Cutting Funding 4 English Lessons: A False Economy says Alan Tuckett (and Thomas Baker)

Muslim women who have English lessons at the Wapping Women's Centre in east London, with Perdy Patterson (left), Esol lecturer. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

Source: Alan Tuckett
The Guardian, Tuesday 26 April 2011

“Cutting funding for English lessons is a false economy. Britain’s poorest communities have been helped by ESOL classes, but many will now lose out”, says Alan Tuckett.

Thomas Baker: “ESOL means, English for Speakers of Other Languages. Generally speaking, we’re talking about immigrants. Immigration to a foreign country brings linguistic challenges with it. I know this, personally, because I have been an immigrant in two foreign countries. As a matter of fact, I’m an immigrant right now.

The song by Sting, “I’m an Alien in New York”, comes to mind. In the song, a British guy goes through culture shock. Even though the person in the song speaks English, it’s the wrong kind of English.

Wrong terms, wrong pronunciation, wrong cultural background makes life in New York quite frustrating, as Sting’s song testifies to.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the immigrant experience is the inability to express oneself in the language of the land. As a result, it makes employment quite difficult. At least, the kind of employment that means earning a decent salary and having a comfortable standard of living.

Allow me a reminiscence.

After a ten-year stint in the military, I decided to study nursing: in Germany. My level of Basic Interpersonal German was quite high, owing to 2 tours of duty in Bavaria. So I was confident of success when I began my studies. The language would not be a barrier.

How wrong I was. Academic German was another language entirely, and for the first 6 months of my studies, I struggled. Only sheer determination and will to achieve my goals kept me coming back to class, day after frustrating day. My reality was clear, however. If I couldn’t learn the academic German that I needed for a career in the medical profession, then my lifetime employment prospects (and earning potential) in Germany were non-extistent.

So, with visions of Mcdonald’s haunting my dreams, I persevered. I simply kept coming back, spurred on by the frightening certainty that my future absolutely depended on my ability to master Academic German. If I failed, McDonald’s or something similar, would be my only hope for employment. McDonald’s or some other form of low-paying employment simply was the greatest motivator possible for me.

Also, adding fuel to the furious fires of my linguistic determination was the fact that I had just walked away from a very successful military career. Failure simply was not an option. I studied day and night, took extra courses at the “Volkshochschule”, or adult education center, and the tide turned.

One day, sitting in class, at around the 6-month point into my training, I realized that I had done it. Like magic, I was understanding everything, every single word that was being spoken, in German. Only it wasn’t magic. It was hard work, and now the fruits of my labor were evident.

A look at my notes confirmed my victory. Everything, every single paragraph, every single word I had written in my notes, was in German.

From that point forward, my education was remarkably worry-free. The linguistic challenge, learning a language in order to open the doors of cultural and economic opportunity, had been achieved.

Dear reader(s), as you can imagine, that is one of the sweetest memories I have in relation to learning a second language. The sweet taste of success, the thrill of achieving an incredibly high-level of competency in German, is absolutely worth everything it took to achieve it.

Tthere was pain, emotional and economic. There was frustration and fear, at one of the highest levels a human being can experience. The Germans call it, “Existenz-Angst”. That’s fear of not being able to provide for your own existence. We’re talking the basics here: food, clothing, and shelter.

Failure, under those circumstances, simply could not be tolerated. There are those who would say my motivation was intrinsic, that my perseverance in the face of apparently unsurmountable obstacles was purely instrumental.

You see, the German language was my key to open the doors of economic opportunity. In this sense, it was a tool, from which my determination is easily explained.

Now I return to where I began, and the full impact of cutting funding for English lessons is maybe more transparent now. It is clear that without access to funds, to pay for the teachers, to pay for the books, and to pay for all the resources required to learn a language successfully, then failure to learn English is almost assured for an immigrant.

After ten years of teaching English as a foreign language, I have come to see English for what it is: an incredibly difficult language to learn at a high level.

Even the student who apparently learns effortlessly has to make the effort to engage in the study of the language. Putting a book under your pillow simply isn’t enough. In fact it doesn’t work.

Trust me, I tried that with German. I was desperate. However, the magic trick was an increased level of exposure, an increased level of engagement, consciously, on my part. Effort. Hard work. Consistently and continuously, day in and day out. That’s the magic formula, the untold secret.

And lest we forget, I was living in Germany, surrounded 24/7 by the language. I already had a good command of interpersonal German, and it still required even more effort, over a period of 6 months, before I “owned” German. In the end, I made the language so much a part of me, that often I knew how to say things in German, but was unable to translate back to my native English.

This is precisely the story that no student really wants to hear, namely, that learning a language, English, actually requires effort, extensively, consistently, consciously, over a long period of time.

It appears also that politicians also don’t want to hear this story. If funds are being cut for English lessons, then effectively it means an increase of those on the poverty rolls. That’s poor people.

What country can afford more poor people? None, not this one, not that one, none.

Instead of people living dignified lives, with the power to provide for their own economic needs, society is asked to run the risk, to bear the burden, of paying for those who live in the country, but do not have sufficient command of the language to provide for themselves.

As we all know, society at large picks up the tab. That’s you and me, paying for someone, who, had they learned the language of the land, could do this for themselves.

If you ask me for evidence, or proof, of my claims related to language deficiency and poverty, I have none. I have no facts, no figures, no numbers, no specific cases.

My only source is myself, an immigrant. There are those who would say that my story, and my experience, is sufficient proof.

All I have to offer you is the immigrant’s story, my true story, told from the depths of my own suffering, of the dark nightmarish images of possible economic insufficiency, and the knowledge of the absolute need for ESOL classes for those who need more than the ability to say, “Guten Tag”, or “Bon Jour”, or “Good Morning”.

For an ESOL learner, the streets aren’t enough, TV doesn’t have enough movies, the radio doesn’t have enough songs, and the newspaper doesn’t have enough words to magically, “pick up”, the language, as though it could be achieved by osmosis.

What is necessary to learn a language? The teacher, in my humble opinion, is indispensable. Whatever the funds that must ne invested, I assure you that the return on investment, in the long run, is high, quite high, one factors human dignity into the equation, and when one factors in a reduced burden on the public pocketbook (taxes).

Actually, it’s quite easily summed up in this phrase: Pay now, or pay later.

In any English speaking country, cutting funds for English lessons, is quite simply, a false economy…

About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
This entry was posted in Connectivism, Culture, Debates, Education, Education Technology, EFL, Interviews, Politics, Reflections, Teaching Tips and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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