Language and Communication

When I first became an English as a Second Language teacher I had mixed feelings about the results of my work, culturally. Was it harmful to  be placing so much emphasis on the English language as essential for success? I would say yes. The Sociology major in me nagged away at my brain telling me, “this is imperialistic, Laura, damn it!” It’s true, people can earn more money by speaking English because it’s extremely helpful in the tourism industry in Cusco, and around the world, but it’s forcing priority of the language of people who come to visit over indigenous languages. Quechua is the native tongue throughout the Andes in the ancient Incan empire sprawling through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Quechua is so ancient it was thousands of years before it was a ever written language. Words for modern technologies like ‘washing machine’ are more like a hybrid between Spanish and Quechua.

Quechua is important to the Andes because is a key element of preserving Andean culture- not for the tourists- but for the people who belong to this ancient heritage. Therefore, placing an emphasis on English to make money off of visitors is devaluing parts of the culture that has existed here for thousands of years. That is hugely problematic. As an English teacher I felt I was contributing to a kind of modern imperialism and I certainly did not agree with it. While my students (ironically) reassured me children still learn Quechua in school.

Despite the cultural value displacement mental moral dilemma I experienced the language learning process fascinated me. People who didn’t speak a word of English could learn so quickly and put the language in action. What a cool function of the human brain to be able to express something in a foreign tongue! The functioning of language is an amazing phenomenon.

Let’s back up and talk about the main purpose of language: Communication. Being able to communicate through language is part of the human experience and sometimes we face obstacles with communication even the same language is being spoken. Other times communication barriers happen when different languages are being spoken. Lack of communication and understanding creates conflict as small as an argument with your wife to as large as war. Conflict almost always causes harm- so is there a way to prevent that? Maybe the answer is communication. So was teaching English all bad? It seems more complicated than that.

I was listening to a Ted Radio Hour podcast last week and the topic was language. One guest was explaining that it’s been theorized that in the future various forms of English will be spoken on every country on earth. Making it a global language. Creating an engine for universal communication. In theory, English would be something that would unify all people to communicate with each other. While the fact that English could be this universal language is problematic to me I  also find it be kind of a beautiful idea that it could unify people across nations.

This helped me find peace in working in ESL. The demand is not going to go away so why not someone like myself, who also understands the value of preserving ancient culture and traditions, teach English to help further my students career goals in this modern world. I am grateful to be immersed in such a rich culture and I too have learned a new language. Humans are only going forward. People are not going to stop speaking English and tourists aren’t going to stop coming to Cusco so maybe there is balance in there between communication and education about culture that can help people today gain a broader global perspective.

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