On Academic Ecologies, Career Planning, and Worldbuilding,

At my goodbye party last week, we were talking about the future collapse of the TEFL industry when brute-force autotranslation gets good enough that most people will only study foreign languages the way that some people still do math by hand. (I mean without a calculator–that is, out of academic requirements, a sense of old-fashionedness, or rare personal impetus to do so.)

I commented that I think now is a pretty good time to distance oneself from TEFL altogether, and certainly a good time to get out of depending on jobs where one is directly teaching English.  (Unless one is “teaching” it to neural networks, that is.) My colleague laughed and said, “But you haven’t been teaching English language for years…” which is mostly true, of course. Over the past seven years, I’ve spent most of my time teaching culture, pop culture, literature, writing, critical thinking, and public speaking.

But this job has existed for me, in Korea, within an academic and social ecology that is distorted by the current and ongoing TEFL boom. If people weren’t studying English as a Foreign Language, then There would be no reason to offer courses in Anglophone pop culture, or English-language Creative Writing, or poetry in the English-language tradition, or whatever. If there wasn’t a TEFL craze, there wouldn’t be jobs like the one I just left… or at least, not at most schools.

The reason I think Korea will be a hardcore early adopter of auto-translation technology is that most people studying English don’t actually want to learn it. Note the emphasis in that sentence on want: the issue is motivation. That’s why it’s unsurprising that you meet people in jobs where some English-speaking ability ought to be required, who can’t form a single proper sentence when speaking.

(Not even in jobs where you’d think being able to speak English would be a primary criterion for being considered for the position: Immigration Office worker; Korean English teacher; University administrator in a department staffed by expatriates; English textbook publisher.)

But what interests me here is not critiquing that silliness, as I’m leaving in a few weeks anyway. What concerns me is the idea of academic ecologies. See, TEFL doesn’t just create a job like mine: it creates all kinds of jobs. The following sub-industries come to mind:

  • English “hakwons” (cram schools, ie. supplementary English education)
  • English “hakwon” transportation (minibuses that run kids from one school to another)
  • English “edutainment” productions for the media (such as on Korea’s Educational Broadcasting Service and Arirang TV)
  • English textbook publishing (not just textbooks, but also test-practice publications and spinoffs from the edutainment productions)
  • English camps (ie. even more supplementary education to the supplementary education of “hakwons”)
  • standardized testing of English ability (including test formulation, test invigilating, test hosting, etc.)
  • English courses in primary and secondary schools
  • the “underground” or “black market” tutoring industry (which is largely untaxed)

Several of these subindustries are linked: the notoriously poor quality of English education in public schools and the ubiquity of standardized testing of English even for jobs that don’t require any English ability fuel the supplementary education going on in the “hakwon” and camp industries, along with bloating the associated publishing industry.

And like any ecology, this webwork of interconnections makes the system somewhat vulnerable: if the primary subindustries collapse, so to those depending on them. Most expats I know have considered and dismissed the idea of English losing its primacy as a global language, for good reason: that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

However, their reaction to the idea of autotranslation seems a little less creditable: if you ask me, the technology is coming along, and even if it depends on mere brute-force computation, I suspect eventually it’s going bowl over the whole TEFL industry. And it likely will, for one reason above all others: peoples’ conversational use of language is nowhere near as innovative as we like to imagine. Most human beings speaking the same language (or local version of the language) use basically the same phrases to say the same sorts of things, and this is especially true when we start speaking to non-native speakers of our language. That is to say, the burden will probably fall more on the speaker and on software than on the nonnative listener in terms of communication across a language barrier.

Which means, essentially, that in the end there won’t be much to teach people who don’t speak English. In other words, I think it’s probably a good time to get out of not just TEFL, but also out of those industries that are dependent on TEFL… that is, unless you have in mind a way of retooling your role in that industry–or the whole industry–in a viable way when the time comes. (Teaching English to people will probably become much more of  tiny niche industry a decade or two from now, but there may be work in training neural networks in natural English usage, in developing algorithms for translating more difficult written content, and so on.)

Likely, teachers of Latin felt the same way when they were working in schools: they didn’t imagine that the whole industry of teaching and learning Latin, and studying classical texts, would contract to a tiny fraction of what it once was. But lo and behold, one doesn’t find Latin courses in schools, or Latin grammars in bookstores.

Of course, a friend of mine has raised a good point: this is true of plenty of industries, not just TEFL. He’s right. And this isn’t just true of academic ecologies: it’s true of all kind of industry-ecologies. I’ve observed that tourism is an industry dependent on all kinds of specific material conditions, primary among them being the availability of cheaper-than-real-c0st fuel to run the airplanes that zoom and soar all over the planet everyday: crank up the price of flying, and tourism seizes up, turns local.

What’s funny is that this is basically worldbuilding, what content creators do when thinking up future scenarios for short stories, novels, movies,RPG games, and so on. As I ponder what to do career-wise, I am amused to be using an SF-writer skill. I should probably be leery, too, but not too leery. There are certain conclusions that seem compatible with a wide range of projections, like: we will always need people to keep us entertained. If only that paid better.

Well, I suppose it actually can. It does, for some people. That’s where the career planning comes in, I suppose (along with some luck, and also along with staying on the bus).

4 thoughts on “On Academic Ecologies, Career Planning, and Worldbuilding,

  1. Great post!

    Another reason that is already affecting the industry here is the lack of children being born to replace those than came before them in more and more schools. I guess South Korea doesn’t have very competent actuaries to keep track of such statistics and trends. Here’s an article from 2011 that highlighted the issue of missing older students to fill all the new colleges on the peninsula without mentioning the younger ones and the declining enrollment in the elementary sector.

    I’ve been seeing it first-hand over the last few years, and this new year has been the worst as the kids just are there to replace the departed ones. It doesn’t help that so many ill-prepared people keep on opening new academies because many can see that tuition fees are steeply rising. The miss the fact that the market is quite over-saturated in numerous areas of the country yet this foolhardiness continues unabated. Our school has had two ex-teachers try and new start-up English institutes and both failed miserably and are now deeply in dept. As are many of today’s families as they resort to using credit cards to keep their kids in private hagwons just to keep up with everyone else in the hopes that their kids will end up in either SKY or the IVY league when the odds are stacked against most of them from the get-go. It all seems really insane to me.

    1. It actually is insane, by that popular definition of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

      There are actuaries, they just work at the universities, which are bringing in foreign students en masse to fill classrooms and keep themselves afloat. Population growth is slowing, though you know, if they could figure out a way to prevent suicide being the number one killer for everyone under 40, that might be a bit of a help.

      The market for hakwons isn’t just saturated — it’s also saturated with people trying to run hakwons who simply have no business skills. A friend of mine has a lien on the property of his former boss, who owes him a pile of money with crazy, gangster levels of interest accruing for each year he fails to pay. Nobody with business sense would let that happen. But so many small business people have no business sense at all — from being unable to do basic inventory maintenance, to handling their finances, following the law in terms of paying employees: it’s just a mess. I kinda think that the government should be giving mandatory business licensing courses: if you want to open a business, you need to pass this exam. (Like driving, except, hell, for the good of the economy, give the course for free, and teach it in a weekend.) It would certainly help prevent the massive instability of small businesses, and of so many families here of employers and of employees alike) who end up in a world of trouble because so few people realize they have no idea how to run a business until it’s too late and they’ve not only ended totally up shit creek, but also dragged their families and their employees (and their families) along for the ride.

      There are bad businesspeople back home, too, by the way, though it doesn’t seem as extreme as in Korea. But I kind of think the idea of licensing businesses being at least as involved as licensing a person to drive isn’t a bad idea generally. Especially if the courses are free. But in Canada, say, I’d call that added effort for economic growth: in Korea, it’s more like a necessary measure for stabilizing small business.

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