“Language education and global citizenship” (10) – Barriers in English course books – the Lao perspective

All Posts, Interviews, Research, The Lao teachers

Editor’s note: This is the sequel (and prequel) to Rebecca Dengler‘s article about “Intercultural barriers in “international” English course books“, the second article in our series “Language Education and Global Citizenship” and also the topic of her doctoral dissertation.
I first visited Savannakhet University (SKU) on 31 March 2017 during my “Fact-Finding Mission”, which was funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD, “Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst”), together with my (then-) research assistant Ms Heike Mueller. During our 10-day tour, we were chauffeured, escorted/supervised, and introduced to 26 different Institutions of Higher Education (HEI) in mid- and southern Laos by Mr Somlith Virivong, who was then the President of the Lao-German Technical College and an expert on Vocational Education.
He studied at Dresden University in the seventies, speaks fluent German and English, and was called to work for the Ministry of Education and Sports as Deputy-Head in the Department of Vocational Education shortly after our first encounter. Thank you very much, Mr Somlith, for opening so many doors to us in Lao P.D.R.!

 

We, the University of Education Karlsruhe (KUE) and SKU, subsequently established an official cooperation in 2018, which resulted in a Volunteer Teacher Programme and two Erasmus+ Mobility Programmes. We also held an International Symposium on the “Internationalization of Institutions of Higher Education” at SKU on 11 October 2019 (reports on this conference will be published on this blog shortly).

After a very interesting afternoon at SKU in March 2017 during our “Fact-Finding Mission”, Dr Sitha Khemmarath, Vice-President (Research Division) of SKU, invited us to stay another day. On this second day, Heike forged ties with the Food Science Faculty, which led to a fruitful cooperation and several teaching and research projects.

I spent that day with the English Department of the Faculty of Linguistics and started thinking about possible research topics to investigate together. The first thing that struck me when I was allowed to visit some classes was an incongruous teaching particularity1: The lecturers had been assigned to use international (or “international”) course books for teaching classes in English, but they were to teach young Lao students, many of them from the provinces, who had never had any contact with the English language or Western culture before. The books and the students did not match.

I thought it would be academically interesting (and practically useful) to investigate the structural reasons, the linguistic interferences (negative language transfer) of L1 (first language) onto L2  (second language) or L3 (third language),2 and the intercultural barriers for this ill fit.

The English lessons that I visited were largely spent on looking up the translations of the English words  in an electronical dictionary on one’s mobile, copying them into one’s exercise book, and then not having enough time left for much else, which meant the students did not seem to really understand the point of it all, and what those words signified (and to whom, and why this should matter to them). The lack of understanding and enthusiasm, I thought, was written all over their faces.
I hoped to interview the teachers on this matter one day, for starters.

Half a year later, during my research sabbatical and on my second visit to SKU in November 2017, I spent one week observing classes3 and then conducting workshops with groups of teachers in several faculties. For the workshop with the English Department, I offered the topic “Course books” and asked the teachers to bring the course books they were currently using to the workshop.

Mr Bouliane Keophoxay kindly started by giving a presentation about the problems of teaching and learning English at SKU.

 

Then we gathered around a table looking at the different books that had been brought along, and we discussed how one could evaluate course books, and which questions or criteria one would bring to such an analysis. We settled on the following three questions to begin with:
1. What is this book about, what are the teaching goals?
2. What is good about it (for you)? Which parts can you work with well?
3. What is not good about it (for you)? What difficulties does it present for your teaching?

One lecturer who held a B.A. degree had also brought along his research thesis for his Master Degree:

Towards the end of our round-table talk, I asked if anyone would volunteer to do a 1 or 2-minute book presentation to answer the three questions for the book they had brought, and whether I might be allowed to video-record this.

Here are the recorded answers of the following 7 lecturers from the English Department:

1. Mr Chanthalakone Souydalay on Essential Reading
2. Mr Vilapong Sitthideth on English for Socializing
3. Mr Khamlan Phommavongsa on Headway
4. Dr Phetsamone Khattiyavong on Thesis Writing
5. Mr Sonephet Keoduangsavaht on English for Presentations
6. Mr Thongter Lovanthack on English Pronunciation
7. Mr Onsy Pilavanh on English Grammar

 

 

The red thread that runs through all the answers is: “It’s difficult”, “there are many problems”, and “it’s too difficult”. Faculty Dean Dr Phetsamone Khattiyavong pinpointed her staff’s deliberations with her question: “What should we do?”

The other common feature was the absence of any suspicion that a Western international (or “international”) course book might be a major – or any – factor in this “difficulty”. The lecturers seemed to think they themselves were lacking, or the English language was too difficult, or even that their students “lacked motivation” or were “lazy” (especially when it came to reading, as Lao people supposedly do not like to read [cf. unpublished field notes]).

One might mention at this point that in Lao P.D.R., it is the Deans who decide on the course books to be used. However, they do not have access to a large variety of teaching materials or books, due to their modest budget and the absence of Amazon delivery services in their country (as well as the absence of credit cards and personal bank accounts). Dr Phetsamone, for instance, and also other Deans from the other universities and Colleges that we visited, reported they revert to free pdfs on the Internet, random donations, one bookshop in Thailand that specialises in English language material, and to material produced (or reproduced)4 by the National University of Laos (NUOL), which is shared with the other three universities in the country.

One should also mention that Lao lecturers who are motivated enough to look for other material on the Internet for enhancement of their lessons need to pay for their own notebooks and Internet (from very modest salaries). Free Wifi on campus is available to the university leaders and their administration, but not in staff rooms or offices (yet).

We are now investigating these and other related topics with our partners at SKU and in my “Global English(es) and Global Citizenship Education” course at KUE, in our conference and course papers, publications and Bachelor and Master theses and doctoral dissertations, as well as in our next Erasmus+ Mobility Programme (2020 – 2023) “Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship”. And we will keep you posted on our findings.

Thank you, SKU lecturers, for your kind permission to publish the recordings of your course book presentations.5 They will be viewed with great interest and respect.6

 

Text by I. Martin
Videos & photos by I. Martin

 

Notes

1 About the three “Ps” for decolonising teaching (“practicality, particularity, possibility”) cf. B. Kumaravedivelu (2001) “Toward a Postmethod Pedagogy“.

2 The summary of my paper on “English as a ‘Distant Language'”, presented at the International Conference of ADLES on “Des langues étrangères pour tous: didactique et méthodologie” in Lausanne (Switzerland) on 7 September 2018, will be published on this blog in the Series “Language Education and Global Citizenship Education” next year.

3 The classes taught in the English Department of the Faculty of Linguistics were: Thesis Writing, English for Socializing, Language Practice, Grammar Practice, Upper Intermediate Grammar, Pronunciation, Speaking, English for Tourism, Translation, Writing for Composition, Basic Writing. SKU also has a Faculty oF Education, which targets teacher education. I did another workshop with those lecturers later that week, got similar questions (“our textbooks are quite strong, but how can we help our students to manage?”), some hints regarding possible structural causes for the mismatch on the Lao side, and some attitude (“tomorrow never comes – there is no future”).

4 Mr Thongter refers to his book on pronunciation as a NUOL publication. Inside the NUOL cover, you may glimpse excerpts from an OUP publication.

5 My thanks also go to Rebecca Dengler for taking up the suggestion of this research topic for her doctoral dissertation, and to Phi Ha Nguen for drawing my attention to Kumaravedivelu’s Postmethod Pedagogy.

6 In 2021, in our “Language Education and Global Citizenship” series, a special focus will be “Global English(es)”, the “Decolonization of language”, and other related fields. The English Wikipedia entry on World Englishes traces the development of World Englishes from Kachru’s “Expanding Circles” to other, more decolonized models of World Englishes, e.g. Mc Arthur’s “Circle of World Englishes”, or Modiani’s model of “International English”.

 

References

Kumaravedivelu, B. (2001.). “Toward a Postmethod Pedagogy“. http://www.bkumaravadivelu.com/articles%20in%20pdfs/2001%20Kumaravadivelu%20Postmethod%20Pedagogy.pdf (last accessed on 30 December 2020).

Martin, I. (7.9.2018). “English as a distant language”. Des langues étrangères pour tous: didactique et méthodologie. First international conference of the L’Association en didactique des langues étrangères en Suisse (ADLES). Lausanne, Switzerland, 6-7 September 2018.

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