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Social Justice and TESOL

Updated: Jan 30, 2023

The two most common reactions I face when I talk about social justice with my English-teacher colleagues are confusion or a kind of ‘great, but you do you’ form of moral support. I appreciate the second. Awareness of the damage we have been doing and continue to do worldwide as an industry is starting to increase, but there is still a gaping chasm between what we’re starting to know and what we continue to do in our classrooms – and our businesses. There is no clear alternative model for doing no harm when teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL).

The first response is the most difficult to tackle. Many ESOL educators just do not see the need for change. Many of the destructive, racist and colonial ideas entrenched deep in the fabric of our teaching have been passed onto learners and are repeated back to us in the form of demands for a particular style of service or teaching.

This cycle is difficult to break. We see it in employment and recruitment, with an unfair bias towards “native” (read: “from the global north”) teachers often over more qualified and experienced teachers for whom English is an additional language. We notice it in the salaries, contracts, and conditions of that latter group. It can also be observed in the blurry, misunderstood boundaries between accent and pronunciation and the continuing demand for “accent reduction” services. Sometimes more astutely sold as “accent coaching” or “accent training”, the objective (with few exceptions) is to eliminate all signs of regional identity within the way a person speaks and to help them conform to a more ‘neutral’ sounding production of spoken English.

And these ideas can also be seen in the materials we often use to aid us in the delivery of our classes. I recently spoke with a colleague in Baghdad who was struggling to find a coursebook for a new intermediate adult course she was about to run. She told me about some of the activities in the books she had been given by her employer. They included conversations about the “do's and don'ts” of a first date, a “have you ever”’ activity including such pastimes as scuba-diving and parachuting, and discussion prompts around mainly western styles of food and eating. She explained that she would have to change or adapt each and every one of these activities to something her learners could actually relate to and find useful.

And that’s the crux of it! We still teach English as though it is something that it is not. British and US educational institutions and publishers still export their own versions of the language, often alongside a certain set of values and cultural norms that seem almost glued to the use of the language itself. But we (minority world, first-language [L1] English speakers) do not own the language. We don’t dictate the rules. David Crystal, renowned linguist, academic and author, describes the present state of English brilliantly in his book Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar:

“[…] for every one native speaker of English there are now five non-native speakers. The centre of gravity in the use of English has shifted, therefore. Once upon a time, it would have been possible to say, in terms of number of speakers, that the British ‘owned’ English. Then it was the turn of the Americans. Today, it’s the turn of those who have learned English as a foreign language, who form the vast majority of users. Everyone who has taken the trouble to learn English can be said to ‘own’ it now, and they all have a say in its future.”

I see that future as one in which the terms of TESOL are dictated by those learning it. Pronunciation teaching will no longer include the mimicking of British or American varieties but be solely focused on comprehension. Content and delivery will be designed around the actual needs of second-language (L2) English speakers in international contexts, in which they will be speaking with other L2 English speakers from other parts of the world. Teachers who have successfully learned English as an additional language, and how to teach it to others will be respected and treated as the skilled professionals they are.

Most importantly, those learning English will no longer be required to shoulder the financial burden of their own learning. English is currently the global lingua franca. In an increasingly globalised and connected world, a working ability in English is essential to access information and education, and to communicate and collaborate across borders. In the future that I see, everyone will have access to this, not just the elites who were lucky enough to be able to afford the necessary education. That way, we really will hear all voices!

It’s time we take a Justice Based Approach to TESOL and start:

  • creating alternative business and funding models;

  • being accountable in our teaching to ourselves and to the future;

  • including our learners in decisions about their own education;

  • making sure our actions are doing no harm; and

  • creating a new system for the teaching of English worldwide.

This Justice Based TESOL will reflect the use of English as a lingua franca and respect indigenous languages – and most importantly, it will stop replicating the destructive norms and values of capitalism or colonialism.


Fiona Locke is a founding member of Upskilling For Change. If you’re an English-language educator who is interested in connecting with other like-minded professionals to discuss these and other ideas related to our profession, you can write to Fiona at Upskilling For Change holds monthly sharing and networking spaces online which you are welcome to attend. You can find out more, here.

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Vivek Pathak
Vivek Pathak
Oct 12, 2023

Joining Spoken English Institute was one of the best decisions I've made. The structured curriculum and continuous practice have boosted my fluency in English. I can now communicate more effectively

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