English language learning injustice

In English language teaching ads English seems always fun, easy and accessible to everyone

In English language teaching ads English seems always fun, easy and accessible to everyone

Taiwanese people’s motivation for learning English is a desire to communicate and a major obstacle to the mastery of spoken English has been the lack of opportunities to speak. As noted in my previous post, the purpose of buxiban is to assist students to pass standardized tests rather than to speak proficiently. Although effective for test-taking, these traditional grammar-translation and teacher-centered methods do not produce fluent speakers. This is a common complaint from teachers and students alike. Students are continually frustrated by the fact that they have been studying English for many years, but can’t carry a basic conversation or communicate with a foreigner.

This realization has popularized teaching methods such as Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) and English-Only immersion methods. As a result, there is a huge English language teaching market in Taiwan comprised of literally thousands of language schools geared towards teaching English for communication. The methods employed in private language schools emphasize active participation in the learning process and include a variety of teaching aids and materials, handouts, activities, and games to assist learners in increasing their English speaking proficiency. Moreover, the use of native English-speaking teachers and small class sizes are other factors in the success of private language schools. Learners learn to use the language as a tool of communication rather than viewing it as one more subject to be memorized and regurgitated.

Although there is often a notable improvement in a student’s speaking ability there are socio-economic aspects of language learning that render these innovative communicative and English-immersion methodologies problematic, such as the linguistic environment outside the school and the almighty TaiBi (Taiwan Dollar).

In order to illustrate my point, I will use a TV commercial by Jordan Language School. The dynamic commercial presents Jordan Language School as an English language learner’s utopia: Taiwanese students are taught by Caucasian foreigners, multi-media computer programs are utilized, and parents participate with their children in the learning process. The main theme of the commercial is that Jordan’s English Language School uses a scientific teaching method that integrates classroom lessons with multimedia and Internet English teaching. The commercial ends with their slogan, 喬登數位美語,輕鬆快樂無比 ‘Jordan’s Digital American English, absolutely relaxing and fun.’

Slogans such as this one come to define the ideal English language teaching method independent of context.

This commercial promotes English teaching as a practical skill and it suggests that English can be learned easily if the ideal teaching method is used: interactive immersion classroom teaching with an enagaging Caucasian teacher combined with computer technology. After school, children can learn English with their parents at home via online English learning or with language-learning devices such as smartphones.

Commercials such as this one suggest that English teaching and learning is always autonomous and never affected by social, cultural and economic conditions outside the classroom. Nothing could be further from the truth – in Taiwan as elsewhere.

The reality is that disadvantaged children often have limited access to the Internet and cannot afford to study in private language schools.

Private language schools are also privileged as regards method because students tend to be grouped by ability levels in private schools. By contrast, teachers in public schools are usually faced with students of varying levels of English ability. Dealing with a diversity of needs is an elementary school is an English teacher’s greatest challenge in Taiwan.

Methods used in private language schools encourage parents to spend money for additional English study, so their children will not fall behind in their regular elementary school English classes. This creates an injustice whereby wealthy families are able to allocate significant amounts of money to their children’s English education, while poor families are unable to do the same for their children. In other words, it is only wealthy families who can afford to send their children to English language schools and/or send them abroad to immerse themselves in real life communication situations in an English-speaking country. The end result is that English language learning to high levels of proficiency has become the exclusive privilege of the wealthy.

English is often touted as a way to lift poor people out of poverty but the exact opposite is true: English is an important instrument of social stratification in contemporary Taiwanese society (as elsewhere?) where the rich get richer because they can afford to learn the kind of English that opens doors while the poor get poorer because they can’t.

Author Jackie Chang

Jackie Chang is an assistant professor in the English Department at National Pintung University of Education in Pintung, Taiwan. She holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics from the University of Sydney, where she worked under the supervision of Ingrid Piller. Before becoming an academic, Jackie gained extensive experience in the English language teaching industry in Taiwan.

More posts by Jackie Chang
  • Li Jia

    Unfortunately, all that has been described in the post is true in mainland China. To date, there are still loads of English teachers who believe in the panacea of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) , parents who insist on sending kids to Buxiban in order “not to lose at the starting point”(不要输在起跑线上), students who are looking for an easy-but-quick method to acquire English, consumers who are dreaming of purchasing a commercial product which can magically make them a native-like-speaker…
    As an English teacher, I am well aware that CLT can’t solve the problem, but why it has been “acknowledging” by “the public” to date? Life is a long-journey, but why parents prefer to take such early and homogenous initiative driving little ones to Buxiban ignorant of their differences? Is there any easy-way or short-cut to “pick up” English in a foreign language environment or any advertised product that can truly offer the magic change of one’s identity by acquiring a “native-like” accent? I wonder…
    When can we stop being fooled?

    • Thanks, Li Jia! While I have no idea when people will stop being fooled, I’m continually amazed how gullible so many perfectly rational people are when it comes to language learning; not only does the belief in quick, easy, perfect language learning feed a whole industry, it also makes monolingual solutions in transnational enterprises seem like reasonable language management

      • Guo Jian

        As far as I am concerned, the young should have more freedom and space to make their own decisions on English learning. Parents are only deaperate to make their children meet the standard set by government and enterprises.So today’s problems still root in the society’s expectations and requirements. Anyway, English is popular and helps people to get access to different cultures and different ways of thinking. Fashion..ha..so everybody does not want to be out.

  • Khan

    Very interesting post and a very logical conclusion of the social stratification. Thanks very much indeed. It is interesting to see how literacies have been put on the back burner and the speaking ability in English is celeberated. In current Pakistan, the ability to communicate one’s ideas and attitudes in English is valued more than comprehending a written text. Like senior colleagues ( Block and Cameron, 2002), i do not see the trend as apolitical. The expectations of the labour market is of course we can not ignore but equally important is to evaluate the imported teaching methods that seem to make the local paedagogies irrelevant. Last thing, is the discourse that seem to force us to believe that our public institutions are no good. Whose interest is it to create an impression of making public sector institution useless?

    • Thanks, Khan! Good point about the role of (English) language teaching debates in bashing public education … whose interest indeed!

  • The only sad thing is many people still ignore the young bilingual education with Esperanto is the best. Besides, the English speakers are in the decline and not many local papers are reporting about it.

    These have blinded the parents to think that the ever shining English is there without knowing the change of the world scene despite with the internet access are available to many parents.

    http://www.mondeto.com/1/post/2011/09/immediate-and-lasting-advantages-of-early-esperanto-1-brain-building.html

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1582954/English-will-turn-into-Panglish-in-100-years.html

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/dec/04/last-lingua-franca-ostler-review

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