A Case for Teaching Environmental English
By Dawid Juraszek
Until the classroom AC kicks in, our bodies push hard against our minds. Yes, we are dutifully acting out our roles and anyone looking in would walk away reassured. But deep down inside we are struggling to stay focused while all our instincts are telling us to get out and find a cooler spot.
As if there was one.
Finally, the AC does kick in, and for an hour or so we are teaching, studying, learning. But then it’s time to open the door, let the artificially cold air out, and walk right into the sweltering subtropical heat of southern China. All the poise and focus we have gained are gone in an instant and much of the next class is wasted on working ourselves back up to a precariously short-lived state of bodily comfort and cognitive focus, only to lose it all again an hour or so later.
My students depend on me. Your students depend on you. Not only for the skills we help them develop, the knowledge we help them acquire, and the insight we help them evolve – but also for the world we are sending them off to. And that world is getting hotter, with all the wide-ranging and hard-hitting consequences.
Global warming does feature in courses for English language learners. There is usually a dedicated chapter on environmental issues in each textbook, mostly of the glossy kind – just like there is a chapter on looking for a job, or making friends, or travelling. Climate change is a catchy pretext to introduce a point of grammar, a vocabulary list, a listening comprehension tip. One week students learn how to talk about leading a sustainable lifestyle, and the next about how to communicate while doing grocery shopping or holding business meetings. What’s wrong with that?
I haven’t taught a general English course in many years. From business to literature to intercultural communication to critical thinking, in my university courses I use English as a tool, not an end in itself. And increasingly I feel this tool has been woefully underused throughout the educational sector. The world we are sending our students off to will not be one where their existence revolves around trips to the mall and impressing their boss. It will be one where their existence revolves around keeping the world itself a liveable place.
However lofty that sounds, it’s true. The generations that are now or soon entering adulthood will see their middle and old age blighted by climate nothing like what they grew up assuming would continue. And it’s not just climate. Plastic pollution, biodiversity loss, water shortages, all these and other side effects of the way humanity has been conducting its business will disproportionately impact those that had the least to do with causing it: young people, our students. The climate breakdown is already happening, with heatwaves and hurricanes making headlines around the world. And yet, the environment remains nothing more than a perfectly ordinary item on the list of many things the education system expects students to engage with.
I’m not a science teacher – but that does not mean environmental sciences and all that they teach us cannot feature in my class. Last year I made a decision to include environmental topics into all my courses, and in a big way. It has turned out trivially easy. It makes perfect sense to include environmental impact considerations into discussions on business projects. The role of nature in the Romantic and Transcendentalist writings proves to be a hit with students, and the ecocritical angle of analysis shines through many of their essays. The impact of climate on social issues such as migration and international relations engenders much insightful debate. And dismantling the most common arguments of climate change deniers is pure fun.
No, it’s not about ‘smuggling’ scientific or social issues under the guise of a language class. The point is language itself as a solution to environmental problems. Climate change and related topics cannot be just another item to be included in an English language textbook. The reality is that favourable natural environment that we take for granted underpins all that we do and all that we are. Without it, there is no space for us to be. Environmental degradation concerns everyone, even those who haven’t realised that yet. And we must be able to talk about it freely and easily, no matter our ethnic, social, or cultural backgrounds. That is precisely where language skills come in.
Specific and targeted courses and exams in Business English and Academic English, as well as some other specialized varieties, are a staple of language education. I have taught these and others for years. But there are no Environmental English courses of comparable stature on offer. Yet it is precisely Environmental English that we need to help save the planet for us and for future generations.
I’m saying all this as a non-native English user. Extolling the virtues of English is not a matter of national pride for me. It is simply a matter of effectiveness. And I believe that dedicated Environmental English curricula in schools and universities, with a robust training in relevant linguistic and communicative skills, would provide a framework within which students with widely disparate backgrounds could find common ground. It would allow young people to coalesce around a common cause in their lives and start participating in society. Crucially, it would help foster relationships with immigrant children, who themselves often know environmental crises from their own experience; indeed, those very environmental crises might have been one of the reasons why they had to migrate in the first place.
To put it in one sentence: Environmental English courses would help us find a common language for a common challenge.
From USA to Uganda, young people have recently started resorting to litigation against their own governments to demand action on climate change. After all, it is the young people that will bear the full brunt of the coming environmental crisis with its profound consequences for all matters social, economic, and cultural. And so they are taking matters into their own hands, to pressure adults into acting, across the boundaries of nation, culture, and class. Communication is vital in making this happen.
Currently only a handful of universities and schools offer Environmental English courses, and only to students of environment-related majors in non-English speaking countries, or to environmental professionals in the private sector. There is no Environmental English equivalent to BEC or IELTS either. But if utility is at least one of the criteria for creating a course or standardizing an exam, then clearly it’s the Environmental English that should be a top priority for educational authorities. Environmental problems are and will continue to be about students in our classrooms right now – and about us, too.
Introducing such courses in educational institutions across the globe would do more than just improve students’ language skills. It would make it easier for them to understand and act on the news, providing linguistic and intellectual tools for debunking misinformation, countering manipulation, and preventing misunderstanding. It would help build a global network of environmentally-minded individuals, an epistemic community capable of sharing the environmental message across cultures and borders, eager to participate in and contribute to public debates and decision making, ready to rally around environmental causes and fight for environmental rights. It would help students face their climate future, and equip them to fight for it side by side with their peers from other countries. And they could do a lot away from the public eyes as well: Even the most hardened climate change deniers who now haunt the echelons of power are not immune to pleas from their own offspring, while parents who now carelessly consume and waste would think twice if pleaded otherwise by their environmentally-literate children.
Creating a global language of communication for environmental protection, in the sense of both a shared set of linguistic skills and a shared sense of a common challenge, would have a profound impact on the kind of discussions people around the world are having, whether at home or at work, in their classrooms and dorms, face to face and online. We badly need those conversations – and the actions that they could inspire.
Environmental English can help save the world we are sending our students off to.