14-year-old Santiago lives in an estrato uno, low-income, neighborhood in Medellin. He’s taking English classes and studying to become a tour guide. Santiago knows very little English, but he and his sister join a tour group in the city center to observe a tour guide in action and pick up some tips. Besides it is the first time he and his sister explore the city beyond their neighborhood.
The guide speaks about three pillars of public policy that transformed Medellin: education, security, and democratic architecture that allowed people to reclaim public spaces formally plagued by crime. Santiago and his sister’s eyes tell a story of an evolving city. Young kids once limited to their neighborhood bubble can now exchange ideas with foreigners, showing them what their city has to offer. Santiago’s day tour experience is possible because of the transformation in Medellin. And he is able to take advantage of it because English is merely another tool allowing him to build, connect, and interact in multiple ways with others.
When I started my role as a teaching fellow, I questioned the ethics of it. Coming from one of the most powerful countries in the world and going to a developing country with the purpose of teaching low-income students how to speak one of my native languages sounded kind of imperialistic. I was afraid that I was participating in the diffusion of American exceptionalism in Latin America. My own immigrant story coming from Mexico involved learning English so that I could participate in my new, U.S. context. I learned English to assimilate and take on a new identity as Mexican-American all because my parents knew that the sacrifices we made would open so many doors for our family. I later learned that English is the language of power, of business, and whether I agree with it or not, speaking English does allow me to connect with many more people around the world and consequently access more opportunities.
What’s critical here, however, is that English is not a better language than Spanish or any other. Having this tool at my reach does not make me better than anyone else. Like a college degree it does give me an advantage but does not mean that my human value is any greater than anyone else’s and unlike privileges awarded through skin color (or something we cannot change), anyone can learn a new language and access the privileges that come with it. I want to be an example for my students that they don’t have to let go of their mother tongue or cultural roots to be successful. If anything, they can use English to communicate to the world all the wonderful experiences they live out in their home country. Colombian culture is full of flavorful and vibrant traditions, dances, food, and hardworking, resilient people. My students’ perspective will always be influenced by their cultural background and this is a strength for them. When I think about kids like Santiago who stretch themselves with a desire to learn and connect, I realize that my role as an English teacher is giving young people hope and expanding their pool of possibilities. By learning a new language, students increase their self-efficacy and come to see themselves as the true protagonists of their life path.