When it comes to picking your dream job, some options just leap out at you. Wine taster, travel writer, movie critic: who wouldn’t fancy any of those? Teaching, on the other hand, is a more maligned profession.
Days spent trying to control unruly pseudo-anarchists and nights spent marking their indecipherable work is the usual image. However, what if teaching involved getting to live abroad, experiencing new cultures and having ten weeks holiday a year to explore your new surroundings?
The idea of being able to teach by the beach is increasingly popular; to spread the delights of the English language to a few dozen students who eagerly lap up every clause and conjunction before you head off to your hammock to sip an icy beer as the sun dips under the horizon.
OK, so reality may not always be as idyllic but teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Sorry about the acronym so early on but if you’re going to teach, you’ll have to get used to it.
Students of all levels
My experience of teaching includes basic government establishments, private colleges and international schools. I’ve taught students who could barely write their name in English through to those who study Shakespeare and Chaucer. When dealing with office politics I’ve learned to bite my tongue so hard there’s now an indelible impression inside my mouth, but on the other hand I’ve had a letter from the Queen of England (well, her hand maiden) praising my students. Teaching ESL is many things, but it’s never dull.
Every day is different and brings its own challenges and rewards. Sometimes it’s the little things that stay with you. One of my favourite moments came during an examination. As I walked around to check on students, a boy put his hand up. I walked over and the boy declared: “Sir, I no cheat.”
A little confused as the exam had only started, I said: “Congratulations, son.”
He frowned, and then repeated: “No, no, Mr Mark, I don’t cheat.”
“Yes, that’s right. ‘I don’t cheat’, is better than ‘I no cheat’. I understand, well done.”
Exasperated at my lack of comprehension, he finally grabbed his friend’s question paper and yelled: “No, I no have sheet, I need a sheet.”
Why study English?
English isn’t the most widely-spoken language on the planet. That honour goes to Chinese. However, while knowing Chinese is advantageous if you’re in China, it’s of limited use anywhere else.
English is simply the global language. It’s the language of aviation, shipping, international business and, largely, the internet. It also happens to be a language that befuddles, bemuses and bamboozles even native speakers with its complexities and nuances. It’s a language that is so varied that while someone from Australia may have a vastly different vocabulary and accent from someone in California or Barbados, they can still all get along.
The reasons for its complexities can be found in the history books (invading Danes, Romans and French all left parts of their languages in Britain). The reasons for its global influence begin with the slave trade. When the British began using slaves from Africa, they separated them from those with whom they shared a mother tongue to ensure the only common language was English. Britain’s colonial empire also ensured the language spread to Australia, India and the Caribbean.
More recently, America’s economic dominance has ensured that English has flourished: Is there anywhere left in the world where a ‘Big Mac’ is unknown?
The flip side
It may be a hugely useful language to have, but not everyone is impressed by its seeming ability to conquer all. The French get very uptight about English, so much so that in 1996 erstwhile President Jacques Chirac stormed out of an EU meeting in a row over the lingua franca. Mr Chirac was annoyed by his countryman Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, who changed to English during his speech, as he called it ‘the language of business’.
In Africa, many authors write in English in order to reach a wider audience. Chinua Achebe is perhaps the best-known African writer thanks to ‘Things Fall Apart’, but many of his contemporaries criticised him for writing in the tongue of the coloniser and oppressor. Achebe argued that the only way to change ill-conceived notions over pre-colonial history was to write in English.
Clearly, teachers should not promote the idea that English is somehow 'better' than their students' native tongues; however in most countries it usually gives you an edge, and that is why so many want to learn it.
Demand for learning English has never been as high (there are now more Chinese learning English than there are native English speakers) so if you do choose to teach, you’ll never have to look too hard for work.
Many who planned to teach only for a year or two during a career gap find that teaching soon becomes their new career – and a gateway to living and working in many parts of the world.
- Above blog adapted from 'Teaching English' (How to Teach English as a Second Language)
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