Tag Archives: language learning

Language Learning around the World: The Persian Gulf

Over the last few years, the ESL industry in the Gulf states has exploded: look at any TEFL recruitment board and it’s not hard to see why native English-speaking teachers are being drawn to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular: if you can hack the restrictions on women and alcohol-based socialising, the tax-free salaries are astonishing and afford a standard of living that is certainly unachievable at home, but also in other popular TEFL destinations such as East and South East Asia. So why the gold rush? Unsurprisingly, it’s intimately connected to the employment market.

Improving standards at home

The Education First English Proficiency Index places Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait among the lowest of their world rankings. Governments and students across the region are acutely aware of the opportunities English proficiency may bring (British Council research shows that employees from the Middle East with good English earn up to three times as much as non-English speakers), but lack of resources in state education often limits access to education to those able to afford private tuition. As a result of this, several countries across the region have partnered with the British Council in recent years in order to improve the reach and standards of English teaching.

Focusing on opportunities overseas

In addition, a number of government-funded schemes intended to help citizens learn English overseas have come to prominence in recent years, not least Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (KASP). The fact that Saudi Arabian students made up the highest percentage of students in US intensive English courses with about 38,000 English students – or double the number of students from China, which is often assumed to be the biggest ESL market – is a good example of the region’s commitment to English language learning

Effects in the region

So what does this mean for the Gulf? It certainly seems that proficiency is set to increase, and with it employment prospects and economic growth. However, there are those that worry for the future of the Arabic language as English becomes more widespread – especially among the middle classes. Patricia Ryan, an English teacher with the British Council, makes a particularly rousing call for the preservation of Arabic among other languages in her TED talk ‘Don’t Insist on English’ and this Fortune article has dire warnings for the future of Arabic in an English-focused world.

Links with language learning in the UK

This last concern speaks to the current climate of Anglocentrism which has seen European and East Asian countries develop equally ambiguous relationships with the English language and its cultures. It’s something that we at Struck Fluent feel strongly about – with most of the world bilingual, and a great many of them using our own language proficiently, we and our children are at a distinct disadvantage both professionally and holistically without a second language. With the rise of China and Brexit on the horizon, can we afford to remain monolingual? We don’t think so.

Do you agree? If so, contact us and let us help you with your language learning goals! Feel free to leave your comments below too – we always love to hear from you.

Lucy McCormick is Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.

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Language Learning Around the World: Continental Europe

The attitude towards language learning in continental Europe is markedly different from that of the UK. While foreign languages became non-mandatory at GCSE in 2002, most European countries have been promoting multilingualism as an essential component of European education and identity since the mind-00s. In the context of Brexit, it is interesting (and for the majority of us at Struck Fluent who have benefitted hugely from EU citizenship, saddening) to consider the effect of this attitude on the British sense of identity and our understanding of and relationship with the Continent. Below, we discuss some of the key differences between UK and continental European approaches to the teaching and learning of foreign languages, and their effect on both British and European identity.

Early introduction

The EU stresses the importance of introducing children to a foreign language at an early age. This means that our continental neighbours are already being introduced to another language (usually English) in Kindergarten. In the UK, meanwhile, second-language education is a lottery. At Struck Fluent, we encounter forward-thinking nurseries and schools in the private sector who provide excellent foreign language exposure in the early years which morphs into more formal teaching as the children get older. We also love working with parents to deliver bespoke foreign language playgroups in their homes. However, we recognise that many people cannot afford such options and that as such their children often miss out on opportunities for language learning, especially as state schools are not required to deliver any foreign language education until Key Stage 2. The only stipulated goal for this is that it must adequately prepare children for secondary school language learning, which is open to very broad interpretation. There is also no requirement to space out the teaching throughout Juniors. In practice, this often means that children do not have any significant exposure to a foreign language until Year Six, learning from teachers who may not have a good grasp of the language themselves and are more focused on increased pressure to get their classes through the SATS. By this age, we often find that children have internalised the message that languages are hard and scary, and ‘everyone speaks English anyway.’ As ‘tweenagers’ they are also likely losing the unselfconsciousness of younger children and will be more scared of ‘getting it wrong’ than they would have been aged, say 5 or 6.

At secondary school, it has long been possible to give up a foreign language at the end of Year Nine. Throughout Europe meanwhile, it is mandatory to continue with at least one foreign language until the age of 18 and a second language is strongly encouraged. This divergence has put a whole generation of British children at a huge disadvantage to their European peers: as well as access to education and employment outside our small island, they lack the many holistic benefits of language learning that make for a more rounded individual perspective and ultimately a more tolerant society: a deeper understanding of other cultures, of ways of thinking and being, and a contingent sense of respect and unity between these cultures.

Access to education and employment

In the days before Brexit, as part of my degree I spent a year at University in France on the ERASMUS programme. As an EU citizen, this guaranteed me a grant of €300 per month to cover my living expenses (France had no tuition fees at that time). All my continental European friends were well aware of the ERASMUS programme and its benefits, whereas my British university peers had almost all never heard of it unless they read Modern Foreign Languages. My fellow ERASMUS students came from all over the EU and in addition to being French learners, they also spoke excellent English. Even those who proclaimed to have ‘only school English’ were far more proficient in my mother tongue than I had been in either French or German after completing A-Levels in each. This speaks to the seriousness with which competency in English is taken not only in Europe but worldwide. If you want to attend the world’s best universities (all in the US and UK) you need to pass a seriously befuddling English test whether your intended course of study is Sculpture, Computer Science or English Literature. Much academic literature is also now only available in English. Decent English is also expected of employees at any company doing business outside their home country as it has become the go-to lingua franca. However, over the last decade in particular, the EU has also been actively promoting the learning of other European languages in order to encourage the free movement of talented individuals between countries, universities and companies across the continent. Since my ERASMUS days, programmes have been established to encourage EU citizens into apprenticeships, traineeships and a wide variety of study placements across different countries. This reflects a cohesive European identity at odds with the UK’s increasingly isolationist position: having always been somewhat ambivalent re: the free movement principle, our country seems lately to have emerged as wholly against it. Is there a link between this isolationism and our devaluing of language learning? Below, we look more closely at the split between European and British identity and how it can be illustrated by our attitudes to the importance of multilingualism.

Multilingualism and identity

The English language has historically been a tool of oppression both within and without the UK, used to actively wipe out other languages and suppress cultural identities. As such, institutional disregard for the learning of other languages and the ‘everyone speaks English anyway’ attitude feels at best narrow-minded and at worst dangerous. Meanwhile, the EC’s 2008 document ‘Multiligualism: an asset for Europe and a shared commitment’ promotes the learning of two European languages with the specific intent of creating social cohesion, international and intercultural dialogue. Between 2010 and 2015 in particular, the EU has reported a huge increase in the learning of two European languages to a high standard across the continent. This reflects the idea that language learning is crucial to European identity, breaking down the narrow bonds of national identity in favour of a larger, continental sense of belonging. As discussed above, free movement across countries is encouraged for students and employees alike, and the majority of the current young generation enjoy the ability to share in their neighbours’ cultures and languages. For me, this is a stark illustration of how far Britain has drifted from the Continent and illustrates our reluctance to fully commit to European identity. It is a vicious circle: locked out of the languages and cultures of our closest neighbours and often unaware of the advantages – or even the existence – of programmes like ERASMUS, they become ever more ‘other’ and the prospect of language learning and intercultural exchange becomes ever more daunting and/or undesirable.

Have you benefitted from studying or working in Europe? Or maybe you feel you’ve missed out on learning a foreign language? Or maybe you disagree completely with our position! Let us know your thoughts in any case – we love a good debate!

Lucy McCormick is Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.

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Language Learning Around the World: East Asia

In the first of a series of blogs about approaches to language learning around the world, French and ESL tutor Lucy dives into the turbo-charged testing systems and culturally divisive world of English teaching and learning in East Asia, drawn from her time living and working in China, South Korea and Vietnam.

Teaching to the Test: English as a Commodity

In many East Asian countries students spend their entire school careers preparing for a single high-stakes, summative exam. This is teacher-speak for one massive, multiple-choice test at the end of Year 13 which determines essentially your entire life, from which university you can go to, which career you can aspire to and who you’ll be able to marry. A testing system like this demands the reduction of learning to measurable chunks of information that can be tallied up to generate a numerical result for comparison with that of other learners. There is absolutely a place for this kind of testing – it’s a useful tool for keeping an eye on how the mechanics of language, or any kind of rote-learned facts and figures, are being learned. When knowledge starts to exceed such measurable chunks though, the test’s usefulness starts to peter out. I mean, how do you reduce an entire language to a multiple-choice quiz? How do you judge a person’s spontaneous understanding and spoken communication; their written composition? What about pronunciation? As it turns out, for a start, you remove any spoken and compositional element. Then you give learners chunks and chunks of dull (I mean, deathly dull) passages with some bits underlined. Then you get them to say which of the underlined bits are grammatically wrong, or which ones you could substitute with another construction. Over and over and over again. I took one of these tests once. Turns out, being a native speaker and a trained language teacher does not guarantee anything near success. It is, however, quite an efficient way of eroding a lifelong love of language learning.

Unlike an A-Level student who can just drop the subjects they don’t fancy and zero in on their passions to gain entrance to university, in this system if you ain’t got English you ain’t coming in (imagine the uproar if all British universities suddenly started demanding A*s in Mandarin Chinese as a prerequisite for undergraduate entry?) The result of this then, is a system in which those who can pay for high-quality private language tuition, or send their kids to International School, or to an English-speaking country for a year or two, have a clear advantage over everyone else. As a starry-eyed new teacher and language lover, this dismayed me: the world language should be inclusive – it should be a means of opening doors and understanding each other better, linguistically and culturally. Instead, in this context it largely becomes a commodity. One which also functions as a tool of exclusion – of those too poor to pay the tuition fees; of those who aren’t as adept at one, rigid learning style.

Teaching and learning English in (post) colonial societies

The fact that the language being learnt is English comes with its own set of thorny issues. The existence of English as the world language has its roots in Anglo-American colonialism, which presents a deeper, nastier set of barriers to meaningful relationships between first- and second-language speakers and between teachers and learners. High-stakes summative exams have given rise to a booming private tuition industry and the streets of Seoul, Beijing and Hanoi are lined with private English schools offering cram sessions late into the night. They are notoriously shirty employers with transparently racist hiring practices: many straight-up advertise for white teachers only and will openly state that appearance matters more than qualifications. The biggest losers here are clearly the overworked students being taught by unqualified staff, but teachers also report having a hairy time, with unpaid wages, visa issues and the overnight folding of businesses common. What I experienced in East Asia was a widespread, boiling and kinda justified resentment of white teachers: in my case, although I arrived with the best of intentions I was just not aware of the multiple and multi-faceted obstacles my students faced, or of how my occupying a position of authority in their space and society was already problematic. As a white teacher, I was also paid more –  think up to  three times more – than my home-country counterparts for doing much less and getting to take more holiday. These discrepancies existed (albeit to a slightly lesser extent) in both the public and private schools I worked in. It’s very difficult to have meaningful cultural exchange with either students or colleagues when a relationship begins on such uneven turf, and I often wonder what the long-term effects of this will be.

How did you feel about this article? What was your experience of language teaching and learning? Let us know – we love to hear from you!

Lucy McCormick is Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.

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