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White men's language teaching gene
by Joseph Gatt
2009-05-22 08:29:38
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A question that has been torturing me is why teaching English in Asia is a position which is only open to a limited number of countries with predominantly white populations. Do white men have a teaching gene?

East Asia, 2009. You could be any idiot with a college degree and get a job as an English teacher. You’ll get paid 50 dollars an hour, get 2 to 4 months of paid vacation and your plane ticket back home will be taken care of. You don’t need to prepare for class, just skimming through the textbook will do the trick. You will play with kindergarten children in English, discuss local issues with adults or teach high school students the difference between “I have been learning English for 8 years” and “I have been learning English since 2001”. The only condition is that you be the holder of a passport of any developed English speaking nation and preferably be White. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

When I came to Korea I was convinced that anyone could teach a language. After all, my friends in France would travel around Europe and teach French, my American friends would go to exotic venues and teach English and there were ads in France and the US looking for language teachers, without specifying any required qualifications.

When I told Korean friends that a fun and easy way to make money was to teach foreigners Korean, they systematically told me “we need a certificate for that”. I was still convinced that given the sudden overflow of foreigners to Korea, mostly immigrants from all over Asia and… English teachers, there was a sudden demand for Korean language education which could not be satisfied with the few holders of a Korean as a second language teaching certification.

However, when I asked friends the difference between haeso and haeseunikka, two verbs which both mean “because I did” in Korean, they would insist it had the same meaning and both could be used in any circumstance. However, any certified Korean language instructor would tell you that the latter is only used in suggestions, recommendations or orders and that the former only used when describing something in the past or present tense.

So in East Asia you could hold a degree in computer engineering, anthropology, archeology, Middle Eastern studies or whatever odd thing you studied in college and end up teaching students the differences between “I have been studying English for 8 years” and “I have been studying English since 2001”.

First of all, to explain the difference between those two patterns, you need to understand English grammar. Most English teachers in Asia have not studied grammar for since they could remember. Second of all, as a language teacher, even if you understand the grammar yourself, you need to find a way to vulgarize your explanation to non-native speakers, using words they can understand and examples they can visualize. Try doing that when you majored in computer science.

I was talking to an English conversation teacher and he complained about how hard it was to get a conversation started. He teaches by scraping articles from the internet and asking his students questions about the issue at hand. “It’s so hard to get Asians involved in a conversation” he says. When he mentioned what topics the articles were about it all came clear to me. Euthanasia, Sarah Palin, safe sex… all irrelevant topics. He added that he also gave them articles about local issues, but I didn’t make a whole lot of a difference.

Of course it won’t. When I studied languages, we always started by studying articles containing “neutral information”. Information about where to shop, transportation, food, getting a job and other everyday life issues. That way, students have a lot to discuss because they face those situations everyday.

Another friend of mine complained that his students paid no attention to his class. “Do you ask them questions at the beginning of each class?” “Do you ask them questions at all?” I asked him. The answer was negative. As much as you wouldn’t like to meet someone who talks for hours without ever letting you speak, you wouldn’t pay attention in a class in which the teacher holds a monologue.

Those are rookie mistakes inexperienced teachers make. Language education requires minimum training. Yet in East Asia, language institutes will just throw a textbook at inexperienced teachers, or even ask them to prepare their own materials for class, without taking into account how much students know, or how to get the information across.   

This point brings me to what I believe is the biggest scandal in foreign language teaching in East Asia. You could be, from Jamaica, India, Zimbabwe, Kenya or Malaysia, have majored in English education or anything related to English, and be barred from teaching in Asia. The excuse given would be your “accent”.  

Yes, Asians believe accent is the single most important aspect when teaching a language or speaking publicly. “My friend has perfect accent, she used to be a news anchor, so how about you take Korean lessons from her” is something I heard quite a few times. “Well, she can teach you how to speak with a perfect accent” they would say. But would she be able to explain the difference between “haeso” and “haeseunikka”? I would bet she would tell me “you can use one or the other, it’s the same thing”. And I bet she would spit out a grammar and pronunciation book for two hours without ever asking me for feedback, and without understanding the contents of the grammar book herself.

I have dealt with bad English in my life in the four corners of the world, yet East Asia is an extreme case. They don’t understand a word of what I say when I speak English. Yet they refuse to let me speak Korean, which I’m proud to say I speak and understand well, or use the few Chinese or Japanese phrases I know. I can often understand very little of what they say in English, and though I insist to speak in their language, they persist and use English, some doing so arrogantly.

“We don’t know how to speak and don’t understand, but we can perfectly read and write” most East Asians insist. I agree with the reading, of course when they use a dictionary or memorize entire phrase books and sometimes even entire dictionaries of course. As for the writing, most of the emails I receive by East Asians make me feel like a linguist decoding ancient scriptures.

Let’s face it. In East Asia, people from all walks of life study English. Yet at major Asian city airports, taxi drivers don’t speak English well enough to communicate, hotel receptionists often don’t understand what is being said, and in major tourist attractions or business venues it is very difficult to get the message in English across.

Maybe education has something to do with it. Maybe East Asians should stop thinking that their teacher’s British or American accent is a sort of magic potion that will teach them English. They should start worrying about whether they are being taught how to communicate in English with people who are using the proper educational tools and methods. By that I mean hiring teachers who studied the language and know how to teach it, regardless of their accent.

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Emanuel Paparella2009-05-22 09:36:29
Interesting article, but what is overlooked here is that a language is much more than a mechanical means of communication made up of vocabulary, grammar and syntax. It is also the bearer and the trasmitter of a cultural world and therefore the native speaker or those who have had extensive contact with the culture of a particular language will make better teachers of such a language. It also helps to know well the language and the culture of those who are being taught, which in effect means that the best teachers and translators are not only bi-lingual but also bicultural. Being bi-cultural is like walking a tightrope: one has to keep oneself in balance between two cultures. The best way to achieve that is to absorb the best of both cultures; the worst way is to absorb the worst. For example, when one has absorbed and aped merely the worst of American culture, one inevitably becomes and anti-American deluding oneself that one understands American culture and therefore he/she can critique it. Just a few rambling thoughts on language and culture which some may call verbiage...

Akli2009-05-22 12:03:23
Dr Paparella,

You have made an interesting point, but I'm afraid I couldn't disagree with you more. Since we're dealing with East Asia: what can they gain from when adopting US culture? They are often economically well-off. And what English can they learn from an American computer science major? They may learn to dress more like him, adopt his hair style and mimic his gestures. But would you pay USD 1,000 a month to learn a language from an amateur teacher, just because he's from a certain culture?

Emanuel Paparella2009-05-22 14:41:09
Mr. Hadid, actually there is quite a bit of common ground in our positions: we both seem to agree that to mimic and imitate the worst of another culture is to destroy or fail to appreciate one’s own. To stay with American culture whose international influence is vast, this phenomenon of imitation of the worst is apparent in most places where there is anti-Americanism. What one observes there is a superficial and mindless imitation of all the banalities of American popular culture and an enormous ignorance of American literature, American philosophy, Amerian civic life, American system of higher education.

As for teachers and their teaching methods there are good teachers and bad teachers in every culture. I don’t doubt that philosophy or literature may be taught just as well by a non-English speaker as by an English speaker, but when it comes to learning English I would rather learn it from a native speakers because he knows much more than the mechanics of the language; he also knows its cultural nuances and influences. It stands to reason that I would not wish to choose a bad teacher, if that could be helped. That may depend on how much I am willing to pay. I suspect in fact that a good teacher would command considerably more than 50 dollars an hour. The average professor who has earned tenure and is at least at the rank of Associate professor makes a minimum of $100 thousand dollars a year which translated in approximately 2 thousand dollars a week. Since he teaches approximately 9 to 12 hours a week, that translates in some 200 dollars per hour. I suppose that, in a market economy, one gets what one pays for.

Akli2009-05-22 17:47:33
I agree with you on this point but it does puzzle me a little. In most US colleges foreign language departments are made up of large proportions of professors teaching languages they are not native speakers of. Native speakers have the intuition but often lack the pedagogic ability to teach a language. Without wanting to offend former president Bush or former VP Quayle, I would never recommend anyone to take English classes from them despite their amazing resumes. I think language teachers should at least have taken a linguistics class of some sort. The problem is that though US schools do not emphasize grammar, schools in countries where most people are not native English speakers but where English is an official language often have intensive grammar classes. I think people assume that native speakers from developing countries have a better accent and emphasize freedom of thought and expression, but here's what I think about language acquisition in East Asia. East Asians often stereotype white men as "good men" and think "good men" speak "sophisticated languages" which are "difficult to learn". If they hired teachers from developing countries, language acquisition would be cheaper, and East Asians would sterotype people from third world countries as "speaking an unsophisticated language taught by unsophisticated people" therefore easier to learn. The reason I'm saying this is that I noticed that the few East Asians who studied Turkish, Spanish, Arabic or Portuguese speak it rather well, and often get rid of their anxieties, their fears of being judged as "inferior men", a fear they often have when speaking English.

Emanuel Paparella2009-05-22 18:01:35
Interesting that you mentione that. I had the same experience. I taught Italian at the University of Puerto Rico for some 13 years. When I first arrived there I was puzzled by a strange phenomenon. I noticed that Puerto Ricans considered English their second language and studied it beginning in grmmar school. What was puzzling however was that the same students who were able to carry on a conversation in Italian or French or German after a couple of years of intensive MLA method as devised at Harvard, were still struggling with English after some 12 years of studying the language. I got the explanation a bit later when a Puerto Rican colleague pointed out to me that when the US took over Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898, English was imposed as the language of instruction in all Puerto Rican school. Eventually the US government realized how midguided such an education policy was and reinstate Spanish as the primary language of instruction, since it was all along the primary cultural tool of Puerto Ricans. The refusal to learn English as the same as the refusal of Checks to learn Russian after world war II. Indeed there is more to a language than mere practical communication and it helps both native and non-native teachers to know that.

Frances2009-05-22 18:03:59
If we talk about basic English, then I'd say a local qualified teacher is more helpful than a native speaker, simply because they can explain things in their own language to the students, otherwise it's a total headache to both students and the teacher.

If it's advanced English, a native English teacher probably will provide more information than a local teacher could who has never had overseas experience before.

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