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.
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.
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.
(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.
(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.
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