Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Killers of Hope

by AJ

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ESL schools are the killers of hope. They kill the hopes of new immigrants.
--Humberto Soto

That damning quote is from a Venezuelan immigrant to Canada. Humberto and I talked last week. I hope to post a segment of the conversation as a podcast, as I recorded it.. but I need to get his permission first. During the discussion Humberto described his ESL (English as a Second Language) educational experiences. Humberto talked about how he spent 14 months taking classes and at the end of it all "couldn't speak a sentence of English".

Then he summarized his experience with the initial quote- referring to the ESL industry in general as "killers of hope".

The line stuck with me. Teaching in foreign (non-English speaking) countries such as Japan or Thailand, its easy to be flippant about the horrid state of English education. Most English schools and programs in Asia are, in fact, terrible. Most are designed to teach students how to "hack" a test. In the Japanese public school system, English education seems mostly to be a test of enduring boredom and misery.

But that doesn't really matter. Truthfully, most Japanese people don't need English. They can, and do, live successful, happy, enjoyable lives without English (just as most Americans live successful lives without knowing a foreign language). Most Japanese people do not NEED English. The same is true for most Thais and most Asians in general.

But the situation for immigrants is totally different. People who immigrate to Canada, Australia, America, or the UK desperately NEED English skills. Many highly educated immigrants, with great skills, get stuck in crappy jobs simply because they have poor English skills. Many immigrants become isolated in their small communities, simply because they lack English. Many are shut out of the country's political and cultural society, simply because they have not mastered English.

For immigrants, English is VERY important.

Most immigrants come to their new country full of hope. They hope for greater opportunities than they had in their home countries. They hope to build a new life. Most that I've known are willing to work extremely hard to better their lives. They are very motivated.

For example, my current school in San Francisco mostly caters to international students-- not immigrants. Many come late and most absolutely refuse to do any kind of homework or self study. Many do not have jobs, or work only part time.

On the other hand, I used to teach immigrants in Georgia, several years ago. These people all worked full time jobs. And they usually worked very difficult jobs. Yet they came to class and eagerly participated. At the end of class, they would REQUEST homework. They were full of motivation. They were full of determination. They were full of hope.

Which is what makes the failure of the ESL industry so damning. What is considered absurd comedy in foreign countries becomes brutal tragedy when applied to immigrants. When ESL programs fail immigrants, much more is lost than the chance to learn English. Dreams are lost. Hopes are crushed.

When I look back on my experience in Georgia, I feel a sense of deep regret. I failed those students. At the time, I had no idea what I was doing. So I followed the standard industry approach. I dutifully worked through a textbook. I taught grammar point after grammar point. When students asked me how to study at home, I suggested more of the same. Not surprisingly, their progress was slow.... or non-existent.

Today, my teaching is driven by that memory, and by the memory of my own foreign language failures. I refuse to fail my students today, the way I failed those enthusiastic immigrants in Georgia. I refuse to follow the accepted way of doing things, simply because thats what the students and administration expect.... or because it will help them pass some test. The only test I care about is the acquisition of authentic English.

Teachers in foreign teaching environments (EFL) may safely continue the farce with no terrible consequences. But I suggest that those in ESL environments, working with hopeful immigrants, have a deep responsibility. Their responsibility to these students trumps the expectations of their boss, or the government, or the bureaucracy. People's futures are at stake.

When the shit hits the fan, you must choose: will you be a giver, or a killer, of hope.

San Francisco, CA