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China turns to interns

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Melanie Butler looks at Asian countries’ fixation with native speakers and questions whether they can recruit enough expatriates to fulfil demand.

When is a teacher not a teacher? When they are an intern. Internships are increasingly being offered to native-speaker graduates who have completed some kind of Tefl certificate. In return for funding their own airfares they are offered free accommodation and stipends to work overseas. In effect, these are gap-year programmes for graduates.

The Chinese government is the latest to launch such a scheme. Having banned the use of third-country non-native speakers and no longer able to recruit enough native speakers with certificates and two years’ experience to work in its state schools under its long-standing foreign-expert programme, the Chinese have launched internship programmes. Applicants, who must have a Tefl certificate, will get free accommodation, subsidised food and a stipend. They need to fund their own travel costs, including return fares and travel insurance, and will not get any help with learning Chinese.

What kind of Tefl certificate doesn’t seem to matter much. According to Post Study, an internship agency representing the Chinese programme in the UK, ‘any Tefl certificate can in theory be approved. We would carry out due diligence if it was from a provider that we were not familiar with. The Chinese government department responsible for these matters also offers a Tefl course with delivery within China.’

No mention is made on the Post Study website of any need for candidates to obtain a police check required under English law for all adults working with children. Demand by Asian governments for native speakers of English to work in state education is far outstripping supply. Although numbers in Korea, Japan and Taiwan are falling slightly, they are more than matched by growing demand in Thailand, Vietnam and China, to name but three. These are not volunteer positions, but salaries are low in Western terms and some of the destinations are challenging.

When we asked why anyone would choose China when there were so many other – and paid – options, PostStudy told the Gazette, ‘We would rather not compare destination countries. We think that any opportunity to gain an international experience is worth considering, particularly in those countries with an experience very different to life in the UK, such as China, Japan and Korea.’ Japan and Korea both offer Western-level salaries, and Japan doesn’t even require a Tefl certificate. By contrast Taiwan, which also pays well, only accepts state-qualified school teachers – an eminently sensible requirement for teachers intending to work in state schools, but often little more than wishful thinking.

What the Chinese government doesn’t seem to realise is that the Asian demand for native speakers far outstrips supply. China’s private language schools, now estimated to number around 50,000, are required by law to recruit only experienced certified native speakers – that’s a conservative 500,000 experienced teachers. Thailand has another 50,000 employers, both in the state and private sector, totalling perhaps 200,000. Vietnam is trying to recruit teachers for 2,000 state schools, while its private sector is fighting to attract good candidates. Myanmar is coming on stream. If we count in the online tutors, another 150,000 in China alone as well as Korea, Japan and Taiwan, we are looking at a demand for well over a million native-speaker ‘teachers’ – or one in every 400 citizens of all the anglophone countries in the world.

This is demographically impossible. They will not get them, and the ones they do get will not be ‘teachers’, at least not trained to teach children in state-school environments. They will, if they are lucky, be graduates with a nice accent and a four-week course. If they are unlucky they will get backpackers happy to pretend to be teachers. These people are not teachers. They are not even Teflers, native speakers with a degree and a basic qualification for teaching adults in language schools. They are just untrained, unqualified backpackers, with the right passport, acting the part.

And they may include people who present a risk to others. In this issue we report on two such teachers found working in different parts of Asia (see page 4). In Thailand a British convicted paedophile has just been deported for the second time having been found teaching English in the country again. Meanwhile in Myanmar a former ski rep from Scotland has fled the country leaving the dead body of a fellow teacher in his flat. Both were working as unqualified English teachers in local international schools.

Asia is addicted to native speakers, though the actual reasons why are not clear. The general reason given is they have the best accents, but the ground-breaking work by Professor Patricia Kuhl reported on the front page shows that the advantage of a teacher’s accent alone is of limited use to any learner over the age of six, and of most advantage to children under three. Older learners cannot discriminate foreign language sounds and do not naturally acquire them by hearing them. After that, pronunciation can only be taught by teachers who have been specifically trained to discriminate sound and how to teach the sound system of English explicitly. Most native speakers, even those with four-week certificates, simply have no idea how to do that.

Ironically, the teachers most likely to have studied how to teach English pronunciation are the very non-native teachers China has decided to ban. And whether Asian governments like it or not, non-native teachers are the only answer that exists to the question of where Asia is going to find a million foreign teachers. After all, there are 125 million English speakers in India – twice as many as the 60 million in the UK – and 75 million in the Philippines.

There are early signs that the Chinese are beginning to get that message. According to the Filipino press, during the recent visit of their president to Beijing the question of redefining Filipinos as native speakers was on the agenda.


Pic caption: PARENTAL CHOICE? Parents often welcome expatriate native-speaker teachers for their children
Pic courtesy: Michael Goodine