The French children wore English words on their bodies. On the teacher’s cue, each nine-year-old stood up and read aloud the words on their shirt. Be Yourself. Here 2 Break Hearts. NYC. Los Angeles. Miami. Est. 2002.
It was the summer of 2016 and I was living in Bretagne, a region in the northwest of France, working as an aupair and English tutor while living with a host family. My host father was a middle school math teacher and had arranged for me to visit a few of the English classes at his school. At the teachers’ request, I created a brief PowerPoint on my “Life as an American Student,” a mix of scenic campus pictures and bulleted facts about the United States. Although our current president was only a candidate at the time, I felt uneasy about representing the United States, and I was sure that the banal facts I had collected would underwhelm my boisterous audience.
Au contraire. Once I began speaking, the rowdy class fell silent, savoring every word. I was asked to re-pronounce “Obama” at least four times. “You see the way she says ‘ObAHma’ instead of ‘ObamAH’? If you want to sound like a native speaker, you need to pay attention to emphasis,” the teacher instructed in a vaguely Australian accent. One student told me, in French, that he wanted to learn English so that he could write popular music. Another student told me that she was doing an exchange in the U.K. so that she would be a competitive applicant for an English-immersion high school program. At the end of the hour, the teacher revealed that every student had worn a t-shirt with English words on it. The students beamed as they rattled off anglophone catch phrases and cities, pithy slogans and celebrites.
Long after I had returned to the United States, I wondered how to read that experience. Of course, the English shirts constituted a gesture of diplomacy; the teacher and her students wanted to show me their knowledge and appreciaton of my country, language, and culture. At the same time, I could not picture the shirt-reading happening in an American classroom hosting a French visitor. How many American children own t-shirts with French words printed on them? Certainly not 100% of an average fourth grade class.
The status of English as a global lingua franca may seem like a given to you. Of course French middle schoolers want to learn English. Diplomats around the world speak English. You may see English-language billboards and advertisements in countries where English is not the dominant language. English is often called “the official language of business.” Naturally, non-native speakers wish to become proficient in English in order to navigate an anglophone-dominant world.
There is lively debate, however, about the implications of making English a global language. Does the expansion of English entail the decline or erasure of other languages? If language and culture are inextricably linked, does the expansion of English entail the decline or erasure of other cultures? Can we theorize the expansion of English a form of neocolonialism? What is the relationship between the English language and race?
As I prepare to spend a year teaching English outside of Tokyo, Japan, I have been considering these questions carefully. Who am I to teach my language when I cannot speak theirs? (Granted, I am trying to learn Japanese—emphasis on ‘trying.’) Over the next few weeks, I will explore the theory and practice of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), weighing in on some important ethical questions. I hope to draw upon perspectives in linguistics, sociology, and anthropology, as well as from my own experiences and observations.
I hope you will be patient with me as I chart my path as a teacher, writer, and advocate of linguistic diversity.
Until next time,
A la prochaine,