To STEAL or to TELL (ELT in a Global Era)

Scholarly Article, NeltaChoutari April 2009

Seonagh McPherson: “To STEAL or to TELL: Teaching English in the Global Era”

In the article “To STEAL or to TELL: Teaching English in the Global Era,” Seonagh MacPherson proposes a constructive model for teaching English that will help us avoid destroying the languages and cultures of non-English speaking learners, and thereby the meaning, motivation, and purpose of learning itself. The most important idea in this essay (second half) is that we must not teach a foreign language as if to “STEAL (Surreptitiously Teach English as an Assimilationist Language) (79)” but to “TELL (Teach English as a Liberatory Language) (86).” When English language is taught without empowering the learners themselves, the happy prospect of making our students able to speak in English will in the long run turn into the “cataclysmic erosion or outright elimination of human diversity in languages, cultures, and consciousnesses.” It sounds scary but that is what English teaching is doing to a great extent in many countries like ours in the world today. You might wonder if there is any good to this skeptical outlook—oh, yes, there is. Through critical thinking about our profession, we can help create a richer body of knowledge and better goals for language learning, and we can help our students become better citizens and intellectuals, as compared to teaching grammar and making our students love the bell at the end a lot more than the learning during the hour. If we make local knowledge the primary substance and empowerment our primary goal of English language teaching, we can not only help students better realize the positive potentials of learning English but also make them use it as a “conduit to the ‘global,’ transnational network of education, justice, economic development, and mobility … [or] what liberation means to most people in the world” (86). As a teacher of Tibetan refugees in India, MacPherson speaks from direct experience of how disenfranchised people are able to join, with the medium of English , into the “transnational community of people who support their political, activist, religious, ecological, and economic aspiration and needs.” Our context and realities are not far removed from the learners he is talking about. MacPherson proposes that English teachers should advocate “multilingual, multiliterate, and intercultural curricula as central to the postcolonial educational agenda” (89). His conclusion is an insightful one: “Thus, it may very well be that our struggles with globalization, and with English as the language of globalization, ultimately become the struggle to understand our collective place in the universe” (90)—that is, if English could be taught to “TELL” and not to “STEAL.” MacPherson weighs both the benefits and dangers of teaching English as a global language, and then concludes that “a genuine … resolution is to negotiate a way for humanity to move beyond the sense of a narrow choice between extremes of [global] monocultural assimilation and [local] fundamentalism[s]” which will constitute an “international, intercultural Third Space” towards a better understanding of world communities through what he calls the “presence of choice” (79) that will help people from all societies and cultures learn from one another. A more critically conscious language teaching pedagogy would enhance the struggle of the people of different cultures and contexts to understand one another by not only having a means to communicate with other cultures but also the substance to contribute to the advancement of knowledge in the global village we live today. Article is posted on NeltaMail.

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