Is TEFL yet another form of neo-colonialism?

TEFL: an enriching experience for all or yet another form of neo-colonialism?

Article by Leora Mansoor | 06 Jun 2019
  • Classroom

When I was at university I had a teacher who, for the sake of anonymity, shall be called Mr. Z. Mr. Z was a short, passionate man who often tended to croon when he had a controversial point to make. The left corner of his mouth would twitch upwardly for a moment and his eyes would part with a mischievous glint as he threw tremendous assertions into the room to see what kind of discussions he could detonate.

“Is it not so,” he crooned softly one day, “that the British Council, by shipping out the country’s young TEFL conscripts, barely qualified as teachers and often with little to no awareness of the cultural and classroom customs of their destination, are merely endorsing a modern kind of neo-colonialism?”

His eyes glinted as he surveyed the room to see what the first reactions would be. Despite the wall of blank faces, he ventured on, undeterred. 

“Are these young travellers, admirable in their desire to enrich their perspectives by seeing more of the world, not merely using their linguistic privilege to take jobs off other countries’ own teachers, most of whom have trained for years, and all the while endorsing the perception that an inexperienced Westerner is a better role model for teaching English, despite the majority of those who speak English doing so as a second language?”

As a person who has always considered TEFL as a wonderful means of travel, I buried this ugly assertion. However, as I consider the things TEFL could do for me this summer, I find my mind dwelling once more upon the soft voice of Mr. Z, and why my reaction was to immediately discredit his proposal. Clearly, something he said had hit a nerve, something that shook my belief in TEFL as an invaluable experience for everyone.

On the surface, it’s difficult to argue with the benefits of TEFL. While it teaches what is arguably one of the most valuable linguistic currencies in the world, TEFL is an almost unparalleled cultural exchange, provides economically sustainable opportunities for the young to travel, and better still, does all these things in the name of education. But what realities lurk beneath the surface of TEFL and how far do we need to scratch to uncover these truths? Why exactly do other countries desire young, inexperienced Westerners to come and do a job in lieu of their own professionals?

According to the International TEFL Academy, it is extremely rare for any student to fail an International TEFL Certification course, which has a pass rate of over 90%. This raises the question... do you pass simply by the virtue of birthright? Take Vietnam for example, a country which has recently overtaken Thailand as one of the most popular destinations for TEFL alumni. Vietnam is also a place where education is considered the second most corrupt sector after the police force, and bribery is commonplace among parents who can afford it. A public school teacher in Vietnam can still only expect to make an average of £60 per month, less than a fifth of what you could be earning with a bachelors degree and a TEFL.

So why is it that, in a place where a local teacher has to moonlight to make a mere fraction of what an English speaking traveller makes, and bribery makes access to education incredibly unequal, the government is keen to promote a regime that could be said to mask and perpetuate these problems? Instead of using the money to encourage more people within the country to become teachers, improve salaries or change the curriculum to teach students more practical skills – a topical issue in Vietnam right now – money is being thrown into encouraging less experienced people like us, who apparently look the part, to come from abroad and do the job for more money.

If we view TEFL as a product there are some key questions that stand out, questions like: What is the product? Who produces it? Who are they trying to sell it to? And why? Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s erstwhile president who first coined the term neo-colonialism in the 1960s, argued that it utilised foreign capital for the exploitation rather than furthering of less developed countries, therefore increasing, rather than decreasing, the gap between rich and poor countries. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I say this reeks of TEFL. If we view TEFL as a product, we are selling a product that exploits a win-lose situation with no regard for how beneficial it is to those receiving it. In fact, when I think about it, I don’t think I know anyone who wanted to do TEFL solely out of altruism. I know I certainly didn’t. From the way TEFL is packaged, altruism never even occurred to me.

Besides, how useful can we really be as teachers if we can’t communicate in a common language? There is a highly debated issue amongst linguists right now about the effectiveness of classrooms that enforce an English only policy. Until now, despite there being no scientific evidence, the consensus that this is the best way to learn has been endorsed. Why, you ask? Because it allows people who can’t speak Vietnamese to walk into Vietnamese classrooms and demand full attention, comprehension and respect. Because it pays, in some places, for the flights, accommodation and pocket money of tourists in exchange for a few hours of teaching. It is an exercising of soft power that hauntingly echoes of a time not so long ago, where ideologies considered superior were altruistically enforced without respite. It is a form of neo-colonialism that has kept the UK and US at the heart of English language teaching for years.

While we can justly argue that we, as native English speakers, can offer knowledge of the subtleties and nuances that those who know it as a second language cannot, it is worth remembering that the majority of the world’s English speakers know it as a second language. The argument is rendered even weaker when you consider those nuances are hardly even relevant until you are of an expert level. In fact, by our inability to speak to students in their mother tongue, we are immediately less qualified. What else can TEFL be then, if not a form of neo-colonialism? A teacher should be a relatable role model for students, someone who can explain difficult concepts in a common language and foresee obstacles in the language acquisition process, having gone through the same process themselves.

Yet despite all this we still endorse the idea that TEFL is needed, perpetuating neo-colonialism by keeping the US and UK as developing world educators.

Ultimately is it fair of me, as a relatively affluent British person with an almost guaranteed TEFL based on my haul in the linguistic lottery and money to spend on the qualification, to impose on young impressionable minds that could genuinely be affected by my actions? Was I voluntarily impervious to the fact that with my intentions of sustaining a lifelong dream of travel I was willing to become an agent of British soft power? This misplacement of responsibility in people without adequate training is not empowering, it’s an example of us exploiting opportunities from developing countries which disallows for any real change to emerge.

So as my mind dwells again Once Upon A TEFL, I hark back to the probing voice of Mr. Z. He himself was a man who came as a glistening example of teaching abroad, having lived in Malaysia for several years, learned the language and really invested in his role in the community there. To me, he proves that TEFL is not necessarily bad, but that we need to question the reasons behind our actions and the impact these decisions can have. Is TEFL a form of British soft power and neo-colonialism? I think that in cases where the young are satisfying their wanderlust at the expense of others yes, it is. Teachers are not born, they are made, and while I believe we adhere to this belief here in the UK, it worries me that we have conveniently forgotten this sentiment elsewhere.