“I take a bilingual approach, so you might not understand some parts of my class. But I hope you’ll enjoy it.” Dressed in a blue traditional dress, a tall middle-aged Burmese teacher explained her teaching approach to me in the beginning of her class on English at a non-government tertiary school.
The school is located some 40 minute taxi ride away from downtown Yangon, the former capital city of Myanmar. Facing the class of some 50 students from various ethnic backgrounds, she began her class by taking attendance, and then started instructing her students to work on the section on Iceland as a tourist destination in their textbook Travelling.
I have never been to Iceland, and I’m not sure how many of these students are ever going to visit the Nordic country, but looking around the class, I saw all students glued to their textbook. Seeing the recent developments in the country, teaching English for tourism is important indeed.
As Myanmar moves towards further democratization, the country is rapidly emerging as an attractive travel destination. Compared to my first visit to Myanmar two years ago, I saw more Western tourists out and about in the city with a local tour-guide this time. In addition, touted as the ‘last frontier in ASEAN’ by international investors, Myanmar has also seen a rapid increase in the number of business travellers from all over the world. At the same time, the country is taking many measures to encourage tourism. These include visas on arrival and the presence of stylish brand new Toyota Tourist Police cars. In contrast to the much older-looking ‘normal’ police cars these seem to create some sense of safety for tourists. Apart from me, there were several European tourists taking photos of the Tourist Police cars.
English proficiency is crucial for the young generation to gain employment in the emerging tourist market. Apart from careers in tourism, English is also seen as an important educational qualification. As Dr. Thein Lwin (2011, p. 12) explains, recent years have seen an unprecedented popularity of English in this former British colony where English proficiencies “lead to economic advantages, help in dealing with the outside world, and improve prospects of study abroad and employment.”
Indeed, many students I met at the school mentioned above said that they are planning to apply for a scholarship to study abroad. Many scholarship programs are available but all require high English proficiency. One student, from Shan State, has set his heart on studying in neighbouring Thailand, and if he succeeds, he’d be the first person from his village to study for a master’s degree abroad. At this stage, for him and his aspiring classmates, their future success depends largely on English.
Many local teachers teach English bilingually, as the teacher I mentioned in the introduction, and the focus is on practical English, English for tourism, for instance. It is obvious that learning English is serious business in Yangon. However, not all teachers seem to realize that.
For instance, one student, Elizabeth (pseudonym), told me about a visiting professor from the US. Assuming that volunteer teachers are welcome in a country where English language education is being taken so seriously, I said “Oh that’s great!” I also knew that Elizabeth was an admirer of the US – she had studied in the US for one year on a scholarship in 2013, and she said she was aspiring to go back there to pursue a master’s degree in business.
She hesitantly replied, however, “Well… actually no so great”. The reason – the US professor’s teaching approach didn’t match their sense of identity as adult learners of English:
We didn’t like her class because … she treated us like children. She gave us children’s books to read, and like, we are adults, but she asked us to sing songs, and we were like, what the he-!?
Elizabeth continued to explain how the professor asked them to sing Christmas songs, which they didn’t want to, but “we didn’t want to be impolite, so we sang along those stupid songs and did everything she asked us to do” she said, half-smiling and half making a face.
Elizabeth’s story reminded me of a similar experience I had when I was studying at a two-year college of English in Tokyo back in the 1990s.
In our second year, we had a new teacher from the US, a fresh university graduate, to teach literature. The textbook she chose for us was Mother Goose. While some of my classmates found it useful to learn “American culture”, the majority erupted in anger. In the second week, we told her at the beginning of class that we were offended by her choice of Mother Goose. I remember one frustrated classmate telling her off, “You think we are children?!” What she didn’t know was the fact that many of my classmates could have easily gone to a four-year university but chose this immersion school to master English for the purpose of career development and further education. Just like the students I met in Yangon, English was not some kind of fun hobby but serious business for us.
Our American teacher was lucky. She learned, even if the hard way, that selecting learning materials requires knowing her students’ sense of identity and their aspirations. By contrast, the professor teaching at Elizabeth’s school seems to have gone home without realising how her teaching materials may have been offensive to some of her students. Whether they become tour guides or office workers or English teachers or continue to study overseas, reading American children’s books and learning how to sing Christmas songs may have some use but it also runs the risk of hurting adult students’ dignity.
Of course, whether more practical textbooks like Travelling are preferable to children’s books depends on the context in which learning takes place. Children’s books or songs can be very useful for adults learning a new language but learning materials need to match the students’ aspirations, and their purpose needs to be clearly explained to them.
This is all language teaching 101, and the current English language teaching boom in Myanmar shows that there are many opportunities to put high-quality English language teaching it into practice.