Teach Me English

Louis C. K. has an insightful comedic bit about being a white, middle-aged, English-speaking, American male. He discusses the uncomfortable intersection of guilt about having all the unearned privilege each of these identifiers offers him while simultaneously being grateful for having them. He admits that, if he was given the choice, he would certainly choose to have them again. Who wouldn’t? Why would one choose less power?

Being in Morocco, brings up similar feelings for me sometimes. I am conflicted. I speak the language of global cultural hegemony and I come from one of the richest and most powerful countries the world has ever seen. I am a celebrity for simply existing, not for anything I have accomplished. I have a power in the world that is unavoidable and largely undeserved. I whiz by international security checkpoints with a wink and a nod, while long lines of Angolans, Moroccans, Senegalese bide their time hoping it won’t be too embarrassing this time.

New crosswalks

New crosswalks

Ostensibly, I am working in Youth Development helping the young people of Morocco build on their existing skills. It’s a broad canvas that could, and does, include most anything. In my town, for example, we have helped to section off an area for recreation near a middle school, are working with the local government to improve traffic safety along the main road, have helped with AIDS awareness and testing, assisted with hearing and sight screenings, and my site mate recently held a session instructing local women about breast self-exams for detecting cancer. Yet, by far the most frequent request I receive from Moroccans is to teach them English. Despite the fact that I left America to take a break from teaching English, I can’t blame them.

English is the de facto lingua franca, or International Auxiliary Language, and the most mutually understood language of the world.1 It is the language of power and privilege. Perhaps we should rename that phenomenon lingua angla, in fact. It is the language of business, of science, and of entertainment. It has a hegemonic influence that imparts power to its user by way of its utility and ubiquity. It is the third most natively spoken language behind Mandarin and Spanish, but is first in influence, according to some calculations, among secondary, tertiary, and quaternary speakers.

Ironically, Arabic, the official language of Morocco, is not far behind English in number of native speakers. It used to be an equally important language for science (think algebra, al-jabr) and literature, but nowadays, its use is more the language of religion and daily life than of academia. Add to that the tremendous amount of bad press generated by evildoers over the last 20 years and you have a language of exclusion instead of inclusion.

By being a native speaker of English, it feels like I have a secret of some sort, a magic spell that will transform the lives of non-Westerners into something different. It’s like I know the passwords to provide access to wealth and opportunity, yet I did nothing to earn them. I was simply born there. I am uncomfortable with this ‘wealth’ and, though it’s perhaps unavoidable, I don’t like being seen through that lens. I can’t help but feel like an oppressor or occupier, that I stand on a rung above on the ladder to success.

Underlying all of this is an fundamental misunderstanding about learning, as well. It was often the same when I was teaching and it is the same for me now as I learn Arabic and Tamazight (Berber). Few people, including myself, want to work very hard for it. I know full-well that I need to engage more frequently in conversations where I make awkward mistakes in order to become more facile with the language, but I resist. Subconsciously, I want it to come to me magically, just as others do. I want someone to gift wrap it with a nice bow so I can open it and be a fluent speaker without all the work.

This was one of my ongoing frustrations with teaching back in the United States. Students are often (Who are we kidding? Let’s say usually.) taking subjects that do not interest them, but they are required to take in order to fulfill societal expectations. In my case, under the guise of uniformity, I was expected to teach them Standard English, a language that we pretend is common, but in reality no one actually speaks. Similarly, the tasks we give them are often outdated and useless in daily life. No one write essays except as some sort of test, like a college application or for a class. People write articles, blog posts, and emails for actual communication, not essays, and none of those have the same format that is taught by teaching essays. Why we still teaching the five-paragraph essay eludes me.

In daily discourse, we clip words, combine them, make up new ones all the time. Language is fluid and ever-changing. Every year, I would need my students to update me on their everyday parlance just so that I had some semblance of hipness lest I go too quickly toward old-fogey.

Further, the simple fact that students do not want to be in school because they are made to be there inhibits their learning. The teacher, student, and society become deadlocked. Society and parents, brainwashed into believing learning comes from school, keeps swallowing the newest, costly reforms for fear of not caring for the children’s future. Teachers with a few years, most of whom are well-intentioned folks who are doing the best with what they have, see the ruse for what it is, but can’t see a way to change such an immense system while still maintaining employment. And, students, generally and understandably disinterested in the topics offered at school, especially now with math taking on such paramount importance, do their best to endure the system while trying to find friends and discover who they are.

But I digress…

People are naturally curious. We seek out information as we need it or want it. We also want to be validated for who we are and what we know. Much of teaching has become aggressive, forceful, laden with judgments about should’s and shouldn’ts. I’m sure native Arabic-speakers, just as Spanish-speakers, Vietnamese-speakers, Sudanese-speakers, Tamazight-speakers, would love to just speak what they know and have the same level of influence. It makes me sad, sometimes that people feel that they must forego their native tongue in order to find opportunity in the world.

1. To be fair, Mandarin Chinese has many more speakers, but the language is not as globally understood as English, due primarily to the ubiquity of English in mass media.

Also published on Medium.

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