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Editorial 2

The Illusion of Global English-Teaching Standards

In a previous editorial article (The Fraud of the Global English-Teaching Industry) I criticized the powerful vested interests of the global English-teaching industry. These vested interests are exploiting both the rich and the not so rich without delivering what they claim to deliver; the poor they are neglecting entirely. They say, of course, that they are delivering teaching of the highest standard. As proof of this they refer to the qualifications of their teachers. Their teachers are qualified according to standards established in university linguistics departments - so they must be good. Moreover, they assure us, their various associations, organizations and institutions ensure that those standards are constantly maintained. So students of English as a foreign language are getting just what they need.

 

They appear to have succeeded in convincing nearly everybody, at least in the public arena, that this is really so. But there are many clear-sighted and realistic individual students whose experience has taught them otherwise. It may be that some, or even many, of those who do the prescribed (and very expensive) training courses for teaching English as a foreign language do in fact become better teachers. But if that better teaching does not produce patently better English-learning, there is clearly something wrong. All the many theories, tools and techniques that have been developed in the last thirty or forty years should have produced a clear, incontrovertible improvement in the learning of English. Yet there is no evidence that they have done so.

 

There is no objective way of testing whether language learning has improved. Tests of the traditional sort - compositions, precis writing and so on - were always and obviously still are subjective, so they can't be used to judge whether people have got better or not over the years. But so-called objective tests cannot be used for that purpose either. They have not been used consistently in the same 'concentration' over the period they have been in use. They do not, in the main, test the things that are important in foreign-language learning - even comprehension is a partly creative activity in real life, as one has to think of possible meanings for oneself rather than have them suggested for one from outside - and there is no objective way of judging what is important. Moreover, people can be trained in the techniques of multiple choice and other 'objective' tests, so they are not really objective at all. Impressions are still the only thing one can go on.

As far as English as a foreign language is concerned, my personal impression is that standards have declined somewhat. I am not alone in this view; it is shared by others concerned with the problem in countries such as Germany and Sweden. The lack of progress has been pointed out, for instance, by Professor Emeritus Johannes Hedberg (Gothenburg), one of Sweden's most experienced workers in the field of English-teaching.

 

Most people would surely agree that good professional cooks, carpenters, surgeons or violinists are people who cook, do carpentry, carry out operations or play the violin expertly. In the same way, professional linguists, genuine ones, are experts at learning languages. It is surely also reasonable to think that the task of those who teach would-be cooks, carpenters, surgeons or violinists is to show their apprentices and students how to cook, do carpentry, carry out operations or play the violin. Is it not reasonable, in fact, to think that anyone teaching any craft to anyone would show them how to do it? So is it not reasonable to say that in the same way it is the task of the professionals who teach foreign languages to show their students how to learn them, and that a basic qualification of such professionals is that they should themselves have learned at least one foreign language really well; to inspire proper confidence in their pupils they should probably in practice have learned two or more.

But what do we find in the training and certification of native English-speakers and others preparing to teach English as a foreign language? We find pedagogy, methodology and linguistics. In practically any other field of study such an approach would be regarded as bizarre, to say the least. Yet in this field the emphasis is practically all on the skills of teaching. Little attention is paid to whether individuals are making more, or less, real progress than they would if they were recommended a different way of learning; or to whether Japanese students, say, are actually learning English more successfully than they were ten years ago. If teachers' training and methods are considered to have improved, well then, everything is fine. Standards have been raised and everything is as it should be. This back-to-front sort of thinking - and it appears to be the norm - is illustrated by a remark made some years ago by a British Council Language Officer in Budapest commenting on English-teaching in Hungary: "The standard of English is generally very high, which is amazing considering their methodology."

Research and theories on language-learning are not in short supply. I shall discuss such research in somewhat greater detail in a future article. But a basic problem with language-learning research is that what most people actually do when they study foreign languages, and what they ought to do, are often two quite different things. What they ought to do is, first, to bring enthusiasm and curiosity to their task - without those they might as well stop here and now. Then they must think carefully about what they are doing, organize themselves rationally, constantly ask questions, and above all realize that it is they themselves who have to do the work, not teachers desperately anxious to entertain them into learning almost without noticing it.

 

The essence of learning a language (including, unconsciously, one's own) is observing it in action, in spoken or written form. One cannot practise either speaking or writing until one knows something to speak or write. So one should expect language teachers to show their pupils how and what to observe. And then detain them no longer and let them get on with observing.

But that, as we know, is not what happens at all. The opposite principle is applied. Make students, and everyone else, believe that the longer you keep them in class, the more they will learn - rather than the reality, which is that the longer they spend in class the less opportunity they have to learn. Amuse them with pedagogical tricks so that they don't get bored; as if they should be led to believe that a foreign language and learning it have in themselves no fascination. The pill must be sugared.

Why is it all done in this hopelessly misguided way? I honestly do not know whether it is because entrepreneurs fear they would make far less money and teachers fear there would be far less employment if they told students they would learn far more if they spent more time on their own. Or whether it is simply that neither of these groups have the thoughtfulness or imagination to break free from the traditional way of doing things. As regards the fear of unemployment, I have already suggested - in my previous article - that if English-learning was organized in a more rational way, there would be a need for more, not fewer, language guides.

 

The training of English-teachers today in no way guarantees that they will even be dedicated teachers, let alone effective ones. It is quite possible that standards have gone down rather than up at many institutions, since having a 'qualified' staff can lull managements into self-satisfaction and complacency. 'Qualifications' can have the same effect on the individual teacher. With them safely achieved, there may no longer be that urge to be curious and constantly learn new things, something that is so essential.

What students above all need in their teachers, and in the institutions where those teachers work, are enthusiasm and conscientiousness. These are not encouraged by most employers. Few pay their staff well. Even more important, the duties they impose on teachers are usually too heavy. It is almost impossible to be conscientious and enthusiastic if the hours are long, the classes too large, and the burden of marking, if done properly, endless.

Today most people do not do training courses in teaching English out of conscientiousness, or to fulfil their interest in the English language. They do them to get jobs. After that I suspect that a great many are unable to see teaching English as a foreign language as anything more than a way of earning a monotonous living by going through some motions with a minimum of effort and responsibility. Among those with the present orthodox qualifications there are of course many excellent teachers; and of course there are many 'unqualified' people teaching English who should not be doing so. But what makes good teachers good is not their qualifications; it is their conscientiousness. From that come all the other capacities needed for serving their students well.

 

A further article (The Rational Learning of Foreign Languages) comments in more detail on methods of teaching English as a foreign language.

 

Amorey Gethin

The Editor welcomes your comments or contributions to discussion of this article.

The English-Learning and Languages Review does not exist solely to attack the dictatorship of the global English-teaching establishment. It has many other aims. It gives advice on passing language exams. It presents information on English grammar, and in the future, it is hoped, on the grammar of other languages, often approaching problems from a new angle. It debates linguistic theory, and discusses language-learning principles. It invites contributions on all those subjects, and from those who find their own particular delight in the infinite variety of the languages of the world.

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