by Teri McCarthy
I want to challenge Christian ESL professionals to formulate a Christian worldview of this discipline and thereby begin influencing research and curriculum.
More Christians teach English as a Second Language than any other special-interest group in the field.1 Evangelicals become either ESL certified or earn a master’s degree in ESL to enable them to teach in creative-access countries they feel called to, but would not be allowed to enter, as Christian workers or missionaries. As a result, Christians have looked at ESL as an avenue to their land of calling, but have not looked at ESL as a calling. Because of this, there has been little scholarship in ESL by evangelicals. There is an unfortunate silence in the academic world from Christian professionals in ESL. I want to challenge Christian ESL professionals to formulate a Christian worldview of this discipline and thereby begin influencing research and curriculum.
English has become the global language.2 It is the most studied foreign language in the world, and it may be the most studied subject in the world.3 The December, 1996, issue of The Economist described English as the “impregnably established world standard language.” English proficiency is required to use technology, study medicine, or even pilot a commercial jet, and individuals around the world are studying English at an unprecedented rate. Twenty percent of the world’s people speak English as their second language,4 and estimates suggest that over a billion people are studying the language.
China estimates that there are nearly 10,000 North Americans teaching ESL there.5 In the last 20 years, the evangelical movement has clearly seen how teaching English can help spread the gospel. Parachurch organizations in the U.S. have sprung up by the dozens to send teachers of English overseas. God has blessed those endeavors. However, teaching English overseas must not be a mere excuse to live in a foreign country so that we can do the real job of evangelism.
In a world eager to learn the English language, in a world where Christian teachers dominate ESL, in a world needing to hear the message of Christ, is there a more effective, and long-term way to influence the students, faculty, and institutions we are sent to serve? Yes, through sound Christian scholarship.6
Teaching English as a second language is more than just coaching a conversational English class and getting students to speak. What happens in the classroom is a direct result of what took place in the ESL theorist’s research. Theory creates the research, and research creates the curriculum and the methodology. The individual who gave birth to the theory has a worldview. That worldview influenced the research and eventually, the curriculum and the methods. What that person believes comes across in the materials.
ESL professionals should be involved in second language acquisition research in order to create the theories that influence the research that form the curriculum and methods. We must be present at the foundational level so that a Christian worldview of language learning can be represented in ESL classrooms that are being taught by Christians and non-Christians. With ESL still a relatively new field, it is all the more crucial that Christians form a biblical perspective.
As a Ph.D. candidate in ESL, I want to think Christianly about my discipline. However, the three leading Christian universities in the U.S. offer graduate degrees in ESL in their missions departments—not in their departments of education or applied linguistics. This shows how little attention the Christian community pays to the fact that teachers are being sent to foreign lands to represent Christianity. ESL teachers are to be teachers of English. Teachers need courses on philosophy of education, learning styles, and the psychology of learning. Cross-cultural communications, which is emphasized in missions departments, is important, but to be effective in the classroom, one needs to learn pedagogy. David Nunan, president of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), writes:
A challenge for education in general, and TESOL in particular, is to define, refine, and articulate its disciplinary basis. Education is a hybrid, drawing on a range of disciplines such as psychology and sociology. In addition to these, TESOL is influenced by linguistics (both theoretical and applied), psycholinguistics, sociolin-guistics, cognitive science, and numerous other disciplines. Partly because of this, we don’t have a shared set of rules of the game. In fact we don’t even come close.7
Not only does Nunan point out that ESL teachers need to be trained for this complex field, he also makes a case for the need to “set the rules of the game.” Because of the enormous influence Christians can wield in this relatively new discipline, the time is right for a professional call to arms. Research, curriculum design, articles in professional journals will all have a significant impact if those holding a Christian perspective get involved.
Christians interested in scholarly research in ESL can investigate second language acquisition (SLA). How does the brain process a second language (L2)? Does the human brain have a design that makes it capable of processing an L2? What does the Bible say about SLA? Linguists say that perhaps all languages come from one mother tongue.8 As a Christian, does that influence my approach to SLA? The Genesis 11 account of the human race having a common language can now be a part of scholarly discussions.
According to the second chapter of Acts, God supernaturally imparted second languages on the day of Pentecost for the purpose of evangelism. Do these biblical facts relate to ESL or SLA? These are only a few of the issues Christian scholars can begin engaging.
CHANGING THE WAY WE LOOK AT ESL
In spring of 1997, I called the dean of a TESL masters program at one of the leading Christian universities in the U.S. I asked how the program approaches a Christian world-view for ESL, explaining that I was personally struggling to define and articulate a Christian worldview of my discipline. I asked if she had any ideas or recommendations. She then explained the program: Our students are taught Bible from the first day they enter our university. They have classes on evangelism, personal growth, and spiritual development. The ESL classes are a way to prepare them professionally to teach overseas. Once they have a job teaching ESL in a creative-access country, they can be about their real business of sharing the gospel.
We must ask ourselves if that is moral. Is that the Christlike way to live and teach in a foreign land? It is wonderful that Christians can live and teach in countries where the name of Jesus is little known. For us to bring glory to God in the classroom, however, we should be well trained and well equipped to teach English as a second language. Our professionalism, scholarship, and expertise should be as much a witness to our university administration and colleagues as our desire to present the gospel. I do not want to enter an academic community unless I can offer its members my very best. I want Christ to be in all that I do, the way I teach, the way that I approach the subject.
An advertisement in a popular Christian magazine says, “Earn your Master’s degree tuition-free while teaching English in Asia for two years!” An individual can actually earn a degree while teaching ESL. This means individuals are going to Asian universities, in the name of Jesus, to teach ESL without even a master’s degree. What if the medical profession functioned this way? “Earn your medical degree, tuition-free, as you operate on young, insignificant individuals abroad!” In Kansas, an individual cannot teach ESL in the public schools without an ESL certification, a teaching certificate, and a bachelor’s degree in education.
It appears that Christians teaching ESL do not need to be qualified to teach abroad. This sends the message that foreign universities’ academic standards do not matter because we are doing the important job of evangelizing. However, being on the campus, receiving a salary, being called a teacher, signing a contract with the university all bear the moral obligation to be qualified for the position.
As a graduate student, I want a biblical approach to what I do. All of us teaching ESL can be more effective witnesses for Christ when we have earned the right to be heard through sound scholarship and excellence in teaching.
In contrast to ESL teachers, Christian linguists such as Wycliffe’s Ben Elson and Kenneth Pike have earned great respect worldwide and superior reputations in linguistics. Their discipline requires excellence. Wycliffe translators are often outstanding, well-recognized scholars. Because they view good scholarship as sacred and because they want desperately to translate God’s Word for language groups without it, they set their hearts and minds to do linguistics well. Elson’s “Linguistic Creed” has become a standard for Christian linguists around the world. In the creed, Elson states that language is one of God’s most important gifts to man, and of all human characteristics, language is the most distinctly human and the most basic. Without language, culture and civilization would be impossible.9 Wycliffe linguists see their discipline through a Christian worldview. Their work and scholarship are sanctified, set apart for the glory of God.
Christians are called to live, think, and work Christianly. Reformed leader Abraham Kuyper wrote that there is not one square inch of this universe that does not belong to Jesus Christ.10 We must, then, as ESL teachers, grapple with Christ’s ownership of the ESL classroom.
In 1658 Moravian scholar Jon Amos Comenius wrote The Great Diadactic,11 discussing a Christian approach to language learning, a revolutionary idea at the time:
Languages are learned, not as forming in themselves a part of erudition or wisdom, but as being the means by which we may acquire knowledge and may impart it to others . . . for it is men we are preparing, not parrots.12
His method of language learning and teaching transformed education. In fact, his approach to second language acquisition was so logical and user-friendly that his archenemies, the Jesuits, adopted it as their method of instruction. Comenius is well respected, world-renowned, and yet, in my master’s degree courses in ESL at a Christian university, Comenius’s name was never mentioned. Even though he articulated a Christian worldview of second language acquisition, I was never introduced to his works in graduate school. We must equip ESL professionals going abroad to teach with examples of sound Christian scholarship.
In The Abolition of Man,13 C.S. Lewis warns teachers not to create “men without chests.”14 Lewis says that ideas have consequences, that teaching is a grave responsibility because we are influencing how others, our students, see the world. Lewis challenges educators to think about what they are teaching. Values are being transferred in the classroom not only through what we teach, but the way we teach. The fact that I am a native speaker of English does not qualify me to enter a university abroad and teach English to non-native speakers. Lack of training, lack of understanding of pedagogy, lack of tools for second language acquisition speak volumes to my students about Christianity. If I proclaim Christ in a cozy home Bible study, I’d better also proclaim Christ through excellence in teaching and a scholarly understanding of the subject matter.
These two scholars, Comenius and Lewis, both of whom lived and worked in the university, influenced their disciplines and their communities with Christian worldviews of their scholarship. ESL professionals who accept the claims of Christ on both their lives and minds must look at their profession and ask, “What does a Christian worldview of ESL look like?” Then they should prayerfully consider research and writing as ways to influence this field. A high standard of scholarship, doing all that I do to bring glory to God, is a place to start. If all truth is God’s truth, then his truth in second language acquisition and ESL is a holy thing. We must integrate faith and learning, faith and research, faith and teaching.
For years I taught from a packaged curriculum that I did not agree with. I felt powerless because there were no alternatives. Realizing that there are no value-neutral textbooks for ESL, I had to choose what could only be considered the lesser of two evils.
If indeed Christians dominate the field of ESL, shouldn’t we be the main informers of its curriculum—not just Bible-based curriculum, but research, theories, methodology, and pedagogy all approached from a Christian worldview? Many nations, especially Muslim ones, will not allow a Bible-based curriculum in the classroom. But there are ways to design a curriculum that instill absolutes and incorporate the issues of right and wrong. Recently I lectured to 300 university students in China on “The Ten Characteristics of an Honorable Man or Woman.” I never mentioned God, or Christ, but I spoke about the moral dilemmas we get into when we disregard 10 principles of moral living. Those were the Ten Commandments—adapted of course, but presented as truth. The students’ responses were overwhelming as they asked questions about truth and lying.
Evangelical ESL professionals must begin to write curriculum and influence curriculum design. Materials need to address issues of right and wrong. They should incorporate examples of moral lifestyles. The ESL series, Lessons in the New English Course, which I used in China for two years, focused on lying as a way of life. Language exercises centered on drinking alcohol, smoking, and how to tolerate people with alternative lifestyles. As a born-again believer I do not want to teach materials that focus on behavior I do not condone. Materials need to be available that focus on absolutes, truth, and goodness.
My students know I hold to absolutes for both inside and outside the classroom. Honesty, keeping my word, being on time and well prepared, returning their papers in a timely fashion all earn me the right to be heard. When they come to my apartment for Bible studies, they know my standards come from the true Standard Bearer, Jesus Christ.
Students are easy to reach, but my colleagues are influenced by my desire to do good scholarship in my field. These fellow professionals in China, Russia, and in the U.S. would not listen to my testimony if I did not produce good scholarship and instruct professionally. Earning the right to be heard with academic colleagues is most difficult, but also most strategic. Winning students to Christ is important; winning faculty can produce a systemic change. The faculty will influence thousands of students. To catch their attention, my work must have professional integrity. Bringing glory to God through excellence in ESL scholarship and methods should be the purpose of every Christian ESL teacher. ESL should not be subterfuge for any other purpose, however worthy.
1. Pam Williams, telephone interview, August, 1999. An editor for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc., she says the Christian caucus group is the largest represented in this professional organization, nearly doubling the second largest caucus’s membership.
2. David Graddol, The Future of English (London: The English Company Ltd., 1999), 2.
3. Ibid., 3.
4. Ibid., 4.
5. Bao Ding, head of Foreign Affairs Bureau in Beijing, interview held in his office, April, 1997.
6. George Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford Press, 1997).
7. David Nunan, “So You Think That Language Teaching is a Profession,” TESOL Matters, August/September, 1999, 3.
8. William F. Alman, “The Mother Tongue,” U.S. News & World Report,
5 November 1990, 58-70.
9. Benjamin F. Elson, “Linguistic Creed” [SIL Web site], 17 March 1995 [cited 30 September, 1999]; available from http://www.sil.org/sil/linguistic_creed.htm.
10. R.E.L. Rodgers, The Incarnation of the Antithesis (Edinburgh: Pentland Press, 1992), 6.
11. Jon Amos Comenius, The Great Diadactic, trans. G.W. Keatinge (London: A.C. Black 1910).
12. Ibid., 203.
13. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1944).
14. Ibid., 36.
Alman, William F. “The Mother Tongue.” U.S.News & World Report. 5 November 1990, 58-70.
Bao, Ding. The head of the Foreign Affairs Bureau in Beijing, PRC. Interview held in his office, April 1997.
Comenius, Jon Amos. The Great Diadactic, translated by G.W.
Keatinge. London: A.C. Black, 1910.
Elson, Benjamin F. “Linguistic Creed.” SIL Web site, 17 March 1995. Cited 30 September 1999. Available from http://www.sil.org/sil/linguistic_creed.htm.
Graddol, David. The Future of English. London: The English Company Ltd., 1999.
Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1944.
Marsden, George. The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. New York: Oxford Press, 1997.
Nunan, David. “So You Think That Language Teaching is a Profession.” TESOL Matters, August/September 1999, 6.
Rodgers, R.E.L. The Incarnation of the Antithesis. Edinburgh: Pentland Press, 1992.
Smith, David. “Can Modern Language Teaching be Modern?” Spectrum Vol. 25, No. 1, 1993, 25-38.
Williams, Pamela. Editor for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. Telephone interview, August 1999.
Teri McCarthy is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kansas, School of Education (Lawrence, Kan.). She has taught ESL in China, Russia, and the U.S. since 1983. Teri and her husband Daryl work for the International Institute for Christian Studies (Overland Park, Kan.).
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