English Now the Foreign Language of Schools Abroad

By Mary Ann Zehr & Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 11, 2006 14 min read
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On a typical weekday morning, many of the subway riders in Pusan, South Korea, can be found with English dictionaries and textbooks in hand as they squeeze in some studying before work.

In the afternoons, many children go from school to English lessons provided by private companies or tutors, for which their parents pay hundreds of dollars a month. Soon, several new English-immersion villages, some sponsored by the government, will open for intensive and extended instruction for middle school students.

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A similar trend is occurring in China and Japan, where school officials and private companies are struggling to meet the rapidly growing demand for English instruction for children, teenagers, and adults.

English is hot in Asia, experts say, as China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand promote the language as an essential skill for improving their nations’ competitiveness in the global economy.

The language is also becoming a greater priority for nations in Africa, the Middle East, South America, and Europe, as leaders work to shore up prospects for international commerce and diplomacy. But as the trend accelerates, so too has debate over the value of English in a global society, its strong historical connection to imperialism, and the monolingualism to which English-only countries steadfastly cling at the risk of losing their share of the world marketplace.

“We’re sure that this is necessary to be competitive globally. Our students are beginning to find jobs out of country; our companies are becoming very competitive globally,” said Joseph Jung, a professor of English and international studies at Dongseo University in Pusan. “We live in this global society where we can travel from one place to another in a day, so communication has to be there in order to be competitive. And English is the communication method in a global village.”

Many countries, including Korea, are beefing up English classes for students as young as 6, recruiting native speakers of the language to teach in primary schools, and using technology to expand offerings and help students build proficiency. But the quality, frequency, and consistency of the instruction, as well as the instructional methods employed, vary widely around the globe and even within countries.

While advocates of English teaching and foreign-language study praise the increasing attention to such programs, concern is widespread that the efforts are piecemeal or haphazard, or a fad that will wane with changes in government leadership. The greatest concern, they say, is in the quality and quantity of teachers to carry out those efforts.

“Everyone sees a need and urgency to set up English programs, but nobody has figured out how to do it in an efficient way,” said Paul Robertson, the founder of AsianEFL Journal, a publication for teachers of English in Asia. Mr. Robertson has taught English in Korea, China, and Europe. “The public system is haphazard, and the private sector is totally unregulated,” he said.

Beyond the Elite

Those concerns are surfacing in other regions of the world, such as Latin America and the Middle East, where the elite for decades have sent their children to private schools that turn out youths who speak English in addition to their native languages. Now, with many countries in those regions expanding English instruction, the demand is outpacing the availability of well-trained teachers.

In Chile, for example, a 1998 policy change required that English instruction in government schools start in 5th grade instead of 7th. Without an adequate pool of qualified teachers, however, the measure has not been implemented well, some observers say. Many teachers of English at the primary level, for example, don’t know much—if any—English, according to Andrew Sheehan, who advises the Education Ministry in Chile on its English program.

“There are many people so-called teaching English in 5th grade who were French teachers,” he said.

The Chilean ministry has begun a massive professional-development push to improve the situation. It is subsidizing the cost of teachers to take a 200-hour course in which they improve their English skills and also update their teaching methods, Mr. Sheehan said.

Throughout Latin America, and in other parts of the world where other languages dominate, advocates of English learning say expanding programs can equalize opportunities for disadvantaged students.

Picking Up English
Unlike in the United States, many countries require students to learn a second language. Often that language is English.
Argentina China Czech Republic
Students must take two hours of English each week from 4th grade through secondary school. Prior to 1998, foreign-language study was required only at the secondary level, and students could choose French or English. In 2001, China mandated English learning
beginning in grade 3. Many schools,
particularly in urban areas, begin English
instruction in 1st grade. Some rural areas are still working to meet the mandate.
Students are required to learn two languages,
generally English and German, beginning at
age 9. Teacher-training departments have
recently been established to prepare foreign language

In the Middle East, English study has long been standard, beginning as early as 1st grade, for children in private schools, a luxury beyond the means of most parents.

Over the past several years, governments there have been updating the curricula in public schools to provide more English. They also have struggled to train enough teachers for the task.

In 1998, for example, the Palestinian National Authority moved English coursework from 5th grade to 1st, according to Tina Rafidi, who works for the Washington-based American-Mideast Educational and Training Services Inc., or AMIDEAST, in the West Bank and Gaza, which are controlled by Israel.

“English is becoming an international language that is used worldwide and is not a luxury but a necessity,” Ms. Rafidi wrote in an e-mail, in explaining the policy change.

During the Palestinian uprising of the late 1980s, some Palestinian students stopped studying English “for nationalistic reasons,” said Nubar Hovsepian, an associate professor of political science and international studies at Chapman University, in Orange, Calif., who has researched primary and secondary education in the Palestinian territories.

Now the tide has changed. Jordan, Qatar, and Syria have also begun to require that children start learning English in 1st grade rather than in middle school—policies that Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates adopted long ago. And Saudi Arabia is slowly following suit in teaching English at earlier ages.

Still, resources are an issue.

“The shortage of English teachers is a serious problem, and the cost [of materials] is another problem,” Reima Al-Jarf, a professor of English in the College of Languages and Translation at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, wrote in an e-mail. That country last year moved English learning down a level to 6th grade. “Teachers are underqualified and not trained as English teachers. Many make mistakes, books are too easy, and the standards for passing English courses are easy, too,” she said.

Officials in India, where English learning has long been a standard of the well-educated, have been debating whether to offer English classes beginning in 1st grade, two years earlier than the current practice. Parent groups and scholars have clashed over whether additional English instruction would equalize opportunities for impoverished students or hinder native- language instruction.

India is now one of the primary locations to which international businesses outsource technical and service operations because of the high-level math and technology skills—and English proficiency—of Indian citizens.

Shucking Off Colonialism

Leaders in other countries are also weighing whether too much of a focus on European languages—the languages of colonizers—can undermine the use of native languages.

A number of African countries —Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda—colonized by the British use English as the medium of instruction.

But Tanzania has chosen Kiswahili as the official language of instruction in primary schools, with English taught as a required subject at that level and used as the medium of instruction for secondary and postsecondary education.

“We thought it was better having a common [African] language unifying us, rather than a foreign language unifying us,” said Joseph Sokoine, an official at the Tanzanian Embassy in Washington.

Some Tanzanians would like to see Kiswahili replace English as the language of instruction in secondary school and universities as well, he said. “But it’s an uphill battle,” Mr. Sokoine said, “because you have to translate all those books.”

Black South Africans are also of mixed minds about how much to emphasize indigenous languages vs. English, said Palesa T. Tyobeka, the deputy director general for general education and training in the country’s Department of Education.

In 1997, several years after the end of apartheid, the government elevated nine indigenous languages to the same official status as English and Afrikaans, the language of South Africa’s Dutch colonists. Schools can use any one of the official languages as the medium of instruction. Starting in the 1st grade, a second approved language must also be taught.

Even though the government is trying to promote the use of indigenous languages at the primary level, Ms. Tyobeka said, parents often choose English.

“It isn’t a looking down on your own languages,” she said. “It’s a recognition that English is an international language, and people are feeling hungry for doors to open more widely than they have up to now.”

That is also the prevailing viewpoint in Asia, where millions of children are now studying English from the early grades.

In South Korea, government-sponsored villages for immersion English instruction for middle school students are expected to open this year to improve spoken and written skills in the language and prepare students for more-advanced study in high school.

English education in Japan’s government schools has traditionally begun in the 7th grade, junior high school. But a new policy will require lessons in elementary school as well. Since Japan adjusted its national curriculum in 2002, English has already become standard in the lower grades. More than nine in 10 elementary schools have English programs, most of them beginning in the 1st grade, according to Hiroshi Kamiyo, the supervisor for social education for the Japanese Education Ministry. But those students can spend as little as a few hours each year learning the language.

And just as the United States is heeding the importance of China in the global economy—and the need for American students to acquire Chinese-language skills—China has boosted its academic requirements in English.

The language is now a required course, beginning in 3rd grade. While some rural areas are struggling to meet the mandate, some city schools have established such classes as early as 1st grade, according to the British Council, a London-based international organization that promotes educational opportunity and cultural relations.

According to a recent council report, more people are learning English in China than in any other nation.

Those three Asian nations are competing for teachers for English classes, luring applicants primarily from Australia, Canada, and the United States to teach classes and serve as linguistic role models. Japan tends to offer higher wages and better working conditions to teachers in its long-standing JET, or Japanese Exchange and Teaching, program.

China and Japan are hoping to train their own corps of English teachers through policies that pay for high school and college students to study abroad and perfect their language skills in English-speaking countries. Those initiatives, however, are expected to take years before they yield strong teaching forces.

European Sentiments

Countries in Europe have both collectively and individually taken on the issue. The European Union, a coalition of 25 countries, has 20 official languages, a number that is expected to grow as other nations join.

About 16 percent of the EU population speaks English as their native language, and 89 percent of students in the union learn English as a foreign language, according to a report last fall by the Commission of the European Communities. The EU organizing body has identified language learning as a critical priority for the “mutilingual institution,” according to official documents.

As a result, there has been marked progress in language learning in the past few years. In a survey last year by Eurobarometer, conducted by the EU, 56 percent of citizens in the union’s member countries could have a conversation in a language other than their native tongues, and more than a fourth of those surveyed were somewhat proficient in two other languages. Some 40 percent of those who speak other native languages can hold a conversation in English.

“We have a strong language policy to which all nations are agreeing to the fact that [multilingualism] is very important,” said Mary Kavanagh, an education adviser with the European Union delegation to the United States. “All the member nations are really focusing on teaching languages from an early age.”

Not all Europeans hold such sentiments, though. A proposal to mandate English learning in France started a firestorm more than a year ago, according to news reports, with critics citing the need for French students to learn other languages instead, including Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese—those also deemed critical in the United States.

“English is the most-spoken language today, but that won’t last,” Jacques Myard, an official from the ruling UMP party, told The Australian, a national newspaper in Sydney, at the time.

Nevertheless, nearly all students in France choose to study English in school.

‘English Is Not Enough’

Some analysts say that even as other countries are ramping up English learning, the need for native English-speakers to learn other languages is more urgent than ever. In a report released this past winter by the British Council, David Graddol, a British linguist, argues that English-only speakers “face a bleak economic future” because of increasing multilingualism in countries that are aspiring to be serious competitors in international business.

“The competitive advantage which English has historically provided its acquirers (personally, organizationally, and nationally) will ebb away as English becomes a near-universal basic skill,” says the report, “English Next.”

“The need to maintain the advantage by moving beyond English,” it says, “will be felt more acutely.”

In many countries, moreover, other languages, especially Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, “have become sufficiently important to be influencing national policy priorities,” the report says. Mandarin, it continues, “has emerged as the new must-have language.”

For now, though, the demand for English programs and teachers is growing at a rapid clip. English proficiency, Mr. Graddol writes, is a “key educational strategy in most countries,” and is considered a basic skill as opposed to a “foreign language” in many places.

He predicts that over the next 10 to 15 years, the number of people around the globe learning English could peak at some 2 billion, many of them in China and India. Some 175 million Chinese students were learning English in 2005, the report says. In Europe, nearly every country has reported in recent years increasing numbers of students learning English in the early grades, and it is often given priority as the “first foreign language” to be learned.

Even if English remains the dominant language of business and diplomacy for the foreseeable future, though, English-speakers and policymakers in their countries should not be complacent.

“The slogan ‘English is not enough’ applies as strongly to native speakers of English as for those who speak it as a second language,” Mr. Graddol concludes. “We are now nearing the end of the period where native speakers can bask in their privileged knowledge of the global lingua franca.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as English Now the Foreign Language of Schools Abroad


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