English textbook used at the non-Government school

English textbook used at the non-Government school

“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.

Tourist Police cars in Yangon

Tourist Police cars in Yangon

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.

Author Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江

高橋 君江 is Visiting Associate Professor at International Christian University, Tokyo. Before joining ICU in 2014, she was Lecturer at the Graduate School of English at Assumption University of Thailand (2011 - 2014) and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Macquarie University, Australia (2007 and 2011). Kimie is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Linguistics, and continues to co-supervise several PhD students with Ingrid Piller at Macquarie University.

More posts by Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江
  • Most of native teachers do as you mentioned in our country. They also don’t know how to do teaching very well. Very few native teachers are very good. In my opinion, bilingual teaching is better in English classroom of Myanmar. Myanmar language is used to explain English grammar rules and English to English is for fluency skills. This traditional effective way can save the time too. Grammar translation method is very popular in state high schools. As i notice,those students who attend English speaking international schools are weak in accuracy skill but the fluency skill is better than those students from state high schools. It would be better if the native teachers try to respect our culture and respect students’ dignity in language classroom of Myanmar. We don’t like singing Christmas songs or reading children’s book in English classroom. That is.

  • I would personally disagree that bilingual teaching is the best approach, but can completely understand your comments about poorly trained foreign teachers coming in. The problem is that Myanmar was – until recently – seen as a no-go area and trained teachers were reluctant to go there. This meant that only volunteers would arrive who we have often seen are ill trained and prepared to teach.

    But… the good news is that we are starting to see more local teachers look at training opportunities with companies like ourselves. English education is growing in Myanmar and more teachers are taking it seriously as a *professional* option!

    This is our article on teaching English in Myanmar; I hope you find it useful: http://www.icaltefl.com/index.php/country-guides-for-teaching-english/teaching-english-in-myanmar.html

    • Roger Chua

      The danger here is that, while becoming more ‘professional’, I see monolingualist ideologies being perpetuated in your approach to teaching English in Myanmar…remember, Myanmar and the rest of the world for that matter, is deeply multilingual, thus multilinguistic resources can be positive and constructive resources in the teaching of English classroom. Never deny the value of these resources with a monolingualist perspective of English language teaching. You are going into a country that is deeply deeply multilingual.

  • Li Jia

    Dear Kimie, many thanks for sharing with us the English language practices in Yangon. Three weeks ago, I just came back Myanmar. I’ve also taken quite a number of English landscapes in Myitkyina, the capital city of Kachin, and it seems that English signage can be clearly caught in official institutions such as police force, governmental hospitals, schools ect. whereas another language is also increasingly popular though its linguistic state is not as high as Myanmar and English. No matter which shops I went, I could always hear ‘Xiexie’ (‘thank you’ in Chinese). As far as I know, there are 13 border tourist routes granted by Myanmar and China, and there is no visa required for mainland Chinese travelling to Myanmar borders from then on. Hopefully there would be more Chinese linguistic landscapes in Myanmar catering to the tourists from the most populated country.

  • Lee

    This makes me remember when I taught Chinese in another country, a Chinese institute required foreign university students to sing Chinese national anthem in a program.some students thought it was a way to offend their culture and quit program directly.It probably happens if the any native speaker teachers think their own culture is better than the other countries, especially the less developing countries, and their teaching journey will not be so successful to students. because students are not puppets.

  • Alejandra Ting Yin Yu

    In response to Saw above and the article, I would like to share a different voice, maybe just to raise some concern. It is true that some foreign teachers are just “tourists” in most Asian countries, though they do provide a very precise way of spoken English to the student population who haven’t had the chance to study in an English-speaking country. I am not a foreign teacher, I am bilingual. I have had the chance to sit and observe many Asian teachers using their native language to teach grammar, and I noticed that even the teachers themselves who are teaching grammar make plenty of unacceptable grammar and pronunciation mistakes. Given these observation experiences, I really don’t agree with the statement that teaching English grammar with the aid of local language is a great strategy in language learning and teaching or that it saves time. Rather, both foreign and local English teachers should aim at refining their professionalism throughout their career life.

  • thi ha htun

    I thinks this leassions is usefull for my lfe.