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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:

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).

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