Updated: Sep 12
At the dawn of the digital age, Nicholas Negroponte published a book called Being Digital (1995). In this book, he speculated about the future of digital technologies and their possible future, and how this may impact us. He correctly predicted several features of our current digital world (including personalised news feeds and touch-screen technology), and he also anticipated that the Internet would help to smooth out cultural differences and would help us all to occupy a common field.
Even though it is very clear that our world is becoming more and more connected and increasingly global, there is at least one area that seems to be going in the opposite direction. Media. Because of our personalised news feeds and with the help of cookies and other digital aids, a phenomenon called a “filter bubble” has appeared.
This is a phrase coined by Eli Pariser, and in his TED talk from 2011, he describes his concern with web personalisation. What this means is that, based on your previous search history, you may get a different search results when googling something, than someone else. A classic example often cited is that a person with liberal political orientation who googles “BP” might get results about oil spills, whereas a person with a conservative leaning might get results that includes investment information about the company.
Even though our world is becoming more connected, we are increasingly at risk of getting a distorted view of our world through the Internet and through social media.
In a globalised world, many problems have become globalised; the environment, economics, social issues, etc. These global problems that we need to solve require global solutions, and for that we need global conversations. And teaching a language will help to develop global conversations.
With the help of language, people can express themselves and share their thoughts with the world, especially with the help of the Internet and social media. Ethan Zuckerman, an Associate Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has worked in several projects in West Africa where he helped set up several blogging and Internet publishing services for young people. In one of his projects in the late 2000’s, a language club in Madagascar with young people studying English was able to blog to an international audience about a coup that was currently taking place in their country. The fact that they could use English and the Internet to tell their stories to the world had a big impact on what we know about the country.
Today in 2019, we are in the Western World seeing a new wave of extremist-right politics. In several countries, we are seeing a shift towards more isolationist and protectionist policies. New physical boundaries between countries are being proposed, as well as breaking out of established political and economic unions. Populist parties in Europe have tripled their vote over the past 20 years.
While the reasons for this development right now are many and can be discussed at length, it is clear that these tendencies also bring with them a more closed, nationalistic and xenophobic outlook.
Although not everyone would like to become a politician or an activist, I do feel that we as language teachers really have an important role to play in the future. As a Language Teacher Rebel, you can make a positive impact on the world. You can become a bridge-builder and make a difference.
You can expand people’s “bubbles” by teaching them your language, so they can read and understand media and literature from your country. And you can also widen people’s webs and networks, by publishing, sharing and telling stories about your own country and its culture.
The Internet and the digital era we now live in gives you the amazing opportunity to reach people on a global scale, far beyond any traditional classroom setting. But you will also widen your own web and network, and burst your own filter bubble, through the learners that will come to you and study with you from all over the world. It’s a win-win.
Globalisation today means that it is easier to get a job and move to a different country. It is easier to meet (and fall in love with) someone from a different country. But there are also more dramatic events, such as climate change and conflicts, that will force people to uproot and migrate to a different place. People will continue to move, for whatever reason, to other countries and will need to absorb and integrate into different cultures.
You will become a bridge-figure, and through your teaching you will pass this on to your learners and make them bridge-figures too. You will make them able to see different perspectives and enhance their cultural understanding.
Culture in an important component to connect people, both regionally and globally, and familiarity overcomes and destroys fear. And in order to understand culture, language is a key component. Language skills are a ticket to participate in a culture. And with digital tools, this journey can now start much earlier than before and so prepare a person before they settle in their new country.
The Digital Age has arrived, whether you like it or not. It is happening. And it has created a perfect environment for you as a language teacher to reach a much wider learner base than what has been remotely possible previously.
You need to transition away from the old Industrial Age way of thinking, into the new Digital Era, and become a Language Teacher Rebel. You must develop a more entrepreneurial mindset and embrace change.
You must become more curious, daring, and be ready to take on new challenges. By breaking free from the traditional classroom, you can make a living from home or from somewhere else, teaching people from all over the world.
But from a more global perspective, as a Language Teacher Rebel, you have a much bigger and more important responsibility. You can help with integration on a worldwide scale. With your skills, together with technology, you can share cultural values and understanding way beyond a classroom.
You can build bridges, spread knowledge and increase empathy. And today, more than ever, it is badly needed. So this is your rallying call.