What’s it like to teach English in Montréal?: Part 1 (by Lauren Godfrey-Smith)

Eighteen months ago, I gave up teaching English full-time at a cégep to start my doctorate at McGill. Since then, I’ve been involved in the teacher education programs at McGill and have had the chance to work with undergraduate and graduate students preparing to become language teachers in Montréal and beyond. Recently, in a class with my 4th year B.Ed. (TESOL) students, we had a conversation about the political, cultural, and institutional factors that play a role in our teaching. Listening to these student teachers, brightly poised to enter the job market as English language teachers, I wondered: what’s it like to teach English in Montréal? The short answer is: it’s complicated. The long answer is… long. So, I’m going to explore this question over the course of my next few blog posts. In this instalment, I grapple with our nomenclature.

Teaching English as an additional language in Québec is complicated from the moment we try and name what it is we do. Do we teach ESL – English as a second language? This term is problematic for several reasons; first, it takes a fairly monolingual lens to the learning of languages – you have your first language, then your second, then you’re… done? I find the term ‘second language’ so ordinal, and it seems to exclude from the conversation people who know multiple languages and want to learn another. What’s more, the concept of learning a ‘second’ language is usually used in contexts where the language being learned is the dominant language that students will hear and interact in beyond the language classroom. Learning Spanish in Columbia, for example, could easily be called Flagslearning Spanish as a second language. This doesn’t reflect the reality of Montréal, where French is the language most often heard and seen as we move around the city. Yet, we do hear and see English (and other languages too!), and while it may be less than you would hear and see in a dominantly English city like Toronto or Winnipeg, it’s also more than you would expect in Bogotá or Manila. And for this reason, it doesn’t feel right to say that when we teach English, we’re teaching EFL – English as a foreign language. To say that English is a ‘foreign’ language in Montréal suggests that English is something that only exists beyond the borders of Québec, in some exotic, faraway locale. That’s simply not the case; for better or for worse, there is a long history of English in Montréal and the majority of the people who live and work here will probably interact in English on a semi-regular basis.

So, what’s my job title? And, why should it matter what I call myself?

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