A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – “The Native Speaker” – by Laura Blasena. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports

A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – “The Native Speaker” – by Laura Blasena. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports

I will be leaving my university before the end of the Fulbright grant period.

Among other personal reasons is the main reason that I am unhappy with my university; I am more than a native English-speaking “object”. I am a teacher, and (quite strangely) nobody seems willing to allow me to teach.

While this isn´t the experience of every English teacher in Bogota, it is the experience that I have had during my time here. There is an overwhelming desire that many people have in Bogota to learn English, practice English, and speak in English. The students who are dedicated to the idea of learning English often take supplemental private classes outside of their required university courses.

There is, however, in my opinion a very positive bias towards people who are native speakers of English.

LauraNative1

I am a licensed Spanish teacher in the United States. It means that I know how to teach Spanish and, when my skills are stripped down to their fundamental level, I understand a little bit about how to teach language in general. I´m not a trained English teacher. The only claim to competence that I have is a mash up of my Spanish teaching skills and the fact that I´ve spoken English for the entirety of my twenty-two year life.

Bogota is full of people who teach English, many of whom have less of a claim to competence than I do. That´s not bad. There´s certainly a necessity for English teachers no matter how skilled in teaching they are. However, the majority of the people I’ve met in Colombia never seem to mind whether somebody is a trained English teacher or simply a native speaker–in fact, it is usually only the “native speaker of English” that seems to be important.

LauraNative2

As I visited more and more classes at my university, there seemed to be a common theme: It didn´t particularly matter if my lessons were good, if the students were engaged, or if the students even paid attention. What mattered was that I was a native speaker and that the students got to hear me speak. The students asked me all generic questions (“Where are you from?”,“Are you married?”, “Do you have a boyfriend?”, “What do you look for in a Colombian man?”), and then whether or not I taught a lesson seemed irrelevant to both the professor and the students. I was the “native-speaker” from the States who talked and looked different. The professors complained if I didn´t visit every single one of the 110 English classes because it was so important for the students to just “meet me”, and the students seemed to feel in many cases that simply having me say things at them with no structure, scaffolding, or goal, would magically increase their English skills.

Those of you that are native speakers of English, do you feel like you could teach a class on English grammar right now? Modal verbs? Auxiliary verbs? Past participles? I´ve been teaching in Bogota for six months and I still stumble over English grammar. Deep down, I don´t feel qualified and I feel like I´m a bad teacher, but nobody cares because I´m a native speaker of English.

I was confused about the whole process until a student came to my tutoring hours. When I told him that I would be returning to the United States soon, he was crestfallen and explained that he wanted the opportunity “to talk with a native speaker”. He went on to explain that he was taking English courses at another school and he thought he was learning a lot “because there are no more than six students in a class”, but he didn´t like the classes because it was taught by a Colombian, somebody who wasn´t a native speaker of English. He explained that the reason that he refused to speak English to me was that his school had never given him the opportunity to speak to a native speaker. Therefore, he wasn’t prepared despite the fact that we had communicated extensively in English through Facebook Messenger.

LauraNative3

(A lot of my university students in Colombia have taken the same English course again and again through Elementary and High School. It’s the same basic topics, similar to how many students in the United States take many years of (usually) Spanish and learn the same things. The only difference is that English classes in Colombia are influenced by the fact that the government has set a deadline for everyone in the country to be bilingual.)

To me, there seems to be a widely held perception that native English speakers can magically impart the English language unto any person that bothers to pay for private classes. In order to learn English, you must sign up for English classes, and the English classes must fulfill two components: 1) they must have as few students as possible, preferably only one, and 2) the teacher must be a native speaker. If these two components are not met, the perception is that a student must travel to the United States or England to learn the language through immersion. When students come to my tutoring hours, which are designed as times where they can bring homework or projects that they tend to never complete, they don´t bring ideas or homework to work on. They simply stare at me and tell me to teach them things like “verbs” or “United States English” and listen as I say things to them. At the end, they tell me that they feel they’ve learned a lot.

It’s a very strange experience.

At first, I felt “objectified” in a certain way by my students and by my university. I was literally being asked to simply go around and greet students and my suggestions for lessons and improvements to my schedule were pooh-poohed and deemed irrelevant. At the same time, it’s easy to understand why a native speaker is conferred so much seemingly supernatural and sometimes undeserved power and desirability. The English language is heavily propagandized in Colombia. Every single one of my students, every professor, every person that I met on the street, waiter I spoke to in a restaurant, and taxi driver that drove me to and from the airport could tell me that English was incredibly important and necessary for their career advancement. The issue is that in many cases it simply isn’t necessary, but in a country that has a massive national program for creating a Spanish/English bilingual population it’s very easy to repeat the idea that you’ve been taught since you were a small child.

LauraNative4

(When I am not there, the students at Aguadulce learn English through repetitive translation work. Unfortunately, they sometimes are taught the wrong words. For example, in this translation the word atractivo means sexy instead of attractive. I was very confused why 5th graders were using the word sexy.)

About our special correspondent and senior editor Laura Blasena: Ever since I was a little Kindergartner I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.

I graduated from St. Scholastica in the summer of 2015 with a double major in Elementary Education and Spanish Education after student teaching as a 5th grade teacher and also as a Spanish teacher at NorthStar in Duluth, Minnesota.

While my future plans before graduation were initially to become a classroom teacher, I decided to wait a year to begin teaching in the United States and have chosen to work as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bogota, Colombia. In Colombia, I will be working with a university as an assistant in the language department, attending classes, running conversation clubs, and offering the perspective of a native speaker.

I’ve always loved to travel. In college, I participated in several study abroad trips, visiting England, Guatemala, and Mexico. (I loved visiting Mexico so much that I even went back a second time!). I’m looking forward to the travel opportunities that I will have while working and living in Colombia.

Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to write for The North Star Reports — HLIANG (at) css.edu

See also, our Facebook page with curated news articles at http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports

The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy (http://NorthStarReports.org) is a student edited and student authored open access publication centered around the themes of global and historical connections. Our abiding philosophy is that those of us who are fortunate enough to receive an education and to travel our planet are ethically bound to share our knowledge with those who cannot afford to do so. Therefore, creating virtual and actual communities of learning between college and K-12 classes are integral to our mission. In five semesters we have published 200 articles covering all habitable continents and a variety of topics ranging from history and politics, food and popular culture, to global inequities to complex identities. These articles are read by K-12 and college students. Our student editors and writers come from all parts of the campus, from Nursing to Biology, Physical Therapy to Business, and remarkably, many of our student editors and writers have long graduated from college. We also have writers and editors from other colleges and universities. In addition to our main site, we also curate a Facebook page dedicated to annotated news articles selected by our student editors (http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports). This is done by an all volunteer staff. We have a frugal cash budget, and we donate much of our time and talent to this project. We are sponsored by St. Scholastica’s Department of History and Politics and by the scholarly Middle Ground Journal: World History and Global Studies (http://theMiddleGroundJournal.org).

For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at: http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2013/1305/Opening-The-Middle-Ground-Journal.cfm

Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The North Star Reports; Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal; Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica.

Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports.

(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy http://NorthStarReports.org ISSN: 2377-908X The NSR is sponsored and published by Professor Hong-Ming Liang, NSR Student Editors and Writers, The Department of History and Politics of The College of St. Scholastica, and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open- access policy. K-12 teachers, if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact editor-in-chief Professor Liang at HLIANG (at) css.edu

36 Comments

Filed under Laura Blasena, North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang

36 responses to “A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – “The Native Speaker” – by Laura Blasena. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports

  1. Matt Breeze

    I think it is very interesting that everyone seems to want to know english and has this idea that it is necessary for their career when the reality may be different. This is interesting to me because it seems like a symptom of a government program and possibly propaganda. If the government tells everyone through school and other means that learning english is necessary and good for their career then they will probably think that it is true. When a national program is in place, like the bilingual goal of the Colombian government you described, it can become a self fulfilling prophecy because everyone believes it to be necessary and true and thus makes it happen despite the fact that it may not be necessary.

  2. Jenna Algoo

    I’m very sorry to hear about your struggles in Bogota. It sounds frustrating and to some degree degrading. I can only imagine being in a position to teach something but because of your background being put on a pedestal and forced to pay closer attention to a subject that you may not only barely understand (in a teaching lens) but also have no desire to teach. I can understand where the people are coming from and especially where the students are coming from; it’s scary to speak another language! Especially when you’re not integrated and you are expected to know how to use the language properly. In my years taking Spanish my teachers would tell me the same thing. “Once you find some time to travel to (x y and z) place, you’ll be able to speak it better” or “(Place name of teacher here) is from Spain! You’ll learn so much better from them.” Granted, it wouldn’t be quite the same in the U.S. versus in Bogota.

  3. Sofia Pineda

    I can see how your situation can be very frustrating, especially when you are trying to actually teach children. Being bilingual is essential in any part of the world in order to succeed in any career path. I think that often , foreigners who can speak more than one language are idolized by the natives because that is what they strive to be – they want to master the language as well as the foreigner. This is actually very sad because there are equally qualified native professor who can speak the other language but are not given the same respect. My high school was bilingual and every north american teacher was paid more than Honduran teachers even if they were qualified to teach the same material.

  4. Sarah Burton

    I am sorry that your experiences in Bogota haven’t been what you thought they would be. It is interesting that you have been treated more like a celebrity or object than a teacher. I took four years of Spanish in high school and had a teacher that was a native English speaker and learned Spanish in college. Hearing her speak compared to people who were native Spanish speakers was a very different experience and I actually thought I benefited more by talking with a native speaker than someone who learned Spanish through college. How interesting it is to think about how idolized native speakers can be to someone who is learning a language.

  5. Gina Palmi

    This seems pretty upsetting to me. I feel like it really makes sense you felt objectified. They way you put it, it seems like they don’t really want you for your actual career path you intended, but rather because you are a native English speaker. It is perplexing to me. It makes sense, but then again it doesn’t. I am a native English speaker but that by no means means I could teach someone the depths of the English language.

  6. How interesting! I love reading about your observations of the Columbian culture. The idea of English being an important language is spread all over the world. Nearly everywhere I’ve travelled abroad, I have had no trouble finding people who speak English, finding English signs, or even menus written in English. When this happens while traveling abroad, it almost makes me feel guilty for not knowing their native language when they know mine fluently. The push for being bilingual in Columbia is wonderful, and I wish we had pressure like that in the US to learn another language fluently.

  7. Holly Kampa

    Laura, I’m sorry to hear about your negative experience in Bogota. It’s seems as if you were a rare exhibit on display in a museum. I didn’t realize that the English language was so prized in different countries. I think it is interesting that Bogota prides itself on having a strong bilingual program. I took a couple years of Spanish, but to be honest I remember maybe a few things. I think it would be great to incorporate languages more into our society. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Emily Ciernia

    Laura, I am sorry to hear about your negative experience in Bogota. I thought it was interesting that people just wanted to “meet you”, instead of getting any type of English lessons. I can only imagine what it must be like to be almost idolized and have to do something that you might not want to do (from a teaching perspective). I thought it was interesting how you brought up the American foreign language program because in all my years of Spanish, I felt like I learned the same thing every year, the same basic phrases. It’s difficult to feel like you have actually learned something this way.

  9. Elisabeth Bergstedt

    First off, I just love your series of articles from Colombia. I look forward to reading the new ones you submit. Your problem sounds very familiar to the ones my mom has shared with me. She was a double major in nursing and Spanish. She said that Spanish just came easy to her and she loved speaking it (it also came very useful in her job as a nurse). She shared similar stories when she studied abroad to Mexico and helped teach a Spanish class during College. Although it wasn’t what she expected or wanted, she still is grateful for the chance….and she still fluently speaks the language! I wasn’t as gifted, in the sense that my Spanish lessons didn’t come as easy, but I still enjoy speaking when I can, especially when I visited Costa Rica. You are very lucky to be bilingual- that is so important these days as our society grows with immigration!

  10. Rachel Reicher

    Thank you for sharing your story, Laura. This story seems to not strike me as something odd. The United States has always been a destination for many people in other countries, and it is understandable that they speak our language. You mentioned that the English language has many parts, and I can agree with that and it is quite a confusing language to learn. Even though I am a native speaker of English, I am still learning larger words and other grammar. I think this is a process that every one goes through with language. Its a life long learning process.

  11. Kyle Dosan

    Sorry to hear about your frustrations teaching in Bogota. This is very interesting to read because learning a language is difficult to do. It takes time and practice to effectively learn how to speak a different language. I would also find it very difficult if I were in the position of teaching an English class just because I have spoke it all my life. In a way it almost seems as if learning English in Bogota is forced because as you said there is a set time period for someone to become bilingual.

  12. Catherine McConnell

    I am sorry you were met with resistance while teaching in Bogota, and not able to be realized for your full potential as a teacher. I can understand your struggles with teaching English- I could never teach English, my grammar and spelling have much to be desired if I even attempted. However, I have gone through trying to learn two different languages now, in both High School and University and I used to find myself akin to the students with the preferences of having a native speaker. When I tried to learn French in High School I only had two teachers- both nonnative that were laking in their own French skills because of their heavy English accents. I ended up learning many words completely wrong and have since given up learning French. I then signed up for Arabic my first semester of school and had a native speaker from Lebanon and thought her wonderful teaching was obviously was because she was a native speaker. However, my next professor in Arabic, though a native speaker did not have the knack for teaching arabic and I struggled much more than I did before. This Professor’s specialty was teaching Arab relations but because he could speak Arabic and more importantly the formal FuSha dialect the University demanded he teach Arabic as well. So long story short, I now believe it should not be about if a teacher is a native speaker or not, but rather their skills of how to teach the language.

  13. It is interesting to learn about how the English language is taught in non-English speaking countries. Your experiences sound frustrating and it is a shame you feel that you are not being able to do your job fully. It is also a shame that qualified native professors who speak other languages are not being given the same respect as native-English teachers. However I can understand why some students may feel that it is more beneficial to learn and talk with a native speaker.

  14. Jacob Carson

    I understand your troubles of feeling used as an english speaker. When I was in Brazil, I found myself in the same situation, I was supposed to be tutoring and teaching kids english, but it seemed that they would rather me just speak. It is really tough to tell the people that this is not the best learning tool, because they seem to be mesmorized by everything that comes out of your mouth. I am glad to hear that you care about their learning enough to try and teach, because some people in your position would just enjoy all of the attention.

  15. Andrea Ramler

    I am sorry that you had difficulty teaching while in Bogota. I found it interesting that people didn’t really take learning English as a priority. Instead they were just so focused on meeting you, which is great but it takes away from what you were trying to do. I also didn’t realize how much people from all over the world loved the English language so much. Yes it is a pretty complex language I just never really thought about it in that way. I am proud of you for not getting so caught up in the attention, and were still so focused on the learning. Thanks d=so much for sharing your experience!

  16. Wow I had no idea Colombia is becoming a official bilingual country like Canada. It was fascinating hearing how Colombians viewed the teaching of english, its so very different then the way one would learn a foreign language here in the states. Its interesting the faith they put in a native speaker as if they had some halo and could grant a gift i thought that was interesting. I know my Russian piano teacher offered to train me in Russian when i was young but my mother said no for some reason. I started lessons at 5 so i could have been bilingual.

  17. Nichole DeBoom

    I feel terrible about your time in Botoga. I find it interesting they would want you to teach a language you are not specialized in. I could not imagine teaching an English class, our language is complicated and hard to learn. Your care for the children truly shows through as you do not want to teach them something you are not qualified in. Do not let this hiccup ruin your thoughts as teaching, you are a bright person and will educate many. Thank you for your story!

  18. Donovan Blatz

    I terribly sorry for the rough times that you have had. I really enjoyed your past posts and stories that you shared with everyone. I found it interesting your point about how the native Colombians kept asking you questions that didn’t relate to your lesson. The social norms are very different and it seems offensive to you as a teacher. It shows a lot about you as a person that you keep taking these questions but still showing respect and caring about the students. Bravo to you!

  19. I can’t imagine what it would be like for a non-native language to be so important to my everyday life. I thought it was interesting that the government has a deadline to become bilingual… I thought it would be nice if they did that here, but of course they don’t have to since so much of the rest of the world is being made to learn English. I wonder if it stems from cultural imperialism or the sense of entitlement a lot of Americans have.

  20. Nancy Thao

    Thank you for sharing your story Laura. It is not a surprise to me that these kind of situations happen. But even I have to agree with you that after speaking English for my entire life, I am not an expert when it comes to English grammar. It is still a struggle, and I can see how you would feel “objectified”. But hopefully you will be able to overcome this situation and help students and the staff see Colombian English teachers in a different light.

  21. Thomas Landgren

    Sorry about your bad experience in Bogota. I bet it is frustrating when you want to help in other ways but the professors keep turning your ideas down and making you go to every class just to talk with no structure. I do believe that just listening to a native speaker you do pick up on some new things, but like you said there needs to be a structure or a guideline so that you can teach them specific things. Like always great article!

  22. I am so sorry that has been your experience! I have felt similar ways traveling the world though, having very pale skin and green eyes has made me quite a sight in southern china and even in Mexico. That is very interesting about the language teaching aspect as well. I can barely make it through a spanish into class, not to mention the whole their, there, they’re conundrum of the English language. What a doozy!

  23. Sara Desrocher

    I was very surprised when while reading this piece. I would not expect this reaction of the professors and students to an English teacher; I feel bad that you are not doing what you wanted to be doing there. Your question asking us if we could teach English at this point in our lives really made me stop and think. I guess that I could teach basic words and phrases but laying out a foundation of correct grammar would be difficult based on the slang terms that I use regularly.

  24. Nick Campbell

    What an odd situation. I’m very sure that if I was thrown into a class and told to teach english to non-native speakers, I would fail that task miserably. From the reverse side of things to, if a native spanish speaker was put in front of me, I feel as though I wouldn’t gain any type of knowledge from it. It would be helpful in helping to understand the language though.

  25. Bryce Gadke

    I’m sorry to hear that some of your experiences have been so negative in Bogota. I’ve greatly enjoyed the articles that you have produced for NSR. Currently I am using your experience in Pasto as an example for a presentation that I am doing in another class of mine on Rio’s Carnival. You have been an inspiration to me when it comes to the benefits of traveling abroad. Once again, I am sorry to hear that you will be leaving early. Finally, thank you very much for all that you have given to NSR and the people that have read your articles. I wish you the very best in the future!

  26. Jena O'Byrne

    Thank you for sharing your story, what an interesting experience for you. Your point about if we being english speaking students could stop and teach English my answer would be no. Yes, I speak the language but I still lack in using proper grammar at all times. Also it takes a lot of qualification to be able to teach english in the proper format. Just because you speak a language doesn’t mean teaching it will come easy. In taking some Spanish I learned that you need to understand the grammar in the phrases to understand a lot of the language. Thanks for sharing your experiences, I enjoyed reading.

  27. I have enjoyed reading your articles for NSR. I’m sorry that your time in Bogota didn’t go as expected with teaching. It’s a bummer that they really only focused on teaching english. By the way, I’m envious that you’re bilingual. I’m in a spanish class right now and all I can say are useless meanings like “the cat is ugly” or things like that. So that is something that takes a lot of practice, and is definitely something to be proud of! Thanks for sharing!!

  28. Jodi Moran

    What an interesting concept to think how others value our English language so much. It is so easy to take for granted the English language that we have. Even though I speak English, I would not know the first things in trying to teach this language. I have enjoyed reading your articles so much because they give a different look into the world. Thanks again for sharing!

  29. Martti Maunula

    What an unexpected and interesting viewpoint. Being objectified is no fun for anyone, but the way that you have been objectified and how you found yourself being objectified seems far different than the common cases of objectification that we see in the States. I’m curious where this phenomenon developed about how speaking to a native speaker of English would be so helpful to one’s learning. I can understand how it would be beneficial to learn English from the source, but on such a short timescale where you’re only briefly meeting someone seems odd to think that such great benefits would be imparted.

  30. Wow, I can understand where your frustration comes from. You are trained to teach and are instead treated as an exhibit with nothing worth while other than the language you speak. I hope that this experience has been valuable in other ways, perhaps you could write to the program and voice your concerns. I thank you for your honesty and hope all is well.

  31. Mike Zupfer

    Interesting article again this week. I think, if it were the right setting, being thrown into a class to teach English would be sort of fun but at the same time there would be parts of it that would not be fun. I am one that frequently uses spell check on Word, and mixes up my words so i probably am not the right candidate for the job. It does stink that you are not getting to do what you wanted to do there. That is something i am afraid that might happen when i am career searching. I want to find a job i like to do not that i have to do.

  32. Jessica Richart

    Thank you for sharing this experience with us. I am sorry for the time you are having. I can only imagine how hard this would be. Wanting to make a difference and not receiving the feedback that you wanted must be disappointing. I had no idea that they looked at English language education like this. I hope that you don’t get discouraged by this because teaching in another country would be a challenge to start with. I am sure you made a difference in their education even though it may be hard to see.

  33. Sandy Davidson-Hunt

    I am very sorry to hear about this experience you had. Despite this, I have always enjoyed reading your posts and I hope you can still take many positives out of your time in Bogota. The way you were treated down there seems very peculiar. I’m sure it was very frustrating not being able to teach as you would have liked, but as you said almost being used as an object. I wish you the best in your future teaching endeavours.

  34. Kyle Hellmann

    I was sad at first to hear that you are leaving your program early, but after reading your article I understand. It would be so frustrating to feel that way, as you came into this program thinking it would be something else. “Native-Speaker’ doesn’t always mean that you are the best teacher, but regardless they think they are. Thank you for sharing and I hope you learned a lot from this experience!

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