Wednesday, 30 October 2013


Words to send shivers down an EFL teacher’s spine.

Everyone learns their mother tongue within their first couple of years. And they do it without the help of teachers or text books. After two years their grammar may not be all that perfect, but it will become so in the next two or three years. And their vocabularies will increase day by day. All this minus any teacher or book to help with the process. Fast forward a decade or two. Now he or she has decided (or the parents have decided) it’s time to learn another language. It’ll be English, in all likelihood. This should be easy, for now they have a patient, experienced teacher and the latest text book to help with the task. 

This time the learning process will take a helluva lot of more work than first time around. But eventually, after a lot of hard study and determination, English will become their second language. Mission accomplished! I take my hat off to them. Acquiring a second language is not an easy task. I know. I’ve tried it, and succeeded with only one of the two languages I chose.

Yes – first language - second language. The learning processes are far removed from each other, but most learners cope and eventually succeed. Most, but not all. There are some students who just can’t assimilate a second language no matter how hard they or their teachers try. Slow learners or problem learners, let’s call them. Every teacher will encounter them. Let’s talk about slow learners first.

Why exactly are they trailing far behind their classmates in the learning process? It could be a matter of low intelligence, but not necessarily so. They seem to have some kind of mental block to new vocabulary, or to new grammar points, or to English pronunciation. Most often to all three. And it’s not for the want of trying on the learner’s part. They try and they try and they try, yet still they’ve forgotten the vocabulary in an instant, they mangle the grammar beyond recognition, and their pronunciation sounds more akin to Latvian than English. As one teacher commented to me, “It’s as if Chang has reached his learning plateau, and there’s not a hope in hell he’ll ever break through it.”

What does the teacher do? Slow the lesson down to the extent that Chang is able to cope? No – impractical. It’s not fair on the other students for one thing. And in many cases it would mean slowing down to the point of immobility. Forge on at your normal teaching rate and let Chang flounder along in a sea of incomprehensibility? That’s probably the best solution, but some teachers feel that rather than a solution it’s a cop-out. Chang has paid the same tuition fees as his classmates, and to cast him to the winds is an abrogation of the teacher’s duty. There are some managements who agree with this latter school of thought and who set up a special one-to-one class for the slow student. This measure, though well-meaning, invariably turns out to be no help at all. The slow student is overwhelmed by the sudden intense attention he’s getting, and the block becomes even more pronounced. So what is the solution? Sorry, there isn’t one. Some people can learn a second language, and some can’t. It’s as simple as that.

Now, problem students. Here, the problem is not a language block; it’s a personality disorder that has the student’s mind in its firm grip, and their preoccupation with this disorder rules out any input from you or anyone else. It may be attention deficit disorder. These are the students whose attention spans last all of thirty seconds. The students who can’t sit still; fiddling with anything at hand, legs constantly jiggling, who come out with random, unrelated questions, and spout incessant rubbish all through the lesson. Or it may be unmanageable inferiority complexes. The students who will never look anyone in the eye, will talk in the barest of whispers, will hunch themselves up in their chairs to make themselves appear insignificant and near invisible. Or students with aggressive tendencies, or eating disorders (Japanese girls specialize in them), or dyslexia. So, what is the teacher to do when one of these unwelcome unfortunates appear in his or her class? My advice is: appeal to the management to get the problem student transferred out of the class and preferably out of the school altogether. These people have no place in a language class, disrupting lessons and driving everyone to distraction. They should be in special-needs schools, being dealt with people who have training in such things. And that doesn’t include your garden-variety EFL teacher. Sorry.


EFL minus the B.S. is the best book I’ve ever written, and the second-to-best book I’ve ever read.  

Saturday, 26 October 2013



To work overseas, you need the right documentation. Well, it’s logical, innit? You can’t have every Tom, Dick, and Harry wandering into the country and getting a job, now can you? There’s just one small problem here. Many a host country just doesn’t want to issue you with the right documentation. Why is that I wonder? I have two theories about it. One, the authorities resent seeing expatriates earning far bigger money than the locals. Two, by making the red tape required to secure a work permit or resident permit as arduous and complicated as possible, the applicant will be willing to shell out tons of moolah in order to get it done. Moolah which goes towards the bureaucrat’s down-payment on a new motorbike.

Some of the bigger and better schools will assist with teacher documentation, employing a full-time Documentation Person to get it done. All the teacher needs to do is provide copies of CV, references, qualifications, health clearances, police clearances, birth certificates, parents’ birth certificates, pets’ birth certificates, milkman’s birth certificate…. Oh, and don’t forget to get all those documents verified, authenticated, validated, stamped and translated. That’s a sworn translation, thank you very much.

If your school doesn’t provide documentation assistance, then it’s up to you to untangle the red tape and jump through all the hoops to get yourself legal. My advice? Don’t bother. It’s a sure path to stress, frustration, sleepless nights and eventual dementia and insanity. No, instead of that, work without a work permit. That’s what most teachers do. It may be easier said than done in much of Europe, the Mid-East and China, but elsewhere it’s par for the course. It’s said that in Brazil 95% of the expat teachers there are working on tourist visas. Now there’s a chance, a very remote chance, that your school will be chosen as a scapegoat in a documentation crackdown, but like I say, that’s pretty unlikely. Every now and then the newspapers will announce an imminent crackdown on illegal workers. If you miss it in the papers, you’ll see your boss working himself into a lather, or hear about it from troubled fellow-teachers. In the Asian country where I currently work, there have been five much-heralded crackdowns announced in the past five years. Not one of them has affected me an iota. I’m still happily employed sans paperwork. As are 90% of my fellow-teachers. The sole reason for the threatened crackdowns is to up the ante on the bribe money that school managements or permit applicants have to pay.

Work permit? Schmirk permit!


My new book, EFL minus the B.S., has a country-by-country break-down of countries you can teach EFL in, and also includes chapters on Documentation, Management and Mismanagement, and Applying for a Job. EFL minus the B.S. is available on Amazon as of next month.

Saturday, 19 October 2013



“Oh, um John, could you step into my office for a moment?”
“Sure. Wassup?”
“We’ve had a student complaint about your teaching from Class J27.”
“Really! I thought J27 was going quite well.”
“Well, they say you aren’t giving them enough opportunities to talk.”
“Oh God! They get spoken pairwork, group work, unison drilling, and question and answer sessions. As far as open discussions or free conversation is concerned, no, they aren’t talking. They can’t. They only have a total of about twenty English words between them. They don’t have the vocabulary, the grammar, the sentence patterns or the confidence to do any unprompted talking. I’ve tried it, and they dry up after thirty seconds.”
“Yes. Well, in future, please give them more opportunities to talk.”

Aaargh! Student complaints! Bosses give knee-jerk reactions whenever they hear a complaint, no matter how small, how unsubstantiated or how unjustified it is. The customer is always right; thus consequently the teacher is always wrong. And student complaints are elicited, welcomed almost, by the use of Student Feedback Questionnaires. Examine one of these closely and you’ll see it resembles a loaded gun aimed at the teacher’s head. “Does the teacher explain grammar points clearly?” Five ‘yes’ answers; five ‘not so clearly’ answers. “Um, John. Could you step in here…?” “Is your English improving as much as you’d like?” Five ‘yes’, three ‘perhaps’, three ‘no’. “Um, John….” The questionnaire never includes questions like “Is the school managed well?” or “Is your classroom too damn hot?” No, no, no, that could lead to loss of face.

So what does the teacher do when confronted by what he or she feels is an unjustified complaint? Argue? Hotly defend yourself? Say “OK, I’ll try and do better”? None of these is very successful or satisfying. My policy is:
1.       Go home.
2.       Have a beer.
3.       Forget it.

Sunday, 6 October 2013



In the first part I aired my thoughts on life and work in Indonesia, Thailand, and South Korea. I’ll now venture a little further afield and give you my spin on what I experienced working in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and New Zealand. Now I must stress that my impressions of every country I’ve worked in are subjective. It’s almost impossible to be objective in situations like this. Ten people can work in Country A, and end up with ten entirely different perspectives on that country. Also, my forays into many of the countries I describe were quite a few years ago. And things do change, usually for the better.

First, China. I worked there in the early eighties. This country can be summed up in two words: crowded and busy. The Chinese are often too busy to waste time exchanging pleasantries or getting to know you. They’re far more intent on wheeling and dealing, and planning money-making ventures. There’s plenty of EFL jobs available in China; every Tom, Dick and Hally is intent on acquiring English; the better to execute their money-making ventures with. In a Chinese EFL school, it’s rare that you’ll be asked to teach a complete lesson. The native-speaking teacher’s role is to teach listening and speaking skills only; stuff like grammar and writing is the Chinese teacher’s role, and this makes the job less satisfying for most EFL teachers. Work contracts are not always honored; managements view these as general guidelines, not necessarily indicators of your actual working conditions. You’ll find the school bosses and your fellow Chinese teachers remarkably taciturn and uncommunicative. That’s not because they are taciturn and uncommunicative, but because they are reluctant to expose their own poor speaking and listening skills.

 One surprising revelation for me when I was teaching in China was how far apart our cultures are. It’s hard to find any mutual reference point to base a conversation on. Britney Spears, Elvis Presley? Nope, never heard of them. The Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, Greenpeace? Huh? Who? What? Bill Gates? Yes, we’ve heard of him. And Ronald McDonald, too. But JFK, Sean Connery, and the Beatles? Nope, sorry. Another thing. Chinese kids are cute and cuddly, but most display the ‘Little Emperor’ syndrome; a kick-back from three decades of the ‘single child’ policy. The kids are loud, demanding, and spoilt, and determined to make themselves heard no matter what.
You’ll need a thick skin to survive a year in China. While China isn’t my top choice for a place to work, there are old China Hands who wouldn’t agree. They’ve worked there for years, and absolutely love it. I mean it’s all subjective, ain’t it.

Next, Hong Kong. I did my stint there in 1982. A beautiful, fascinating place. The weather isn’t much to get excited about; drizzly, humid days are as common as hot days. Your first problem on arrival in Hong Kong is finding suitable accommodation. Tiny, unfurnished, cramped apartments can be found at a price, but it will take days or weeks of frustrating hunting to track one down. I set myself up in the International Youth Accommodation Center, (I don’t know if it still exists), a cramped hostel with tiers of bunk beds spaced a foot apart. Privacy was non-existent, noise was at a premium, and my clothes kept disappearing from the washing line. At this hostel were four other EFL teachers, two Africans, one Indian, and one Brit. Through them I was able to get myself a number of teaching hours at various hole-in-the-wall schools, but no school that was offering a sustainable number of hours at a stretch. Students in Hong Kong come across as rather confrontational. There’s nothing they like better than to challenge the teacher on small points of complex grammar.
As I mentioned before, Hong Kong is a beautiful and fascinating place, but after a few months you might find the beauty and fascination starting to pall. The night-life, at first tantalising and promising, is expensive and much of a muchness. And it’s only a matter of time before the Star Ferry ride from Hong Kong island to Kowloon becomes hum-drum.

Next, New Zealand, where I’ve worked on and off for a dozen or so years. Here, (as in any English-speaking country), language schools are well regulated in fact some might say over-regulated. Everything from school facilities, student guarantees and insurance, complaint procedures, fee protection schemes, to teachers’ working conditions must meet minimum quality standards; standards which are rigorously monitored and enforced by various government watch-dogs.
Unlike overseas EFL classes, in the West you’ll have multinational classes to teach. This can be an advantage, as the students will be less inclined to revert to their native language in class; their fellow students could well come from half a dozen different countries. Occasionally you’ll get a little strife when these nationalities are mixed together, (once during the Iraq-Iran war I taught a class that had an Iraqi and an Iranian in it), and Chinese and Korean students rarely see eye-to-eye, but usually these little conflicts are manageable. Mixed nationality classes can be very rewarding for the students; I have seen many lasting cross-cultural friendships blossom. Perhaps the first step towards better inter-cultural understanding and world peace.
Now, Vietnam. (I came six years ago, and I’m still here.) Beautiful country, friendly people, horrifying traffic. Vietnam is a communist country, but there’s little to remind you of that fact. Capitalism rules. Every second Vietnamese has converted his front room to a coffee shop, or built a little mobile shop on wheels to sell trinkets, grilled pork, seafood, or noodles from. And those not engaged in peddling their wares are intent on learning English. There is no shortage of work for the EFL teacher, especially in Saigon and Hanoi.  Or any biggish city, for that matter. However, there is a shortage of well run, reputable schools. Three out of four are slip-shod, disorganized, and intent on separating students from their money, and shafting their expat teaching staff while they’re about it. 
Vietnamese students are mostly eager and hard-working. They bear no grudge against the country that bombed the hell out of their country three decades ago and left them the legacy of agent orange. The Vietnamese population is mostly under 30 years of age, and for them the Vietnam War (or American War as they know it) is ancient history. If you can rise above the preponderance of badly run schools and fix your focus on your students, you’ll find Vietnam a charming place to work.


In my book EFL minus the B.S. there are chapters on Teaching Methodologies, Linguistics, Students I Have Met, and Bosses I Have Met, along with teaching tips for different age levels.