What It Means to Teach English

~By: Anisha Tyagi, ETA in Semerang~

It means I am teaching a language that has always tried to erase my mother tongue. When I was in preschool, my best friend and I would talk to each other in Hindi. I spoke the language with my parents at home. That was until my preschool teacher complained to my mom. She thought it was disgusting we were using it. Disgusting. I want you to let that word sink in. Because it’s been sinking in all my life, and I want you to taste a little bit of how that word feels. Ever since that day, I have been uncomfortable speaking my own language. I don’t take this loss lightly.

It means I have undeserved privilege in Indonesia. My English co-teachers respect me as an equal when I am a freshly-minted chemistry undergraduate with no teaching credentials. In the first class I visited, one of them asked me to read the dialogue aloud. She wanted her students to hear the “right” accent. After I was done reciting it, my words and intonation feeling completely out-of-place in the room, a student raised his hand. “I loved your accent, Miss.” I wanted to feel flattered. But I could only think of how no one has ever said that about an Indian-English accent. My accent gives me a coveted seat in the teacher’s room, whereas my parents’ accents are ridiculed and require them to answer “where are you really from?”

It means I am helping students better their job prospects. We’re standing on unequal ground, always. It’s not clear how to even it out the right way. My students are learning English to secure their futures, and they’re not mistaken. It takes buckets of privilege to be critical about English in English.

It means I’m going to tell my students their English is more than acceptable. My talented Indonesian friends, who can joke in three languges including English, are embarrassed when they pronounce a word differently from me. Just today, they asked me how to pronounce a word. Then they changed to mimic me. What was I encouraging here? Immediately I emphasized to them, “your English is perfect. If I can understand what you’re saying, you’re saying it right.” My American accent is not the only correct accent. After a pause, one of my friends smiled and nodded. She told me she liked this new perspective.

I want English to be just another language. For learners to be interested in it the way Americans learn Italian, because they want to speak to Italians. English, however, can never be severed from its historic and present use to marginalize those who do not speak it, or those who do not speak it in the desirable way. It opens doors for some, and closes doors for others. These doors are guarded by people who have chosen me to continue their legacy. I’m teaching English in a foreign country with my beautiful American accent. I am conscious of my alliance to the colonial powers that tried to steal my own culture and heritage. Teaching English in Indonesia means I could be part of the problem, but I’m going to try twice has hard not to be.


Photo: Anisha and her students smiling for the camera. Keju!

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