re concerned with watching American movies and listening to American music. That’s their real drive for learning English: they want to be cool.”

At the end of the day, English is here to stay. While some teachers make it a point to explain all of the shortcomings of western culture and others gloss over even the most superficial problems, they’re all dealing with students who are hungry for the power that English brings with it. That power is, at its most basic, a tool. As Winter explained: “Because English is the de facto universal language, it’s imperialist but it’s also functional. There’s things that you can do with it that ultimately improve the world.”


Photographs courtesy of  Twin Work and Volunteer, USAYongsan, Greg Whalin  and  aymanfadel. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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