With a slick set of presentation slides, that moved and waved and rippled, David Graddol kicked off IATEFL 2014 at Harrogate with his plenary on English and economic development.
“The role of English in economic development is a complex and under researched area – despite the importance it plays in rationalising massive nation investments in English teaching and individual family sacrifice” was the concluding remark. The talk itself focussed on a number of different strands related to English and economic development, and was, in places, rather complex, as the screenshot hints at.
In this post, I hope to look at just a few strands that Graddol mentioned and think about how they relate to my experience in the Korean context.
You can watch a recording of the talk below. I wasn’t in Harrogate, but thanks to the wonders of the internet, I was able to follow along live online, from the comfort of a downtown Starbucks, 7,000 miles away. In fact the picture above was taken at just about the same time that Graddol mentioned Starbucks and their seeming ‘reluctance to make a profit’ in the UK.
The corporates are taking over
Large corporations was a theme common to Graddol’s talks at IATEFL and TESOL14 (which is also available online here.) His jab at Starbucks for not paying their tax was to highlight the nature of businesses. Now we can criticise Starbucks (and Google and Amazon) all we want, but at the end of the day, all they are doing is realizing the main aim of any limited company: To make as much money as possible for the shareholders. It is in fact the duty of the directors of a company to make as much profit as possible for the shareholders, and if they fail in their duty, they are answerable to those shareholders. You might not like that, but that’s what it is. I spent much of my second year at university studying the role and actions of companies, from corporate governance to commercial law. I’m not defending large companies, just observing. In his talk, Graddol even points to the influence that corporations had in helping the English language to leave England. When English arrived in Jamestown in 1607, and a few weeks later in India, it was taken there by companies.
But what does this have to do with ELT? During his talk, Graddol says that the large corporates are now taking over our world. They are buying the language schools, the curriculums, the language testing, and so on. Now, to be up front, I work for a large corporate private English school, and in 2010, our international division was purchased by a large multinational publishing and education company. So I’m a cog (albeit a very small one) in the very large machine that is the business of ELT.
Graddol moves on and suggests that employers are now looking for people either at the A1/2 scale, who have a basic level of English, or at the other end C1/2, and that there’s no place for those in the middle. But this is at odds with what language schools are doing by teaching students to the B2 level. I wonder what implications this has in Korea. Do employers in Korea have the same expectations? Should we be aiming to teach our students higher? Is that even possible? (Not questions I am going to address here).
Student expectations and beliefs
And what about the students, what are their expectations and beliefs?
At one point, Graddol shows a graph from Pearson’s Business English Index & Globalization of English Report (which is available as a pdf download here) The question was: How Important is it to know English to advance in your company? Right after Graddol’s talk finished, I had to rush off to work, but it had got me thinking about what my students expect from studying English, and why they were here. As I said, I work at a private academy with adult students. The majority of my students are university aged, but there are also quite a few workers. I had a spare 15 minutes before one of my classes, so I decided to put together a very brief survey, to look at the attitudes of some of my students towards English. I asked them to complete four simple questions:
- Why do you study English?
- Choose one word to complete the sentence English is ___ for getting a promotion in Korea. (a. Required, b. Important, c. helpful, d. not important.)
- Do you think that English will help you to get a better salary? YES/NO
- Are you a worker or a student.
27 students in my class at the time completed the survey. Of those, 8 were employed and the remaining 19 were university students.
I purposefully left question one as open as possible, as I was interested to see what my learners would say. Answers varied from just a couple of words to a few sentences, with responses such as “Just because” and “I want to speak fluently”. But out of the 27, eleven learners said specifically they they were studying English because it was important for them to get a job.
Question 2, as you may have noticed, was quite similar to the graph that Graddol showed in his talk. I should point out that the Pearson numbers are from a survey that asked current employees, and it’s probably fair to say that they spent much longer than 15 minutes to put their’s together. Nonetheless, the results from my learners are below:
And for question 3:
So it’s quite clear that, at least as far as the learners I teach are concerned, they believe that English has some effect on their ability to be successful in getting jobs. Interestingly, for question 3, of the four learners who answered “No”, three of them were already in employment, which clearly shows that the majority of university students, soon to become job seekers, feel that having good English skills will help them to earn more money.
Now these numbers aren’t really that surprising to me. I’ve heard from my learners time and time again that they want to study English to help them get a better job. So what does that mean for our teaching? Should we be working to help teach our students about the English that they will require in workplace, and not about their hobbies. As Graddol said, what good is being able to talk about your hobbies or families when you’re in a restaurant and all you want to do is order food? A couple of years ago, my company – the international branch, that one that is owned by the big multinational corporation I mentioned before – decided to roll out a new business English course that was mandatory for ALL students to take. Well, that multinational corporation that owns my company just so happens to be Pearson.
I can only talk for my experience and my students in Korea. In fact, I can’t even talk for the students in Korea, I can only talk for the students that are in my centre in Daegu. And they do not like this ‘business English course’ – “it’s boring”, “not relevant to them”, they “don’t understand it” and so on. In fact, the course itself is not actually that bad. I can’t really go into specifics etc. here, but in my opinion, as courses go, it’s quite good. It’s just that the students don’t see it. And at first this was quite surprising to me. One of the elements of the course is a unit that is essentially all about job interviews. I’ll ask my learners at the beginning of a class if they think they might need to do an English job interview in the future, and many of them say yes, but when asked about the unit, they still say that it’s not relevant to them. What might the problem be here? Perhaps, it’s because the students have to take this ‘business English course’, when they reach a certain level (language level that is) in our program, and perhaps they find it linguistically challenging.
It could also be because of who the students taking the course are. Many of my university students still live at home, and have never had a job that requires them to think about the kind of topics that are brought up in the course. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t really go over too well with my students, and many of them are happy to get back into the general English course.
So, while many of my students say that they think English is important for them to get a job, I wonder whether this is really the case, or whether they just think that English is important for getting a job. And when it comes to actually learning the type of English that could be useful to many non-native English speaking job seekers, the point is missed, because it’s not the ‘type’ of English they need. In Korea, many of the large conglomerates (Samsung, Hyundai, SK, etc.) require most (or all?) job candidates to submit an English test score. In the past these scores have typically been from the TOEIC speaking test, but more often these days, it seems that companies in Korea are favouring the OPIc. But once they’ve actually gotten the job, will they have a need for English in the company? I have no doubt that there are roles within Korean companies that do require English speakers, but I fear that these are few and far between. I think that a lot of my students now have these romantic ideas that by having good English skills they are going to get a job at Samsung, and jet-set around the world, experiencing all of these wonderful places, impressing their bosses with their amazing English. However, in reality, many will end up in a job they don’t like, where English is not actually a part of their job. Their years spent studying English wasted. And this, as Graddol said in his talk, is a problem, because if students are just chasing English grades, then you’re not actually adding to the GDP.
Perhaps this paints rather a bleak picture, but I think that for some of my students, it is a reality.