Sunday, 30 June 2013



I recently gave a speaking test to a class of 8- to 10-year-olds. One prompt-sheet had illustrations of various items such as a horse, tree, telephone, bicycle, and so on. The majority of the students could name most of the items with the exception of the telephone. The problem was, it seems, that it was a standard 1980s phone, complete with hand-piece, cord, etc; something that’s completely alien to the young students. For them a telephone is a slim, tablet-shaped thing you carry in your pocket. 

This got me thinking about how out-of-date the topics and language we teach are. English as it’s taught in the classroom is nearly always a decade or two behind what you might call up-to-date English. The English language is constantly changing, and consequently the nature of the language and the topics we teach should be constantly revised to keep pace. This doesn’t usually happen; we’re almost always lagging way behind. We are, in fact, teaching yesterday’s, redundant expressions and topics to our students. Text books are largely responsible for this; a book printed in 1998 can hardly be expected to present English as it is spoke today. Let me give you a few examples.

In most text books you’ll see short phone conversations to be drilled for memorization.
“Can I speak to the doctor, please.”
“Yes. Just a moment.”
(The last recorded instance of a patient being able to speak to a doctor was in 1976.)

“I’d like to place a person-to-person toll call to Mrs Joyce Abercrombie in Nowheresville, Ohio.”
(Nowadays you just dial Joyce’s cell phone number.) Oh, did I say ‘dial’ then? No, dials were replaced by keypads decades ago, but our language doesn’t yet have a verb to describe the tapping in of numbers on a keypad.

Besides telephone conversations, you’ll come across ‘Shopping’ conversations which, on reflection, belong to a long-gone era.

Shop assistant: Can I help you?
Customer         : Yes, I’m looking for a dress.”
Shop assistant:  What size?
Customer         : Size 37.
Shop assistant:  What color?
Customer         : Oh, pinkish-red.
Shop assistant: Here’s one, a lovely rich pinkish-red in size 37.
Customer         : Can I try it on?
Shop assistant: How is it?
Customer         : It’s a little too small. Have you got one in a bigger size?
Shop assistant: Let me see…

Now, when was the last time you were approached by a shop assistant? Honestly? And, should you ever track down a shop assistant, when was the last time you chanced upon a helpful one? (That is if the assistant spoke any English.)

Nowhere is the illustration of how out-of-date text books are than in the ‘Famous People’ units. Perhaps, at the time of printing, (and for a certain age group), people like Lady Di, Julia Roberts, the Beatles, Nelson Mandela, Marilyn Monroe and JFK were indeed famous, but they have never even entered the realm of young learners’ experience. Mr Bean, Tom and Jerry, and David Beckham perhaps, but those others are just yesterday’s forgotten people. Hell, most students wouldn’t even know Superman from Donald Duck! It brings home to you just how much you’re getting on in years.

Some grammar rules we teach are on the brink of becoming redundant.  We stress to our students that singular nouns require a singular ‘be’ verb, but as likely or not expressions like “How’s things?” and “There’s ten people waiting” regularly crop up in our everyday speech. We teach that ‘someone’ and ‘anyone’ are singular nouns, but say: “If someone knows the answer, will they please raise their hands”, and “If anyone thinks they can do better, they’re welcome to try”.
We painstakingly teach the correct usage of ‘who/whom’ and ‘neither/nor’ to our students, but outside the classroom we, along with most our contemporaries, ignore it. We stress that ‘so’ should only be used before an adjective or adverb, but today’s in-people say “Those jeans are so bling” and “My new android blue-tooth touch-screen cell phone is, like, so this year”. We teach rules about how to correctly use ‘if’ and ‘whether’ and ‘like’ and ‘such as’, but immediately forget those rules in our everyday speech.
“Now remember, Class, don’t ever start a sentence with ‘and’. It’s a conjunction, alright? And if I see anyone doing it, they’ll be penalized.”

Which brings me to the subject of vocabulary. New words are entering the language every day, but text book writers seem to be in denial of this fact. Some examples:
Surfing the net, logging in, logging out, twittering. Geek, nerd, hacker, spam, info superhiway, iPad, ipod, iMac, Big Mac, smart phone, even smarter phone, iTunes, eBook, app, webcam. You ever seen any of those expressions in an EFL text book? How about substance abuse, crack, smack, crystal ice, nose candy, getting high, taking a trip, chilling out, ODing, coming down? Or gay, bi, swinger, swinging both ways, outing, coming out? Or covert action, eyes only, need-to-know, rendition, water-boarding, liquidating, terminating with extreme prejudice? Gitmo, gizmo, pre-emptive strike, drones, carpet-bombing, friendly-fire, black ops, infiltration, exfiltration?

Of course your students don’t need to add all these expressions to their vocabularies, but if an advanced student reads the newspaper, he or she will come across them regularly.

“Dear Sir, Pursuant to your request in your esteemed communiqué of the twelfth (inst)...” Of course, no-one (except, perhaps in India) writes letters like this anymore, but you’ll still come across the occasional textbook that presents this antiquated language as normal. Nowadays we teach letter-writing in a less stilted, formal fashion, but when you come to think of it, why do we teach letter-writing at all? In fact no-one writes letters any more. They send e-mails or text messages instead. Or tweet them, or twitter them. Or post them on FaceBook.

Yep, our text books and our lessons are way behind what you’d call contemporary . What someone needs to do is, like, write a totally cool book with all the, like, up-to-the-minute language us people use every day, like. I mean that would be so 21st Century. Anyone out there up to it?


My new book, EFL minus the B.S. (now available on Amazon) is my take on the English teaching game world-wide. From language teaching theories, linguistics, classroom dynamics, teens’ and children’s classes, to sex and the single teacher.

Friday, 28 June 2013



I hit Korea with feet running, only to find that my timing was as wrong as it could be. I’d just spent a decade teaching in Indonesia and Thailand, and had forgotten what cold weather was. South Korea brought me up to speed on the subject in short order. Korea was cold. Frigging cold. Mind-numbingly cold. Newspaper reports said it was Korea’s coldest winter in years. Biting, cold winds swept down from Siberia, bringing rain, sleet and snow with them. Snow deposited on the streets during the day had turned to ice by next morning. My lightweight Teflon clothes from Indonesia afforded me as much protection from the cold as a band-aid.

My second misjudgement: I arrived in Seoul in a month when English schools weren’t recruiting. Job opportunities were nil, nowt, non-existent. Thus I was reduced to sitting in my tiny, windowless yogwan room with an eiderdown wrapped around my shoulders, rueing the day I ever decided to move to this god-forsaken country. Then, a glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon. Or on the Armed Forces radio network to be more exact. Extras were required to appear in the movie “Inchon”, currently being filmed in and around Seoul. Twenty-five dollars a day, plus transport, plus lunch. And, while they didn’t mention it, plus the opportunity to break into the movie industry, and inexorably rise to become a leading box-office name. In “Inchon” my co-stars would be Richard Roundtree, Jacqueline Bisset, David Janssen, Ben Gazarra, Omar Sharif, and Sir Laurence Olivier (“Larry” to me, now that we’ve appeared in a film together.) I would be in good company.

I reported to the hotel the movie company had commandeered early next morning. A harried American guy announced over a megaphone that today they were filming civilian refugees at Seoul railway station, so would you please go to the wardrobe department in the basement of the hotel and get fitted out. The basement proved to be half an acre of clothes racks containing GI’s uniforms (new, used, and battle-scarred) and civilian clothes (new, used, and tatty). I was directed to the tatty end, and handed a pair of baggy trousers complete with a piece of string as a belt, a nondescript brown coat, and a stained hat. Then back up to the convention room to wait. And wait. And then wait some more. Lunch was handed out (three ham sandwiches and an apple) and we were told to get ready to be bussed to the station anytime now.

At the station we were ordered to wait yet again, but at least now there was something interesting going on. They were filming a street scene just outside the station. Driver Richard Roundtree was driving a jeep carrying a military big-wig, then swinging into the station entrance at speed. They filmed the scene time after time, but it was not quite up to the director’s expectations. “Cut. Let’s try that again. Take thirteen.” Richard Roundtree then alighted from the jeep, a Korean worker reversed the jeep back to its starting point, Roundtree got back into the driver’s seat, and did the scene all over again. To actually reverse the jeep was not in Roundtree’s contract; that was the task of a scenery-shifter.

I spent the next few weekends working on ‘my film’. One day I was part of a crowd of GIs listening to General MacArthur (Sir Lawrence Olivier) as he delivered a speech from the town-hall balcony. Olivier was not actually on hand; instead there was a lackey holding up placards that read “Applaud”, “Laugh”, and “Shout ‘Hurrah’ .” On another day I was in a landing craft (just a few seats away from David Janssen) and spent most of the time waiting as walkie-talkie equipped assistants coordinated the helicopters flying overhead and the explosive charges buried in the sand.

After three weeks, my movie career ground to a halt, as by then I had picked up a couple of teaching jobs. I never did get to view “Inchon”, but I did read the review in Time magazine. “Inchon would have to be one of the worst films ever made…” it read.

My teaching year started off with a situation that is the bugbear of all new teachers. I couldn’t find a job that offered a sizeable chunk of hours, so I was reduced to teaching an hour here, two hours there (in a hole-in-the-wall apology for a school), then one and a half hours on the other side of town….

It was well over four months before I landed a job at Language Teaching Research Center, working full afternoons and evenings. LTRC was a non-profit making school run by Encyclopedia Britannica, and its mandate was to try out new teaching methodologies and assess their effectiveness. The year I was there, the Silent Way was the focus of their attention. This method, invented by Caleb Gattegno in the nineteen sixties, is based on reducing Teacher Talking Time to a bare minimum, and instead eliciting the language by various visual cues and body language. I started off full of cynicism and scorn at this off-the-wall teaching technique, but ended up a convert. In the Silent Way, students are challenged by the fact that they are responsible for their own learning. They also know that if they do not speak, no-one else is going to, and no-one is going to come to their aid. The teacher’s role is to cue them on the target language, then accept or reject the students’ utterances. It all sounds dry and humorless, but in practice it isn’t. I still use Silent Way techniques every lesson. If you spoon-feed new language to students, they’ll have forgotten it by next day. If you force them to sweat over it, they’ll retain it. Elicit, elicit, elicit. 

Korean students are hard-working, and demanding of themselves and their teachers. “Driven” wouldn’t be too strong a word for it; a legacy of parents’ pressure to push their children to the top rung of the ladder at all costs.

I am in two minds about my year’s employment in Korea. On the one hand I did learn how to teach. I did get to write a fortnightly column in The Korea Times. On the other hand I never really warmed to the Korean people. Nor, I must add, to the weather. My time in South Korea was an interesting experience, but I can’t see myself going back there in the foreseeable future.


My new book, EFL minus the B.S. (now available on Amazon) puts the English teaching game under the spotlight. From applying for a job, living overseas, work permits, management and mismanagement, classroom dynamics, teens’ and children’s classes, to sex and the single teacher.

Saturday, 22 June 2013



STOP! I’m about to write a blog on an unpleasant, stomach-turning topic that is better off left unread. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll click off this post right now and log onto You Tube instead, or play a game or two of Solitaire. I’m not joking around.

Bloody hell! Are you still here? OK, but don’t say you weren’t warned. Today’s topic is dunnies and the squitters. First off, dunnies. Or Asian dunnies to be exact. Public toilets in Asia are few and far between. Far fewer that what you get in the West. Now this may seem of little consequence, but if you’ve got a dose of the squitters, it’s of paramount importance. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Public toilets in Asia are best described as basic. That’s Basic with a capital B. Some have real Western-style bowls that you can actually sit down on. Count yourself lucky if you come across one of these. The toilet seat, if there is one, probably has shoe-prints on it, as Asians are accustomed to half-standing while doing their business. That’s all very well if it’s just Number Ones you’re about to engage in, but a bit off-putting if you have Number Twos in mind. Some modern Asian toilets have diagrams on the walls to explain that you don’t stand, but sit on the seat, but these seem to go largely ignored.

Toilet bowls are a rare luxury. It’s far more likely that you’ll find a squatter (a hole in the toilet floor) in which to deposit your excreta. There’s no flush button – just a bucket of water and a dipper with which to sluice away the bowel motion. There is, of course, no toilet paper. You’re expected to use the dipper to splash water onto your posterior and thus wash away any vestiges of poo. A word of advice here. If that is the set-up in the toilet cubicle you are currently visiting, remove all clothing from the lower half of your body. Otherwise you’re going to end up with very wet trous; a decided embarrassment when you emerge into the sunlight. And while I’m on the subject, these holes in the floor are not a pretty sight to see. They’re often clogged with the evidence of the last five people to visit the facility. No, not pleasant at all.

Are you feeling nauseated yet? I warned you, didn’t I? And here’s another word of warning. This blog is about to get even more basic.

The squitters. The trots, the runs, Delhi belly, Montezuma’s revenge, diaria, diorhea, diarhea, diahorrea, (if you know how to spell that goddamn word, let me know), the shits.  Words that will have a special resonance for Western visitors to Asia. Because this is the ailment a Westerner is most likely to be hit with soon after arrival. Some say it’s because of the unfamiliar food, some blame the spiciness of the food, some say it’s the body’s reaction to the hot climate. (A doctor back home once told me it’s none of those things. His theory was that it is the different mineral content of the drinking water that causes it.) Whatever the cause, it’s a given that you’ll come down with the shits some time during your visit to an Asian country. So, what to do when it happens? Take Imodium or Loperamide; both of them very effective in relieving the symptoms of diahorria. They don’t actually cure you; they just make life more bearable while you wait for your body to recover of its own accord.

Now let’s discuss a variation of the squitters that I’m all too familiar with. (And it’s not too late to switch to a game of Solitaire, by the way.) When you have the shits you’re running to the toilet six times a day. But when you have tropical spru, you’re making a bee-line to the toilet just three times a day. This elusive disease, tropical spru, is also known as PIMS or Post Infective Malabsorption Syndrome. The symptoms are thrice-daily visitations to the WC, with a thirty-second warning beforehand. Not nice. But here’s a funny thing: most doctors have never heard of it. And stool and blood tests don’t detect it. “Doctor, Doctor, I’ve got the shits!” “No you haven’t.” Yes I have.” No…” Because of this quandary, I suffered from PIMS for over a year, taking intermittent doses of Imodium but never actually getting cured. When I finally did find a doctor familiar with the disease, I was, to put it mildly, most relieved. Ecstatic, even. Solid shits at last! Hallelujah! It had taken a month of daily dosages of Tetracycline and Folic Acid, but it had done the trick. I’ve mentioned this disease because if you are unfortunate enough to contract it, you’ll have some idea of how to get shot of it.

Well, that’s it. Unsettling? Yes. Unpleasant? Yes, to say the least. But, something that may just mean the difference between months of discomfort, and good health. And on that upbeat note I’ll sign off, with a promise that my next blog post will on a nice, wholesome, family-oriented topic. 


In my new book, EFL minus the B.S. (now on Amazon) I have touched on this theme, along with many others. In the book you’ll find answers to these questions: How can I get an overseas English-teaching job? Why in the hell would I want to get an overseas teaching job? How can I survive that job once I’ve got it?

Tuesday, 18 June 2013



Living in a corrupt country requires a few mental adjustments on the part of the expat. Just how do you deal with the corrupt practices you encounter daily? The demands for bribes from every bureaucrat you need to process a visa, a work permit, a driving licence? Under-the-counter payments for permission to rent a new residence, buy a house, open a business, to get married, or to register a birth? Do you refuse to pay out? Do you try and negotiate? Do you indignantly report the demand to the bureaucrat’s superiors? Do you meekly agree and pay up?

You could always refuse to pay out, of course, but this invariably has one result. Your request for a visa, licence, document or whatever is shelved, and nothing will be done about it. Ever. It’s all done very nicely though. “Well Sir, your request is under consideration. Please come back in three months for the decision.” Three months later: “Your request is under consideration. Please come back in….”

You could try negotiating the ‘settlement fee’. This is occasionally successful; I’ve done it a few times, but often been confronted by a fresh demand when I go back to collect the papers.

Dobbing in the corrupt official to his superior is usually not worth your time and energy. One time in the Jakarta Immigration office I took umbrage at what I thought was an unreasonable demand, and loudly demanded to talk to the boss. The boss was pleasant and sympathetic, but ended up telling me that Mr Haryanto’s request for $50 was indeed wrong; the correct processing fee was actually $65.(Indonesia holds pride of place in the list of the most corrupt countries in Asia.)

I once asked the boss of my school how he dealt with corruption. “It’s no big deal,” he said. “It’s not worth getting hot and bothered over. I just look on it as a kind of informal taxation. Which would you rather do? Pay the official taxation rate of 28%, or bribe the tax inspectors and pay 18%?”

I went through the usual stages that any expat goes through. At first I bridled at the thought of paying out any corruption money, and fought it every inch of the way. That got me absolutely nowhere. Then I began begrudgingly paying out, and simmered with indignation for the next few days. Finally I adopted the “c’est la vie” attitude, and paid up without a second’s thought. If $85 is what it takes to get the deal done, then $85 it is. Go with the flow. It’s the recipe for a trouble-free stay, equally true whether it be corruption payouts, over-charging, perceived injustices, inferior working conditions, and the like. Just don’t let it bother you. You’re not back home now. You’re in a country where this kind of thing is normal, accepted, and a fact of daily life. Get used to it.


My new book, EFL minus the B.S. (now available on Amazon) is my take on the English teaching game world-wide. From applying for a job, living overseas, work permits, management and mismanagement, classroom dynamics, teens’ and children’s classes, to sex and the single teacher.