The following notes are merely my own informal observations from several years of teaching ESL. The problems mentioned below certainly do not apply to every ESL school in the world; they are only tendencies, but they are common enough that they need to be examined. In terms of these issues, if there is any broad distinction to be made it is only between countries where English is the dominant language versus countries where it is a foreign language.

The main problems with ESL schools begin with four issues that might be loosely described as “methodological”: lack of discipline, lack of real testing, lack of real method, and lack of sequence.

(1) By “lack of discipline” I mean that in many schools students are allowed to wander in and out of the classroom — arriving late or skipping classes. The criteria for marking should take attendance and punctuality into account, to the same extent that these matters are important in the job world that students plan to enter one day.

(2) By “lack of testing” I mean that students are evaluated — in terms of both their initial placement and their final achievement — in ways that are largely subjective, intuitive, and vague. The lack of precise testing is due mainly to the lack of real teaching method; the two problems therefore tend to be circular.

(3) By “lack of real method” I mean that lessons must be restricted to what is called the “communicative method” or “communicative approach,” based on a doctrine that is hard to describe because it is so fuzzy, but which seems to espouse “real life” versus “grammar and spelling,” with the result that students never learn either proper grammar or proper spelling. It takes twenty years to learn to speak a first language properly, but the same process should not be reflected in the much shorter process of learning a second language.

(4) By “lack of sequence” I mean that classes often operate with “continuous intake.” Students can enroll in a class at any time, so that every student is at a different level of learning. Again, this error is perpetuated by the “communicative method,” whereas a more grammar-oriented program would take into consideration the fact that, for grammar to be comprehended, it must be taught in a particular sequence and with distinct starting points.

There are two driving forces behind the “communicative method.” The first is that it requires little mental effort, for either teachers or students. Teachers with only a degree in some obscure but basically empty discipline can disguise pointless dialogue as a fashionable teaching method, while students derive an illusory pleasure from the fact that they can easily become very fast speakers of very bad English.

The second driving force is the apotheosis of the “native speaker,” who is often an inexpensive but inadequate candidate for the job. I have worked with both native-speaker teachers and with teachers who learned it as a second language; usually it is the latter who have the best grasp of the language, and I say that as a native speaker myself. Teachers who say “for you and I” may be native speakers but they are not experts in the language.

It is curious to note that the four above-listed problems have one thing in common — down below, on the bottom line. For the people who run the program, the quantity of students may seem more profitable than the quality of the program. That secret agenda may be based on a misunderstanding of profitability, however, since serious learners of English would soon walk away from the average ESL class and spend their money elsewhere.

The “communicative method” is not in itself a bad thing. But when a teacher is told to walk into a classroom jammed with fifty uniformed but rebellious teenagers and apply the “communicative method,” including “student-oriented” “group activities,” “pair work,” and “role plays,” in the middle of an August heat wave, it is obvious that the contract fee is the only genuine “methodology” in operation.

Beyond these four problems there are three others that might be vaguely described as more “social” in nature: working conditions of teachers, patronization of students, and student motivation.

(5) At least in English-speaking countries, ESL-teaching is often tacitly regarded as merely a second income, or — to be blunt — as an income for married women whose husbands are the real breadwinners. As a consequence, teachers rarely get proper raises, they are expected to deal with substandard working conditions, and they are hired and fired as casually as if they were day-laborers.

(6) Another social matter is that adult students are often patronized, treated as if they were children. They are looked upon as if they were mentally subnormal, or as if they were a herd to be milked and pastured. Actually, in English-speaking countries many government-sponsored ESL classes can be dumping grounds for adults with low IQs, trapped forever in a low-budget limbo, and the classroom activities are then nothing more than a time-filler.

(7) Of all the social issues, however, the most critical is often that of student motivation. I am not using the word “motivation” in a vaguely moral sense, but in a strictly psychological one: I mean not so much “motivation” as “motive.” Human beings operate in terms of reinforcement — reward and punishment. Where these are lacking, there is no response. The truth is that learning a language might result in a good job, a good marriage, a good home. It is tangible rewards such as those that can make a difference, not some abstract “level of motivation.”

The frequent lack of reward for students is not solely due to the fact that the average ESL attendance certificate is a worthless piece of paper. It is also due to the fact that young people nowadays are entering a rather grim world: there are problems of politics (ubiquitous warfare), economics (an increasing gap between the rich and the poor), ecology (diminishing resources such as petroleum and fresh water), and communications (oligarchic news media that present only half-truths). For many students, therefore, the future seems a long dark tunnel. At the same time, they are not likely to respect teachers if the latter are seen as part of the same group of overseers that has made such a mess of the world.

The problem of motivation varies with the type of student. For schoolchildren in non-English-speaking countries, the problem is that they fail to see the use of learning any language but the one they were born into, and in reality the under-achievers may never have a use for English. It should also be remembered that compulsory education is, at the best of times, an infringement of individual liberty. For university students, attending ESL classes in an English-speaking country is often merely an excuse for a vacation, paid for by their parents. For workers, on the other hand, an evening ESL class is often an excessive burden on an already overloaded schedule. For impoverished immigrants, attendance at an ESL class may be nothing but an annoying stipulation for receiving welfare payments.

The world of ESL has become an assemblage of ritual and ceremony, with little attention to its ultimate purpose. Employers, teachers, and students spend far too much time trying to dupe one another. The daily goal may be deception, distraction, or just plain cash, but is rarely that of the transmission of language. There is so little openness in educational institutions that the relation between management and staff is largely one of disguise and espionage, servility and sabotage. The perpetual incongruity between theory and practice is a forbidden topic of discussion. So far has ESL become merely a business that anyone who points out students’ actual misuse of language is looked upon as hopelessly provincial, as if only a fool would insist that students “learn” a language rather than “acquire” it, to use the modern buzzwords.

Such are the problems, and if I seem rather negative my excuse is that we must understand the errors before they can be corrected. The road to an answer may begin at the point where teachers explain to their students that the use of a global language such as English, while not solving all the world’s dilemmas, may at least increase the possibility of friendship and understanding among the world’s many cultures.

Students need to acquire “language consciousness,” on the analogy of the Marxist term “class consciousness,” and this consciousness can be developed by helping students to realize that there are vast and amazing patterns among the world’s many languages. All languages consist of words and sentences. All languages have parts of speech (at least four — nouns, verbs, adjectives, and pre- or post-positions), divided into designators and formators (form-words, markers). All languages have sentences with a subject and a predicate; in almost every language, the subject normally comes before the object, although the verb can be anywhere. All languages have declarative, imperative, and interrogatory forms. All languages have questions of the yes-no type and the “que- [wh-]’” type. All languages have roughly similar phonemes. And so on. The human mind works largely by finding patterns, and it is our duty as teachers to make those patterns obvious.

Administrators, teachers, and students need to open their eyes and realize that language-awareness is meant neither as punishment nor as amusement. It may even be something holy that raises us somewhat closer to the angels. We need to return to the world of Chaucer’s Clerk:

“Gladly would he learn and gladly teach.”

About the author: Peter Goodchild is the author of ‘Survival Skills of the North American Indians’ (Chicago Review Press). Click here to mail him.