Linguistic Imperialism

When I asked Andrew of his plans after graduation, he told me that he wanted to teach English in Russia for a gap year.

Umm… something didn’t feel quite right. I have never felt comfortable with well-off, white American college students going to a developing country to teach students English. Logically, nothing is wrong. There is a demand in the global market for native English speakers. The students are merely providing the supply to meet the demand. In fact, Andrew was better qualified than most of the other students; he was fluent in Russian and understood Russian culture.

But I still kept telling him that I didn’t feel comfortable with it. I called it linguistic imperialism. I didn’t like that he was just breezily spending a year in Russia. I didn’t like that he wasn’t certified as a teacher. I didn’t like that he would be going in to Russia, already privileged as an American, versus the local Russian English teachers. I didn’t like that teaching would be a side job for him. I didn’t like that “teaching English in a developing country” was something exotic and exciting to do for a gap year — to “discover himself.” I didn’t like that teaching English was thought of as saving these kids from the poverty in their country and helping them become more competitive in the global market.

Most of these concerns are unfounded. I don’t know what his motivations were. I don’t know what Russia’s demand for English teachers is like. There are also numerous federal programs that promote the teaching of the English language abroad (ex: Fulbright English Teaching Assistanceship). But regardless of intentions, the act of teaching English in Russia  could be so easily be tainted with the idea of being a savior for these children and succumbing to the white man’s burden. Plus with all this talk of Americans teaching English to other countries, my mind immediately jumped to a despicable Uncle Sam cartoon from the late 1890s.



This image is a 1899 cartoon of Uncle Sam “teaching” the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Cuba. A black man washes the window. The Native American sit at the steps, reading. A Chinese boy stands in the doorway.

The blackboard in the back of the room reads:

“Now, children, you’ve got to learn these lessons whether you want to or not…The consent of the governed is a good thing in theory, but very rare in fact…England has governed her colonies whether they consented or not. By not waiting for their consent she has greatly advanced the world’s civilization…The U.S. must govern its new territories with or without the consent of the governed until they can govern themselves.”

I know that imperialism in the form of colonies or governmental control seems like a far jump from teaching English in Russia, but in a way, the students are just part of the imperialistic endeavors of America. Regardless of intention, their actions perpetuate ideas of American superiority and dominance.

There is very little evidence out there to back me up on this linguistic imperialism idea. Like I said, it’s just a gut feeling. But if you’re interested, read up on the BBC article, BBC article “Linguistic Imperialism Alive and Kicking” — they have some neat little links there as well.