Race to teach English

Underneath the zipped Asian face a Western face emerges: an English school’s ad in Bangkok (unrelated to the school in the blog post). Photo by Olan Sawangnuwatkul

Thailand is seeing an unprecedented English language learning hype. This hype, of course, is nothing but a closely engineered social phenomenon. It’s been promoted by various organisations and companies which claim that for Thailand to become more competitive as the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 approaches, Thais must learn English. That’s why learning English is a good investment for Thais, says Michel le Quellec, President of Wall Street English (Thailand), the local franchisee of the UK-based Wall Street Institute. He assures us of the benefits of learning English:

Investing in English proficiency has an attractive return and is affordable, as they can expect a 15-20 per cent salary hike after finishing our course, or an extra Bt1 million after six years.

While it’s hard to know where Quellec’s conviction comes from, everyone involved in the business of ELT seems to be on his side. They believe that English is inevitable for Thailand and it is a career booster for Thais, but everyone also seems to think that the Thais are excruciatingly bad at learning English. It is at this point where we arrive at the inevitable question – who is to blame?

At conferences, in corridors at universities and in cyberspace, all fingers seem firmly pointed at the teachers: both Thai and foreign. For many critics including Quellec, “[T]he problem for Thailand is that there aren’t enough qualified teachers, while most teaching methods here are inefficient…” The majority of Thai teachers teaching at public schools are reportedly either underqualified or inexperienced, while most foreign teachers hired in public and private schools are shunned as unqualified and uncommitted.

A string of plans to rectify this grim situation are well under way. The Ministry of Education kicked off this year by appointing former British prime minister Tony Blair as the model English teacher and ambassador of Thailand’s Year 2012 English Speaking Program. This was followed by the proposal of increased salary for new English teachers with a university degree, and the announcement of the 100 million-baht budget to send 1,100 Thai teachers to English speaking countries for a training program during the summer vacation. Last week the Thai government working with the British Council brought more than 100 volunteers from the UK to Thailand, who will be teaching English in some 100 schools for six weeks.

In light of this engineered ELL hype and the alleged shortage of qualified Thai and foreign teachers, my friend’s experience in job hunting in Bangkok makes an intriguing story.

Originally from mainland China, Emily (pseudonym) was enrolled in a TESOL masters’ program at a university in Bangkok. To improve her CV, she applied for an English teaching position at a large franchise language school near her university. After a short job interview, a Thai interviewer declared that Emily wasn’t good enough – racially, that was.

“We can’t offer you a job because you are not white.”

Emily was taken aback, but she patiently explained that no, she’s not white, but she has two years of English teaching experience in another province and was studying an MA TESOL. Her persistence paid off and Emily was led to the principal’s office for further interview.

Indeed the Thai principal was impressed with Emily’s English. But this didn’t change the fact that she wasn’t white.

“It’s a shame! Your English is great, but you are not from a Western background. You are not white, you see. Why don’t you teach Chinese at our school? You can start immediately.”

For Emily, the principal’s offer wasn’t a good deal. To begin with, she had no experience or interest in teaching Chinese. She had no official qualification, either. What’s more, the principal asked her to use English to teach Chinese – for the school, she was capable of teaching Chinese, its complex language system and associated culture in English, but she wasn’t good enough to teach English itself. Most unfair of all, she was to teach Chinese in English for one third of the salary that English teachers were paid at the school.

It is obvious that race (being white) or the country of origin (US, UK, Australia, i.e., ‘West’) is not a qualification. Yet, the two categories remain entrenched as the primary criteria for hiring an English language teachers, while actual qualifications or work experience are secondary, if not irrelevant in the current ELT job market in Thailand. The national projects as well as the local hiring practice here are part and parcel of the global TESOL industry which is undergirded by race. What’s the point of believing in English as a global language or ELT as a profession if their race automatically renders Asians as second best?

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
  • We’ve also got the full text of a PhD thesis showing, inter alia, that ‘English’ is strongly tied to ‘Whiteness’ in Taiwan available for open access here on Language on the Move:

    Chang, J. 2004. Ideologies of English Teaching and Learning in Taiwan. Sydney, University of Sydney. PhD


  • Angel Lin

    Well said Kimie!!

    • Thanks, Angel, and welcome to Language on the Move! Your work, of course, has been inspirational. For interested readers:
      Kubota, R., & Lin, A. (Eds.) (2006). Special Issue: Race and TESOL, 2006, TESOL Quarterly, 40(3), 471-660.
      Kubota, R., & Lin, A. (Eds.) (2009). Race, culture, and identities in second language education: Exploring critically engaged practice. New York: Routledge.

  • Khan

    A superb post indeed. In Pakistan, private elite English medium schools modelled on international schools started the culture of teaching Urdu through English. These days lots of schools are in search of Urdu language teachers to teach Urdu to Pakistani children through English. I observed one such class as a part of my doctoral study. The teacher was teaching how to write Urdu alphabets a group of pre-nursery students’ age between 3 and 4. These students come from a very very unprivileged background and their home language was dominantly oral Balochi with little sign of literacy. It was such an interesting drama unfolding in front of my eyes: people have a commonly shared language are not making use of it for teaching and learning such basic thing. I spoke to this teacher after the session and she explained to me the kind of pressure she had from school owner and also the societal low prestige accorded to Urdu language teachers.


  • It’s clear that there are significant racial/cultural dimensions to this problem. But part of the problem is also the continued favoring of the “native speaker” model. This deeply-ingrained bias affects all languages, though, English is clearly the most prominent of these due to its global hegemony.

    It’s very difficult to step out of this model, even for the most critical of people. For instance, I admit to being biased towards teachers with a “native” German accent when it comes to my kids learning German. I don’t want them to have an American accent when speaking German. I know how problematic this view is, from a critical perspective, but I cannot step outside of it.

    I so badly want my daughters to be able to pass as “natives” in two different language communities — and I do think their accents are pretty darn close to “native” in German, though they have a bit of a German accent in English for now (this will go away).

    Why do I want this so badly? Because I think it opens up extremely exciting multiple identity possibilities for them that comparatively few people have.

    So-called balanced bilinguals who have ‘native’ like accents in two languages are able to throw of the yoke of a single linguistic identity, itself tied to all sorts of other confining identities (national, etc.). But the irony is that their ability to do so is linked to the very same stubborn essentialism they must end up reproducing in an effort to “escape” a singular identity .

    • I don’t think you can divorce ‘native speaker status’ from race. Jackie Chang’s PhD thesis about ideologies of English language learning in Taiwan found that ABCs (=America-born Chinese; i.e. ‘native speakers’ of English) were paid less as English teachers than Continental Europeans (i.e. ‘non-native speakers’) because they didn’t *look like* natives. I have repeatedly written about the fact that ‘native speaker status’ is as much a matter of perception as performance (e.g., here, here and here).
      Accent is intriguing because it is often the most salient but easily the most irrelevant aspect of linguistic proficiency … meaning that it as much in the eye of the beholder as on your tongue.

      • I agree that native speaker status and accent are to a large degree about perception and that, from a critical perspective, they are “irrelevant.” But just because critical academics say things are “irrelevant” doesn’t make it suddenly seem that way to the 99% of people for whom accent is indeed extremely salient, and thus, in the sense of everyday, socially lived practice/treatment, indeed quite relevant.

        I believe this discussion is similar to the listserv discussion about “folk” (mis)understandings about “a” language. You can, as we say in the US, talk until you’re blue in the face about the fact that there is no such thing as “a” language, no such thing as “English”, “German”, or really any analytical category from a purely “objective” analytical perspective.

        But if 99% of people see these analytical categories as “real” and “relevant”, it doesn’t really matter if a small number of academics say they aren’t. Indeed, I think one of the greatest challenges for critical applied linguists, and critical scholars in general, is figuring out effective ways to critique “folk” knowledge that actually persuade “average” people to change their views. Using the rather pejorative term “folk” to describe apparently “lesser” views of social reality isn’t a great way to begin going about doing this ;-). People see right through to the elitism and are immediately turned off.

        • Well, I didn’t say any of that and object to having words put in my mouth. Accent is, as I said, highly salient and has social consequences (another plug for the new edition of Rosina Lippi-Green’s English with an accent seems to be in order). We’ve had posts here an Language-on-the-Move that show that accent can be matter of life and death (e.g., here and here).
          However, to turn ‘native accent’ into a proficiency criterion is to confuse a linguistic fact with its social effects. Pointing that out has nothing to with being ‘elitist’ or even ‘critical’ but is simply a scientific statement. In the same way that Galileo wasn’t ‘critical’ or ‘elitist’ for stating that the sun didn’t revolve around the earth …
          The insidious thing about letting the belief that ‘native speaker status’ or ‘accent’ are valid *linguistic* criteria go unchallenged is that that ends up underwriting its social effects (including the fact that it has come to replace race as a way to discriminate in many contexts; see, e.g., here).
          To go back to your own example: if sounding ‘like a native’ referred to a linguistic feature, you wouldn’t need to worry about your daughters sounding like natives because they are obviously ‘native speakers’ (having learnt the language on their, well, father’s knee, as Bloomfield had it). As it is, what you seem to desire is for them to sound like kids who not only learnt the language from birth but also learnt it in a particular social environment (a highly elusive and, hence, normative desire). And, if they ever live in Germany, you may even find that sounding like an American with good German may be a more attractive identity option for them than sounding like just another German.
          Btw, having been born and bred in Germany doesn’t automatically mean you are taken to be a ‘native speaker,’ either, if you don’t have the ‘right’ geographical and class background; a story I’ve told elsewhere …)

          • Hi Ingrid,
            Didn’t mean to put words in your mouth. I apologize if it seemed as if I was. I will admit to perhaps sometimes using this type of forum as an opportunity to wax poetic beyond the actual focus of a given article/reply. Part of the reason for this is because such forums are so rare in academe — we don’t have enough opportunities, in my view, to, as we say in the U.S. “get into the ring” with other academics.

            I completely agree with: a) the need to challenge unscientific views of, well, pretty much anything, whether we’re talking about language, or climate change; b) the importance of being able to appeal to science in order to do so.

            That noted, I also think that in the United States at least — where there is an incredibly powerful streak of “anti-elitism” and often outright antipathy toward “expert” knowledge — appeals to science can often be very ineffective and, in fact, can backfire, politically and ideologically. One need look no further than the extreme denialism toward climate change in the U.S. and the presidential candidates’ total silence on this issue to see evidence of this.

            Basically, I do not know the best, most effective way to translate “expert” knowledge in such a way as to effectively effect social change on some of the issues we discuss on language on the move. And, as an activist/scholar, this is a point of frustration for me.

          • No worries, Christof. I’m glad you value Language on the Move!
            The quality of public debate in the US is indeed a cause of concern … economically, the US is the 2nd most poliarized (i.e. most unequal) society in the OECD, yet the material elites are largely running this ‘anti-elitism’ debate and have managed to pin the ‘elitist’ label not on the obvious material elites but on intellectuals, liberals, etc. Unfortunately, this very group has actually bought into this confusion of elitism – where ‘elitism’ seemingly is not about having deep pockets but liberal rationalism – and is therefore incapable of mounting a coherent counter-discourse. I mean your association of ‘elite’ with ‘expert’ is a case in point. For fantastic reading there is of course Joe Bageant of Deer Hunting with Jesus fame and Thomas Frank (What’s the matter with Kansas?).

  • Good work and this pained my heart as I was one of them as I am not white despite holding the degrees from UK and Australia. I was not able to get a teaching job. I could get the job in the rural area with only 20k thai bahs, that is lucky and even as low as 15k per month.

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