So I’m Not an Imperialist After All!
by Tara Trepanier
I’ll make a brief confession before I go into more detail...
When the Peace Corps recruiter gave me the assignment to
the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) section
of the Peace Corps, it was a bit disheartening. Teaching English!? How’s that going to help save the world? It seemed a
bit imperialist, and not in a good way. To walk into a country
with a civilization thousands of years older than ours and tell
them my language was better? That they should learn mine? It
seemed like a rather imperialistic venture. But, wanting to join
the Peace Corps, I remained open-minded, thought there had
to be a good reason that Peace Corps had such a large TEFL
program around the world, and set off to figure it out by serving
After three months of language training, I still hadn’t figured it out. I just realized that if I wanted to avoid looking
like an imperialist, I should work on my Macedonian. After
getting involved in my school, I started to understand it all a
bit be tter. With my first classroom project, I set out to find
my answer. I asked my students to make me a poster titled,
“Why Do We Study English?” The answers varied widely (as
do kids in any given classroom). One girl explained that it was
because she wanted to understand English music and drew a
picture of a boom box. A boy drew a picture of the world and
said he wanted to travel around it. Another girl drew a picture
of a university and said that English could help her get into the
university of her choice. One student said it was because she
wanted to be a lawyer, another, a doctor. Others drew America, Australia, or England and said that they wanted to get jobs
there. My dimmer switch began to turn; I began to see a faint
light. English isn’t viewed as an elective subject in Macedonia
(as foreign languages are often seen in America), but as an essential life skill: as important as computer knowledge is for this
generation of children. It is seen less like a foreign language
and more as a universal language—not only to be used in some
far-off land, but also to be used right here at home to better
All of the camps I’ve taken part in here have included a
component of bringing multiple ethnicities together for a week
of fun in English. We were told that it was important as counselors to speak in English whenever possible. It was here that it
started occurring to me that language is much more than a form
of communication, but also a vital part of a peoples’ culture.
As a counselor, choosing to speak in just one language, whether it was Macedonian, Albanian, Roma, Serbian, Greek, Turkish, or another, was to choose one culture as more important or
significant than the others. Choosing English, however, was
a neutral decision. I’d like to think that our English language
still holds a lot of culture within it (and I’m sure my English
major friends would have the evidence) but internationally it is
seen as a very neutral language, a political tool that can bring
different cultures together. I’ve learned a lot about my own
language by being in Macedonia. That may sound funny, but I
believe it is true. I no longer take English for granted. I have
watched the power of having a common a language between
student and adult participants and am ever grateful to have my
first language be a universal one.
So as it turns out, I am not here only to teach English as an
elective subject, but to teach English as a tool for the future.
Teaching English doesn’t only occur in the classroom but also
at coffee and while relaxing with friends. It is a 24/7 job because so many people that I encounter are so eager to practice.
I have gotten over the idea that I joined the Peace Corps just to
teach English and I realize now that I am spreading a skill that
holds more opportunities than I ever imagined. I am happy to
announce I am not an imperialist after all!
winter 2008 - 11