The Book Hocker and the Real Percentage

Well, I can’t REALLY complain, I got a new book to scam exercises from, but I tend not to enjoy the kinds of “presentations” that some guys make which really consist of them hocking books. I can usually tell within a few minutes of silent scanning whether or not a textbook will be useful to me or my students, and all the talk in the world won’t change how I perceive my students’ needs.

Of course, it might be thatI’m generalizing about students and that in fact, many classes could sort-of handle the kind of text we looked at today, but I don’t think most of my classes could fruitfully handle it. As for the underlying principles — the idea that input is as important as production in a class — this is nothing to new to me, and I actually simply make a certain amount of input in means other than textbook scanning, because the kinds of input that textbooks include are just too hard for most of my students.

So I spent a little over an hour looking at a textbook in which students at the basic level are supposed to be reading things like, “The Dos and Don’ts of clothing in your country”, and reflecting on whether their country is “conservative”, “liberal”, or “anything goes!”… and then I walk into my real class, where a good half of the kids can’t even answer the simple questions we’ve studied for eight weeks, in some cases refusing even a question like, “What’s your grandmother’s name?”

On the way to the meeting, I was talking with another teacher and I suggested the biggest message I received from the whole of the KOTESOL conference was the fact that a huge part of the EFL/TESOL industry consists of continually convincing people that, yes indeedy, they need English — whether or not they actually do. Certainly, to stay abreast of the world, to have a chance of dealing with other nations politically and internationally in the business world, a certain percentage of one’s population needs to be fluent in English, or at least functional in the language.

But does the whole of the post-secondary population need to be educated with English? Not, “wouldn’t it be nice?”, or “wouldn’t it be cool?” but, does it actually need that? My answer, after several years of teaching English as a foreign language to students in a small, private University is a definite, strong No. Of course, a small percentage of people need it. Of course, that small percentage will also be valued for their skills. And of course, anyone should be free to pursue it should they wish to — but it’s ridiculous to think that people who will be regional managers of Mini-Stop or truck drivers or orchestral clarinetists need English. They very obviously don’t need English.

Again, this is not to say that they shouldn’t be able to pursue it, if they want, on their own volition. Personally, I think one cannot be educated without at least a little experience studying a foreign language: I believe it’s good for the mind, a powerful process that changes not only how one thinks, but how one regards one’s own thinking and self-expression. But I don’t think that it should be forced on people who (a) lack the capacity to do it reasonably well, or (b) have little or no interest.

That’s right, I’m committing EFL teacher heresy. I don’t think English is important for most Koreans. I don’t think the majority of them will have much opportunity to use it. I don’t think they ought to be required to study it, though if they wish to do so I fully support them and encourage them to do it.

I know, it sounds crazy. You doubtless have some strong objections to this statement.

But what about the economy?

What about it? Many Quebecers don’t speak English, and they’re not catching rats in the streets for food.

But what about when they travel?

The majority of people I know who travel abroad, even when they can speak English, use Korean Tour packages, and as a result have no need of English during their travels.

But what about when they meet a foreigner?

Uhm, the answer is easy: foreigners in Korea ought to be learning Korean, just as foreigners in any nation are expected to learn the local language for daily use. Why Koreans ever got it into their heads that they need to learn English in case they meet a white foreigner is beyond me, given the fact that anyone living anywhere usually learns at least a little of the local tongue, unless he is a total moron — and I have known a few of those.

But what about when they meet a tourist asking directions?

Simple question: do we learn Chinese in Canada, in case we meet a tourist? Or Spanish? Those languages are each very widely spoken — billions of people use them daily — but we don’t study them just in case we meet tourists. Sure, Chinese and Latin Americans often learn to speak English for the purposes of travel — or sort of learn it — and English is the international language. But to the foreigners among my readers, I have to ask how many times in your own life, in Canada, Australia, Britain, or America, you ran into a group of tourists who couldn’t speak English, and you kicked yourself for not knowing a little Chinese/Spanish/Russian so you could help them find their way somewhere? Even in Western countries that receive a lot of tourists, I think the answer would be “It’s never happened to me,” for nearly all of my readers. Korea receives even fewer anglophone tourists, and far more Japanese and Chinese tourists. So if tourists are the main motivation, why isn’t everyone studying Japanese or Chinese, which by the way would be easier for almost everyone in Korea, given the close relation of those languages?

And that brings me to my final point: the effort to make sure everyone is learning English is also silly because Korea could benefit more by putting more eggs into different baskets. Having five or ten big specialists in Arabic; a bunch of fluent Chinese- and Japanese-speakers; a number of Francophones and Spanish-speakers, and so on would be useful in helping Korea have an upper hand in business, political bargaining, and so on. I know that standardized testing is one of Korea’s true loves, but it doesn’t mean it works, or equips the nation all that well. If all those resources that are currently being spent on English — not just money but time and effort — were to be diverted to other things, Korea would benefit from the diversification.

I still think the top schools ought to have high English standards, since after all it is, right now, the global auxiliary language, but that doesn’t mean everyone in the country needs to be studying it. It just seems like too much energy devoted to something that simply isn’t working. Teachers can refine their methods and approaches all they like — and often I find that conference and meeting discussions focus on this kind of thing as a response to a lack of student improvement overall, but at some point they have to step back and recognize that, after all, most of these people in reality don’t need English and know they can’t really learn it in a 2- or 3-hours a week setting… and their attitude and resultant rate of improvement reflect this knowledge.

5 thoughts on “The Book Hocker and the Real Percentage

  1. Actually, Gord, I’d be the first person to agree with you that there’s probably too much English here. The whole population doesn’t need it. And I actually feel like a parasite, sometimes. It seems silly for a populace to learn English simply in order to speak to foreign English teachers! Of course, I’d agree that there are many uses of English, and that it is good for a country to learn a language, especially English. Of course, in our own country of Canada, the whole population of kids learns French until a certain age, whether they need it or not. And in Port Coquitlam, BC, where I grew up, I definitely didn’t need it! Now, however, I regret that I opted for Spanish instead of French in high school; all my favorite composers (except JS Bach) are French.

    All in all, it sounds like some job frustration coming to the fore…Fascinating as always!

  2. Honestly, it’s not job frustration. My semester’s going well. It’s just a reality check. I really do think it’s overblown here, and that many of my students might get more out of their college education if given more choices. I had more freedom in terms of class selection in high school than most kids I know in University; and increasingly I question the notion that every one of them absolutely needs English for any of the normally-given reasons.

  3. You’re probably right in that English is a bit over blown here. You left out one important question as to why a university student should be learning English though,

    What about the current scientific research and technological advances that are shared via English?

    Whether advancements are made in Korea or somewhere else in the world a shared form of communication leads to the betterment of mankind. This is not only true in the field of sciece but is also true in other disiplines as well. A university should be about the advancement of knowledge, students should be doing research not just having a four year party before they enter the work force. Granted it may not seem that that kind learning takes place in the average Korean Uni. But it should.

  4. Shawn,

    I agree, but most people in any country aren’t participating in anything involving current scientific research and technological advancements.

    As I stated, I feel that education should include second- or foreign-language education: but that’s a far different proposition from having billions of dollars of government and private money devoted yearly to English education, given how few people actually aquire any worthwhile amount of it.

    So maybe what I’m saying is that you gotta go whole hog or nothing at all; and in the case of most people, I think nothing at all would be a far more sensible route.

    Have a small core of specialist translators whose work is important to society, and well-rewarded, but don’t make English learning such a powerful initiative that it deforms the educational system nationwide. After all, you may have noticed that plenty of those scientific advances and technological developments are coming out of countries where people spend time studying their main subjects, and subjects they’re actually interested in, rather than going bulimic on a foreign language in middle/high school and then trudging through required college language courses.

    As for what should happen in Korean Unis, that’s a wide open topic for discussion: but I think I can safely say what should not happen. That ineffective programs in subjects that are of little or no use to most students in the long term should not be required study is something I think is unarguable in the abstract, no matter how reticent we are to state the truth when it pertains to our own work.

  5. Good and valid points, Gord. Sometimes I’m so pro-English (pretty much everything I do requires English at one point or another) that I never really stopped to think about it from that perspective.

    And then again – my mum has just learned to use the computer and the internet, and although she has a Finnish OS and browses Finnish sites, sometimes she does need at least _passing_ familiarity with English in order to operate either.

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