Teaching English as an Additional Language – A 10 Year Odyssey in Search of a Correctly Conjugated Verb


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It all started a long time ago in a land far far away. Like minded people gathered asking questions, they would seek out teachers who would help them to better understand the world and their lives. From Socrates to Pericles, to Plato and Aristotle education began with the noblest and purest of intentions. Socrates refused payment for his teaching as he believed that knowledge should not only be given just to those who could afford it.

What follows are my thoughts following ten years of prostituting off my mother tongue to the highest bidder around Southeast Asia. For many of my experiences the setting has almost always been in schools, but sadly the subject has seldom been education.

Native English Speaking Teachers – A Soldier in an Army of Linguistic Missionaries

The teachers you get coming to Southeast Asia are some of life’s most unique individuals. 95% of them fall in to one of the two following categories. Type ones come to teach in Southeast Asia to avoid debt or custodial sentences, they are too far gone to hang on to the coattails of social acceptability in their native countries, too introverted, too extroverted or just too perverted to fit in anywhere else. They wander through the countries of Southeast Asia with a head full of confused grammar and loose morals. Then you get those poor bastards who come here unaware as to just how depraved and twisted this place is. They leave behind good jobs, with good prospects, and find themselves teaching in an educational vacuum, desperately trying to cling on to the values they know to be true, but they dare not utter. Right away these people know they have entered an environment where knowledge is not just ignored but aggressively attacked. It is a place where black can be white, where sometimes two plus two does equal five and where it can be considered just too damn dangerous to have fire drills.

In ten years I have seen many different types of teachers pass through schools, I’ve seen a few passed out in classrooms too. At first being an expat and working in a school was weird, it was like mixing the most mind bending twisted holiday at night, with a responsible job during daylight hours. Needless to say such compartmentalization of these two disparate worlds was not always possible. On one occasion I recall a teacher turning up for work at three o’clock in the afternoon because they had an appointment with the principal about the renewal of his contract. Exactly when he’d started drinking and if indeed he had actually stopped, it was impossible to tell, he had to look for work elsewhere.  Ten years ago you were unlikely to find a teacher sober before lunchtime, indeed you would be lucky to find many teachers in school prior to lunchtime. A decade ago you could and did do anything, drinking until three in the morning when you started teaching at eight was nothing unusual.

Times have changed, things have become more serious. Maybe I’ve just changed and become sober.

Globalization, Indoctrination and Linguistic Imperialism

Why is there such a need for English to be taught around the world? Why is English the lingua franca? Why is it  that these countries must have native English speakers teaching their children, after all when I learned French I did so from an English person? Could it be that it is all bullshit?

There has been a long held belief that a western education is better. In turn there is that western teachers must also be better. These are beliefs that are consistently reinforced through linguistic imperialism,  defined as:

the dominance asserted and retained by the establishment and continuous reconstitution of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages.

Phillipson, Robert (1992), p 47.

English is the language of capitalism and a vital tool of the global hegemony. The ceaseless reinforcement of the importance of the English language through the pervasive international marketing of American brands, and rhetoric used by institutions like the British Council. English is accepted by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as the common language. It is reasonable to expect that in a world of such international trade that there must be a common language, in this case English, but that in no way means that native English speaking countries provide the best education nor necessarily the best teachers to teach the English language.

Last years report by the  Organization for Economic and Cultural Diversity (OECD) showed how these five countries fared against one another:

   

Literacy Maths Science
Singapore 3 2 3
Japan 4 7 4
Korea 5 5 7
United Kingdom 23 26 21
United States 24 36 28

For the full list see the link below:                     

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/leaguetables/10488555/OECD-education-report-subject-results-in-full.html

Obviously these results  are unflattering to the two major English speaking countries, even more so when you consider that Singapore’s language of instruction is English and they severely out performed both the United States and the United Kingdom in literacy. This raises the question would Singaporean English teachers be more effective teachers of English to Southeast Asian children? Simply the answer is yes but they would command huge salaries.

So why are native English speaking teachers still in so much demand throughout Southeast Asia? There remains a belief, that still carries some truth, that a degree from the west is of greater value than a degree from a Southeast Asian country. Whilst this may be true the only thing that prevents Southeast Asian students from getting a degree from a western university is the cash. Nowadays having the financial resources is more important than having the academic ability. Western Universities are run like businesses and they charge a premium for foreign students. This brings us back to where we started and Socrates refusing to be paid as knowledge should not only be given to those that can afford it. Truth be told though no knowledge has to be given, nor often is, just a degree certificate that proved you paid to attend a university for three years.

Education, in particular English Language education in foreign countries has become an industry, which feeds off of, and reinforces the beliefs of linguistic imperialism. What must be held as most important is what a student is capable of learning, not what language they are capable of learning it in.

The truth is nobody but the students should profit from education.

Looking upon my 10 years in Southeast Asia I can state categorically that Linguistic imperialism rocks, it has allowed me to live for a decade, the first half of which was spent indulging in such hedonistic debauchery it would have made Nero blush, comfortably in Southeast Asia. Yes there might be some moral questions that remain unanswered, but so long as I’m alright I’ll just keep turning a blind eye and a deaf ear.

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Will Mockingjay be the Catalyst that Brings the Downfall of Thailand’s Military Junta?

prayuthdistrictthaiThere can be little doubt that Thailand is one of the stranger places in a world that finds itself rapidly descending into madness. Thailand seems to embrace and internalize this trend for global psychosis faster and easier than your average nation. The opinions of your average Thai person are subject to change more often than a bar girls underpants.

prayuth

General Prayuth is learning the hard way. Historically coups have been successful in Thailand, but in the digital age of the internet and mobile phones a dictator is open to scrutiny and ridicule like never before.

One idea that is  fashionable with the youth of the country today, is drawing a parallel between their current military dictatorship and the book, movie franchise, ‘The Hunger Games’. Let me start of by saying both are utterly ineffective at what they aim to do. Suzanne Collins’ trilogy is a banal and disappointing effort that jumped on the zeitgeist of the dystopian novel bandwagon. It promises much but leaves you feeling cheated and unfulfilled. It is possible to say exactly the same about Thailand’s current cabaret act of a government. General Prayud is a leader demanding the respect of his nation. No doubt he has been used to receiving respect in the army as a senior ranking officer, but unfortunately for him he is quickly learning that having been given no mandate to rule leaves him vulnerable to ridicule. When he swept to power sat astride the barrel of a tank, he had all the buoyant, optimistic enthusiasm of any other megalomaniac. But, time is starting to take its toll as each day he starts to realize the authority he enjoyed inside the walls of a barracks falls on less receptive ears in the streets and paddy fields. Today he cuts a somewhat diminutive figure and is often shown on the news shuffling around like a clown at the end of another laughless day.

A turbulent year for Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar, death of a colleague, her naked pictures made public around the world and now the figure head of an actual rebellion.

A turbulent year for Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar, death of a colleague, her naked pictures made public around the world and now the figure head of an actual rebellion.

And it is there that any similarities between the books and Thailand really end, both of them promised to deliver great entertainment but instead left the public feeling disappointed and ashamed of themselves for having fallen for what amounts to little more than a cheap marketing campaign.

The anti coup activists have hijacked the movie for two reasons. Firstly the movie presents a barbaric, oppressive, totalitarian government and secondly they have no sense of proportion. Yes General Prayuth is a dictator who seized power undemocratically via a military coup. To the best of my knowledge he has yet to force large areas of Thailand into borderline starvation, in fact I’ve actually put on weight since the coup nor has he started to hold bizarre competitions that require children to slaughter one another. I know it’s still early days but I’m still hopeful that he is not capable of such barbarism.

Thaialnd Hunger Games

A protestor using the three fingered (District 12) salute, from a protest back in June 2014.

The release of the first part of what is the final book in the trilogy, does however pose a real threat to the Junta. In a digital world ideas and fads spread fast, maybe even more so if it’s a shallow fad based on a bad idea. Through mass communications popular culture can quickly become an irrepressible storm surge of ill informed opinion, created by the most brutish and banal elements of a society (in this case Hollywood). The Hunger Games were poor books with a facile message and the movies are certainly no better, but they appeal to the masses who have drawn this crude link between the struggles of the story’s heroine Katniss Everdeen, and their situation of living under an undemocratic ruling military government. The accuracy of how well the story reflects Thailand’s circumstances is no longer of importance, what matters is that the Thai people have a symbol under which they have found an identity and can unify, a symbol that represents their decision not to conform. Only a fool underestimates the strength of symbols and their ability to galvanize the masses, history is so full of examples that there is no need nor time to develop this truism.The three fingered salute, a reference to District 12 the home of Katniss, symbolizes a struggle against oppression. Whether the Thai people are really suffering oppression right now is a moot point. It’s true that the military coup took the only thing of any value, a constitutional right to vote, that some Thais have, and it’s difficult to find a sense of justice in that. The General and his military circus are taking this threat seriously though, the three fingered salute was banned at the beginning of June, but, all this has really done is to add to its mystique and to its power as a cultural symbol. Should the army really crack down on dissidents using the three fingered salute, there is perhaps an even more appropriate salute that requires the use of two less fingers.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/03/hunger-games-salute-banned-thailand

prayuth kku

Not everyone is always thrilled to see The General.

A measure of the General’s hubris was witnessed yesterday, when it was somewhat optimistically decided that it would be good idea to go and make friends with the people of Isaan, in the northeast of Thailand. Isaan is a notorious stronghold of the Thaksin family, the family responsible for much of this mess as a result of their populist policies, and when the General began his speech at Khon Kaen University four (according to The Bangkok Post) or five (according to CNN) anti – coup protestors gave him the three fingered salute. They were quickly detained and will face a charge of breaking martial law.

http://edition.cnn.com/2014/11/19/world/asia/thailand-hunger-games-salute/

http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/politics/444222/prayut-greeted-in-northeast-by-student-protest

With the movie due for release today there are a growing number of news websites reporting that the film is being pulled. Such a course of action only highlights the desperation and fragility of the Junta’s position. Any government that feels so threatened by a facile piece of popular entertainment is clearly without a strong mandate to lead a country. That is saying nothing about the flagrant use of censorship and manipulation of the media they feel is needed to maintain their position.

Time                                                                                  https://time.com/3596616/thailand-prayuth-chan-ocha-cinemas-students-arrested/

CBC                                                                                       http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/hunger-games-screenings-cancelled-in-thailand-after-protesters-use-3-finger-salute-1.2840381

Interesting though it is, that popular culture and mass media are able to unsettle a country, what is worrying is the quality of the material that has provided the motivation and how this might be manipulated in the future.

Insofar as Thailand is concerned, none of this matters. If over time the governments of Thailand have conclusively proved one thing it’s that they have no idea what they are doing. It really makes no difference who you put in charge of messing things up. The brilliant mind of Carl Sagan perhaps says it best:

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

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Democracy Dies in Thailand but Few Seem to Mourn its Passing

 

Peace

When the Thai government (junta) wish to keep its people informed of their latest hair brained scheme, they introduce themselves by hijacking all the channels and putting this on the screens for five minutes before the unveiling of their newest master plan.

The “death of democracy” has not left much of a vacuum in Thailand. It was more like the death of somebody’s old uncle, whose name had been familiar in the household for many years, but who died, where he had always lived, in some far-off town the family never quite got around to visiting — although they had always meant to, or at least that’s what they said.

If there is one profound reality in Thai politics it is the fact that this country has absolutely no democratic tradition, and any attempt to introduce one is going to meet violent opposition. The people who need democracy don’t even know what the word means; the people who know what it means don’t need it and they don’t mind saying so. If the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council (NCPO) requires that democracy in Thailand become a fact instead of just a pleasant word, then the Council is in for rough sledding too, which is the reason why it’s not on their agenda.

This is the basis of the current “misunderstanding” between Washington and Bangkok. If the Thai people were as concerned about democracy as is President Obama, this country would right now be in the throes of a violent civil war. What happened in Bangkok during May 2014 was more than enough to touch off armed conflict in many countries of the world, but democracy has never been a reality in Thailand, and for that reason it goes largely unmourned; especially in Bangkok, which strongly supported the return of a military government in order to replace the democratically elected Yingluck Shinawatra.

On May 22, an un-elected military government issued a Decree-Law, assuming all executive and legislative powers, and Thailand passed officially into the hands of the military.

It requires little guesswork, however, to see what this trend means for the for the future of democracy in South East Asia. The outlook is dreary at best, and as the pressure from Washington mounts the reaction will mount just as fast.

Even so, after all these months of tension, all the space devoted in newspapers to the NCPO’s efforts to restore peace, a visitor to Bangkok arrives with a feeling that there is bound to be some evidence that the whole thing was a bust — that it was all a put-up job, because the Armed Forces did exactly what they said they were going to do all along.

When the Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party won Thailand’s last election, the military called it a “fraud,” and following protests in the capitol, they took over the government, annulled what was undeniably as honest and as fraudulent election in Thailand’s history, and installed a four-man junta that is a military dictatorship no matter which way you look at it.

Yet life goes on in Bangkok as if nothing had happened. The evening streets are full of pretty girls and slick-haired men in business suits, the western tourists walk the streets with an air of unspoken adventure, noodle vendors serve their customers on the tables and chairs that clutter the pavement along Sukhumvitt Road, and the soft rustle of money changing hands as another prostitutes bar fine has been successfully negotiated, and the all the bars sound as if their frenzied Sang-Som-swilling patrons have abandoned all hope of ever seeing another dawn.

This is Bangkok, democracy or no democracy, dictators or no dictators. The city is full of people, in fact, who say that what happened is precisely nothing at all. They point out that the people in power now are those who have always been in power and that those faces on the outside, looking in, are the same faces that have been there for as long as anyone in Thailand can remember. It is foolish, they say, to talk about the Junta “seizing the reins,” because the Junta is nothing more than a dress-uniform version of the same power bloc that has held the reins for centuries.

It is only in times of crisis that it puts on the jackboots and goes into the street with truncheons. In times of peace it wears mufti and busies itself with other, less militant pursuits — primarily that of maintaining itself in the style to which it has long been accustomed. It is as old as the Incas and every bit as ruthless with opposition. Its counterpart in the U.S. has been labelled The Power Elite. In Thailand it is called the Forty Families, an all-powerful aristocracy that makes its North American cousin look weak and tame by comparison.

One Bangkok-based American businessman explained. “You just can’t have democracy here. The people don’t understand it. Thaksin was the same way: he went out to the rice fields and sat down with the common people — I saw him myself, with his feet propped up on the rail and the top of his hose showing — why, they thought he was crazy. It was absolutely incomprehensible, even to the people he was trying to make friends with. If you want to get anywhere here, you have to make people respect you.”

However sad a commentary that may be on a lot of things — American businessmen included — it is sadder still because there is a lot of truth in it. From the beginning of their history the Thai people have been conditioned to understand that these are the only two kinds of human beings in this world — the Ins and the Outs, and a vast gulf in between.

The strange assumption in Bangkok’s business community — Americans and Thai’s alike — is that President Obama would join them in their endorsement of The System in Thailand “if he could only understand it.” Their most common criticism of the west is that they try to force-feed democracy to a people who had not the faintest idea what democracy is, Afghanistan and Iraq being most commonly mentioned.

‘To the humble, to the forgotten farmer, to the worker, to the voter who has been deprived in many cases of the elementary social, economic and cultural benefits, it is now being attempted to take from him also his only hope — that of gaining the progress and social justice he deserves, to wipe out his liberty to vote with accusations of fraud.

What is more than obvious in Bangkok that the biggest fraud in the whole affair was the military’s attempt to explain and justify the coup. It is hard to find anyone who seriously believes they took over because of “a great electoral fraud which nullified .” The February 2014 election was made invalid by supporters of the minority Democratic party barricaded polling stations preventing people from exercising their constitutional right to vote.  A month prior to the election the Democratic party withdrew in an attempt to discredit the validity of the vote, even though it was obvious to anyone that the Democratic Party had absolutely no chance of winning the election.  Essentially this left only one party on the ballot paper and Pheu Thai were re-elected.

The Junta has not committed to schedule new elections but they have stated that they will not happen before September 2015, but the only people in Bangkok who seem to believe it are taxi drivers, hotel clerks and a varied assortment of small jobholders who supported the coup of 2006. In the circle most heartily in agreement with the takeover — namely, the wealthy business owners, Bangkok elite and finance community — the betting is against elections next year. “These boys are in to stay,” said the president of a U.S. businessmen’s society. “Once they get the taste of sugar on their tongues they’re not going to give it up.”

“Let’s be smart about it,” he added. “The rich people are running this country. They’re running the country back home. Why not face facts and be thankful for what stability we have? These people are anti-Communist. Let’s recognize the Junta, keep the aid flowing, and get on with it.” He smiled indulgently.

Nearly everybody who wears a tie in Bangkok feels the same way. For the Bangkok elite business is good in Thailand and the vested interests want to keep it that way. Even the taxi driver, who is making a good living because there are enough people on the streets with money in their pockets, does not particularly care who the prime minister is just so long as they don’t upset the economic apple cart.

This is what almost happened. Pheu Thai, the red shirts were far more than just another political party; it posed a genuine threat to a way of life that was established over 700 years before the U.S. was born. To say that the takeover came simply because of this longstanding feud with Pheu Thai is to gloss over the fact that the entire ruling class in Thailand regards Pheu Thai as more dangerous than communism, more dangerous even than a cohort of literate rice farmers.

Pheu Thai, primarily because of its appeal to the millions of voteless, poorly educated citizens, is by long odds still the main threat to Thailand’s status quo. At the moment, the party is still reeling from the jolt of having its election victory annulled and many of its members arrested by the military after the coup. As such, to date they have received next to no media exposure, but even if the public have forgotten them, it will take little to refresh their memory when the date of the next election is set. And when that time comes Pheu Thai will reemerge from out of the political shadows, like a child molester locked inside an orphanage. Pheu Thai propose to represent the interests of the average poor, illiterate Thai citizen, unfortunately for the elite, the poor, illiterate Thai citizen represents a majority, making them a formidable voice at election time. A society with such a disparate allocation of wealth is always going to struggle to run a democracy, but in all honesty as long as the alcohol prices stay low enough, the masses might still be appeased.

This is based on an article written by Hunter S Thompson whilst on hunterpica visit to Peru in February 1969. I was struck by how accurately the situation he reported on mirrored the situation in Thailand and I wondered what Dr. Thompson would make of it. I hope what I have done offends neither the people of Thailand nor the memory of Dr. Thompson. Essentially all I have done is substitute the words Peru and Lima, for Thailand and Bangkok, as well as any other conflicting pronouns specific to Peru’s situation in 1968 for the main protagonists of the Thai situation. The circumstances I have endeavored to leave as closely as to how they were originally described by Dr. Thompson.

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