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Editorial 1

The Fraud of the Global English-Teaching Industry

The teaching of English as a foreign language is a global industry. It has many millions of customers and employs thousands of teachers and other workers. It has been a global industry, in fact, for several decades. Yet the basic way it operates and its basic teaching methods are never debated. Nor is there discussion of whether people are really learning English or any other foreign language better than they did forty or fifty years ago. Instead, the industry just gets bigger and bigger.

 

On two occasions during the nineties I tried to start a debate on the fundamental questions that should be asked about this great power in the world of education. The first attempt was through a piece published in the EFL Gazette (now EL Gazette: September 1991, Quality teaching versus teacher qualifications); the second was in an article in the January 1997 issue of English Today (Learning the world language: today and tomorrow). Neither prompted any discussion, although both were provocative. The reaction was total silence.

The reasons for this are not difficult to understand. There is a tacit alliance between three powerful vested interests which have nothing to gain from talking about these things, and much to lose. They are the teaching institutions (universities and colleges as well as private language schools and institutions like the British Council); the publishers who largely through the teaching institutions have a vast market for their textbooks; and academics who write many of the books for that same market and are paid well to keep persuading people their researches and publications are necessary to the health of English-teaching throughout the world. All three might suffer if the value of what any one of them is doing was called into question. So the most effective defence against criticism is to ignore it. Open debate is the last thing they want.

 

Languages are learnt. They cannot be taught. If they were left to think for themselves, most would-be language-learners would probably realize this, and that they have to do almost everything for themselves. Learning a foreign language is a process of intensive observation which people have to do for the most part alone. Language students may conscientiously do the homework they are set and regularly study their course books. It will do them little good if they lack self-reliance and active curiosity. The more they rely on teachers, the less - and the more slowly - they will learn. But nobody tells this to the thousands of people who go to English-speaking countries every year to study the language. They are persuaded that their teachers, in some magic way that is called skilled teaching, are going to do the work for them. They are convinced that the more lessons they go to, the faster and better will be the progress they make. Enterprises and institutions would naturally make far less money if their clients thought otherwise. Nobody points out to students that every hour they spend in the classroom is precious time taken away from the real learning work. Nobody in the business draws attention to how grotesque it is for people to pay vast sums of money to go and do something - spend the greater part of the day sitting in classrooms, or participating in other group activities - which they could do just as effectively and far more cheaply in their own country. There is no point in going to a country to learn its language if you do not spend most of your time there observing the language in real life action for yourself, in its written as well as its spoken form.

The prime motive of entrepreneurs and institutions of learning is seldom a genuine concern for the students, a desire to give them a good deal that would help them learn as fast and effectively as possible. If it was, there would be constant public debate about whether the present world-wide set-up really is the right one. But the entrepreneurs have other considerations. The qualities of their teachers are dictated largely by their assessment of market factors. Image is all-important, so entrepreneurs try to convince customers that they will be taught by real professionals. I shall return to the subject of teachers and teaching methods in the next issue of this journal. But I will comment already here that in almost twenty years of advising and guiding many teachers of English as a foreign language I never came across a single one whose paper qualifications were in any way relevant to their worth as teachers. For the entrepreneurs and teaching institutions, however, it is precisely the paper qualifications obtained by their staff from various bodies that help them to get away with charging students exorbitant fees.

Those 'various bodies' include universities. Here academics profit from the training courses they effectively impose on would-be teachers of English as a foreign language. These courses, needless to say, are very expensive. But without them it is virtually impossible to get an anywhere near decent job in the global industry.

 

The inflation in the cost of English courses is staggering. Thirty-five years ago a student at the language school in Cambridge where I was teaching could get a ten-week course of 15 hours a week in a class of 12 for £30 - say $60 at todayís rate of exchange. That worked out at 20 pence a lesson. Today such a course in Cambridge or elsewhere in Britain will almost certainly cost at least £1500 ($3000) - £10 ($20) a lesson. That means there has been inflation of 5000 % in the cost of learning English. Certainly there has been very high inflation in Europe since 1972. But not remotely that much. And these fees are for tuition alone. They do not include the cost of accommodation; half-board accommodation with a family will cost you a good £150 a week.

When it comes to preparing for one of the examinations in English that students can take, the teaching institutions appear to think you need an intensive course of up to 30 lessons a week. Ten weeks of that (they will probably try to persuade you that you need more) will probably cost you a minimum of$4500, even before you have begun to think where you are going to live and how you are going to eat.

This is one of the most scandalous aspects of the global English-teaching industry. Having a good command of English is in many parts of the world one of the most important assets a person can have. It can be decisive in getting a good job. But study of this language in the countries where it is spoken is only for the wealthy or the comparatively wealthy. For millions of poor throughout the world it is quite out of the question.

 

That is the greatest wrong committed by those who grow fat on the proceeds of a 'service' quite beyond the reach of so many. But there is another group for whom the outrage is also great: the comparatively wealthy. They, or their parents, make a great financial sacrifice to pay the huge fees demanded, and are doubly cheated, because they do not in fact buy what most people think they do. What actually happens is that students pay these enormous sums to be prevented doing what they want to do: learn the language efficiently. What goes on in most language classrooms around the world today actually does almost nothing to usefully inform students. As they sit in the classroom they are effectively paralyzed. It is only when they escape from school that they can truly begin learning - if they know how to do it the right way.

It would be much better if we dropped the title "teacher" altogether where language-learning is concerned.. We should instead speak of "guides". This would remind us that what learners need is individual attention, and that the responsibility for learning is basically the student's. Language guides should be able to do two things:

(1) show students how to learn a foreign language; (2) answer questions about the language.

I have long stressed to my students that my first duty to them is to make myself unnecessary. When students have the independence that is essential, they will need only a fraction of the number of sessions they at present attend at the institutions that pretend to instruct them. They will probably have to pay high fees for each session of individual guidance, but will only have to spend overall a small proportion of what they have to pay today for private lessons or even for classes at schools.

What I am suggesting does not mean throwing a lot of teachers of English out of work. Almost certainly more, not fewer, 'English' guides would be needed. Each student would probably not have more than two hours a week with their guide, over a period of several weeks. But this would mean that the guides would be able to help a far greater number of different individuals than private teachers can at the moment. And the lower cost of guidance in English would put it within the means of millions more people. This would increase the demand for guides even further.

 

But to make such changes, teachers must escape from the control of entrepreneurs and the institutions. This would be done best by organizing themselves in small co-operatives. These would need very small amounts of space, equipment and administration. The money would all go to the people who do the work. People who would like to become English-language guides could be given free apprenticeships at such co-operatives. Apprentices could attend and participate in the advice sessions with the students, and join in the discussions between the members of the co-operative. This would be stimulating for everybody involved.

Guides would be able to spend fewer hours 'advising' than most teachers of English are made to put in today. They would not make a fortune. But their freedom, their independence, and the timetable they would decide for themselves would make daily discussions about the work with colleagues something to look forward to, instead of a chore resented because it cuts into insufficient leisure.

At the same time, organization of such a kind will make it clear to students, in a way that is not possible at the moment, whether their guides are doing their job properly. So standards that are genuinely high will be achieved.

It is surely time for interested, dedicated and conscientious teachers to take control of their own work and lives. That will need mutual encouragement, solidarity, and practical organization, and the will - no more. With those, English- 'teaching' and English-learning can be transformed. This journal will perhaps become a place where people can make contact to give each other that encouragement and solidarity, and help them to organize together. I hope so.

 

Meanwhile, this journal would like to hear from anybody who wants to express their dissatisfaction with any aspect of the English-teaching world as it is today. We welcome general criticisms, but also complaints about specific establishments. We realize that many teachers will be reluctant, for the sake of their jobs, to add their names to their exposures of wrong-doing. So while the more closely an establishment can be identified the better, we will publish any information we think interesting even if the person who supplies it wants her or his name withheld, or prefers to limit identification to the name of a town or even a country. (However, we will be more inclined to publish anonymous material if the informant at least gives their name in confidence to us.)

Obvious matters of interest are such things as contract conditions, working hours, salaries, course prices, directors' incomes and profits, class sizes (real ones, not the ones in brochures), and, of course, students' opinions (a student at a well-known language school in Cambridge told me that the school - one of an international chain - was "rubbish", but that when she was choosing a course she had been taken in by the glossy publicity that this large organization was able to afford in her home country).

I hope teachers will let students know about this web site. Students are obviously less vulnerable than teachers, and their personal evidence is perhaps the most important of all. (If I knew the name of the student I have quoted in the previous paragraph, and had permission to reveal it and name the school, my story would of course have far greater force.) Equally, I hope students who discover this journal will talk about it to teachers they feel might be sympathetic listeners.

As interesting and important as anything, though, will be thoughts and comments on the whole basis of the present English-teaching set-up, and judgements on whether people are really learning as well as they might. And supporters of the status quo should at last have the courage to let us know whatever arguments and evidence they think they have in favour of it.

Amorey Gethin

[Updated August 2002]

 

See further editorials on the subject of the global English-teaching industry at The Illusion of Global English-Teaching Standards and at The Rational Learning of Foreign Languages.

 

The Editor welcomes contributions to debate on the subject of this editorial.

 

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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