“I want to raise awareness about the power of language through teaching”

Isabel Ibarra entered the US education system knowing only a few words of English. Now she is an expert of the language and a teacher who wants her students to learn about the power of language.

As a child, Isabel Ibarra got a crash course in learning English. Her father, a Marine in the Chilean Navy, was transferred from their home country of Chile to Washington D.C. in the United States for two years. He got the job partly thanks to his knowledge of English, and brought his family along. Ibarra continued her schooling in the US but barely knew any English.

“I am the youngest in my family and my older siblings were very good at English, just like my father. My English was just horrible. I could not even say ‘window’ or ‘door’. The move abroad was a big cultural shock for me.”

At school, Ibarra was paired with a Mexican girl who would translate everything from English to Spanish for her.

“I was called a ‘shadow’. I was not addressed directly. Even the teachers were dismissive of me due to the language issue.”

Slowly Ibarra started to pick up the language, but the experience left a lasting impression. As her language skills grew, she noticed how it opened doors. This led her on a career path of teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL). While completing her bachelor’s degree with a TEFL certificate back in Chile, she began working as an English teacher. Now a teacher herself, she wants to make sure no one feels excluded.

“I used to encourage my students in Chile to use Spanglish if they didn’t know all the words in English. Their passion for learning is more important than flawless vocabulary.”

Teaching starts with learning

After her bachelor’s studies, Ibarra wished to continue on to a master’s programme and expand her expertise in English. This time she was eager to move abroad, as she was now equipped with the knowledge of a global lingua franca. Ibarra began researching different options offered by universities around the world and found the Master’s Programme in English Studies at the University of Helsinki.

“I had heard about Finland and its educational system, which is regarded as one of the best in the world, so the country had been on my radar. In addition, the programme was just the perfect fit for me, as it was the most versatile. I was able to develop as a teacher by broadening my understanding of the many varieties of English language and culture.”

The programme offers a wide range of courses in fields that are often separated in other degree programmes: English language and linguistics, literatures in English and the teaching of English. Students can take courses in all three areas or just focus on one of them.

“I was initially interested in literature, but found out through my studies that I am passionate about sociolinguistics as well, so I was free to focus on both.”

The multidisciplinary approach was a welcome surprise for Ibarra, who was used to a predetermined study structure. At the University of Helsinki, students are encouraged to take courses across academic disciplines.

“I have been able to choose interesting courses from degree programmes and fields other than my own, such as gender studies and European studies. Thus, I have been able to tailor a degree for myself that is completely unique and based on my own interests.”

During her first semester at the University of Helsinki, Ibarra got an opportunity to work as a teaching assistant at the University’s Language Centre. It is the largest language training institute in Finland and a multilingual and multicultural working community.

“I learnt how much cultural settings affect the teaching experience. In Chile, it is hard to get the students to be quiet, whereas here it is sometimes difficult to get them to talk. It was very challenging yet enriching to deal with a group of students of various ages and from different parts of the world all in the same classroom.”

Learning about the power of language

Through her studies at the University of Helsinki, Ibarra began to realise the societal power language possesses. Courses such as “Bad English”, which focuses on so-called “nonstandard” varieties of English, and “Literature and Minorities” made a particular impression on her.

The linguistics course “Bad English” tackles language attitudes and ideologies that are associated with nonstandard varieties of English, including ethnic and social varieties as well as English as a foreign language (EFL). As an EFL teacher, Ibarra was able to reflect on her role in relation to language authorities.

“In the future, I want to emphasise to my students that if their vernacular differs from what standardised testing would allow as correct, how they speak is not wrong but merely a different type of English.”

The literature course “Literature and Minorities” was similarly an opportunity for Ibarra to reflect on past experiences.

“It was very enlightening to view world literature from the perspective of minorities. The topic was close to my heart as I had lived in the US as a child and suddenly found myself in a minority. This is something I realised only later in my life.”

In her master’s thesis, Ibarra combined sociolinguistics and literary studies. She analysed how in two contemporary novels by minority authors the protagonists represented a longing for an identity through their language.

“The main characters, and minorities in general, are faced with stereotypical expectations and they constantly struggle with these assumptions. This is a topical issue that is present in the language usage of today’s society.”

Advocating for inclusivity among the younger generation

As an educator, Ibarra prefers to find out what topics and themes interest her students. A teacher should create a safe and inclusive space for discussion, whether it is about a TikTok trend or a political point of view.

“I enjoy working with students at the upper secondary school level. By getting to know them a bit, I can plan my lessons to be more enriching. My most memorable moments while teaching have been discussions with my students. It is very rewarding to see that spark of interest when they get to talk about real-life topics close to their heart.”

After completing her master’s degree, Ibarra plans to apply to the Subject Teacher Education Programme in English (STEP) offered by the University of Helsinki. STEP is a one-year (60 ECTS) programme for students who want to qualify as subject teachers in comprehensive and upper secondary schools in Finland.

“I would like to work as a subject teacher on the upper secondary school level in Europe and advocate for inclusivity with regard to different varieties of English. Language is powerful and constantly evolving. It is essential that educators keep up with the changes.”

Learn more about the Master’s Programme in English Studies.