“at first naive, almost childlike”: Battles Rage in South Korea

South Korea is a country of rugged and unsurpassed beauty, covered with mountains, surrounded by seas. Its people are some of the warmest and most generous on earth. Its culture is ancient, refined, and filled with vitality. There is little crime here—cars are left untended and running, house doors unlocked, and goods out in the open. For a westerner, the way Koreans trust one another seems at first naive, almost childlike. Soon one realizes this is the way things should be. Spending a year in a country with its social fabric still largely intact is endlessly refreshing

Jalel Marti Sager, Transitionsabroad.com October 2009

The attack began at dawn today and lasted until late afternoon. Under a hail of metal bolts and stones from Ssangyong company thugs, liquid tear gas dropped from police helicopters, incessant loud music and an all-out assault by police commandos armed with steel pipes and taser guns, the occupying workers at the Ssangyong auto factory in Pyongtaek, South Korea, have held out for one more day.

Owen Miller in Seoul, Socialist Worker August 2009

Obviously one is struck by the enormous difference between the two accounts of South Korea. One account appearing on a website specialising in recruiting TEFL teachers for jobs abroad and the other, an eyewitness account of strike-busting, reported in the British Trotskyite weekly, Socialist Worker. We raise the difference between these two accounts because we want to make sense of the complex events occurring inside South Korea in relation to the recruitment and treatment of native speaking English teachers (NESTs). Treatment which appears to be a campaign of well-orchestrated discrimination and harassment of NESTS, a campaign which is not reported on the sites of TEFL recruitment agencies like Transitions Abroad, Cactus TEFL or English First but a deadly serious issue nevertheless. A campaign which involves constant media accusations of criminal activity and which has culminated in visiting teachers being subjected to HIV testing. We also raise these two accounts because in trying to make sense of these experiences, we are faced with either viewing them through the prism of “cultural differences” (as in the world of Transitions Abroad) or understanding these so-called cultural differences in the light of class, race and gender politics.

A History of Imperialist Domination

The first point to be made is that South Korea is a relatively recent fragile bourgeois democracy, it enjoyed considerable “military and economic support” from the US during the cold war and, in particular, America’s proxy war with China and the Soviet Union during the 50’s (there are still currently some 37,000 American US service men and women in South Korea).However, it has grown more economically advanced and the relationship between the two is undergoing changes. On the one hand, America wants a harder line against the North Korean government and a greater financial subsidy from them for its own occupying army and, on the other, there has been an increase in nationalism in South Korea, which wants the government to exercise more sovereignty over its domestic and foreign policy decisions. The decision of 30th October 2009 to resend troops to Afghanistan was clearly an attempt to appease its American allies in light of continuing disagreements between the two.

Indeed, history shows that American Imperialism (in its role as “defender” of Korean interests) has exercised an enormous influence over the Korean Peninsula. It was America which effectively sold Korea to the Japanese in 1905 in return for the unchallenged exploitation of the Philippines ( see Taft-Katsura Agreement) Moreover, having successfully provoked Japanese imperialism’s entry into the second world war and emphatically crushed it thereafter, the US was able to grab the South of the country in 1944. Unfortunately for the US, the leader of an insurgency against Japanese forces, Kim II Sung, supported by the Russians, had managed to establish himself as leader of the North. In 1950 (after failed negotiations over reunification) Sung led a reckless incursion into the South and was repelled by the combined forces of the US and South Korea. Hopes of advancing northwards, however, were effectively stopped by the entry of Chinese troops into the conflict. After three years and up to two million deaths later the war ended in stalemate, Korea remaining divided North and South, with Soviet and Chinese imperialism on the one side and American imperialism on the other.

The Economic Miracle.

From 1960 to 1990 South Korea was one of the four Asian Tiger economies (Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan being the others) and it had the second fastest growing economy in the world. It was what was termed a newly industrialized country, in that it had successfully industrialised and had shown itself capable of “competing” with more advanced nations, a fact which appeared to challenge Lenin’s theory of imperialism and Dependency Theories, which suggested all such countries were doomed to a life of poverty, providing only raw materials for the richer more advanced countries. Both views of course, were over-mechanistic and, Lenin’s view in particular, was that of a specific period in capitalist development. What cannot be denied, however, is that capitalism has established an international division of labour, whereby, countries “lower down the value chain”  generate profits which are realised elsewhere. We again return to our favoured example of Michael Jordan being paid more money to sponsor a sports shoe than the total sum of annual wages received by all the workers in Indonesia actually manufacturing the shoes for the world market. It cannot, and should not, be ignored, however, that certain states have enjoyed considerably more success than others at marshalling resources towards independent economic development. Indeed, this is part of the contradiction of capitalist development, despite its tendency towards the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, the need to generate new surplus involves capital opening up space for competitors (competitors who are not necessarily hampered by investment in out-dated technology or subject to organised class resistance). Of course, the unequal exercise of import and export quotas, the control of financial institutions like the IMF and the use of copyright etc are all used to maintain advantage for the advanced capitalist “core”. What has to be recognised in the case of the four Asian Tigers from the 1960’s to the 1990’s and China today, is that this domination is not total, rather it is partial and dependent on a number of complex geo-political factors.

If one ignores, for one moment, Immanuel Wallerstien’s obsession with Krondatieff cycles and merely considers them capital looking for investment opportunities in a time of low profits, we can agree with him when he says:

…………at first several zones compete vigorously to be the prime beneficiary of this relocation. But it is also normally the case that only one such zone is in fact able to do very well, since there is only so much production activity to relocate, and there are economic advantages for producers in concentrating the relocation in one area. The basic picture thus is one of opportunity for several zones, but great success for only one of them. I remind you that as recently as the 1970’s, when the term NIC’s was invented, most commentators listed four countries as the most significant examples: Mexico, Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan. But by the 1980’s, Mexico and Brazil began to be dropped from the list of examples, and in the 1990’s we hear talk only of “the rise of East Asia.” It is thus clear that it is East Asia that has been the great beneficiary of the geographical restructuring of this Kondratieff B-phase.

Of course, we must also explain why it is that East Asia was the great beneficiary rather than, say, Brazil or South Asia. Some scholars attribute the present rise of East Asia to its history over the past 500 years: either the Meiji Revolution, accounted for in turn by the commercial development of the Edo period (Kawakatsu Heita) or the China-centered tributary system (Takeshi Hamashita). However, it can be plausibly argued that, as of 1945, the economic situation of Brazil or South Asia was not in fact all that different from that of East Asia, and that therefore one could plausibly have expected either of them to have made a surge forward in the post-1945 world. The great difference between East Asia on the one hand and both Brazil and South Asia on the other was the geography of the Cold War. East Asia was on the front line and the other two were not. Hence the view of the United States was quite different. Japan was a very great economic beneficiary of the Korean War as well as of direct U.S. assistance. Both South Korea and Taiwan were supported (and indulged) economically, politically, and militarily for Cold War reasons. This difference in the 1945-70 period translated itself into the crucial advantage for the 1970- 1995 period.

By 1990 the rapid economic growth of South Korea had come to an end and it became enmeshed in the stagnation faced by other Asian economies, most notably Japan. Dependent on finance from the IMF to fund a struggling export driven economy, it faces a tough economic squeeze which brings it into conflict with a student and trade union movement which developed during more profitable periods. It is worth addressing these contradictions of South Korea in the world economy because, despite its “successes”, it still trails considerably behind its more advanced competitors and this helps explain why South Korea is still keen on attracting NESTs and why they, despite their lower levels of training, are paid not only more than local non-NEST teachers but more than many South Korean doctors. It is understanding these contradictions which will help guide us to a proper understanding of the problems faced by both NEST and non-NEST teachers in South Korea.

A Thin Veneer of Democracy.

In 1948, the American government recognised the new government of Synghman Rhee. The government was virulently anti-communist and trade unions were illegal. Indeed, South Korea was run by such an autocracy until 1960 when a burgeoning civil rights movement, composed of workers and students, toppled the government and brought about democratic reforms. Unfortunately, these reforms were short-lived as the government was overthrown by a military coup in 1963. In 1979 some semblance of democratic rights was restored but to a position prior to 1960 and not the legalisation of a left-wing opposition or independent trade unions. It was not until 1995 that anything resembling a modern bourgeois democracy was established. The new government took a less hostile attitude to North Korea, instigating a sunshine policy, but was also more avowedly nationalistic and not afraid of challenging certain aspects of American foreign policy (most notably the Iraq war). This new state nationalism, however, in its various manifestations is profoundly conservative with respect to the role of women. It also argues that trade unions should accept labour-market restructuring in order to build a strong independent Korea. When the behaviour of NESTs is spoken about in the Korean parliament it is precisely because politicians are attempting to construct a notion of Korean identity which suits the need of capital accumulation in a time of crisis. This nationalism, however, is not an imposition from the top but a cynical manipulation of years of resentment experienced by a people in an occupied country.

Anti-Foreigner Resentment.

Early anti-foreigner resentment was, not surprisingly, aimed at American Servicemen and women. In 2002 when two soldiers ran down two Korean schoolgirls on their way to school, despite apologies from the US government and compensation paid to the families, Koreans took to the streets to protest. Photographs of the girls’ battered bodies were posted on subway walls and one American soldier was stabbed to death by one particularly “aggrieved” citizen. It did not help that the two servicemen escaped punishment but clearly this is not the common response to a “traffic accident” but an outpouring of years of hostility to occupation and humiliation. For those accusing us of Anti-Americanism, we would remind people that we refer to the policies of consecutive American governments which supported right-wing governments on the basis that these tyrants served “American interests”. We are not referring to Americans in general whose own interests were not served by those same consecutive governments either.

Much of this anti-foreigner hostility now seems aimed at NESTs. First was the discovery that many teachers employed in local academies were “unqualified”. By this we mean that they did not have a university degree. Now there is an argument within TEFL as to whether teaching English as Foreign Language requires a university degree (especially as any degree, chemistry for example, seems adequate for those requesting such a qualification). One can see, however, that in a country where people study hard for many years to obtain qualifications, that they might resent people who complete a short four-week “training course” and have no other qualification to teach other than they were born in an English speaking country, actually being `paid to teach. This resentment is further compounded by the fact that such teachers can command a higher salary than those Koreans who have dedicated considerable years to their professional development. Again, this is not to dismiss the considerable qualifications and experience, not to mention knowledge of Korean language that many NESTs bring to their teaching, but to identify the roots of ill-feeling that certain Koreans (especially non-Nests) may harbour towards “foreign teachers”

The second “scandal” which has generated problems for NESTs is the appearance of “saucy photos” and “dating tips” on social networking forums and English Teacher websites. Despite the obvious puerility of such behaviour, as said before, state nationalism promotes a conservative view of Korean women, these pictures and discussions have been used to expose the “predatory nature of Westerners”. They have also been pretty disastrous for many Korean women involved but then again there is a long history of TEFL adventurous putting the reputations and lives of “friends” in foreign countries at risk.

It is against this background that the newspapers have run campaigns against NESTs arguing they are responsible for criminal activity and that their sexual predatory natures are putting the nation in danger. It is also little surprise therefore that the nationalist government feels able to insist that visitors undergo an HIV test before being granted contracts in schools, even though native Korean teachers are not subjected to the same rules.

NESTs have established a “union” ATEK (Association of Teachers of English in Korea) to campaign for NEST interests which has also been attacked vociferously in the media. Founding member, Tony Hellman, found himself subject to a particular campaign from nationalist “netizens” (people using the net to expose wrongdoings) and more conservative minded teachers who felt his campaign was making things worse for more established teachers. The intense public attacks (whether true or false) effectively silenced Hellman but ATEK, taking a markedly more moderate stance, continue to operate. What is clear is that ATEK made mistakes in its initial months, especially in its failure to canvass the opinion of more established (F1Visa) NESTs, but this does not mean political quietism is the solution.

Resistance Movements.

The future of NESTs in South Korea ultimately rests in its ability to garner support from the wider community. Like immigrants suffer in the countries from which NESTs originate, they too face marginal status. On the one hand offering economic benefits to parts of those societies but also providing an easy scapegoat for unprincipled politicians wanting to shift blame and focus which should rightly be placed on them onto others. Despite the essential role immigrants play in the American and British economies they are blamed for a lack of social cohesion; similarly we constantly here the words American jobs and British jobs for American and British workers. This marginalisation and fear makes it easier to exploit such workers.

Unfortunately, the trade union movement itself is facing its own problems in dealing with the Asain economic crisis and it resorts to conservative and nationalistic solutions. One of the problems of the trade union movement is that it is base on enterprise unionism rather than industrial unionism. Instead of confronting Capital it seeks to insinuate itself in its management problems (i.e. participating in human resources and investment committees) This how the Marxist economist Martin Hart-Landsberg puts it:

Union members are becoming increasingly isolated from the broader concerns of working people. The main reason is that unions in South Korea are enterprise unions. And, the degree of unionization is highly correlated with the size of the enterprise. While the largest workplaces, those employing over 1000 workers, make up only 2.7 percent of all unionized enterprises, workers employed at these enterprises make up 61.2 percent of all union members. Thus, most KCTU (Korean Confederation of TradeUnions) members are regular employees in the country’s largest manufacturing corporations. They therefore enjoy higher wages and better working conditions than most workers.


The enterprise system also works against the efforts of the KCTU to promote unionization at small and medium-sized workplaces. Workers at these enterprises do not have the resources, human or financial, to sustain active organizing campaigns or unions. The KCTU itself is unable to help. The federation has limited resources and the large member unions have been reluctant to share funds for activities that do not directly benefit their members.

This has had a particularly adverse affect on women, who have been particularly effected by the irregularisation of the labour market (non-permanent contracts rose from 42% in 1997 to 54% in 2005), and they have sought to build their own trade unions capable of representing women. Clearly what is needed, however, is a linking together of struggles across industries and gender to resist the neo-liberal onslaught. Of course, business owners are arguing that unless there is significant labour-market restructuring, they will relocate their factories to China. Only an approach rooted in the interests of the international working class can deliver any hope of self-determination as the bourgeois nationalist project is, and always will be, about curbing rights and aspirations and following models of other capitalist countries.

The Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union is a part of KCTU and it too has suffered reverses. Again while it cannot be criticised for developing political positions, in particular its policies towards North Korea, such politics will be undermined if it fails to organise rank and file resistance to the attacks its members are suffering. Indeed, its nationalistic turn has meant that members are easily and mechanically drawn towards witch-hunts against foreign teachers rather than seeking to work alongside them. The quality of a teacher should not be defined in terms of their nationality but the skills, experience and attributes they bring to the job. The linking of NESTs and Non-NESTs can only strengthen resistance.

Building Unity.

Whilst NESTs harbour feelings of cultural superiority or subscribe to views that America Foreign policy is benevolent to the Koreans they only alienate themselves further. Many NESTs already dissociate themselves from such propaganda and seek to help ordinary Koreans define themselves in a new ever-changing world. These NESTs have taken the time to learn the language and integrate themselves, where possible, with the local communities. For such teachers, Korea is not an adventure, or a blank page on which to write the next glorious history of International English, but an engagement with complex social forces which are transforming them as teachers and as human beings.

Such teachers need to work with the global resistance against TEFL adventurers (the new colonialists) who design and administer these rotten four week TEFL courses and dispatch the naive around the globe. They need to help counter the racist propaganda of Cactus TEFL and their ilk, who proudly display their Aryan soldiers clutching the globe and consuming countries. They need to say that TEFL is a career, that NESTs have got a role in foreign language teaching but only as qualified teachers with a grasp of local languages and working alongside local non-NEST teachers and the local education systems. In short, we need to stand side by side with those who are fighting for basic rights, those who are having tear gas poured on them by police helicopters and enduring attacks by paid company thugs rather than wrap ourselves in convenient myths of an exotic inexplicable other.



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11 responses to ““at first naive, almost childlike”: Battles Rage in South Korea

  1. alexcase

    “even though native Korean teachers are not subjected to the same rules”

    The way I understand it, ethnic Koreans who have foreign passports also don’t need to have a drugs or AIDS test in order to teach as they can come on a different visa

  2. marxistelf

    Thanks Alex for that further clarification. It appears that this new state nationalism in South Korea is one which reaches out to “Koreans” around the world. Despite the perpetrator of the Virginian Tech massacre, Seung Hui Cho, being a US permanent resident, having moved there aged 8, the South Korean media was particularly affected that “one of its own” could commit such a crime.
    This nationalism (sacred blood) would explain the inconsistencies in visa provision.

  3. Very interesting post Marxist Elf – thankyou. When I first moved to Greece, to get a teaching permit to work in a private language school I had to undergo various tests including HIV – this was not the same for Greek nationals. I tried to refuse on the grounds of human rights but my complaints feel on deaf ears and the school owner just responded to me as if I was being a giant pain in the…. Thankfully since then testing for STDs has been abolished and now teachers have to do a chest x-ray (for TB) and a urine test. TBH I am against any medical test to work in schools but at least the EU law on ethical testing meant the Greek authorities could no longer get away with STD testing. It is 100% discrimination to assume that someone coming from abroad is any more likely to be living with HIV, and outrageous to test for this in the teaching community or anywhere else. It is a form of institutionalised racism and I suspect sprang from the same horrible stereotypes as those you expose above which also (to a lesser degree) are present here. Totally agree with you that NESTs should consider it a responsibility to integrate into the local community and learn the language. People need to understand that the anti-NEST feelings that local people may have are partly a reaction to the fact that a British passport still buys people employment privilege globally.

    • marxistelf

      Hi Sara,
      Thanks for your comments, I had no idea such discriminatory practices against NESTs were/are practised in “Western Europe”. It would be interesting to hear from others about their experiences, whether they too have had to undergo discriminatory treatment in order to “teach abroad.”
      Also been thinking (considerably) about the expectations we might have of fellow teachers and how best to raise such issues politically. In the case of South Korea, ATEK, was attacked by long-stay teachers who thought ATEK were “rocking the boat”. For this, it may be preferable to use the term, “positive engagement” rather than “integration”. I think, we really do need to
      do that interview with you about “Birth Choices” because this seems an excellent example of positive engagement, not accepting the status quo but working with local communities to bring about positive change, not imposition but collaboration. Troy has an excellent article over at http://troyshouse.blogspot.com/2009/11/i-have-new-hero.html which tells the story of how a Finnish mother successfully challenged the use of morbid Christian iconography in the classroom. What we don’t know is whether she tried to work with local parents, community groups and trade unions in dealing with this issue. If she didn’t and decided to appeal directly to European powers, I believe such a case is not positive engagement.
      That people should learn the language is also a tricky issue. I definitely agree with you that it is generally advisable for all people staying in a country long term to learn the language(s) there. For me, however, I have seen too many vicious witchunts against Asian women and Turkish women in London, for not learning the language.
      I also like the fact that street signs in Brick Lane are in Bengali and English, and support the writing of street signs in Polish where the Polish community are numerous. This is not to promote ghettos, but to recognise the dynamics of community (I’m also in favour of street signs in Cornish).
      That said, NESTs should have a minimum grasp of the language where they teach in order to teach effectively. (being really prescriptive here but I don’t care) The fact that it will also empower them against unscrupulous Employers is also a bonus.
      The issue therefore is how can we restructure training to reflect the needs of our students (not the industry). If teachers think it’s okay to go to a country not speaking the language (they can learn it there) and with only four weeks teacher training (they can pick it up as they go along) behind them then they are only reflecting the nature of the industry. Such a view, in my opinion leads to a lower quality teaching product but clearly the NEST is more portable, able to travel the world and learn more languages and have more experiences. The problem is that such an approach institutionalises low-pay and lower standards.
      It’s not for Marxists to manage the industry. Indeed, I think most teachers are quite remarkable people, very self-reliant and capable of incredible learning (they have to be) and their diversity (ex-state school teachers, recent graduates, ex-nurses, tattoo artists etc) is also to be applauded. I wouldn’t want the job of trying to retain the positives whilst challenging the negatives. However, the industry is ripe for change and NESTs would be best served looking at how we can positively engage in communities rather than continue to allow such communities to be sold a lemon.

  4. Marxist Elf thanks for your further thoughts. To be clear, I do not think that a person travelling abroad to teach English (which generally means having to have access to at least some cultural, educational and economic capital) is the same as the communities you mention above arriving in Britain from the different countries. And I certainly wouldn’t wish you to think I am aligning myself with the “English only” movement as you suggest. I feel this is an over-generalisation in your economic analysis. What I am rallying against is the belief amongst some NEST globe trotters that it is OK to fly in and out of places without ever taking the time to get to know the communities around them, about which negative ideas are often expressed. I am sure you know the kind of teacher I am talking about as we have all met one or two – things are always better “at home” and sentences often begin “the Greeks are…”. Such individuals often also don’t take the time to learn the language as they expect everyone to speak English (a sign of the hegemony of the English language). That for me is the essential difference. Those immigrants to the UK you mention may not have access to learning opportunities (ESOL has been slashed massively over the last 10 years) or may not yet be settled enough to contemplate language learning, but many (most) learn the language because they have to for survival by whichever means they can, formally or informally. I consider this completely different to NEST EL teachers who choose to travel abroad and (if they want) in many settings can get away with not learning the local language because they expect others to speak English. This is only possible because of the power of English which I do not condone. In my view, the ideal communities are those which are multi-lingual and people move in and out of different languages all of which have equal status. I know overall it is important to remember that EL teachers are working class – but I would also like to point out that there are vast disparities in the income levels of these individuals in ELT and some have access to other sources of income which enable them to make their choices to fill a gap year with English teaching. Class is in there Marxist ELF – it is not a level playing field.

  5. marxistelf

    Hi Sara,
    First of all an apology. No way would I or anyone who knows you or has read your work believe you associate yourself with the “English Only” movement. I must confess, however, that the clumsiness of my response to your comments might leave a “less-informed” reader with the wrong impression, and for this I must apologise.

    Rather, the purpose of the response was to raise the problems we (and here it was generally meant to include all progressive forces) have in finding the correct language and appropriate strategies to unite teachers and unite teachers with the communities they serve. For this, I wished to say that the use of the expression “a responsibility to integrate into the local community and learn the language” was problematic. Whilst it was most certainly not used in the spirit of right-wing commentators, I would say it borrowed from that discourse. Again, it is not my intention to pick at the words of other activists to claim some theoretical superiority, indeed I would prefer a Phillipson to a Pennycook anyday, simply because Pennycook is so wrapped up in subtleties and qualifications he ends up saying very little indeed (I use these theorists knowing you are very aware of their work and that your work develops their theories further.). No, I genuinely believe this is not your problem but our problem. Trying to find the correct language of resistance.

    In concrete, ATEK, discussed in the above article were perceived as aggressively anti-Korean. Many of the supporters were quick to attack anything Korean. As you say, the attitude, “The Koreans are……. Those teachers who had been there longer, perhaps more “integrated”, believed that this undermined their own position. To be fair to ATEK organisers, much of this opposition appears disproportionate to their actual behaviour and ATEK did take some of these criticisms on board. ATEK, usefully in my view, represented themselves as an organisation working with and for Koreans. Does this mean, however that HIV testing for foreign nationals is acceptable (something ATEK appears to have considerably quietened down about) or are there more constructive ways to challenge such prejudice? It is certainly true that ATEK had taken it upon themselves to challenge injustice where many of the “older teachers” had survived by political quietism This is what I was referring to as positive engagement, working alongside others for change.

    With respect to whether to speak a language or not, leaving aside inequalities between language and the teaching profession for the moment, I believe the issue should be one of “thou ought to” rather than “thou shalt”. It’s a good idea and in your own interests rather than some moral imperative. I suspect a teacher living in a country where they do not know the language is probably doing more harm to themselves than they are doing to others. However, the last 30 years have seen us (and here again I do not see myself as exempt) as internalising the notion of individual responsibility (health, climate change, poverty) for the problems of the world. Linguistic inequality is not driven by the arrogance of NESTs but by capitalism. Learning the local language does not eradicate linguistic inequality.

    So here we must address , albeit briefly, the notion of linguistic imperialism. For the Marxist TEFL Group it is a problematic concept. On one level it is taken to mean the spreading of a malign independent force, the power of momentum over decision making. A left-wing variant of the benign spread of English as the new global language. In some senses this is true but it ignores the small and giant decisions which are made everyday and which continue to fuel such a momentum. In another sense, it is taken to mean the imposition of the English Language by English speaking countries. The weakness of this argument is that it fails to identify where exactly power lies and how it is organised. For example, local capital in countries around the world is happy to exploit “English as a global Language”. German and Japanese Multinationals use English to capture markets and organise production in other parts of the world, strengthening its own national capitalist base in return. Berlitz, the company that started in America is now owned by a Japanese multi-national and Macmillan Publishers who produce so much ELT material is a German Multi-national company. I can guarantee you that the languages spoken in the boardrooms of these two companies are Japanese and German respectively. The fact that the US, Britain and Australia, are keen to exploit the spread of English to monopolise Higher Education and Research is one more source of this expansion as is the decision of employers around the world to use English as a recruitment criterion, not because it is necessary for the actual job they might do but because it demonstrates a “healthy attitude” (i.e. compliance with the new neo-liberal order).I say this not because I deny the use of language for imperialist purposes (in MTG there are many articles about the way America and Britain do this, especially in less advance countries) rather, I do this because the arrogance of certain English speaking tourists or NESTs, whilst galling, is peripheral to the real power which is being exercised and should not be the starting point of a fightback against the Tyranny of English.

    No, the article concludes by suggesting that neither NESTs nor non-NESTs benefit by TEFL adventurism. In this I mean, individuals being sent to various parts of the world with no proper training and having no proper grasp of the language(s) used by the people they will teach. This TEFL adventurism is institutionalised in CELTA and Trinity courses, where the use of L1 in the classroom is positively discouraged. Even in teacher training centres based in non-English speaking countries, this is common practice. Now I’m not saying that skills in teaching multi-lingual groups are not necessary in given situations, but so are skills in teaching children, the psychology of learning, how to asses levels, and how to use L1 in the classroom, all which are often far more relevant when “teaching abroad”. You see the problem for TEFL is that accepting this is to accept that non-NESTs may actually be better placed to teach English, restricting NESTs to supportive and specialist roles. On this, you being one of the loudest voice in support of non-NESTs, I know you will agree.

    It is for the above reason, MTG concentrates on the issue of NESTs needing to speak the local language(s) to adequately perform their jobs, rather than whether people should learn a language as a matter of principle. The great TEFL adventurer, John Haycraft, could speak many languages, this did not stop him being reactionary with respect to local communities. Indeed, in my experience, it is often those teachers who have taken the time to learn the local language and, therefore, feel they have a “qualification to do so”, who splutter the most horrid reactionary and racist bile about the places where they live. Moreover, TEFL recruitment agencies recommend teaching abroad as a way of learning a language and getting to experience a different culture as a means of enriching your CV. Now the fact that students get fleeced while these teachers do so, is of little concern to such agencies. And should the individual learn the language, learn how to teach properly, and wish to stay in TEFL then Cactus TEFL suggests they leave teaching and become a Director of Studies, a teacher trainer, or a materials writer. Heavens forbid, we don’t want students getting a quality product.
    Finally, I must address your point about inequalities within class. A quite damning verdict about the manner in which I responded to your original comments. You are correct that these contradictions were never explored properly, although the original article does mention the imbalance in pay between NESTs and non-NESTs in South Korea. Moreover, I would also concede that MTG has never published a proper analysis of the contradictions that exist inside class although it has alluded consistently to the inequalities in the international division of labour. There is certainly an argument to be made that NESTs represent what Lenin described “an aristocracy of labour” but time and resources have not allowed for this. While rejecting Lenin’s theory generally (not dismissing its insights but having grave reservations about its applications) I would say that in many countries (places like South Korea) NESTs appear momentarily to benefit from the “native teacher is best no matter what” model but that this model is to the detriment of the NEST community as a whole. Low pay in the home countries (US, Australia, UK) for practising NESTs is testimony to this fact. Indeed, it is in the interests of experienced/qualified NESTs, who know how to use the students’ L1 effectively in the classroom, that they redefine what a NEST is and in so doing they will be approximating closer and closer to the non-NEST model. Unity between NESTs and non-NESTs is essential if standards are to be raised and quality NESTs rewarded for remaining in the classroom.

    All this may sound simplistic. You are right to insist a woman recently arrived in Tower Hamlets from Bengal working in a sweatshop and unable to speak English, is not on the same level as an American white male graduate working in Seoul as an English Teacher. However, just as the trade unions in Britain must open themselves up to her, so this American must open himself up to the Korean trade union movement there and vice-versa. Moreover, if that same American (probably fleeing lack of job opportunities in the States) finds resistance to him among the local community he must understand that this is partially rooted in the iniquitous nature of his TEFL qualification. But there we go again, it is what the individual must do rather than what we can do to create a different profession, a profession which generates a different consciousness of who we are and what we do; a profession rooted in the communities we serve, rather than rooted in the profit motives of the few.

  6. Marxist Elf, thank you again for a brilliant and thorough analysis of things and for developing this further. There is no need for any apologies. Having read my last post feel I didn’t really explain the final idea about class enough and was in a bit of a hurry so apologies from me to you as well. Note to self: take more time with blog posts of importance.

    I think the central “struggle” in all my own work is trying to understand the balance between individual and collective responsibility. It is hard sometimes to keep an eye only on the ‘big’ picture, when faced with instances continually of, for need of a better word, the complacency that privileged backgrounds can bring. The assumption really that “it has been like that for everyone” and the inability to see the different ways people experience the world or have access to opportunity. It never ceases to amaze me.

    I would argue there is a need for both the macro and the micro analysis to be honest, but that neither one can exist without the other as a referential point. But we certainly live in theoretical times where the prevailing trend is towards ‘detail’ and I am extremely wary of this as without a larger framework of analysis, the complexity remains unexplored and the outcomes are watered down to Hollywood endings. If I had to choose, I would prefer my balance to slip closer to the bigger picture than too far into individual finger pointing or accusation. However, your analysis has pushed me (unwittingly) more towards the ‘detail’ as for me it is impossible to overlook certain things whilst still agreeing with the need for unity to change things.

    We might discuss how the pendulum is positioned in relation to a whole number of situations and each warrant careful consideration, and I think my point about class was that taking social responsibility should (I hope) include recognising and attempting to remedy the inconsistencies within oneself? My own experience sometimes of Marxist political groups (rather than political thinking) was that the larger understanding of the world was overshadowed by some inconsistencies on a personal level that remained unchecked. I don’t advocate the thought police, but there should be some space for self-critique no? Not everything can be left until ‘after the revolution’.

    Where I would completely agree with your post is the desired goal should be to learn the local language, but this should not be imposed. It is not enough in itself as there are instances of multi-lingual bigots. However, you might encounter (and I have) two different NESTs living abroad, neither of whom have managed to grasp the local language (well language learning is a subjective experience and some seem to find it easier than others, as well as having more access to learning opportunity etc), but who deal with that in different ways. One might still mix with local people using English, but be sensitised to this fact and try to remedy it, as well as accepting the likelihood of the local language being used around them and the fact they cannot understand being, ultimately, something they cannot ‘control’ or question. Another may ‘demand’ (and I have seen this many a time) that everyone speaks English, criticise them when they do for accuracy, and maintain that there is little point in learning the local language as English is a global language and therefore the effort would be wasted. Both exist ‘outside’ the (lingustic) community in a liminal space, but the former will still ‘connect’ because of openess of attitude. I hope I am illustrating my point clearly here. That is what I meant by principles – and it is as much to do with how someone sees the community as it is to do with the language itself. If someone is aware, they will no doubt decide these things for themselves as their own uncomfortableness with needing other people to speak English all the time will be the motivating force.

    I totally agree with you that supporting the importance of non-NEST teachers (which is really significant to me) should not be done at the expense of finding a negotiated ‘place’ for NESTs within this dynamic. That would be a contradiction in terms as I myself am a NEST teacher. We are stronger together both socially and educationally, and stand to gain so much by joining forces. However, I also agree that this relationship should be supportive rather than imposing (and here individual responsibility and awareness play an important role), and that having a knowledge of the local language is ideal for better teaching and for becoming part of a community of language teaching and social change and transformation. It also means giving up personal access to privilege sometime to enable someone more ‘deserving’ to be given the chance.

    You are right that some NESTs move to other countries to flee the difficult work conditions in their own locality, and that home-grown opportunites are badly paid and few and far between. But the fact that this is still an option cannot be ignored, as it is not an option for a Greek English teacher who would not be welcome or deemed ‘authentic’ enough to chase these opportunities in the first place. Whilst I wouldn’t want to put a statistic on this or paint the picture that all NESTs come from privilege, as they don’t, some do….and I also don’t want to ignore this fact. A lifetime of travelling around sometimes doesn’t change a basic blindness to this fact as a person can still exist outside recognition of social inequality and think at the same time they are celebrating multiculturalism. We might talk about how this is possible through notions of ideology or hegemony, but that is another discussion.

    Unity between NESTs and non-NESTs is essential, and on this we agree – perhaps then it is less important to think about those who wish to exist in a space which is detached and individualised, as this all becomes meaningless when the bigger picture is at the forefront.

    OK that’s enough from me and once again thank you for making me think through these important issues again.

  7. David C. Weaver

    I have got a couple of degrees in political science and one in history and education. As a teacher here I would say in general that the TEFL method sucks, and because of its use Korean young people are not learning English. I do not use any part of this method, but instead have designed most of the methods I use. I have been lucky to have great co teachers who like my methods and I have distributed my stuff to other KETs. I like your view on history and being an American who grew up in and still is part of the counter culture I agree with much of it. I used to teach the hidden parts of history (things they leave out of the books) to High School students and I caught a lot of flack and was usually called a Communist, although most people in America have no idea about Marx’s ideas. Actually Korea has been very good to me, and I have made lots of friends, and I have encountered very little racism or bias.

  8. marxistelf

    Thank you David for sharing your experiences, it’s great to hear such a positive voice.
    We, of course, share your antipathy to what is commonly termed the TEFL method but would be reluctant to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It appears to us that with so many teachers transcending the limitations of their four-week courses and going on to become effective educators, that there must be “something of value” in it.
    For those, like you, developing innovative new teaching methods, what can be learned (if anything) from TEFL adventurism that might help in some way improve such new methods?

  9. Pingback: Sri Lanka, South Korea and ELT, For Whom the Bomb Ticks. « Marxist TEFL Group

  10. Clive

    Great blog,
    I am glad I found this site. I am teaching in South Korea at the moment.

    have you heard about the Hyundai strike in Ulsan? It was huge and lasted 25 days as workers occupied the factory and had a standoff with company hired thugs. Some workers had their shulls smashed in by the police. Eventially the workers had to end their occupation because the police blocked food supplies into the factory and hence they were suffering from starvation.

    Many people make a bit too much of South Korea’s economic development. At the moment poverty rates are increasing in South Korea and although unemployment is low at 3%, this has been achieved by the complete exploitation of irregular workers who are now said to make up over 50% of the workplace. The South Korean economy has also bencome increasingly dependent on exports and foreign capital, thus with the stagnation of Europe and North American economies, it is only a matter of time before this could spread to South Korea.

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