What Does it Mean to Teach English as a Foreign Language?

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By Othman Ouaarab

The famous Italian film maker Federico Fellini said once: a different language is a different vision of life. But how far are we ready to accept this different vision and attempt to understand it? When you ask students during the first session whether they like and want to learn English, the result would be that most of them are excited and eager to learn it. Many, you would find, are already fascinated by the language.

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Language is not only a means of communication. It can also be used as a tool for liberation as well as for oppression. It is both a means of inclusion and a means of exclusion, and it is many other things. That adds only to the complexity of language. As a teacher of English as a foreign language, you are well aware of all these implications, but what do they have to do with your teaching the language? Students come to English classes in order to learn and improve their English, to work on their communication and linguistic skills and become better communicators. Again, as a teacher, you bear in mind the four skills necessary for the task, speaking, listening, reading, and writing. But what does it mean to speak, for example?

Imagine that you have units such as citizenship, family, fashion, all of which with various content. To speak thus is to say something about something; speaking takes therefore an object. You presented your students with the object of speaking and you started the practice, encouraging them to speak, or to learn to speak, as it were. A discussion of the notion of the family in English would require its comparison across cultures. The family concept in Morocco is not the same as in the US, for instance. Associated with it are many other terms and concepts, the prominent of which would be education, values, respect, sense of belonging, identity, but also patriarchy. Such a discussion would encourage students to think of the many possibilities and perspectives we can to tackle the notion. A man and a man, for the case, or a woman and another woman can get married and found a family in some corners of the world. Most of the time, this is not an issue that is easily brought up and dealt with without discomfort. The reactions might be sometimes hostile conjuring up religion and traditions which are strictly against this form of family.

Imagine that a student stops you in the middle of the discussion and demands that you stop it. Why? You do not know. You have two choices: to carry on or to move on to something else. The discussion is about dress codes, and you try to incite students to think of reasons why we have such codes and think of the different situations where we feel obliged to dress in a particular manner. The elicited answers would range from business settings, streets, to university. All of these places are public and are governed by particular rules. You try to steer the discussion toward a private place and compare it to the other places. Are we free to wear whatever we want inside our homes? That depends on the kind of ‘home’ we are talking about and also on whom we mean by “we”: men or women? Women, especially in conservative and traditional homes, are expected to dress ‘properly’ and ‘decently’, whatever that means; they are expected to cover up in the presence of male guests, for example. Daughters are also expected to dress ‘respectfully’ in front of their brothers and father. Such expectations and obligations do not usually fall on the male shoulder. So, when that student said “please stop”, I thought about it for a second and stopped. While it is the role of teachers to invite students to think critically, it is also their responsibility to provide an environment which is conducive to learning. What if such a discussion evokes certain feelings of anxiety in the student? What if it triggers a traumatic experience?

Apart from the cultural aspect of the language which, as pictured above, may function as liberating or an oppressing factor, there is the pedagogical aspect too. Let us say, for the matter, you are teaching (with) songs and one day one of your students objects to your choice because it contradicts their beliefs. For the student, music/songs are haram, strictly forbidden. You are again in a dilemma, do you compromise your methods to satisfy everyone or do you keep up your choices? Now, you may try to convince them pedagogically that songs are good for this and that bla-bla… or even embark in a religious debate and attempt to convince them or show them a different interpretation. In either case, it is to no avail because you will end up speaking only to those who are already convinced. The student you are trying to persuade is already convinced and needs no convincing; it is a matter of belief for them. Should you continue with your music and songs, you will lose your student. In this regard, your language is acting as a means of exclusion, while your role and hope is quite the opposite.

Having a conversation in English entails evoking certain notions that you might not be happy with, or things that you ignore and might cause you discomfort; it is not only a conversation about things that you know, but rather about a different discussion of those very things. English language brings with it a number of values and concepts such as democracy, freedom, critical thinking, problem solving, and equality. Hence, to have a discussion in English about your own culture would lead to making these notions part of the discussion, directly or indirectly, but while having the discussion you should always remember that you are a facilitator of communication, an agent of emancipation and inclusion.

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