The colonial baggage of teaching EFL as a mission strategy

Within the orbit of evangelical mission activity, teaching English overseas seems like an easy and perfect fit. People ‘overseas’ want to learn English. You already know English. They often prize a native-speaker over accreditation or experience. And English provides a vehicle to the Bible and to the Gospel. Great?

Maybe not so great.

By teaching English as a foreign language, you engage in a host of complex issues and practices, and the unequivocal ‘goodness’ of this as mission quickly unravels. Teaching English as a foreigner easily buys into a set of assumptions – that you bring English to the table as a gift from a globally dominant language-and-culture, that they will be enriched and ennobled by learning English, that it provides them an entry to a broader world, that learning English is economically enabling, that Christianity is tied to English, that Christianity is tied to English-dominant countries, that the Bible is to be read in English, that Christianity is to be practiced in English, that Christianity is culturally and linguistically foreign to their native culture and language, etc..

All of these ought to trouble us. And to the extent that actual EFL practices of missionaries continue to embody such problems, requires considerable critical analysis. The Gospel, if it is truly translational, has to translate into a host culture. And to the extent that non-native-English-speakers become English-language Christians, they then face the difficult challenge of culturally translating that faith and identity across to their native identity-and-language, which is no easy thing.

This is not to say that EFL has no place in mission work. There is a danger of reacting by saying, “Well, we won’t teach you English at all!” This is colonial exclusivism – it presumes to tell people that they can’t have access to English, and to all that the Anglosphere provides. It acts as a gatekeeper to exclude, and to impoverish, and to dictate just as much to people what they can and can’t have. To put it in historical terms, would refusing to let anyone learn Latin have been any better than refusing to translate the Scriptures out of Latin? It’s patronising and just as much an exercise of power to refuse to teach English.

Which is why this is a conflicted and complicated issue, that is not so easy. Teaching English can be a colonial and imperialist act, but in some ways not-teaching English can be as problematic. Which is why I started writing this short piece – to complicate the picture.

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