Sometimes when I tell people what I do for a living – teach English to speakers of other languages (ESL) in other countries – they start using words like travel and adventure. Maybe some of that comes from a long history of young adults backpacking through Europe or Asia earning a little spending money here and there “teaching” English to the locals. Throughout the various conversations, one thing is fairly clear: they don’t consider what I do a real job or teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) to be real teaching.
Even in the teaching world, at least in the United States, there’s a clear line drawn between those of us who teach English as a language and other teachers. REAL teachers teach general education subjects like math, science, social studies, what is often called “English/Language Arts,” and even foreign languages like Spanish or French. Teaching English to speakers of other languages – like special education – isn’t real teaching and those of us who teach ESL/EFL aren’t real teachers. I’ve even heard some teachers say that special education teachers aren’t real teachers either and have seen ESL/EFL lumped into the same category as special education – as something different from, and therefore inferior to, teaching subjects in a general education classroom.
I admit that teaching a language is different from teaching general education subjects. In general education subjects, students are learning about a subject. They’re not learning skills that will help them to communicate with others. Our goal as language teachers is to help students become proficient in using a particular language to communicate with others who speak that language – whether in a country where that language is the native language or in a country where that language is a “foreign” one. We’re not teaching about language as if we were teaching a linguistics course at university, we’re teaching language and are working to help students become proficient in using that language. We deal in such concepts as second language acquisition and fluency. We use real teaching methodologies. Oh, but we’re not REAL teachers.
Even in some foreign countries there seems to be some misunderstanding about the nature of teaching a language – often even among people who employ language teachers and the governments that grant us our work visas. There are language schools that hire native speakers of the target language (e.g. native Anglophones for English language schools), believing (rightly, in my opinion) that there is some value in having students learn a foreign language from a native speaker of that language. (As a Spanish language learner, I can tell you that I learned more from native Spanish speakers than from the non-native speakers through whom I endured three years of junior high school Spanish).
However, some of these language schools want the native speakers to be nothing more than what I call “language monkeys” – native speakers who are hired essentially to entertain the students and to be paraded around in front of VIPs (some of whom provide funding for the school) – while the real language teaching is done by local teachers, some of whom are themselves only a little more proficient in the language than their students. Some foreign governments, not really having a clue about Western university degrees, are now starting to require English language teachers to have degrees in English, even though English degrees really have nothing to do with English language acquisition or teaching. There’s a clear misunderstanding about the nature of language teaching and what those who teach language need to know before we can presume to teach others.
I’m a language teacher and as much a teacher as those who teach general education subjects. I help students become proficient in a language that is not their own. I’m not half-way around the world from my home country having an adventure. I’m not here to entertain and to regale students with stories of life in America. I gave up the comforts of home and chose to live in a country and culture that is not my own because I believe in the importance of non-Anglophones learning English in a global economy (and of native Anglophones learning another language, but that’s a discussion for another day). I believe in the work I’m doing, the example I’m setting and their positive contribution to the lives of my students (and, yes, positive contribution to the collective life of their country).