The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #31 January / February 2018
The Ethics of Language Teaching
by Olivier Elzingre
January / February 2018 | 

While it is becoming rarer to find anyone who doesn’t agree that language should be taught, there remains at least one controversial domain whereby the teaching of a language can leave a bad taste in the mouths of many, the language teaching that occurs in missionary work. I am not aware that any religion other than Christian is currently involved in such a global effort to spread a language, though clearly the teaching of language for ideological reasons has been done for centuries, from Latin to French and many in between. I will not pretend to know anything about the methodology or the success rate of this teaching approach, but rather I would like to address the question of ethics in teaching a language for the specific dissemination of an ideology. Also, in this article, I will focus only on the teaching of English, as it is the most recent language taught globally.

There are more than 2 camps in this question, but the two main ones are that languages should never be taught under these circumstances and that all language teaching involves, whether the teacher is conscious of it or not, an ideological position.

Of course I have an opinion about it, but this article is not about my opinion. Sometimes, the question is more interesting/important than the limited perspective of a single person. I am writing this to explore my own understanding of the question, trying to present things objectively, leaving you to be the judge. I can’t even pretend that this will be entirely factual, since ‘facts’ are more often than not an interpretation of events rather than events themselves.

The reason people have an issue with missionary language teaching could be more complex than a problem with its underlying ideology. One aspect of this work that causes discomfort is that the Christian faith is placed upon people, as if these people didn’t already have a set of beliefs. It is thought that there is a certain arrogance ignoring someone’s beliefs for the benefit of one’s own, whether you call it a belief, a faith, a religion or the Word of God. The questions to be asked here are, in my mind, is this really what is taking place? Are locals’ beliefs really ignored? It is possible that when we voice this opinion, we are assuming that missionary work is monolithic – the same everywhere. It would surprise me greatly to learn that the teaching that takes place in so many different world locations with so many different missionaries and people was organised so superbly that the ‘product’ of teaching was the same everywhere. I would be more tempted to believe that the teaching varies greatly, from highly ideologised to not at all.

I also feel that a second cause of discomfort with missionary language teaching work is not so much the spread of a religion, but the spread of English. As a colonising language, English is being blamed for the fast disappearance of many languages globally. From around 7000 languages currently in the world, estimates can be as bleak as 90% will have disappeared in the next hundred years because of the spread of English and the economic need to know it. While so many languages may well be disappearing, it is not the religious dimension which is causing this much destruction, but rather a wide-spread notion that English gives the speaker economic mobility. In the terms of French sociologist Bourdieu, English is seen as “symbolic capital” worth investing in.

The opposite line of argument is that all language teaching involves an ideological stance. In recent decades, a school of thought called post-structuralism promoted the idea that identities are negotiated in every moment, with influences coming from global and dominant discourses, local cultures such as institutions, or what social scientist call “communities of practice”, and finally in every conversation we have. This is important, because it implies that people are not simply recipients of an ideology (discourse), but have “agency”, the ability to think, act, chose to believe or not etc. The significance of this is that missionary work would only be one of the many other discourses floating around, all of which are ideologically driven to some degree.

Within the poststructuralist school, all relationships involve a power imbalance. When you picture missionary work, what do you see? A Christian person interacting on a one to one with a local person. Who is in a position of power? The new comer of course, because they position themself as a teacher. At the conversational level, therefore, there is an imbalance. Someone teaches, the other learns. In addition to this, missionaries are not empty handed. They come often with medical supplies, offer workforce for the constructions of wells, schools etc, and may provide food too. A local person may be lacking in any of those, making it very difficult to refuse missionary help. Finally, the language taught is English more often than not, and as I have mentioned above, it provides the opportunity of a certain economic mobility for the learner, a chance to improve their professional outcome.

Further than that, I did say that ideology was present in all language teaching. Think about your textbook. What pictures does it show, what texts introduce what topics, what sentences illustrate aspects of grammar, what cultures are represented, what names are used in the texts? Think about your teacher if you have one. How explicit are they about their own opinions, what position do they adopt when running a discussion, what topics do they chose to present the target language culture? While none of these are necessarily religious in orientation, they still represent particular moral and ethical perspectives. How then can we accuse missionary work of being wrong, when it is so similar in any language teaching. It could also be argued that missionary language teaching is more ethical because it makes its ideological intent explicit, as opposed to everyday classroom teaching.

I have only addressed a few aspects of what is an ongoing discussion. I did say that this article was not about my opinion, but about trying to present things objectively, leaving it to you to think about it further and form your own opinion about it. All I will say is this – I am not Christian, but I feel that at the very least these language teaching missionaries are true to themselves. They do what their religion asks them to do, to spread the word. And in doing so, they also do much good.

Olivier Elzingre is a PhD candidate researching motivation and identity development in study abroad contexts. He teaches high school French in Australia. Correspondence to

The Ethics of Language Teaching
Writer: Olivier Elzingre
Petey: Teacher with students (title); Bible; Rosary; Students

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


comments powered by Disqus
Subscribe now
and never miss an issue!

In this issue:

Missed something?
Find previous issues in the archives.

Become a Patron and help support us


Subscribe to Parrot Time!

Copyright © 2013-2018 Scriveremo Publishing