"They come because they know the teachers are gringos" : a post-colonial exploration of the perceived value of volunteer English teaching in Lima, Peru : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of International Development at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
Over the past three decades, there has been a growing trend among young people from developed
countries to spend time undertaking short-term voluntary activities in developing countries before,
during or after university. This phenomenon is known as ‘volunteer-tourism’. Although typically
unqualified, volunteer-tourists participate in a wide range of activities, including English language
teaching. There is, however, limited exploration on the dynamics of English language education
through volunteer-tourism. Furthermore, literature on the role of English in development
indicates an uncritical and positive bias towards English as an international language and a tool
of ‘development’. This research thus contributes to current literature in two key ways, considering
both the dynamics of volunteer-tourism and English language, in a post-colonial context.
The research explores the perceived value of volunteer English (EFL) teaching in both elite and
disadvantaged communities of post-colonial Peru. Focusing on a volunteer English teaching
agency that operates in both public and private schools in Lima, interviews were conducted with
both private and public school staff and former students, agency representatives and volunteers,
as part of a qualitative study. A post-colonial lens was adopted to frame the research, addressing
the following research questions:
• What motivates different actors’ involvement in volunteer English teaching programmes
and how do they perceive the value of volunteer English teaching and the English language
• How is volunteer English teaching and the English language experienced and perceived in
elite and disadvantaged environments by different actors?
Drawing on a post-colonial analytical strategy, the research discussion highlights three key
themes. Firstly, the perceived value of volunteer English teachers is dependent on their having a
positive and willing attitude rather than any form of qualification. Furthermore, their role
ambiguity means they are absolved of much responsibility both in and outside of the classroom.
Secondly, the value of volunteer English teaching lies in its characterisation as a ‘cultural
exchange’, whereby volunteer teaching assistants provide ‘authentic’, linguistic and cultural
exchange with Peruvian school students, host families and staff. Finally, stepping into the wider
context in which the research is situated, English language is seen by Peruvian participants as a
way of ‘opening doors to the world’, with direct associations made by all participants between
English and the discourse of ‘development’.
Overall, the research reveals power relations and subjectivities that are embedded in post-colonial
power structures. Elite members of the host community benefit more from the programme and
from the English language than those who are less advantaged, and generalisations are made
about different groups of actors based on stereotypes that embody post-colonial ways of thinking.
Uncritical promotion of the English language as a tool for personal and national ‘development’ is
symbolised by notions of superiority regarding the volunteers and the ‘world’ from which they
originate. This suggests that neo-colonial processes may also be involved in spreading the English
language and its associated ‘culture’. Nevertheless, while local initiatives such as this one may
reproduce systemic inequalities, the positive impacts that participants feel they have experienced
should not be overlooked. As such, further research into the overlap between English language
and volunteering is required to continue unpacking how these areas interact and operate within
underlying power relations, expanding the focus from perceived value, to tangible impacts.