Friday, June 30, 2006

How not to get English spoken at School

English schools want students to practice English at school. But how do you direct students to do this? At a bare minimum, it is the teacher's job to make the students speak English in the classroom. Better schools try to encourage students to speak English outside of the classroom - in the computer lab, in the corridors, and even in the lift. There are various mechanisms to do this. Management start with a policy ("get students to speak English") and implement it in certain ways. You can start simple if you like. Photocopy A4 paper stating "Please speak English at [Insert School Here]", and stick them around the place.  

Other schools go even further. They deter the practice of other languages, like Vietnamese. They want the whole institution to be an English-only zone. They tend to be places affiliated with English-language colleges and universities elsewhere - be it the US, Australia or Singapore. They expect the students to have a basic level of competence, and have the vocabulary to communicate. These places not only encourage English, they discourage - firmly if not always politely - anything else.

I have some sympathy with these measures. These institutions exist to give enough language to study in a foreign college or university. They are often, literally, the last stop before flying out to Melbourne, London or New York. The students are going to find it hard enough overseas. They'll be away from their family, their friends and their culture, but just as importantly... their language. They'll be taken out of their comfort zone where all the things they've taken for granted - bus timetables, supermarket labels, noticeboards, TV and radio - are in their own tongue. Overseas, these things will be transformed beyond recognition. If they're really unlucky, the only time they'll hear their own language is inside their own heads. Making these schools "English-only" should advance the students' abilities, but just as importantly, it will give some psychological preparation before they are thrown in the deep end. 

Having some sympathy does not mean I like it. Such moves smell of authoritarianism, and treating your adult students as grown up children. (To be fair, my adult students often act like teenagers - nice teenagers, but with maturity levels far less than students of similar ages in Australia.) I'm also used to more "free speech" environments. At the Australian institution I attended, it did not matter if I spoke German, Zulu or otherwise - no penalty would have been implemented. You spoke English because you needed to, and not because of any rules or regulations from the University Senate. I even remember one campaign for the student union elections. One left-leaning candidate had the bright idea of writing her advertising in Chinese. That netted her an extra 100 votes, and won her the position of Overseas Student Rep. I recall that some of the right-leaning parties complained about this tactic. It didn't get them very far. The pamphlet was endorsed by the electoral office, with some legal advice and translation beforehand. So the next year, the right tried the same tactic and won. Hypocrites.

So when does an English-only policy go too far? I think one of the places I'm working now fits the bill. I think their policy is both restrictive and ineffective. I'm not going to name names, so the institution involved will be hereby referred to as The Institution. I quote from their "Instructor's Handbook", a document neither marked "private" nor "confidential". The policy statement is simple enough:

Policy Statement

Speaking Vietnamese is prohibited at The Institution and its branches with the exception of students’ parents and The Institution’s clients.


Reasons for Policy

A Target Language Community (TLC) is one where the inhabitants speak the language, which the student is learning; for students of English, an English-speaking country would be a TLC. The students would need to learn English to survive in the community. For this reason, The Institution finds it necessary to create a learning environment in which English is the only language used to instruct and communicate, and students’ nonstop improvement on English is a must...

So far, so good, but it's the penalties that infuriate me. Read below. "B", "C", "D", etc., represent the numerical codes for the courses. "F" is for non-ESL courses taught at the same institution.


Where an act of speaking Vietnamese is determined, the following penalties shall be imposed:

(1)    Students

-    Each time a student is caught in the act on the campus, 2% will be deducted from the total 100% of each ESL course taken by the student in the semester – e.g. Student A, who takes Reading B, Speaking C, Listening D, and Writing E, is caught once, so 2% will be deducted from the total 100% of Reading B, Speaking C, Listening D, and Writing E. That is to say, he/she has only 98% left in each course. If this student is caught again, another 2% will be deducted from 98% of each course, and so on.

-    In the case that a student has successfully completed the ESL program and is taking F courses, the same penalties shall be imposed on F courses. That is to say, each time the student is caught in the act, 2% will be deducted from the total 100% of each F course taken by the student in the semester.

(2)    Staff, English Instructors and IT Instructors

Each time they are caught in the act, a penalty of 5,000 VND will be imposed.

Note: - All the money will be collected in the Accounting Office for charity.

  - Violation will also affect the violator’s future promotion at The Institution.

I'm not so bothered about penalties on the teachers, except that they are disproportionately light in comparison. 5000 đồng is a pennyweight slap on the wrist for the foreigners, and even for the locals, that's less than one third of their hourly wage. One less cup of coffee to buy - boo hoo! One less xe ôm ride home; well, I guess you have to walk. It's the penalties on the students that bother me. 

First, these penalties affect all courses a student is studying, regardless of how well or poorly they do in them. The policy is inflexible. The teachers have no freedom to narrow the scope of them. Let's say that one recalcitrant student is yabbering on in my grammar class in Vietnamese. I'd like to penalize him 2% for that course, but only for that course (and in practice, after a warning or two). Unfortunately, the policies do not give me the lassitude to do this. I'd be blackmarking them with a Texta pen. So I'm less likely to use this measure.

Secondly, these penalties apply to all students - not just the advanced ones. I've been teaching at this institution for a few weeks. Many are weak. My classes, I judge, are at Beginner or pre-Intermediate level, the latter roughly at the level of my Vietnamese. It's still hard for me to express myself in that language 100% of the time; why would it be any different for them? It makes it harder for them to understand new concepts, because they lack the axillary language in English to put them together. A few times, I've done the quick-but-dirty tactic of pulling out my Vietnamese-English dictionary. I should not do that, but I should not need to do that either. I would have less problem with disciplining more advanced students. They have the fluency to think and speak in English 24/7, and even have new concepts explained to them in that tongue. 

(Related to that - is there any check on whether the students actually understand this policy? Including the "2% on all course" bit? That would be a case where a Vietnamese translation would be useful.) 

Thirdly, it's hard enough to get some of these students to speak at all, let alone English. They do not enjoy speaking. I can understand why. The textbooks are inappropriate. They were designed for multicultural ESL classes in the States - not monolingual students in Việt Nam. So they contain the language for such intriguing issues as "Insuring your Property", "Counseling" and "Divorce" - a hell of a way to interest 18 year old boys. So the kids find them boring, and bored students are less likely to speak, or even mutter. Plus the speed of the material does not encourage fluency. In my speaking classes, I am expected to cover 10 to 15 pages in two and an half hour classes. The norm in English teaching is about one or two pages per hour. I find it harder to warm up students to a topic. By the time they are interested - if they are interested - we have to switch to something else. 

(At least teachers have the freedom to drop material. That's good, but if we are dropping three quarters of it, why were we given those books in the first place?) 

I think it all comes down to the quality of the management. They're quick at rushing the rules out, but not so good at listening to staff, or working out whether the rules work in practice, or having the creativity to think up new approaches to the problem. More carrots through better material would be nice. So would less stick, or at least sticks of various shapes and size. Giving trainers the freedom to warn would be lovely. But that would tax the imagination of the crew running the joint. Judging by the emails I received, they seem to be paranoid about anyone speaking Vietnamese in the various schools and branches. The whole attitude is of distrust - distrust of the students to do the right thing. 

In a way, it's a very Vietnamese place, where rulers make rules, and have others ignore them when convenient. The attitude of my fellow staff belie this - not so much cynical, but more conspiratorial and resigned. This outlook has aided me in building up a rapport with fellow staff members against an insular and isolated administration. It also helps with cementing a relationship with the students. I tell them about the email, warn them to "watch out", but show I don't take the whole policy that seriously. They seem to appreciate this. I will insist on English spoken in classroom, and they know they should do that, but I am not going to throw the book at them if the odd "Trời ơi!" slips out. But personally, I'd prefer to work somewhere else, and will do so after my contract expired.