More opportunities than ever are available to teach English around the world. The demand for native English speakers is high, the pay is decent and any opportunity to travel is a plus. Even more, helping others learn another language has many cultural and academic benefits.
When one considers the role of English in international trade, politics and cultural exchange, it’s easy to understand why teaching such a language has positive impacts on society. After all, signs around the world are accompanied by an English translation and it has become one of the most studied foreign languages. English speakers can take for granted being able to find help when we’re abroad and navigate public transportation; clearly, there is much to be gained by being able to speak a common language.
However, we must also consider what is being lost by promoting such endeavors. It was in the name of standardizing language that Hawaiian was banned in schools, and Latin America is also seeing a rapid decline of indigenous languages. We see English filtering into other languages as hybrid words are becoming commonplace ways to communicate ideas and keep up with the 21st century. I don’t argue that English and Spanish have directly caused the extinction of lesser-spoken languages around the world, but the question of how standardizing fewer languages impacts smaller tongues still hangs.
I value teaching English because of its utility in the modern world, but I hope we also recognize the subtle consequences that may come as a result of doing this. It feeds into the idea that English is the higher language of business, entertainment and academia. It favors individuals who have access to English-based education and disadvantages those who come from more rural and impoverished places.
Even more can be said about government-funded initiatives that send students and graduates around the world to teach English and represent the United States. The Fulbright ETA Program seeks cultural ambassadors who will serve to maintain diplomatic relations while the Peace Corps helps to build more stable and sustainable communities. The message is clear: Accept what we have to teach you, and we will help you. It’s true that language only represents a single facet of the anglophone-society, but how can you teach language without attaching the culture and norms that shaped it?
We must also acknowledge that the United States funnels considerable funding into foreign language programs. Study abroad and critical language scholarships send Americans all over the world to learn languages pertinent to U.S. foreign policy. Individuals with the ability to speak more than one language have a competitive skill in the job market and schools still have a foreign language proficiency requirement.
Although spreading English helps to bridge cultural gaps, we cannot forget the negative impact and connotation we spread by giving it preference over other languages.