English in dollars and sense

@mk_ELT, “Piggy Banks,
British Museum,”April 28, 2012
via Flicker, Creative Commons Attribution

 Recently I’ve been a little busy doing a bunch of readings for my dip TESOL.  If you’re not familiar with the dip TESOL, it’s an advanced English teaching license comparable to the DELTA.  It’s module based and I’m currently working on my last module, “The Teaching and Learning Context.”  And I’m working on the first section of the module, “The social and political context.”  Most of the articles I’m reading are concerned with the wider socio-political context in which language learning takes place and how it impacts language programs and individual learners.  In the grand scheme of things, if I’m going to get a higher qualification, I think it’s important to know about how government policies, utilization of scarce resources, and the general socio-political environment effects what I can and cannot do in my classroom.  But many of the articles I have read use macro-economic principles like inefficient use of resources or income inequality to make their case for urging teachers to consider the possibility that English language education might not be a net positive.  I’m going to use Tollefson’s (2000) “Policy and Ideology in the Spread of English,” to address some general fallacies and shortcomings that I see in many of the articles.  I’m not picking on Tollefson for any particular reason.  In general, I agree with most of what he’s saying, and his prose is pretty decent as well.  Still, here’s what stood out as problematic:

–         Tollefson cites Pattanayal to point out that a whole lot of money has been spent on English education in India but only 4% of the population actually “knows” English.    One of my favorite economists, Paul Krugman, often points out that economics is not a morality play.  It’s just a way to measure market efficiencies and try to maximize those efficiencies.  So while 4% seems like a really low, perhaps tragically low, number, and it LOOKS like a really miserable way to use resources, it doesn’t really tell us that much.  What we really want to know is if there is a correlation (causation would be nigh improbable to prove) between a country raising the English ability of a certain percentage of its population and things like GDP, or even better, standard of living.  If the English education and language policies in India results in 4% of the population “knowing” English (and yes, I realize that we don’t exactly know what “knowing” means in this context, but let’s just pass over that for now) and that 4% of English users is critical to an increase in overall productivity and earnings for India as a whole, than the 4%, of money is probably being well spent.  But Tollefson doesn’t look at those kind of numbers.  Which is a shame and I hope that someone will do this kind of analysis and try and figure out what kind of net effects English education programs have on a wider economy.

–         Tollefson Conflates the large number of countries with poorly designed and implemented English education programs with English education being an ineffective means for increasing people’s economic situation in general.  This is loosely related to the point above.  Let’s say that country Abcde, along with having a scarcity of vowels in it’s name, also has no roads and no cars.  In general, as an economic principle, higher population mobility is a good thing and leads to a maximization of resources.  Now lets say Abcde institutes a government policy to build roads and get people using them (this can be through buses and other mass transit, or by encouraging individuals to buy vehicles).  But the government is rife with corruption so the bridges tend to fall down every few months and the license system is also a disaster so thousands of people with no driving ability are put behind thousands of wheels.  What we end up with is thousands of people dying needlessly.  But that doesn’t mean that increasing the population’s mobility should get a bad rap.  The problem rests with the government, not the underlying principle of mobility.  In a similar way, there’s lots of evidence that free trade results in net economic benefits.  So if the development of English as the international language of global trade has been a crucial part of the success of free trade, and if a certain level of English ability is required for countries to effectively participate in free trade, then, like mobility, English education would be a good way for a country to maximize market efficiencies.  Poor implementation wouldn’t be case against English education or language policies per se, it would just be a case against a particular countries particular implementation of its policies.

–         Claiming that because affluent people in some countries have access to better English language education than people who must rely on public schools, it is English education which helps drive inequality.  If I were to say that in many of the poorest countries in the world, the only people who can afford decent medical care are rich people.  So when rich people get sick, they can go to a doctor, receive treatment, and get better.  Poor people on the other hand just get sicker.  This means that rich people who access the medical system can keep working and get even richer, while poor people who access the medical system often have to stop working or die and then they don’t earn anything at all.  But that doesn’t mean that medicine is the root of inequality.  In the same way, the limiting of proper education to an elite, while a miserable thing to do, isn’t the cause of inequality in a given country.

–         The final thing I want to discuss is counterfactuals.  Here is a pretty good introduction to counterfactuals.  In general, counterfactuals are just a way of framing a policy debate by trying to find examples of what would have happened if a particular policy (such as a language policy or country wide language education system) had not been implemented.  Its really just a great big game of “what if…”, and it can help tease out a number of arguments against your hypothesis.  While problematic, counterfactuals do have their use and unfortunately, they are almost entirely missing from every article I’ve read.  If you want to make the case that in some countries English language policies have been a net-negative, you should probably ask yourself what would have happened if there had been no such language policy in the first place and then hunt around for similar countries with no such policy.  For example, you could look at former Soviet Union countries which have instituted certain English language policies and compare them with countries which have not and see what the data looks like.  I wish I had the time to do the research myself.  Some of the former Soviet countries have a thriving IT sector and I wonder how much that has to do with English education policies.  Anyway, it would be nice to see some of the writers of English language policies wrestle with counterfactuals a bit and see how that struggle would impact their arguments.

–         Maybe you are reading this and thinking, “Kevin, you are a total schmuck!  You are only talking about the big picture, don’t you care about individuals?”  Well, you are totally right.  I am leaving out all discussion about individuals (and I also might be a schmuck, but I hope not).  But I’m leaving them out on purpose because I think when you bring up macro-issues such as how much a country spends on English education or broad based language policies, you need to look at effects of these decisions at a macro-level.  Do these policies have an impact on GDP?  Do they raise standards of living?  Do they alter rates of trade (perhaps shifting a country from a trade deficit to a trade surplus)?  Instead, most of these articles jump from the macro-level right to micro-level examples of language policy dysfunctions to try to say that macro-level policies might be a net-negative.  This I think is somewhat disingenuous.

I want to make as clear as possible that I don’t think that English teachers, or any teachers for that matter, should abdicate their responsibility to stand with their students.  As a teacher, I need to not only teach English, but also advocate for better education, access to quality learning opportunities, and to help create a space where the learners served can be a vital part of policy decisions and implementation.  I even believe that a language classroom is a great place to engage in critical discussions about what learning a language means for an individual, a community, and even a country as a whole.  But I also think that, as a profession, we need to be a bit more rigorous when we use the discourse of a different discipline in order to urge changes within our own discipline.  If we are going to point to the fact that countries have to spend a lot of money on English education (a point Tollefson makes again and again), lets crunch the appropriate numbers and find out if that money is well spent or not. Because simply connecting up the dots between “lots of money spent” and “lots of people still not proficient at English” tells us very little about why we got to where we are now, and even less about where to head next.

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