Sunday, 10 June 2007

Being a South African teacher in Taiwan - Part Three

So, to the heart of the matter. After all is said and done, who is qualified to be an EFL/ESL teacher, specifically in Taiwan, but anywhere really?

The Market in Taiwan

Firstly, the customer is always right, right? Maybe not right, but if the customer doesn't like the product, the customer will take his business elsewhere. I think it's fair to say that in Taiwan the majority of folks think of North America when they think of English speakers. In fact, in most parts of the world the USA has come to epitomise, not only Western culture, but the English language. Other than the erstwhile British Empire, and what now remains of it in the likes of Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, it is arguable that no other country has done more in terms of the spread and usage of the English language. And I think this may have more to do with the American entertainment industry than just mere economic power.
That, and the threat of the PRC hanging over this island and the veil of US military protection (to whatever degree) it is no small wonder that when locals think of English learning they think of America, and by proximity, Canada. The fact that schools often list speakers from Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as native speakers actually argues against the oft made point that Taiwanese are ignorant of the "world outside" their country.
The converse is true, however, in the thought that only blond, blue eyed whites from these countries are genuine native speakers of English.

Be that as it may, usually preference is given to North Americans, and even when "other" English speaking countries are listed the disclaimer; North American accent preferred, is invariably listed. And when one speaks to North Americans of colour, one quickly comes to realise that this preference is actually for; white North Americans.
One can argue about racism, ignorance, prejudice, ageism, national preference and not really get anywhere. The fact remains: commercial schools are selling an image and they are perfectly within their rights to sell whichever image is going to net the maximum amount of dollars.

However, this is not the purpose of this post. My purpose is to define who is qualified to actually teach EFL/ESL. I think, by now, we are all familiar with whom the Taiwanese marketplace refers, regardless of morality issues. As it has been suggested that South Africans are somehow inferior wrt to the English language, and that my thread centres around that misconception, I'd like to start there. What follows is based on my own experiences and observations and has no scientific basis whatsoever.

South African English Teachers

Officially, South Africa has eleven official languages. However, to actually implement this would be a logistic and financial nightmare. As a result, the de facto official language is English and is a required subject in all schools through all 12 grades. To matriculate in South Africa and to not be fluent in English you would have to be a complete linguistic moron. Furthermore, you wouldn't be able to function in South African society at any level and would be economically marginalised to the point of starvation.

Of the South Africans found teaching in Taiwan the majority are white South Africans. White South Africans are largely sub divided into two groups; English and Afrikaans. However, other white groups include; Portuguese, Greek, Italian, Russian and other recent (past 100 years) immigrants from Europe. These groups usually speak their native languages at home and English everywhere else. In South Africa you will find fourth or fifth generation Portuguese who still speak Portuguese at home. So, on all South African forms where language is listed, people always list their home language (first language) and other languages.

from an accent point of view the following main accents may be found, which aren't necessarily related to ethnic group as you may find blacks raised in environments where they have distinct British type accents. One most expats may have seen is the black lady who hosts CNN's Focus on Africa show. The main accent types are: Afrikaner, African, Coloured, South African English and Indian. These accents may be either very strong (the minority) or relatively minor withing the general SA English accent. Most people speak with a relatively "flat" accent characterised by a weak "r" (i.e. not rolled in the American fashion) and a more England type "a" pronunciation in words like "can't" rather than the American way. Other than that I think a casual observer might find that the average Saffa tends to speak a brand of English which is a blend of American and British in terms of how some words are pronounced and in terms of which words are used. An example of this may be the use of the word soccer. Here we tend to use the American term and see Football as meaning American Football.

So, when one is looking for a "Native English speaker" in South Africa you are really only looking at white South Africans of British descent, or coloured (SA gvt term to classify people of mixed race) South Africans who speak English and not Afrikaans at home.
That being said, the difference between a SA "Native English speaker" and second language speaker of European descent (not Afrikaners) are zero. Furthermore, the majority of Afrikaners and other South Africans under the age of 30 have learnt English and have spoken it from a very early age, usually at a stage when the mother tongue isn't even ingrained yet. This is due to the fact that most women work and children are left at day care centres and kindergartens (creche) where English is usually spoken anyway.
You may find people from poorer areas where the kids are raised by a grandmother until school going age, which is usually 6/7, and even then the preferred language of instruction is English. This is especially the case among non-whites who openly encourage and want English based education for their kids.
So, in truth, the myth of the heavily accented "Sef Efriken" is so far on the way out as to be almost no existent anymore, especially amongst the younger generation.

North Americans

As far as Americans are concerned, to be honest, there are so many deviations and and localised accents in the States that to advertise that your school teaches American English almost becomes a lie. Canadians seem to have a more standard accent across the board, but even that isn't entirely true. Canadians themselves often enjoy poking fun at folks from New Foundland (Newfies), whom I can only assume are the Canadian equivalent of the heavily accented Afrikaner of years past.
Furthermore, to say that someone who holds a US or Canadian passport is a native English speaker is a bald faced lie. In North America, as is the case in SA, several ethnic and linguistic groups co-exist. Gone are the days of a WASP America. In fact, I've even heard said by Americans that Spanish is fast becoming more widely spoken than English, especially in the South Western US.
I have personally worked with French Canadians that have had great difficulty following an English conversation once it gets past the basics and into an in depth discussion on any topic. One such fellow used to regularly come up to me before class and ask about basic grammar rules.

Britain, Australia and New Zealand

I would expect that Australia is the "English" speaking country that is least affected by non-first language English speaking immigrants. I would wager that 95% or more Australians are native English speakers. I would be willing to bet that this is almost true of New Zealand where at least 80% of the population would be native speakers. If anyone has a problem with teachers from these two countries it's probably a question of how strong the Kiwi or Aussie accent is regarding the individual.
But then again, in my experience I've found that Aussies and Kiwi's are just slightly higher on the preferential ladder than Saffa's and sometimes not even. Just further illustrates how silly the situation is...

As far as the Brits and Irish are concerned. Well, I've heard Irishmen with good clear accents and some where this wasn't quite the case. As far as accent differences go, England's the place to see. Some English cities have more deviations than some countries. Apart from some of the London accents, the accents up north are probably the strongest. To my ear at any rate. That's not to say I can't understand the folks from up there (or from Scotland), I just have to pay more attention when they speak.

Dude! What's your freaking point, already??

The fact that some foreigners seem to think that their particular little brand of English is superior or "The Standard" is beyond dispute. However, those anal retentives don't influence Taiwanese MoE policy, hire teachers or make the rules. So who cares?
The problem comes in the door hand in hand with ignorance. Parents perceive and the schools perpetuate the idea that they are teaching the kids 美語 or American English. This in itself is ridiculous as no such thing exists. There is just English. Furthermore, in America, as in any other English speaking country, there are regional variations in language use, slang and accent. This doesn't matter very much and is one of the reasons that English has become the prominent global language. English is adaptable. If you're from Johannesburg, SA you'll be able to understand John from Arkansas and Mr Naidoo from Calcutta. This is not always the case with Chinese. And perhaps due to this, the Taiwanese don't always realise that regional accent differences don't really matter much. And besides native speakers, the reason for learning a language is to be able to communicate. If you have trouble communicating in English with an Afrikaner or a French Canadian you're going to be in a tight spot anywhere.

When you really get down to it, there really is little difference between English spoken anywhere in the world. The major difference lies in American spelling vs British spelling. Other than that, how one pronounces a few vowels isn't cause for rejecting someone as an EFL teacher. If that were so, Taiwan would have to choose one US regional accent type and only hire teachers who can prove they were born and raised in that area. Otherwise the entire argument as to who is qualified to teach English based on origin and accent becomes moot.

For my part, I don't think someone needs to be a native speaker to teach English. I know a guy from Jordan who has been teaching here for over 20 years and some of his students are currently teaching. I know some of them and there is nothing wrong with their English.
However, if one wishes to persist with only Native speakers that will be about as hard to enforce and check as traffic rules are on Taiwan's roads.
Surely an interview and a perusal of a potential employee's qualifications should be enough to see whether an individual is in fact qualified (academically) and able (clear accent) to teach English.


David said...

Excellent article. I think another point which learners of ESL miss is that very often they will be using English to communicate with others for whom English is not their first language. e.g. If a Taiwanese goes to Korea they will probably mostly use English to communicate with Koreans.

Bismarck in Tainan said...

That's a very good point, because most of the worlds English speakers aren't first language speakers. Even in English speaking countries large parts of the population aren't first language speakers.

Interesting thing, one of the guys that I've met in Taiwan with the best spoken Englsih was a chap I originally thought was from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. He didn't look very Indian so I asked him where he was from. Perhaps Indonesia or Malaysia, no? As it turns out, he was Taiwanese and spoke with an Indian type accent because his teacher was from Bangladesh, but this guy's English was flawless.

It doesn't really matter what accent you speak with, as long as your listening and speaking is good, clear and understandable.

Thanks for the comment.

Li Nan Mian; Beijing. said...

Well, this one hits closest to home with me I would have to say.
I have been living on the mainland for the last 5 years, and one of the largest and most common mis-conceptions about South Africans.

""Why are you not black."" Most Chinese people are inadvertanly racist. But then it takes alot of time and effort to explain that ya da ya da my great-grandie....x 15 jumped ship and swam instead of going to Australia.

So I have to agree, it is not just that side of the straight.

Bismarck in Tainan said...

Thanks for the comment, Li Nan Mian.
I hear you. Have the same problem here. So, because it's such a schlep to explain the same canoodle all the time, when people ask me or my wife where I'm from we just say, "Australia."

Leigh said...

Interesting read.

I had the same opinion and experience teaching in Korea almost ten years ago. Being a New Zealander I found out that I was being paid less than Americans and Canadians. Apparently due to our less desirable brand of English.
I don't think I'd ever bother I now teach in Japan where I've never had such issues. I don't think the Japanese seem to care that much. I don't think I'll ever bother teaching in the likes of Korea, Taiwan or China again. Very naive and somewhat primitive attitudes to language/English study.

I like the look of Taiwan for a visit though. What would you recommend to see and do there?

Bismarck in Tainan said...

Hi Leigh,

First off, thanks for the comment.

If you come to Taiwan I suggest you take in the sights in Taipei first. Taipei 101, the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Memorial and of course the amazing National Palace Museum.

Tainan has several old heritage sites, including the oldest Confucius temple on Taiwan, the old Dutch fort at Anping with several good places to visit in that area, including the old German and English trading houses which have been fully restored.

Kaohsuing has some nice places, also, but I'm less familiar with the city.

Kenting is a must if you travel here. Especially if the weather is good. Some nice beaches and good mountain walks, the old English built Kenting lighthouse and a national park with some indigenous wildlife (mostly birds). Then a trip up the East coast to Taidong and Hualien would also be a bonus. Probably the most beautiful part of the island. Hualien has a nice waterpark, although it's probably a bit guache by western standards, but the Taroko gorge national park more than makes up for it. Then you could head further up to Yilan, Keelung (pronounced Jilong) and see the sights there.

In a hurry you could get around the island in a month while still having enough time to enjoy everything, but I reckon three to four weeks would be best.

Bismarck in Tainan said...

Oops, I meant two weeks. Although a month is best...