English, What Next? Perspectives;
by Neil McBeath
Hartford indicates that, at present, the vast majority of the Chinese population is engaged in productive work. There is a small percentage of retired people, and the "one-child" policy has removed the burden of childcare from mothers, allowing them to enter the workforce in their millions. What Hartford does NOT say, however, is that the current demography carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.
To begin with, at the time of Mao's death, the Chinese GDP was so low that it was possible to achieve spectacular growth rates. A population exhausted by political posturing was content to allow the Communist Party to retain its grip on society in return for an ever improving standard of living.
Now, however, that docile workforce is on the brink of retirement. As it ages, the numbers in productive work will fall, and there will be an explosive growth – from 140 million to 470million – in the number of retired people. That aging population will have to be sustained by the "little emperors" of the one child policy, and that policy has already resulted in such a gender imbalance that 30 million Chinese men are doomed never to marry. Factor in these destabilizing policies, along with the constant possibility that North Korea will implode, and it might be that it is the Chinese economy, rather than the EFL industry, that has peaked.
Much of Graddol's argument, therefore, is a matter of perception. Working from government policy and official statements, it is extremely easy to conclude that things are happening when they are not. In England, a much trumpeted language initiative turns out to be no more than the addition of one other GCSE to a school curriculum. In China, English for all effectively means English for all only if the resources are available and the administration is prepared to organize them.
And then comes the unexpected. Graddol could never have foreseen this, but in 2009, the government of Rwanda decided to switch from French to English (Vesperini 2010). This was very much a political decision, and it has stretched Rwanda's resources (de Lotbiniere 2010b), but it flies completely in the face of Graddol's thesis. It also opens up the possibility that other states in La Francophonie might follow suit. Cameroon, officially English/French bilingual would be an obvious candidate for change, but others are Benin, bordering Nigeria, and Togo, bordering Ghana.
What is also a matter of perception is the state of the EFL industry. There was an interesting statement in a now locked thread on the Saudi Arabian discussion boards of Dave's ESL Café, on 7th February 2011. Someone calling himself Montanaland stated that "I am certainly not going to grow old and end up with NO money in the bank because I wanted to "tefl" for a decade".
This goes back to points that I discussed at the 2010 TESOL Arabia Conference (McBeath 2010). There seems to be a group of EFL teachers who are determined to wallow in their own collective misery. This is something that I do not understand, and it is something that makes no sense in the setting of an EFL Conference. People who come to conferences are, by definition, the most engaged members of the profession. We read academic papers. We write academic papers. We pay to attend conferences. We discuss educational issues. We do not sit down by the waters of Dubai Creek and weep.
According to Salas and Mercado (2010; 20) "teachers…..bring their entire being to the classroom." Would that were true. Even the most engaged of us runs on autopilot sometimes, and many of our less engaged colleagues do nothing else. EFL teaching remains a profession that is still far too easy to enter, and many of those who enter the profession are a long way from being professional. I shall return to this theme when I talk about attitudes.
One persistent problem with perceptions, moreover, is the perception held by other stakeholders in the educational process. When I was serving in the Royal Air Force of Oman, I was turned down for promotion on the grounds that I was "just a teacher" by a senior Omani officer who was an administrative officer. In other words, he was "just a clerk". The same man once asked me, "What do you do? 'This is a pen. This is a pencil.' That's what you do." It made me wonder who he imagined had taught his Omani NCOs how to conduct official military correspondence in English, but let that pass. The contempt; the suggestion that what we do is easy, was open.
For many years, moreover, there was a false perception that Native English Speaking Teachers (NESTs) were automatically superior to Non-Native English Speaking Teachers (NNESTs). The growth and spread of EFL has been such that that particular heresy has all but disappeared in reputable educational establishments, but at the bottom end of ELT – in unscrupulous language schools – it remains current. At the top end, however, Arab Gulf universities in particular are still quite happy to offer lower salaries to those who work in language centres as opposed to faculties. Masters degrees and doctorates have less currency for those teaching Preparatory Year Program (PYP) students than they have for those teaching "real" students in faculties. The steady increase in the number of qualified Arab Gulf national EFL teachers may eventually change that perception, but change could be a long process at a time of financial uncertainty.
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