Conference Colonialism

The world of English language teaching is changing and it is best we all get on the new train which eschews many discriminatory and plainly “wrong” practices. We all got to look into our teaching hearts and beliefs BUT more importantly then change our practices. I’m trying. Let me explain.

Steve Brown’s recent blog post “Poking The NEST“, about his conversation with a school owner who was looking for “native speaking teachers” got me thinking more deeply on the subject. He reminds us that we can change things one person at a time through discussion, respect and actions. He also reminded me of the same such discussion I had with a conference organizer.

Recently I was contacted about speaking, expenses paid at the ELTAI Golden Jubilee Conference in India. I was even sent this video showing another white person flying in and looking forward to her favorite breakfast.

Initially, I didn’t respond. I’ve stopped flying hither and yonder to conferences unless I really have other objectives and things to do at said conference. For sake of the environmental footprint, for sake of my own beliefs that conferences should be local and not full of parachuted in “stars” and finally for the sake of my own self – weary I be of a lot of travel this past decade.

However, Steve’s post got me motivated and I replied. Here’s a brief part of that discussion. The organizer didn’t change her mind but she did seem to pause, to think, to try and understand why it isn’t good for Indian education to have white faces jetting in and acting as “know it alls” (I’m exaggerating to make a point).

Dr. Deubelbeiss – You are our distinguished guest.You don’t have to pay for anything. Once you land here. My University will take care of you, your stay and food, till you board your flight back to Canada.

Dr. Deubelbeiss – Please drop a line regarding our invitation to you to the conference as a Speaker.We ,especially,our students,will be delighted to welcome you here at our campus

Me. David – Dr. xxxxx. I”m a proponent of NOT flying in white, colonial speakers for teacher prof. development. For many valid reasons. Please focus on local teachers, teacher trainers, professionals – sharing and growing together. The old model of parachuting in and native speakerism should die a quick death. I hope you understand.

Dr. Deubelbeiss – Yes, I understand Professor Deubelbeiss, but here in India, the conference hosts expect a large number of foreigners who will attend. I’m in charge of the publicity activity. So, I’m approaching known contacts and social media contacts whom I don’t know personally. Some of them did show a great deal of interest. Thank you for your response.

Me. David – Dr. xxxxx. No worries.  As a mentor to many teachers – I don’t think I can responsibly speak out against the colonial attitude and its negative impact in ELT (discrimination to many fine local/bilingual teachers) and then attend conferences promoting the same. But I fully understand the “system” — it is this I challenge.

We then had an audio discussion where I could feel the professor challenging her beliefs. At the end of our audio exchange I was invited to Skype in and present about colonial attitudes in ELT.

(She doesn’t “get it).

Dr. Deubelbeiss – “Colonial attitude and its negative impact in ELT “would make a wonderful topic for discussion in the panels.You could join in on Skype. Hope to hear from you.Bye and have a wonderful week ahead

The point I want to make is nuanced. I’ve been guilty of parachuting into conferences or even working overseas as the “go to guy” for local teacher training. I don’t think that is terribly healthy and regret not really challenging my beliefs before. Really what white, Western teacher trainers the world over (mostly male) are doing is promoting dependence, promoting their own models of education. They are in essence saying to “the other” –

You are less. We are best. Look up to us. Be like us. That is the only way to be a good teacher.

Or messages like this.

Another consequence of the colonial attitude to teacher training and conferences is the dearth of actual conference sessions IN THE LOCAL LANGUAGE of the teacher. That has big consequences. A conference is all about learning, professional knowledge. And no better way to do it than in one’s own language. A conference should not be the time or place for teachers to work on their English fluency. Sorry to say so.

Let’s all start challenging our beliefs. Changing things by teaching our mouths to speak what is in our heart. The old models need to be challenged one person, one teacher at a time. Through dialogue, through respectful exchange and through our own actions.


  • Thomas Zachariah

    Right observations David. Creating inhibition and feeling low in the learners or non-native speakers (including teachers) is an outdated custom. Then only they can sell them best, I think this is the false belief of the native speakers (teachers). The way I acquired a second language has to be more appreciated than my mother tongue. You said it well!

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