Does Teaching English Open Minds in Closed Societies? – Part 1

Does teaching English open minds in closed societies? Are repressive governments “right” to fear the spread of English? Can the mania for learning English destabilize a rigidly controlled nation? In short, are dictators smart to jam the radio broadcasts of Voice of America, censor the Internet, and control textbooks in English programs? Will the worldwide fashion for learning English lead to a more open, tolerant, and democratic world?

Perhaps. Many young English teachers often just want to work abroad, make some money, and have a foreign adventure. Changing the world is far from their agenda. Most English as a foreign language (EFL) teachers do not intend to broaden minds, challenge cultural traditions, or go beyond providing technical assistance to English language learners. Nonetheless, EFL teachers often play a subtle and significant role in changing societies. English teachers often serve as role models for 21st century living. From gestures to dress, EFL teachers demonstrate another way of being in the world. Many English language learners find that way quite attractive.

Further, students believe that learning English opens new possibilities – from talking to tourists and better job opportunities to traveling abroad and even living abroad. Of course, learning any second language provides an opportunity to see the world in other sounds and words. English, however, plays a far more significant role in opening societies today than many other languages. Speaking English lets you drive in the fast lane – and on the global highway.

Does Business English teach celebrate and instill more material values? Can closed, slow societies meet these new expectations for quality products? Can closed societies remain closed if their citizens learn English, watch American movies, listen to British music, – and dream in English?

Teaching in Vietnam last summer crystallized these questions for me. When revising the high school English curriculum for an elite private high school, I was forced to confront the reality that a majority of 20th century English books in the California curriculum were simply unavailable. John Steinbeck? Banned. H.L. Mencken? Banned. Aldous Huxley? Banned. This list went far beyond the predictable (George Orwell, Alice Walker) to the very unlikely (pacifist, anti-Vietnam War activist Marge Percy). Of course, I’m not sure they are completely banned – but there books were unavailable and they appeared on a Wikipedia list of banned authors. (By the way, Vietnam, where the Communist Party still rules, recently banned Facebook for several weeks.) The politics of teaching English became rather complicated.

While almost all governments seek to modernize, many dictatorships understandably also fear the influx of educated Westerners teaching English. Government leaders want technical assistance – on their terms – to allow their nations to develop according to national values. That’s absolutely understandable from a nationalist perspective. Yet many citizens desire to live better, more modern, and cosmopolitan lives. Some global practices appear more attractive than traditional solutions. English, as both a symbol and tool of global aspirations, can look dangerous.

After all, learning English introduces a flood of new information, new insights, and new possibilities. Joseph Conrad, a great English novelist born in Poland, proclaimed, “English saved my life” because it freed him of narrow misperceptions. A century later, EFL teachers may easily find themselves being more than language technicians and opening minds – even in closed societies.

End of Part 1

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6 comments

  1. Denise – Thank you for dropping by, sharing your insight, and suggesting a survey. That’s a good idea!

  2. #delt0110: “Does Teaching English Open Minds in Closed Societies?” Well, it depends. I certainly think it can open minds but there is such a variety of contexts when one says, “opening minds” and “closed societies” that it’s difficult to nail down an answer. I think learning any additional language is healthy at any level. Perhaps English language learners (ELLs) don’t have access to certain books, websites, etc., but I’m not so sure that’s always a bad thing. It’s taking what you have and using it to your best advantage. Learning more about the ELL’s own native culture through an additional language is also a noble pursuit.

  3. Benjamin – Thank you for sharing those insights and suggestions.

    Due to some technical problems, it has taken me almost a month to reply. I apologize, but WordPress seems to be working now.

  4. While every nation has their global opinion, it’s sad to see that some would close doors to keep their citizens in the dark. Whether it be learning English or just other cultural values, I think people deserve the right to be open-minded. Close mindedness only breeds ignorance.

  5. Thanks for dropping by. It sounds like you are quite fashion-conscious, and many Koreans possess a soft spot for elegance. Style, as the cliche goes, can be substance.

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