Saturday, 11 May 2013

Chapter 1: Introduction


1.1 Purpose of the Study
This is a study of English Language Teaching (ELT) undertaken by evangelical missionaries in Bolivia.  In particular, it deals with ELT as a missionary endeavour rather than by teachers who incidentally happen to be Christians.  It entails an investigation into an under-studied and fast growing branch of ELT, seeking to build a picture of what takes place and how.  Why do more and more missionaries teach a foreign language and view it as missionary activity?  How does the religious significance attached to ELT by missionary-teachers contribute to their classes?

  English language teachers who are also missionaries in Bolivia find themselves in a crossfire of debate over whether what they do is mission, what this involves and whether they are doing more harm than good. The purpose of the study is therefore to critically explore English as a Missionary Language (EML) in Bolivia in order to describe what teachers and learners experience.  Since the approach taken is a critical one, there is a special interest in the problematic issues of hegemony, ideology and empowerment.

1.2 Teaching English as a Missionary Language: A Personal Vignette
My  own involvement in ELT was a response to what Bolivians perceived they needed and wanted.  I arrived to work as a short-term missionary for Latin Link (, an international organization that works in partnership with Latin American churches.  Short-term volunteers often do not know what they will be doing until they arrive.  I had anticipated building homes, relieving hunger, visiting the sick and giving religious instruction to other young people.  Instead, the near unanimous suggestion on the field after I arrived was, to my mind at the time, rather less spiritual: teaching English in local universities, missionary projects and churches.  

         A typical day started in the early morning at the reprographics shop beside the university gates, where upwards of seventy copies had to be made from the available resources, which were already blackened, barely legible photocopies themselves.  Arriving at the lecture theatre early, students were already competing for elbowroom, some resigned to sitting in the doorway.  The cramped conditions, huge class sizes, the pitted blackboard and the absence of basic equipment like a cassette player made every speaking class a logistic challenge bordering on the impossible, but somehow the resilience and enthusiasm of the lively Bolivian undergraduates overcame such problems.

  As challenging as classroom management was in the state university, it was a place where I learned a considerable amount about the country I was in and the people I was there to work among.  No one had explained to me issues of ELT methodology such as the importance of pre- and post-task activities, personalization or pre-teaching, but I knew instinctively to help students to communicate real meaning.  We had lively discussions about what we would do if we were the president for a day, about what relationship the Republic should have with its neighbours and the United States, about the fact that potentially 60 per cent of the economy was based on the illicit cocaine trade and that children died daily of water-borne diseases that could be treated with a simple sachet of re-hydration salts.  Only later would I study the theory of second language acquisition behind such exchanges of meaning in the language classroom and their educational, cultural and political implications.

It initially seemed to me that students forgot they were in a learning environment.  They looked relaxed, laughed and never clock-watched.  As I became more familiar with them and their country, I gradually realized this was due more to their culture than to my exciting classes.  Classes were dialogic, with plenty of content input from students and me learning as much as I taught, and there was often little difference in our interactions during and after class.  When the bell indicated the end of our class, it was often ignored and we continued our discussions until another class needed the room.  Another cultural facet of the Bolivian context was the people-focused and process-focused nature of the learning process.  Before students would ask me questions directly related to language learning, they wanted to ask me who I was, what my siblings did, if I was married and especially why I had decided to come to Bolivia.  The honest answer to the latter was of course to work as a short-term missionary, which in itself sparked no end of discussions.  So why was I here teaching English?

After lunch, while most had their siesta, I would often meet more young people for private, often quite informal, conversation classes.  These were spent cross-legged in a shady plaza squinting at more photocopies of photocopies, and lessons usually consisted of translating new vocabulary as it occurred during our long bilingual chats.  Again, materials were lacking and new words were squeezed into every possible square inch of paper.  Topics were often news-related, political in nature, and because of my own background and role frequently forayed into religion.  Many of these private students were evangelicals themselves, while others were not.  The most interesting conversation classes were often with atheists and those with views very different to my own as I learned as much as the student did.  Looking back, I can only wonder however if those students learned much language at all or if they learned more about my beliefs.

Latin Link had suggested I teach English as a practical service to Bolivians, whereas other mission partners saw in language teaching the opportunity to make contact with young people and openly share our faith.  It was even suggested that I use the Bible as the core textbook, and use Bible study materials for speaking activities.  Even without a thought-through view on ELT as an evangelistic tool, I felt uneasy about such an approach to either mission or teaching and eventually decided to use mainstream materials and plan lessons around functions and topics of use to the learner, and to openly talk about religious issues only when asked by the learners.  Such uncertainties about what my role was in relation to those I taught surfaced regularly in the course of that year, troubling me from one informal class to the next.

By evening however, I was ready for my last class in the Centro Boliviano-Americano (Bolivian-American Centre), a U.S. foundation.  This employer was secular, and my students were almost exclusively from wealthy backgrounds.  The centre had an excellent reputation country-wide and was the envy of my other students who could never pay the fees required for the ten hours a week of tuition with individual, original copies of the core textbook, a desk each in a class of no more than twelve and a modest range of educational equipment including video recorders and overhead projectors.  These privileged English learners and their families believed they would one day be in positions of influence in industry, business and politics.  Here more than anywhere else I perceived the political nature of ELT, especially the pro-U.S. sentiment of this Washington-sponsored institute. Here, I felt the temptation to exert some influence of my own in a direction I considered positive, opening these privileged students’ eyes to what I saw in my other classes: poverty, social exclusion and resentment.  I began to see teaching as something very political.

Although I was addressed by the people all day long as teacher, in English but used freely in Spanish sentences as though it were a Spanish word, I was in fact a recent graduate with little idea of how my career might develop, seeking to “find myself” and do something socially responsible and worthwhile.  I had a lot in common with many other informal English teachers involved in gap-year programmes, working holidays and the American Peace Corps.  For one thing, few of us had any TEFL training and had become involved in teaching for a variety of reasons not at all related to education.

Now five years later, I plan to return to Bolivia as a missionary-teacher.  During recent years as an English language teacher and a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) student, the same questions have re-surfaced repeatedly about mixing language, religion and education, and in particular evangelicalism with EFL.  While studying for the MA TESOL, I have become fascinated in particular with the cultural and political aspects of English language spread, and with the possibility of making informed, critical decisions based on theory and research.  This is my personal motivation in the execution of this piece of research: to ask honest and sometimes troubling questions about what I and thousands of my colleagues do every day and to take seriously the answers that are supplied.  

1.3 EML as a Research Problem 
Others too feel uneasy about the teaching of English by missionaries.  The academic debate started with Edge (1996) declaring that “[evangelicals] taking on educational responsibilities under false pretences is utterly repellent,” and that teachers should, “restrict the purpose of our teaching to facilitate the life purposes of our students,” (ibid.:23).  The discussion heated up after the publication of an article by Tennant (2002) who details her own conversion to Christianity during a pronunciation exercise.  She describes how, after the fall of communism in Poland, Russian textbooks extolling Lenin and Stalin were abandoned and English, ideologically associated with liberty, became the desired foreign language.  Tennant describes how ELT is “the globalized world’s equivalent of a cup of water for the thirsty” (ibid.:32), with ten Christian U.S. colleges and universities offering TESOL programmes.  Yeoman (2002) reports on his visit to Colombia International University where the aim of TESOL training is to provide a plausible reason for graduates to enter Muslim countries and covertly proselytise their language students, which he considers dishonest and arrogant.

Coutand-Marin and Pennycook (2003) describe English as a Missionary Language (EML), a term which this author will use henceforth to refer to ELT by missionaries.  This term does not mean that there is anything intrinsically Christian or missionary about English, and does not refer specifically to a type of English for Special Purposes (ESP) in the normal sense of preparing learners to use English in a special setting like business, hairdressing or even missionary work.  It could be called English for Missionary Purposes, but the purposes would generally be the teacher’s and not the learner’s.  English for Academic Purposes (EAP), for example, is taught for the learner’s academic purposes.  EML, the preferred term, is English taught by missionaries, specifically evangelicals, with their own values and agenda attached to language teaching.  It is narrower than Snow’s (2002) term Christian English Teacher (CET), which could refer to a teacher who just happens to be a Christian; EML is ELT as evangelical mission.  It is unknown whether special missionary methods of Teaching English as a Missionary Language (TEML) are employed, but the standard of English presented is modern native-speaker speech and text and not literary, biblical English.

         Coutand-Marin and Pennycook (2003) list five positions regarding EML. They address EML more widely than Islamic countries where Christian evangelism is restricted, and so their concept is fitting for a Bolivian context.  One position outlined is the Christian evangelical position, which assumes that saving souls is so important that most means are justified, permitting overt and covert proselytizing through ELT.  Another is the Christian service position, which assumes that teaching English is a useful form of social development.  They reject these positions, as well as secular humanist and liberal agnostic positions, in favour of a critical pedagogic position.  They argue that the classroom is a political and religious site where learners’ needs and not the teacher’s should be the aim, and they express concern at the ideological content EML lessons, not only religious content but also messages supporting Western capitalism, materialism and compliance with authorities.

In Bolivia, there are thousands of foreign evangelical missionaries involved in primary evangelism and Christian service.  It is unknown how many evangelical missionaries in the country teach English or how they connect ELT and mission.  They might see their English lessons as evangelism, service or otherwise. The problem is essentially that many EML teachers might be guilty as charged by Edge (2003), Hadley (2004) and others of using English as a vehicle for cultural and political imperialism without realizing.  This might bring discredit on missionaries and, more importantly, could be harmful to learners.  The general aim of the study is to make EML teachers and learners more aware of the cultural politics of their classroom and help them make informed decisions about the teaching and learning. 

1.4 Importance of the Study
As well as autobiographical origins and personal interest, there are some other very compelling reasons for addressing this research problem.  These include the scale of EML, the relative lack of research and the importance of critical research in this field.

The scale of ELT worldwide has been the subject of speculation for decades and it is almost superfluous to mention statistics like the fact that a quarter of the world population uses English habitually, with many others attempting to learn it too; over two billion people live in countries where English has official or special status, and over eighty percent of electronic data are stored in English (Crystal, 1997; Graddol, 1997).  With 420 million evangelicals worldwide under the umbrella of the World Evangelical Alliance and possibly the same number or more outside official denominations and groupings (World Evangelical Alliance, 2005), many of whom are native speakers or habitual users of English, it is no wonder that a great many teachers happen to be Evangelical Christians.  In fact, the largest caucus of the professional body TESOL is Christian Educators in TESOL (CETESOL) with over 300 members (  Perhaps more significant, however, is the fact that EFL has grown to be a huge part of world mission initiatives.  It is this growth area specifically which is the area under study here.  Pennycook and Coutand-Marin do not estimate a number of those involved but claim there is:

                     a vast interconnected network of missionary organizations using English 
                     language teaching as a key tool […] If for no other reason than the sheer 
                     scale of TEML, we would argue that it needs careful attention from the 
                     broader educational community.

The call for research into critical issues of equality, power and local decision-making comes from the TESOL Research Agenda (2002).  Specific research in EML is extremely scarce and commentators such as Tennant (2002) have called for study into this neglected area.  Mention of EML is made anecdotally in a few works such as Pennycook (1994) and Snow (2001), but there is little empirical work.  There is no research based on responses from teachers and their students in the overlapping fields of mission and ELT.  Surely the area cannot be understood without carefully researching what stakeholders say and think at a grassroots level.

If, then, a phenomenon such as EML is as prevalent as it is and still relatively un-researched, it must not be assumed that it is entirely benign.  Although most criticism is levelled by scholars from outside the mission community, those teacher-researchers inside the field have an even greater responsibility to problematize their own ELT, asking questions and finding answers of tremendous importance.  Typically, critical researchers are especially engaged in issues such as equality, freedom of choice, power and dominance.  Their findings are often used to defend those deprived of a clear, individual voice by stronger institutions.  The critical approach is described in the following chapter, where a more detailed description is given for Pennycook’s statement (1999b:329) that:

                    Given the cultural politics of English teaching in the world, critical approaches 
                    to TESOL may help us deal with some of the most significant issues of our 

1.5 Three Research Questions
Missionary EFL teachers operate within a dialectic, whereby they are trying to improve people’s lives by educating them, but may equally be accused of using language teaching to dominate or manipulate.  This tension, which Pennycook calls a “cuckoo-like” takeover (xiv), is expressed by Widdowson (2001:15):

                    [H]ow can you tell a worthy cause from an unworthy one?  Critical people,
                    like missionaries, seem to be fairly confident that they have identified what is
                    good for other people on the basis of their own beliefs.  But by making a virtue of the 
                    necessity of partiality we in effect deny plurality and impose our own version of reality, thereby
                    exercising the power of authority which we claim to deplore.

Three research questions have been formulated to address this dialectic in a focussed, manageable way.  Answers to these are the objectives of the study and can be judged according to the quality of answers provided.  They are most succinctly stated as:

(1)         What does EML mean to teachers and learners in Bolivia?  How do they experience EML?
(2) What dialectics do teachers and learners experience?
(3) What, if any, critical concerns are there?

      The first question pursues an overall picture of the phenomenon under study.  It involves the lived experience and perceptions of those involved in the EML classroom.  It might be that the experiences can be drawn together to give a unifying core concept, or there may be various synchronic processes or realities at play in a more complex way.  The aim of this research question is not to challenge what people claim EML is in order to find one empirical definition, but to listen deeply to what stakeholders have to say about their classroom culture.

          Having described EML, two further research questions with clearly critical aims are asked.  The second question comes from the assumption that the language classroom is an ideological arena with values in tension with one another and learners needing to negotiate these tensions (Kramsch, 1993; Canagarajah, 1999).  In the context of evangelical missionaries in Bolivia, what are these ideological classroom tensions and who perceives them?

          Finally, particular attention is given to any concerns expressed or perceived in relation to areas of particular interest to critical researchers and pedagogues. The critical approach is discussed in more detail in the following chapter, but such issues would typically include hegemonizing messages that might be accepted and even deemed commonsensical.  

          These three questions guide the researcher in the quest for deeper understanding and new knowledge in the area of EML.  To continue such a widespread and potentially influential enterprise longer-term without examining critical issues would be both foolish and irresponsible.  Those involved in EML, including the researcher, might fear the uncovering of professional malpractice and the fact that accusations commonly made against missionary-teachers could be given substance if empirical data are gathered.  The alternative, however, would be to avoid facing important responsibilities and risk the continuation of detrimental practices.  For the wider academic community, it may seem that the questions have already been answered.  However, neither common sense nor ideas extrapolated from other studies can take the place of asking these questions to the people for whom they are of daily relevance.

1.6 The Outlook
Having now introduced the research problem and rationale for the study, Chapter Two places it in an historical and theoretical context and defines central concepts.  The theoretical context is further explored in Chapter Three, where relevant previous studies are critically reviewed.  Issues similar to the research problem addressed by this study include those addressed by Phillipson (1992) concerning the power of English and linguicism, Canagarajah (1999) on resisting English language imperialism in the classroom and Kramsch (1993) on culture and conflict in language teaching.

All these chapters feed into the design of the study, detailed in Chapter Four.  Here, the methodological choices made, including data collection and analysis instruments, are explained and justified.  These yield the findings of Chapter Five, which in turn generate the theory-driven discussion of Chapter Six.  Finally, in Chapter Seven, conclusions of the study are drawn and recommendations made for further study.


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