Following on from the collapse of GEOS in Japan (and indeed worldwide), where hundreds of teachers and thousands of students face uncertain futures, there has been an interesting discussion of emergent forms of English Language teaching which threaten what one author describes as the “dinosaurs” of ELT provision. It is worth quoting the editor-in-chief of ELT News, David Paul, in full:
At first sight, it would seem that the language school industry in Japan is in free fall. Nova and Geos, two of the big four language schools that have dominated the industry for the last fifteen years, have both collapsed. Geos and Nova between them had 1,400 schools at their peak, and less than 500 have been taken over by G.communication. The Ministry of Trade and Industry says enrollment at language schools has dropped from 826,858 students in February 2006 to 335,604 this year.
But do these figures paint a true picture of the industry? It is certainly true that corporate ELT has declined rapidly. There is also little doubt that the number of adults studying at language schools is a shadow of what it was in the 1990’s before the bubble burst, but there is every sign that ELT still has a lot of life in it at a local level.
There are far more children learning English at language schools than there were fifteen years ago, but while adults were willing to travel a reasonable distance to study at a school with a glossy sign in a prime location, many parents prefer their children to study as near home as possible. This is one of the factors that has led to the proliferation of small family-run schools. Another is that the large chain schools are outsiders in the community and have found it increasingly hard to compete with the local teacher who is known in the community and may have children at the local schools.
Where are all these local teachers coming from? There are over 5 times as many permanent residents now than there were in 1997! Another fundamental change began when the visa laws were changed in 1998 to allow native speakers to teach independently. This completely changed the rules of the game. Native English teachers were no longer obliged to work for one school in order to get a visa. The collapse of Nova accelerated this trend – some teachers who lost their jobs went independent – and the collapse of Geos will undoubtedly contribute to the same trend.
ETJ (English Teachers in Japan) alone boasts close to 1,500 small school owners as members, and the number is growing all the time. It is unlikely that many of the students at these schools are included in the Ministry’s figures. A new wave of English schools is coming. They are in the community, and they are tapping into the Japanese tradition of learning from the local sensei.
We were most interested at MTG to read these words because they represent a logical step for many native speaking English Teachers in Japan and elsewhere. Quite simply the terms of the expansion of ELDT throughout the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s have changed. David Graddol warned of something similar in English Next. Schools are already creating large quantities of English speakers (through the continued accumulation of the efforts of well-qualified non-native speaking English teachers) and the claims for hegemony of certain native forms of English are under threat. This is not to say that there is not demand for NESTs around the world but the picture is slowly but significantly changing. This creates something of a problem for an industry that is still largely structured around native speakerism (the idea that native teachers are best, classes are best if they are monolingual, proficiency in English should be measured against native speaker norms).
Under native-speakerism it was quite satisfactory to train graduates (increasingly non-graduates), over four intensive weeks, in the basics of the monolingual approach and send them around the world. There were of course no end of schools run by local entrepreneurs, willing to channel and harness this “expertise” and enthusiasm” in providing classes to children and adults in their hastily constructed academies. Of course, these same schools were also able to dispatch these teachers around cities to teach business English.
The problem appears to have risen with a two pronged attack on the legitimacy of these institutions. Behind the glossy brochures, well-stocked library, computer room and claims to invincible methods, language learning still appears difficult, expensive and incredibly time consuming. Moreover, country after country has experienced scandals in course-financing, unexpected course closures or qualifications issues. In times of economic crisis the value of what they receive from these institutions with their emphasis on self-learning is being questioned.
Meanwhile, a whole group of NESTs are committing to the areas where they moved. They have learnt the local language and are raising children in the local schools. For these teachers the salaries and security offered by the aforementioned schools are simply insufficient. Moreover, they experience the methods and mentalities of the schools to be at odds with their relation to the students they are teaching. The experience and knowledge these teachers have accumulated over the years are driving them to teach in ways at odds with the academies (this is in part, the attraction of Dogme Elt).
The fact that teachers are attempting to develop supportive networks to work outside of the mainstream comes as no surprise. Such associations can help find classes, negotiate around healthcare and social security, provide training and connect strategically with other co-operatives and associations. Moreover, new technologies make it easier to organise such networks (disseminating information quickly and cheaply). These workers are no longer surrendering up the value of their work to pay unnecessary administration and marketing costs. They no longer have to return a profit for those who have invested in the school. To quote Marx: “the opposition between capital and labour is abolished… even if at first only in the form that the workers in association become their own capitalists”
These teachers have ceased to be proletarian in the strict sense of the term. Like all workers they have nothing to sell but their labour power but unlike other workers they do not have to surrender part of their efforts to a factory or school owner. Moreover, unlike a worker in a state enterprise or non-profit making organisation they have more autonomy and control over the work process. There is little or no hierarchy. It is here that such associations present a challenge to the dominant interests in society in general and ELT in particular. In order to function outside of the mainstream they must distinguish themselves from it. They do this by being in some way more democratic and community focused. Belonging to an association of independent teachers creates new identities, identities controlled by communities. These associations are building wealth within communities and unite various interests, most prominently the shared interests between teacher and teacher and teacher and student.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that such a space is inherently radical or that the space will remain open forever. The association is in competition economically with the mainstream, it is logical therefore to emphasise the “waste” of the academies and their general unresponsiveness to student need. This does not necessarily translate itself into “higher standards” or a commitment to self-improvement as teachers though. Nor, importantly, does it abolish the possibility that competition drives down wages for all, at least eventually. The radical content of the association and its ability to respond to developments in the mainstream is determined by a political consciousness. This political consciousness will in large part be determined by the economic circumstances in which the association operates. Currently in Japan, there is great scope for teachers to harvest the discontent of students and win students over into “independent tuition”, but this situation is quite capable of changing. For the moment ELT News and the association it supports, English Teachers in Japan, are doing an impressive job in changing the terms of debate about English teaching in Japan. They are arguing that the key to helping students learn English is not the location of centres or a miracle methodology but experienced teachers who are rooted in the same communities.
At MTG we do not see teachers association or union organisation as mutually exclusive options. Indeed, we believe unions must reach out to provide a platform for freelance teachers. What is key is that we encourage a concept of shared interest and horizontal perspective, seeking to maximise the gains of the many rather than the few. In Japan, the students and workers affected by GEOS closures, the victimized Berlitz workers and the new emerging teachers associations must find common ground in which to pursue their interests (after all in eikawa they have a common enemy). A well organised grassroots democracy with organs of publicity is what is required for teachers and students in all localities, however, not just Japan. We are delighted to say though, that it is in Japan, where the problems of ELT are most evident, that the green shoots of an alternative are also most visible.