I am a huge believer in education, in fact I would even go as far as saying that I believe it is the single most effective way to change a situation, or perhaps even the world. Having said that, I do, on occasion, have doubts about the value of teaching English to remote communities around the world.
Sometimes, as a Brit, who speaks and has always spoken English fluently, and with the whole history of the British Empire a part of my history (whether I like it or not) it can seem a little bit arrogant to me that we are still going places around the world to teach English.
Then I remember. English really is the closest thing we, as humanity, have to a universal language. I have met so many people on my travels who speak perfect English but have never been to a native speaking country, and often have no desire to. Yet English is their means of communicating around the world. Some go many months with only a few conversations in their native tongue, instead using English to communicate with everybody they meet. This is difficult for me to imagine, as it is unlikely I will ever experience this to the extent other people do.
It reminds me that teaching English is a way of enhancing somebody’s freedom.
The infamous “Great Firewall of China” is a huge barrier around the internet which bans a plethora of internet sites in China. I had a few surprising conversations with some Chinese students about it, but it was something a fellow foreign teacher (I taught a little in China) said to me that struck me the most. He said, “Even without the firewall, most Chinese citizens would probably not be able to access much on the internet outside of China at the moment anyway.” When I asked why, he simply said, “Well, they can’t understand it.”
I was hit by the power knowing English has. The internet is an incredible invention, and it means that information and communication is now at our fingertips, most of the time and around the world, but only if you can understand and interact with that information. How often do I take fore granted that little ENG or British or American flag in the corner, allowing me to read a website in a language I understand?
Teaching English allows people to not only have conversations with people they might otherwise not be able to communicate with, but also allows them access to information they might otherwise not have. Once more, my eyes were opened to the incredible power of education, and the incredible power of language.
Of course, sometimes I worry too that this freedom I talk about is actually irreversibly changing the small cultures that exist around the world, and perhaps not always for the better. But the more I think about it, the more I realise that this is already happening. All the time, all over the world, we are adapting.
In fact, if anything, I have noticed how important the Hilltribe culture is. People do not identify themselves as Thai, although they are Thai citizens, but as Karen, Luwah, Mhong or whatever Hilltribe they belong to. Traditional clothing is still worn and used to identify one another. Lipo has often pointed people out on TV who are Karen, both from Myanmar and Thailand. Fundamentally they are proud of their heritage and to me, this is both reassuring and encouraging.
I have realised it is not for me to decide what someone should or shouldn’t learn, it is merely to provide an opportunity to do so, and allow people to choose for themselves.