Who Cares about English Anyways? How ESL training is far too focused on language.


In a post-industrial world, why are we leaving the mind in the hands of pre-industrial craftsmen?

In a post-industrial world, why are we leaving the mind in the hands of pre-industrial craftsmen?

I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.
— Chinese Proverb

This proverb was drawn from one of many websites dedicated to listing proverbs. Presumably they are intended to inspire those who enjoy inspiring others with quotes. They are especially handy for pasting in status updates and blog entries such as this, or worse they end up on classroom walls as captions for stock inspirational propaganda.

While scrolling through the list, I fell upon this one purely for superficial reasons. It bore obvious alliteration, elegant symmetry and, by virtue of being a well-known proverb, the promise to hold some truth.

But for me there is something missing from the equation. After all, there are plenty of things that I hear that I remember, other things I see and dont even notice, and far too often I am made to do things that I dont understand. For all the hearing, seeing and doing, there has got to be more to it than that. Personally, I need to care about something in order to learn anything about it.

This brings me to my question. How do you teach something if students dont really care about it? I’m not  talking about the compulsory courses that students have to take to graduate, that is another problem completely. Im talking about knowledge that students genuinely want, that is trapped inside ancient traditions of stoicism and dutiful toil: no nonsense, no pain no gain, ca fait du mal quand ca fait du bien teaching. We are not machines, as the Chinese proverb suggests. I personally dont take well to any sort of painful learning. If it hurts to learn, I only seem to remember the pain.

My particular brand of teaching has become one of the biggest boom industries in the world. There are an estimated 2 billion English as a second language learners worldwide. They live on every country in the world, come from every walk of life and are of all ages. Teaching them is a tall order. If it is to be done well, it takes a long time and involves trained teachers willing to travel to faraway lands. There are quite a few of these grass-roots missionaries out there as we speak; self-motivated ex-pat travelers in search of adventure. No matter where they go in the world, their only trouble is managing the overwhelming demand for their services.

Two billion is a big number. Far too big a job to be done “by hand”, and yet that is exactly how we are doing it. When Henry Ford was faced with an overwhelming demand for his cars, it was not long before a mechanized process was established. Is there something different about ESL learning? There is almost no difference between today’s techniques and those used by Ancient Greek pedagogues. At this rate, only the elite will have access to proper training while an enormous opportunity goes untapped.

A lot of educators will not like where this topic is headed. To many, the notion of mechanizing a system of learning to accommodate a problem of supply and demand is offensive and dangerous. Besides, it is simply impossible to replicate a teaching environment digitally or otherwise. We know from Vygotsky that knowledge is passed on through culture and relationships with others. Language, so deeply rooted in others, must certainly be taught in person.

If there were an English learning factory, the aforementioned Chinese proverb would certainly be a on banner above the line. A horrifying scenario would ensue below as thousands of students would be “taught” English by some Huxley\Orwellian assembly process. Instead, we attempt to achieve the same results as pre-industrial craftsmen in classrooms with an assortment of improvised materials.The Ancients used these same techniques. Teachers were just slaves and free agents offering their services to the highest bidder. Industrialization has changed this world everywhere but here.

So why do so many people want to learn English? That’s easy, it is the language of everything. So much of our global culture is made of English. America is Rome and English is the Lingua Franca, right? Not exactly. Most of the world already has its own language and culture and its not English. They are not necessarily learning English to be able to read Shakespeare nor to watch Star Wars in its original version.  English has become the language of problem solving.  If a problem gets big enough, eventually it will need to be resolved in English.

I doubt that most ESL students (or teachers) have any particular love for English. I certainly have none. My parent’s first language was Dutch. We speak English purely for pragmatic reasons. What so many of these ESL students are really after is problem-resolution training. English is simply the key to problem solving. The English used does not even need to be very good, it just needs to be operational. Strangely, ESL training today wastes too much time on language. In order to satisfy the demands for English training, teachers need to focus on the real learning objective: Not language skills,  but communication skills.

Once this learning objective is clarified, English ceases to be Vigotsky’s sacred embodiment of culture and instead becomes a handy interface for global communication. With this important distinction out of the way, we can also change our approach to teaching it. Language as a cultural device is taught through human understanding and knowledge of a complex social organism. Language as a problem-solving interface has different needs. It uses the cognitive functions that are developed through game-play and strategy.

The computer and its yet untapped potential are an excellent learning environment for developing such skills. Most notably, by adapting these learning objectives to social gaming, more of the global market can be reached. With computers so globally widespread, not only will the burden be taken off of our missionary teachers, but the learning environment and working environment will be the same. Finally, ESL students will be able to learn something they actually care about without the yolk of stioc traditions and academic drudgery.

Not to devalue the hard work of our ex-pat field teachers spreading the light of Rome over its client states. Their work is as important as ever. No machine could ever replace the human touch. It is, however, high time we let the machine do some of the work.