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The future of language learning and teaching The future of language learning and teaching
by Joseph Gatt
2021-01-03 08:44:25
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In the last 20 years, many people around the world studied foreign languages, mainly English. Mainly because “English is a requirement to get a job and work in a globalized world.”

Some learned English rather naturally, travelling around the world, meeting local people, and using whatever English they studied in middle and high school to communicate. The more they chatted with strangers at hostels around the world, the more their English improved. Or they just dated someone and spoke English with their girlfriend or boyfriend.

Then you had countries like China, Korea or Japan, where companies required applicants to “speak English.” Some companies meant that literally, while others wrote that on the job advertisement because everyone else was writing that. Some companies required test scores as proof, while others interviewed job applicants in English.

lang01_400_01In China, Korea and Japan, because English was a requirement to get a job, local universities also started requiring students to provide standardized English language test scores and English proficiency tests as graduation requirements.

The job market in China, Japan and Korea also tended to favor people with university degree obtained from English-speaking countries, mainly the United States, but also Canada, the UK, Australia or New Zealand. So many local students studied English so they could move to North America for university studies.

Why was English education so much in demand in China, Japan and Korea? Because the three countries needed hard currency to purchase raw materials like oil and gas that were vital to their heavily industrialized economies. And they gained that hard currency by exporting industrial manufactured goods around the world. And to export manufactured goods you need to speak English. That was their logic and rationale.

So in Japan, China and Korea you had English schools springing up everywhere catering to kindergarten-level children, elementary school kids, middle school kids, high school exam prep, college students and adults.

The problem: in China, Korea or Japan, you are not really allowed to talk to strangers without the authorization of your parents, your professors or your boss. That is, in China, Korea or Japan, if your boss or seniors see you hang out with a foreign guy and hint that you shouldn't, then you let go of the foreign guy. Same goes for local guys.

At the Japanese, Chinese or Korean workplace, you need authorization for everything, including calling clients. And because authorizations are so slow to come by (mainly bosses sabotaging their subordinates) exports tend to slow down a great deal. Quality of manufactured products: good, or excellent. Sales skills: terrible, or horrible, mainly because you need authorization for everything, and mainly because your boss will try hard to sabotage any deal, as revenge for having been called a “bum” or an “idiot” by his boss and so on and so forth.

So you had China, Japan and Korea where almost everyone was studying English, but making few or no English-speaking friends. In the rest of the world, demand for language education tended to be more specific: it's usually young adults or older adults who need to study foreign languages to get a job, to get a promotion, to open up business opportunities, or to study in foreign countries. Or perhaps parents enrolling their children in language schools to better prepare their children for future business or academic opportunities.

What's the future of language education? I have the feeling that things won't change very much.

Korea, China and Japan still desperately need English to communicate with the rest of the world so they can export manufactured goods, so they can gain hard foreign currency to pay for raw materials. But the very low local birthrates means that those three countries are struggling to restructure their school system to a system where they can group up the very few children there are around any given city.  

BUT, I'll issue a caveat. The French, the Germans, the Polish, the Israelis or the Egyptians are sick and tired of dealing with East Asia's broken English and stilted speech, and need to get authorizations for everything, and being slow at providing answers and products.

But this poses a problem for Japanese and Chinese companies, along with Korean companies, where recruitment is often done for the long-term, workers are interchangeable, and workers focus as much on France and Israel as they focus on Egypt, Sudan or Micronesia.

And Japanese, Chinese and Korean companies rarely, if ever, specialize in one market. Most companies there focus on the entire planet, which is why they tend to limit themselves to English.

So if I were the hedge my bets, I would bet that English teachers are going to be needed in Japan, China and Korea. And then you will have German or Russian majors at local universities studying English and ditching to German or Russian language, because it's English and nothing else that is in demand.

In the rest of the world, language education will probably be in demand in sectors where young adults think their language skills will be needed: import-export and tourism, along with security and diplomacy.

What about translation and interpretation? In this day and age, most import-export or tourism or diplomatic business is either done in English, or in a language that both actors speak. Not like in the old days when you had the actors speak different languages and need an interpreter. Plus, interpreters are usually high-ranked or middle-ranked colleagues, when in the old days you would hire someone just for interpretation.

What about language teaching methods? The supply of trained and qualified language teachers is rather low. To teach a language, you need to speak it of course, but you also need to create the kind of atmosphere where students learn in the classroom.

Unfortunately, let's be blunt and avoid jargon, most language teachers give grammar lectures about the language. They rarely, if ever, ask their students to communicate inside the classroom. Or they play grammar and vocabulary games. Or they dish out long lists of vocabulary. And then of course you get the grammar exercises.

Rare are those teachers who show up to the classroom and ask their students “how was your day, but tell me in English.” or “what are your plans for the weekend, but tell me in Spanish.”

Some language teachers go as far as teaching grammar in the local language. I've seen many Korean teachers around Arab nations teach Korean to Arab students by giving Korean grammar lectures in heavily accented Arabic. I've also seen many English teachers in Latin America giving grammar and vocabulary lectures in Spanish.

What I think? I think it's important for any nation to have a pool of foreign language speakers, be it for import-export, security, diplomacy or tourism.

But I'd advise nations (especially Turkey and Chile and Vietnam and Thailand) not to copy the Chinese, Japanese and Korean model where there are English requirements everywhere (to get a job, to graduate from college, to obtain certain licenses and certifications etc.).

The free market usually does the trick. Where there is a demand for bilinguals and foreign language speakers, soon enough, you'll get youngsters learning foreign languages with their friends or dates or in Facebook chatrooms, and you'll get the supply.

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