The (very) Portuguese writer José Saramago opened his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech with the words ‘The wisest man I have ever met didn’t know how to read or write’. The term for that in Portuguese is analfabetismo, or in English illiteracy. Saramago’s highfalutin homily about his illiterate grandfather, who on the final day of his life went round saying a tearful adeus to all the trees on the land which had sustained him throughout 90 or so years, wasn’t meant to suggest that it’s a waste of time learning to write or read, although anyone who’s tried to get though the novel ‘The Elephant’s Journey’ will have experienced that sensation at some point. Saramago meant that books are not the only means of experiencing reality, and that someone who some might be inclined to regard as an ignorant old peasant was just as sensitive and articulate as, well, a Nobel Prize-winning author.
Not knowing how to read and write does not imply being unable to express oneself verbally. While the ability to speak develops organically, most people learn the technical skills of literacy at school, and although their lives are generally vastly improved as a result, it doesn’t necessarily make them more intelligent or a better person – as a case in point I’d just like to mention that the novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’, whose author (Ayn ‘Medicare‘ Rand) was, significantly, never nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, is over 1,200 pages long.
The worldview (apparently) espoused in that book – that there are no values, only prices, and that those who have money are better than those who don’t – is one that warms the blood of the kind of lizards who are appointed to cabinet positions on Theresa May’s cabinet. That’s presumably why, when tasked with addressing falling levels of adult literacy, the Minister for Children and Families, Nadhim Zawahi immediately thought of the buying and selling of footwear. After, all if it’s not a exchange of cash for goods and services, what’s the meaning of any human endeavour? Her idea (and I am absolutely not making this up, it was in The Guardian yesterday) is to train the staff of shoe shops to engage young people in conversation while selling them shoes, thereby improving their language skills and making them into literate adults.
Of course, there has to be a commercial interest involved, so the scheme is a tie-in with, er, Clarks. After all, we all remember (how could we ever forget?) the horrifying images of smashed and looted branches of Clarks shoes during the 2011 riots. If there’s one thing that interests young people nowadays apart from their phones, it’s the thought of the latest range of sensible footwear from…
Hold on, there’s also their phones. Young people probably spend more time reading and writing nowadays than they ever have before. Granted, they may not be using the standard variety of language – in fact, just like when they speak – just like, in fact, when any of us speak – they and we draw on a huge range of codes, styles, registers and other semiotic resources including emojis. This is, after a fashion – and young people tend to take fashion quite seriously, which is why they don’t shop in fucking Clarks – literacy in action, and if schools want to develop their pupils’ ability to read and write – as they should, and they do, in ways that way surpass whatever sub-‘The Thick Of It’ brainwaves pass through the mammon-fixated minds of government ministers, then it’s that they should be seeking to work with.
Let’s return to the original and universally accepted definition of literacy: the ability to read and write. Let’s expand it a little to include knowledge of what the word ‘literacy’ actually means. I put it to you, then, that the Minister for Children and Families, Nadhim Zawahi, is…illiterate.
Having been a teacher for almost twenty years, I know that the classroom can be a frustrating place to teach and learn, and I’ve seen how easy it is to become bitter about the whole process and concept of education. Dealing with racist, lazy or wilfully ignorant students is a strain, and the staffroom can be a uniquely cynical place. There’s the constant cliché of teachers complaining about their students. All my students are so unmotivated, uninspired and hostile to the very idea of learning, teachers complain. All your students?, I think. What’s the common denominator? Then, the next day, I find myself moaning in much the same manner.
I’ve had little contact with the world of mainstream education, meaning I’ve avoided for the most part having to deal with both the classroom management of recalcitrant teenagers and the implementation of ever-innovative forms of bureaucracy designed to reduce education to the imparting and absorption of SOW-dictated lesson content. I’ve escaped all the immensely frustrating and tiring rigmarole of box-ticking and hoop-jumping of the Age of Ofsted (which now I come to think of it does sound like a character from The Handmaid’s Tale). Nevertheless, working mostly in the field of private language education, I have witnessed the way in which it is increasingly thought of and programmed as and like a business, with the teacher as mere service provider overseeing the delivery of the kind of content which can be easily converted into measurable and marketable spreadsheet data, with schools (and, increasingly, universities) desperate to guarantee students a specific level and speed of progress. Thomas Gradgrind would be delighted to see just how much the system is deigned to make students and teachers knuckle under; Paulo Freire, on the other hand, would turn in his beard.
Such system places immense pressure on the emotional, physical and social security of both students and teachers. While the mass abandonment of the teaching profession is a demonstration of just how hard it is for both teachers to maintain motivation, students find their own ways to drop out, either morally or physically, making the tasks of teaching and learning even more demanding. Secondary classrooms thus become environments where it takes immense emotional strength to even breathe. Who would willingly throw themselves into such a cauldron? As it happens, from next week I’ll be back to teaching secondary school teenagers for the first time in many years. On the one hand, the prospect terrifies me; on the other, I do kind of think what kind of teacher are you really if you can’t teach children?
I’ve long stuck by the adage that if you’re not learning, you’re not teaching. Education involves the building of a relationship, a mutual sharing of knowledge and experience rather than the mere handing-over of merchandise. Two preconditions for this to take place are respect and empathy, especially in mainstream education when dealing with kids from extremely challenging backgrounds. The teacher has to demonstrate a convincing interest in the lives and enthusiasms of the people they are teaching. Perhaps the video above (which was made in 2010 and very quickly went viral) shows us one example of how to achieve that. It’s certainly entertaining and enjoyable.
However, some things about the rap battle make me uncomfortable, starting with the way it’s framed: Teacher vs student. My reservations have been encapsulated in the form of a poem (part of a longer piece called (‘SOME VIOLENCE)’ by (ironically) my former poetry teacher, Wayne Holloway Smith, whose collection ‘Alarum‘ features class, masculinity, education and violence as central themes. His poem begins:
‘On YouTube an educated man is telling teenager that he is uneducated and will never amount to anything’.
In watching the video, it’s impossible to set aside this question of status. The confrontation is not, even for a second, a battle of equals. With immense wit and charm, the teacher patronises the student, divesting him of his self-definition as articulate, in control of language. He does so (argues the poem) on behalf of a State whose main function is to force him to value himself in its terms, to see himself through its eyes, to discipline and direct his energy, explicitly telling him:
‘Let me introduce you to the value inside the language of my particular group: I am better than you’.
The students is thus subjected to authority’s withering gaze and found wanting: ‘You’ll never amount to anything’. It is the teacher, not the student, who is ‘articulate, witty‘, who teaches him a lesson, which is that: ‘this language (that which the teacher, ‘wearing a suit and his hands casually in his pockets‘, commands) finds you ridiculous’.
Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic violence (itself an example of the kind of intellectual capital which the teacher has access to, and the student doesn’t) is brought to life in the following part of the poem, in which a bull is tormented by ‘a showground of people making it mean to them violence‘, forcing it to recognise itself through their eyes:
and the slow-breathing creature is thinking pulling this name Bull in and out of its nostrils
and the man understands the creature further with flailing arms helps it to understand itself with pit-sand thrown in its eyes
and OK suddenly it understands
the man: for a moment, a pulsing orgasm, lust hung in the air cue: screaming; cue: the world has realised it was right all along cue: the animal being taken to a place where they can correct its evil by sword
Mark Grist (like Kate Tempest, a poet who became a rapper) addresses some of these aspects in a comeback in which he expressed his frustration and anger at the way the video was presented online and in the media as a morality play. I understand his anger, but agree with Wayne Holloway Smith in that I think the form lent itself to that interpretation. There’s largely where its entertainment value (and certainly its online appeal) came from. Both combatants employ sexism and threats of violence, but Grist’s is knowing, informed by ironic distance in the form of jocular self-awareness, whereas (in the words of the poem) ‘when the teenager responds it is cliché‘. The teacher (and, by extension, the audience, drawn to the video by the promise of seeing foolish aspirations brought down to earth, ‘bound to agree‘ with its conclusion) provokes vile attitudes from the student, responses that confirm what we ‘know’ about such people, much like the treatment of the bull in the next part of the poem.
Despite my sense that the format of the rap battle between teacher and teenager was inherently problematic, Grist’s solo poems, which often draw and reflect on his experience as a teacher led onto, are often hugely compelling. I found this one deeply affecting:
It forced me to reflect on some of the more unpleasant episodes of my teaching career, those moments when my response didn’t match up to my ultimate responsibility for a student’s emotional well-being. The poem confronts both the classroom and the staffroom at their most bleak and difficult. Like many poems, it’s a novel condensed into two minutes, humanising its subjects in a way that reminded me of a passage from a recent George Saunders article about writing fiction:
When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame.
But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.
How was this done? Via pursuit of specificity. I turned my attention to Bob and, under the pressure of trying not to suck, my prose moved in the direction of specificity, and in the process my gaze became more loving toward him (ie, more gentle, nuanced, complex), and you, dear reader, witnessing my gaze become more loving, might have found your own gaze becoming slightly more loving, and together (the two of us, assisted by that imaginary grouch) reminded ourselves that it is possible for one’s gaze to become more loving.
Or we could just stick with “Bob was an asshole,” and post it, and wait for the “likes”, and for the pro-Bob forces to rally, and the anti-barista trolls to anonymously weigh in – but, meanwhile, there’s poor Bob, grieving and misunderstood, and there’s our poor abused barista, feeling crappy and not exactly knowing why, incrementally more convinced that the world is irrationally cruel.
What should education do but make us into humans, i.e. people who are ready to grant each other the status of fully-realised characters with our own specific experiences, memories and complexities? Surely our job as teachers is to help our students see that the world need not be as ‘irrationally cruel’ as it appears to be. I hope that I’m up to the challenges of the next few months, and don’t fall back on the self-serving cliché that it’s the students, not their teacher, who lack energy, imagination and motivation.
There’s a cliché that the ‘best English’ is spoken in Dublin. I’d like to put a new one into circulation: the friendliest variety of the language is that of the Welsh. When I left Cardiff a couple of weeks ago I felt genuinely sad to be moving away from a place where everyone I met in the course of two months greeted me in a helpful and engaging manner, even though I couldn’t speak a word of their official language. Well, one of their official languages. We managed, for the most part, to get by in English.
I spent eight weeks teaching almost exclusively Chinese students on a presessional course at Cardiff University. One reason I chose Cardiff is because I’m very interested in issues of language and identity, particularly national identity. I also thought it would be an opportunity to challenge my long-held patronising view of the Welsh language, which has occasionally caused me to use its very existence as a punchline whenever the name of a slightly absurd language is called for. Force of habit meant it was hard for me to overcome my slight amusement at finding in the university library a copy of the book ‘Business Welsh’. Surely the one phrase that would be most useful in such a setting would be ‘Edrychwch, pam nad ydym ni ddim ond yn gwneud y cyfarfod yn Saesneg?‘.
Things are, inevitably, considerably more involved, as is always the case with minority languages. The point of a language is not merely to communicate, after all, but to maintain and represent a particular culture and identity. Hence, gaining a better understanding of the role of Welsh is a way of rethinking other such languages. Besides, as this wonderful poem by Nayyirah Waheed implies, who wants to speak bloody English all the time? Nevertheless, in the relationship between Wales, Welsh, and English, contradictions abound. Reflecting on the role of Welsh in state school education put me in mind of a lengthy conversation I had with a young Spanish speaker in San Sebastian a number of years ago, who was frustrated that the Basque language was used to exclude people from other parts of Spain from public service jobs. On the one hand, I could relate to his annoyance. When I lived in Dublin I was prevented from applying for a civil service job by my total lack of Gaelic, and given the Welsh-English border is so fluid and that so many Welsh people don’t speak Welsh, it’s easy to understand why such exclusions, when and where they do exist, might create resentment. On the other hand, to complain about the imposition of such requirements is to ignore questions of historical injustice around identity which cannot simply be repressed. There are very good reasons why stickers reading ‘PARLA CATALAN!’ can be found on lampposts around Barcelona. The Spanish attitude to Catalan identity is exemplified in the nickname some speakers of castellano call Catalan: polaco (Polish), supposedly a language that few want or need to understand. Such attitudes are, as I write, provoking a potentially world-shaking response.
I suspect that Cardiff’s relationship with Welsh is rather like Dublin’s relationship with Irish. When I was living in Dublin, I barely noticed the existence of its second official language. Back then, as a confirmed monolingual, I didn’t spend much time thinking about languages. When I visited places like Singapore and Malaysia, I experienced and thought of them as essentially English-speaking countries. I must have just blanked out those portions of street signs and official notices that weren’t written in English. When I went to live in a non-English speaking country I became, as the young people like to say, woke, to the point where the role of languages and dialects became something of an abiding obsession in whichever country I happened to be living.
Wales is, of course, not as linguistically diverse as China (where I spent the academic year 2004-2005) or Italy (where I live now), but the Welsh language does have two distinct varieties. North and South Walians often don’t see tongue-to-tongue*. Those who have made the effort to learn the language (many of whom are from the south) are often disappointed to be responded to in English by ‘native speakers’ (who are more commonly found up north, and are (derisively, I think) known as Gogs)**. Nevertheless, the language has, since devolution, gained massively in prominence and official status right throughout the country. Many non-Welsh speaking-families now prefer to send their kids to Welsh language-schools, because Welsh medium institutions tend to achieve better Ofsted results***. The knotty implications of this are explored in a documentary called ‘The Welsh Knot‘, the title of which refers to a time in which the use of Welsh at school was severely discouraged.
Being in Cardiff in English meant I wasn’t exactly immersed in Welsh-speaking culture. In effect, given my level of exposure to Mandarin Chinese, I felt I was going to work in China every day, to the point where I started to feel I should be speaking it myself (I’d say my vocabulary, which had gone down over the years, made a sudden leap up from A1.1 to A1.1003). It was a conversation with a typically chatty Cardiff taxi driver that made me start to wonder about my students’ perceptions of the Welsh language. After all, although they were all effectively Mandarin native-speakers, some of them, particularly those from places like Sichuan, probably spoke different dialects at home. How did they think of Welsh? Did they recognise its existence? Did they think of Cardiff as a Welsh-speaking city?
Given a whole morning to work on my students’ note-taking skills through the use of an extended text, I decided to explore and develop their understanding of the role of the other official language of the country where (most of them) will be spending the next year. (I also thought that exposure to a totally unfamiliar language would help consolidate their understanding of English.) The first documentary I showed them followed younger learners from a range of countries going through a transition similar to my students, viz doing a crash language course in preparation for attending a (North) Welsh-medium secondary school. We also watched part of the one of I mentioned earlier, which centres on introducing a North Walian schoolgirl to a South Walian one; both of them study in Welsh medium schools but language plays a very different role in their lives outside the classroom. (The programme is described in detail here.) I introduced the topic to my class by saying a couple of Welsh greetings I’d taught myself (it was a unique situation in that it was the first time I’ve been the most proficient Welsh speaker in the room), and then asking them to do a short survey which I had prepared but have subsequently lost. (The results are thus not available for peer review.) They found answering the questionnaire entertaining, as they’d recently put together a similar survey of their own. In response to a question about which parts of China they thought similar to Cardiff in linguistic terms, many chose a region geographically close to their own where a substantially different dialect was spoken: Guizhou, Guangzhou and Shanghai were mentioned. Their estimate of what proportion of the local population spoke Welsh was 80% (it’s actually 20%). Asked for their opinion as to whether I spoke Welsh, about half guessed yes, which I thought was interesting as they know that I’m not from Wales. I also asked them if they could think of any words they’d learnt in Welsh, and a couple of them wrote down ‘prifysgol’, a word they’d seen hundreds of times over the previous few weeks for fairly obvious reasons.
While the results of my research were inconclusive, they did help me think about the ubiquity of linguistic diversity, and they both confirmed and challenged my assumptions that my students would automatically transfer their perceptions of their own country’s minority languages onto Welsh. Had I hung onto the results, I’d have more of value to impart. (Apparently the Welsh phrase for ‘sorry’ is ‘mae’n ddrwg’.)
Languages are multifarious, lithe, fluid creatures, filling up all available spaces to fit snugly into the social form. I suspect that my class, indeed the whole cohort of pressessional students in Cardiff, will, in the course of their courses, start to develop their own codes, relative to their new environment, mixing in English words and names and possibly even Welsh ones. Language creates and affirms shared identity: wherever new identities are being formed, new forms of language emerge to satisfy the collective need. That’s how classes, tribes and cultures are formed, and that process in some important ways reflects a more significant function of language than mere communication. When I first began to learn about the role of dialects in other cultures, I’d badger representatives of those cultures with a question which I now understand to be irrelevant and misleading: if you go to part X of your country, can you understand what people say to you? It’s a daft question, because the answer is almost inevitably: yes, because if, for example, a person from Rome goes to Napoli, or if someone from Sichuan visits Shanghai – or, for that matter, when someone from Cardiff finds themselves in Caernarvon – the locals will automatically communicate with them in their mutually understood language, not in the specific local variety. I’m sympathetic to the idea that there are no such things as languages, only language – in other words, that borders and boundaries between languages are artificial****. However, acknowledging that reality doesn’t help to resolve the status of different dialects and languages. The State has a responsibility to recognise the diverse cultural backgrounds that make up the population.
When people migrate to areas where a strong local dialect prevails, a variety of things can happen, depending on their kind of interactions they develop. Some assimilate, some develop hybrid varieties, some remain at a linguistic (and, presumably, therefore, social) distance from the local culture. Then there are very particular expressions and pronunciations which give the speaker the status of insider; code-switching, i.e. swapping between languages or varieties of a language in the course of a single conversation or utterance, is, after all, a ubiquitous feature of human speech. We all do it within our own languages, mimicking other social actors in order to take on or discard particular social roles. To switch between languages or dialects rapidly can take very great skill, but can be extremely useful. (On a side note, the fact that I look German means that in speaking German in a German-speaking country I get away with using a great deal of English vocabulary.) It would be interesting to know how this operates with regard to Welsh and English. As I said to the taxi driver, I can’t imagine that sort of thing is actively encouraged at the Eisteffod. One curious detail I found about about some of my students’ perceptions of Welsh is that when they didn’t understand what (for example) a shopkeeper was saying to them in English, they just assumed they’d started speaking Welsh, which some, it turned out, thought of it as a mere dialect of English. Such mortifying linguistic confusion may explain why some students included in the bibliographies of their final essays seemingly random references to texts published in Turkish and Portuguese . Oddly enough, however, none of them cited any works written in Welsh. Byddai hynny’n fucking hyfryd!
*Thanks to Terry for teaching me the English word ‘Walian’.
**According to my mum, an English speaker can learn French in half the time it takes to learn Welsh. (N.B. My mum doesn’t speak Welsh, and may well have gleaned that information from the Daily Mail, so it might be ceilliau.)
***More thanks to Terry for pointing out that the local equivalent of Ofsted is actually called Estyn, which, to its credit, sounds a bit less like the name of a character from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.
**** Someone who’s demonstrated this is Diego Marani, the inventor of the ‘language’ (actually more of a game) Europanto.
I spend my working life around people (students of English for Academic Purposes) who are insecure about their language use. That means I get to think and pontificate about issues of status, ownership and standard versus non-standard forms.
I can identify with the anxieties of my students, and not just as someone who has (in the past) enjoyed learning other languages. I’ve also long been self-conscious about my command over/of English. Like some of my students(,) I’m very sensitive about being corrected, tending to take corrections as a bit of a put-down rather than a chance to learn. The ego-insecurities I experience when expressing myself in other languages are clear manifestations of anxiety about my own status as an English-speaker. Some of that anxiety is related to having a parent for whom English is a second language, and part is related to class. My background is not exactly humble but I was the first person in my family to go to university. Working in higher education feels like an achievement, but I’m vulnerable to a certain feeling of being out-of-place. Someone who came from a similar background was the critical theorist, academic and blogger Mark Fisher (aka k-punk), who wrote this in 2013 about the response of the ‘left’ to the comedian and actor Russell Brand’s famous interview with Jeremy Paxman about the need for revolution:
I’ve long been an admirer of Brand – one of the few big-name comedians on the current scene to come from a working class background…(His) forensic take-down of Paxman was intensely moving, miraculous; I couldn’t remember the last time a person from a working class background had been given the space to so consummately destroy a class ‘superior’ using intelligence and reason. (However) Brand was quickly judged and-or questioned by at least three ex-private school people on the left…It’s alarming how many ‘leftists’ seemed to fundamentally agree with the drift behind Paxman’s question: ‘What gives this working class person the authority to speak?’ It’s also alarming, actually distressing, that they seem to think that working class people should remain in poverty, obscurity and impotence lest they lose their ‘authenticity’. Someone passed me a post written about Brand on Facebook. The whole tone was horrifyingly high-handed, as if they were a schoolteacher marking a child’s work, or a psychiatrist assessing a patient. There’s also a shocking but revealing aside where the individual casually refers to Brand’s ‘patchy education [and] the often wince-inducing vocab slips characteristic of the auto-didact’ – which, this individual generously says, ‘I have no problem with at all’ – how very good of them! This isn’t some colonial bureaucrat writing about his attempts to teach some ‘natives’ the English language in the nineteenth century, or a Victorian schoolmaster at some private institution describing a scholarship boy, it’s a ‘leftist’ writing a few weeks ago.
Fisher himself wrote movingly about an episode when his own mother confided that she didn’t want to go into a Georgian teashop in a neighbouring town for High Tea because she was worried she would “do the wrong thing”:
We know this too, really, we felt it going on to University, feel it still, my sister and I, she with her anxiety around her middle-class friends whose parents are all teachers and doctors, me with my endless writing of novels I can’t bear to do anything with as it means engaging with them, having to make them like me, listen to their opinions of my work. But for us, half clambered out of our class as we are, we don’t find a Grange tea-room existentially threatening. She said it herself, my mum, and it immediately struck me, the disavowal, “some people get nervous in tea rooms, don’t they? These are the wounds of class, ever-present, life-long. Knowing that you’re common, not good enough, not one of the decent people.
In the case of Russell Brand, faced with mass and social media sneers at his upstart activism and the ‘sub-undergraduate dross’ of his writings about politics, he retreated. He realised that if he wanted his right to discuss his concerns to be recognised, he would have to reeducate himself. He is now doing a three-year MA in Religion and Global Politics at SOAS, and is sharing his newly-acquired knowledge via a (frankly unmissable) podcast. In the first episode, an interview with the political philosopher Brad Evans on the theme of political violence, he gave what I think is an inspiringly honest account of how he arrived at this point and how it feels to be there:
“Being briefly in the academic world, as I have been, obviously loads of it’s really really exciting but I think a lot of what I hear feels reiterative, like someone says ‘what’s a country? It’s just an agreement in our minds, and I think, I knew that, anyway, those are things I’ve come to myself. But then there are things that are so complex I can’t begin to come to terms with them, and in this field I’m having to learn about political history, critical theory, philosophy, so I’m suddenly having to learn about Foucault, Derrida and all these other names I can’t even say confidently yet. And my original impulse for doing that course was, I got really deeply involved in the political world, and (…) I realised that this was a very complex world and I didn’t have the armoury, the artillery to engage in this battle. And I’ll like our listeners to be able to embark on this journey with me, so what do you think is a good entry point for someone like me who feels disillusioned with politics but doesn’t know quite where to begin on a journey of understanding?”
One theorist who Russell would find very useful in terms of issues of language, politics and class is Pierre Bourdieu. He relates that feeling of being out of one’s depth and beyond one’s station to what he calls ‘habitus’: the attitudes, mannerisms, tastes, moral intuitions and habits that influence our life chances. This behavioural comfort zone is a manifestation of our level of cultural capital. While Brand may have a high level of objectified cultural capital in the form of fame and wealth, his attempts to acquire institutionalised cultural capital (formal educational qualifications) are hindered by accent, which is a manifestation of embodied capital. In particular fields (for example in the academic world) it can be hard for individuals from a working-class background to obtain a “feel for the game” and to feel they should be (as it were) on the pitch. This seems to me to be related to the experiences of people from ‘foreign’ language backgrounds in higher education. ‘Foreigners’ don’t automatically have a pre-assigned rung on the social ladder, and hence struggle to find an appropriate station even when they have a sufficient mastery of the language. I’ve been thinking about a friend of mine who has an excellent command of the spoken language and who knows things and can do things in it that I certainly couldn’t. I wonder how he views Brand, and how he relates to what Brand says about his own struggle to feel like a valid participant in the academic world. My friend recently dropped out of a university course he’d long dreamed of doing because he felt his English wasn’t up to writing long essays (I encouraged him to continue and offered to help, but to an apparent avail). In fact, I’m writing this to persuade him, others like him and also to remind myself that such feelings are very common and by no means insurmountable.
From outside, manifestations of social class are hard to perceive. English people know when to question someone’s intellectual credentials as soon as we/they hear us/them speak. To people who didn’t grow up here, vocal class markers are much harder to recognise. It may seem to my friend that all ‘English’ or British’ people are equally confident in higher educational settings, that they we all feel valid and accepted. Perceptions of these issues inevitably differ, depending partly on one’s cultural and social background. Among my (mostly well-heeled) students, I’ve found that some people have a frustratingly monolithic understanding of the relationship between language and social status. The belief persists that the speech of some is simply inadequate. There’s also widespread misunderstanding of the relationship between spoken and written language, with some assuming that the former is a poor attempt to produce the latter. Inevitably, others have explored these issues far more articulately than I ever could. As for myself, I always feel anxious when someone makes a jibe about someone(’s?) being ‘self-taught’. Everyone is, to some extent. Luckily (after three slightly wasted undergraduate years from which I was lucky to emerge with a 2;1), I eventually had the chance to go back to university and get a Master’s degree, an experience which greatly improved my sense of confidence in what I say and write. Having lived in other countries and struggled with other languages has also helped to bolster my self-assurance, as has teaching the spoken and written language for almost twenty years and spending several years examining others on their usage. In terms of writing, the internet has also helped enormously (what’s a good synonym for confidence? what are the three types of cultural capital again?). Inevitably, for everything I write here, thousands of people are studying or have studied that subject in an academic context and are far better placed to provide evidence-based theories than I am. A lot of what I present here is hearsay and guesswork, but I content myself in the knowledge that this is after all just a blog. I’d like to think of myself as a polymath, but ultimately I’m more of a dilettante, and this is an appropriate format. The wounds of class run deep, but then, as both Lynsey Hanley and Helen Mort have articulated brilliantly, the sense of discomfort at being stranded between classes, particularly at being a working class person in the more rarified echelons of higher education, can also be uncomfortable. Then there’s the opposite: chippiness and reverse snobbery, and then the reaction to chippiness and reverse snobbery. And so on. I still lack confidence when sending people what I’ve written with a view to getting it published. To do so you have to be fairly bullish, and being rejected or ignored is always painful. Although some things I write get a very pleasing reaction, I have little way of knowing whether or not what I write is any good in terms of what matters, which is to be accepted as more-or-less an equal by those whose writing I admire. But at the same time, most of them are professional writers and/or academics, and I’m not, so it should, by rights, remain a pipe dream. There remains one thing I want to make clear, for the sake of my own honesty and integrity. This piece may contain what some will regard as self-pity, and I wouldn’t really have much of an answer to such a charge. I had the chance to go to university, twice, without getting into debt, in my own language. My privileges in terms of education have, in comparison with most people in the world, been immense. I’m not a victim of disadvantage in any sense that means anything on a global scale. I’ve even, despite my manifold anxieties about my credibility as an English speaker and writer, and thanks largely to a mere accident of birth, managed to make a reasonable living as a teacher of my ‘native’ language. But I know that these feelings are not exclusive, and I hope a) that reading this has made clear some connections between class, status, nationality and language that may not have occurred to you before and b) that you find this sentence an appropriate way to end a piece of writing of this nature.
Of all the language schools I’ve worked for over the last 18 years, only one has gone on to help organise a military coup. So far. The school in question (in North London) was part of a global network belonging to Fetullah Gülen, the Muslim sect leader accused of orchestrating the anti-Erdogan coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016. I started working at the school in late 2007 and stayed for about nine months. At first I thought it was a normal school that just happened to be owned by Turks, but was intrigued when, upon learning who I was working for, several politically-minded Turkish people I met around that time reacted with outright revulsion. I also found out from a former student from Uzbekistan, who had been part of the group while studying in Ankara, that they had some connection with a group of terrorist fascists from the 1970s called the Grey Wolves. Turkish leftists told me that where Gülen’s movement had taken power in more remote areas they had imposed quite a strict version of Islam, and that then Mayor of Istanbul (a Gülen supporter) had recently banned beer-drinking in the street. Given that the job apparently involved potential for travel, I was quick to picture myself running round Chechnya with an AK47. It would make a refreshing change from teaching Korean design students and unemployed Italian graduates the language for sucking up to their bosses on their unpaid internships. In any case, I knew a little bit about the murkiness of Turkish politics (the Deep State, the Susurluk affair, the succession of military interventions to prevent a non-secular government being elected) and (especilaly since I’d never been to Turkey) I thought it would be a good way to learn more.
Nevertheless, rumours aside, the people I worked for all seemed very nice. They were good-natured and courteous and they plied me between classes with strong tea, sujuk, olives and overflowing fruits platters. The students (mostly men in their 40s) were also polite, attentive and motivated. They were also respectful of my role as a teacher, almost excessively so. They taught me a slightly mad Turkish proverb: ‘if you a teach me one thing, I will be your slave forever’. As for politics, although I was on the lookout for any furtive radical inclinations, I didn’t detect any secret jihadi fervour. Their views seemed occasionally naive but certainly well-meaning. They were very excited about a conference which had just taken place in UCL on their work of their founder, with several leading academics and a number of UK parliamentarians. They talked a great deal about education, quoting Gülen himself on the need to open the minds of the young and to educate women. My boss told me that their organisation had recently been kicked out of Uzbekistan, with all the school closed down at a whim of the regime. We talked about the prospects for meaningful democracy in Central Asia (he had spent several years in Tashkent and I’d recently read Craig Murray’s book), and he said things would change once ‘our people’ were in charge. This set off a muted alarm bell, but he said it in an almost reassuring way, or at least as if he was a loyal employee of a corporation looking to expand its commercial domain.
My students (mostly from the organisation or there under its auspices) taught me a huge amount about 20th Century Turkish history. When it came to the Kurdish question they were sentimental and a little patronising, saying that the Kurds didn’t seem to understand what the Turkish State was trying to achieve, but they never seemed aggressive in their attitudes. At the same time, all of them were very enthusiastic about a TV crime series called ‘Tek Türkiye’, which seemed to promote a quite brutal model of policing. I did recognise a strain of nationalism but it didn’t strike me as untypical or remotely fanatical.
Where differences in our worldviews emerged, they were always conciliatory. They were sympathetic to the new Government (Erdogan’s party was then called the APK) and their apparent progressivism seemed to reflect what I was reading in the press about his more enlightened form of Sunni Islam. An article appeared in the Guardian which reported on Erdogan’s relationship with the then Spanish Prime Minister Jos’e Luis Zapatero and the Turkish PM’s mission to create “a 21st century form of Islam, fusing Muslim beliefs and tradition with European and western philosophical methods and principles”. When it came to the classes, there was a slight clash between my expectations and those of my Academic Director, as his formal approach conflicted with my then teaching ‘style’. This involved my being attentive to whatever came up and exploiting learning affordances, or, if I was hungover, then same thing in far less high-falutin words. He asked me more than once for a complete booklet of the week’s activities in advance, which at that time was a bit like asking me to conduct the course in 13th Century Japanese. Luckily he didn’t insist.
I also taught a group of teachers from Turkey, who were among the smartest and wittiest students I’ve yet had the pleasure to teach. Another memorable student was a 14-year-old from Rotterdam. He had clearly grown up deep within a conservative Turkish immigrant milieu and, horrified at my suggestion that Turkey, like anywhere else, had a fair share of gay people, argued back that not only did Turkey have no gay people, his adopted homeland (The Netherlands, lest we forget) didn’t have any either.
While few of them did or said anything to shock and offend me, I can’t say I was always as well-behaved. Once, given widespread confusion over the meaning of the word ‘speech’, despite my miming and trying to get them to name any famous speeches that Atatürk had made, I decided to draw upon my, well, drawing skills (which are non-existent but come in handy sometimes for comedy purposes). I drew a picture of someone who looked a bit like Mussolini (I couldn’t remember what the Father of Modern Turkey looked like), stuck a fez on his head (er…), and gave him a speech bubble reading ‘blah, blah, blah’ with a couple of umlauts and cedillas floating around in it. I thought it was an efficient means of communicating my point, and it certainly got their attention. In the mid-morning break students from other classes crowded into the room to admire my artwork. One of them, clearly awestruck at my mastery of desin, remarked with not atypical Turkish gravity, ‘In Turkey…you die’. My elevated position of Respected Knower Of All Things seemed to have stood me in good stead and my life was spared.
The bigoted Dutch/Turkish teenager wasn’t typical of the 2nd-generation immigrants I met. I also taught a pair of 13-year-old German/Turkish brothers who I would happily place in my personal top 10 of funniest-and-most-charming-people-I’ve-ever-taught. Their mother would send me daily meals of ichli kurfter and other treats. The brothers were part of a group mostly made up of 15 or so very sweet kids from Turkmenistan. I suspect that in their three weeks in the UK me and my fellow teachers were the only locals they spoke to, such were they shepherded around. They left me with enough CDs and postcards of their country to suggest they’d brought enough to go round everyone in London. When those groups weren’t around I was just left with the local staff of the Gülen organisation. Occasionally someone who I’d been teaching for several months would disappear, and upon probing I would learn that he had been relocated overnight to Nigeria or Russia. What they were doing in London apart from gamely fielding my inquiries about Turkish politics and struggling with the present perfect continuous was a bit of a mystery. I knew that there was some sort of fundraising which involved Turkish businesses, but I let myself believe that the invitations they were making to local kebab shops to contribute to the cause weren’t too forceful. They also had some vague relationship to the movement’s (leading national) newspaper ‘Zaman’ (Time). As it happened, my Uzbek friend had come back into contact with members of the Movement, and, down on his luck, gone to stay in one of their houses for a few weeks. This involved getting up to pray at 5am and having very lengthy debates about which food products from Lidl could be considered Halal, but no apparent talk to the need to violently overthrow the state.
The managers of the school were ambitious. They wanted me to get them up to British Council inspection standard in a few months, but with only the occasional proper class it was a forlorn hope. By the autumn of 2008 it was clear it wasn’t going to happen, at least not for the time being. Even sending people down to Oxford Street to hand out leaflets for free classes wasn’t working. The school closed soon after and the premises were given over to a company promoting educational tourism.
I’ve vaguely followed developments since then. At some point Gülen broke away from Erdogan to the point where he and his group became public enemy number 1. The coup last summer shocked me and others I know who have had contact with them in the past, but it did put me in mind of that comment made by my boss about Uzbekistan. I don’t know if Hizmet (the more recent name for the movement, meaning ‘the Service’) shares Erdogan’s evident leanings towards Isis, or at least his willingness to use them to suit his strategic ends with regard to the Kurds. I suspect not, and the circumstances of the split suggest (without wanting to be either naive or cynical) that some principles were at stake. If those pleasant, courteous and seemingly very sweet people I taught over the course of those few months are also supporters of the most brutal forms of political violence (as the Turkish state alleges), there’s clearly something about life, people and the world which I haven’t understood.
One of my roles in life involves testing the English language to make sure it’s working properly. It’s in this capacity that I get to fly down to Mérida for a few days, eat sopa de lima and cochinita pibil in nice restaurants, and pay a visit to an excellent language school. It’s easy to find because it has a red phone box outside. Everyone I meet there is friendly and seems competent. The owners (both English, in their thirties) greet and chat to the students as they arrive; they seem to know their names and both speak very good Spanish. As for the teachers, they are young, cheerful, and seem to be mostly English. The school, which goes by the name of the London Academy and has been open for around two years, is “the only British language school in Mérida with 100% qualified British teachers that offers a true British cultural experience”. The images on the walls show cool young people enjoying themselves in London. It’s unlike a lot of ‘British’ schools I’ve worked at in the past in that there’s a refreshing lack of photos of Beefeaters and the Royal Family and the atmosphere is by no means austere and reserved as it is in some anglophone learning environments. Entering the school I worked at for several years in Lisbon was like going to the dentists: staid, forbidding and snobbish. The school in Mérida is selling an updated version of the UK. It certainly needs to stand out, because there are a lot of schools in that particular suburb. When I walk round the block I count another four. Some seem to be part of chains and most are selling themselves on cost: low prices, discounts if you pay upfront for online classes and year-long courses. Ultimately it’s a question of marketing. What the London Academy is selling is a tourist experience. For the students (or at least for their parents) the school is a corner of a foreign field. They will be immersed in the classroom in an English-only environment with a representative of the target culture. What the teachers get is a reasonably-paid job and an experience of living abroad, one which gives them the chance to learn some of the language and, if they’re lucky, become friends, or possibly very good friends*, with some of the locals. Nowadays in the world of English language teaching this is quite a retro model. It is based on the promotion of the assumption that the teacher is a monolingual native speaker with no or little knowledge of the host culture. Bringing a new cohort of teachers over every year is very expensive at a time when there is more competition from schools which use other images and associations to promote the learning of English. There also seems to be a growing recognition that the language study trips abroad business is similarly a branch of tourism. The school I worked at for several years in London has just been bought up by a language travel organisation. It is true that there is no easier environment to learn and teach in. The students get some experience of interacting in an English-speaking setting and they also make English-language friendships with each other. This doesn’t mean that they start watching Eastenders and spend every night down the rub-a-dub. Rather they bond over their dislike of the food, the absurd rents they have to pay and the hangovers they picked up (and the fellow students they didn’t) in bars and clubs where most other customers (and the staff) are also there to improve their English. This is perfectly natural; after all, on holiday, you tend to make friends with other tourists rather than the locals. Some students do arrive with the impression that it’s all about becoming “English” (which is a useful marketing illusion), but they soon knuckle down to the more important and less confusing task of developing an English-speaking life. It’s far more important for Mehmet, who lives in Istanbul and deals with Chinese people on the phone, to understand Wei Wei from Shandong than it is for him to understand what Russell Brand says**. As for the teacher, their job largely involves creating a environment conducive to social and cultural exchange, with their role a mix of tour guide, cultural mediator, facilitator and occasional counsellor. Sadly, thanks to a combination of international competition in the education market, arbitrary and ill-thought-out changes to visa rules and the global economic situation, the language school industry in the UK (and London in particular) has taken a hammering over the last few years, with very well-established places going to the wall and the survivors getting snapped up by international concerns. It is also possible that over the next few years the international marketing of British English by institutions such as the British Council will encounter difficulties in a world which no longer views Britain as vibrant, mobile and welcoming but rather as insular, hostile and closed. Whereas most marketing of English courses tends to sell an image of mobility – in the words of an advert I saw recently, ‘Where can you go if you don’t know English?’ – all this talk of shutting borders is designed and destined to do permanent damage to one of the very remaining industries which the UK still dominates. Another major change in the world of English language teaching is a shift away from the notion that native speakers automatically make better language teachers. That’s not to say that the assumption is by any means dead. Browsing websites advertising teaching jobs in Mexico recently I was shocked by the number of ads looking for ‘native speakers’ and specifying ‘no experience necessary’. I’d imagine that most people learning a language would want a teacher with experience. But the rationale for this never was pedagogical. Again, it’s more to do with marketing, to the extent that one term commonly used in China for a foreign teacher is ‘dancing monkey’. Anyone ‘foreign’ will do as long as they don’t have a Chinese face or name. There seems to be growing acceptance nowadays that the best attribute a teacher can have is the ability to teach, regardless of where they happen to have been born. The spread of English as a lingua franca has led to a growing recognition that it does not ‘belong’ to any one national group. Indeed, it helps to have consciously learnt the language you’re teaching. Having done so gives the teacher insights into the learning experience which allow them to give their students shortcuts and to identify potential pitfalls and misunderstandings. Non-native teachers also make more realistic role models, as the old joke about an English learner saying that when he grows up he wants to be a native speaker acknowledges. Plus it’s also true that a ‘native’ level of English is not a desirable goal. In international settings it is often British, American and Australianswho have most difficulty making themselves understood, given their reliance on irony and idioms which may be lost on people who don’t share their cultural background. The trend is partly driven by economic changes – although native speakers are more profitable, non-native teachers are cheaper – but it has a positive effect as better teachers find it easier to get work. The notion of ‘native speaker’ is problematic in any case. I’m one of them, yet there are lots of lots of ‘foreigners’ who use(d) ‘my’ language better than I do: Conrad, Nabokov, Zizek and Varoufakis all spring immediately to mind. My Italian wife writes things in her job that are much better than anything I could produce***. The idea that a ‘native speaker’ is an exemplary model has given way to a focus on proficient, competent or expert speakers. Similarly, the category of ‘mother tongue’ speaker does not take account of people who grew up speaking one language at home and another at school. Ultimately, nation state and language are just not a very good fit, especially in relation to English. I myself found out quickly in Portugal many years ago that in a monolingual EFL classroom it’s the monolingual teacher who has problems expressing what they want, especially when dealing with teenagers. Students know their own culture and can communicate perfectly well with each other. Hence they can run rings round a teacher who has little training and almost no experience of inspiring learning and imposing discipline. Such a relationship depends partly on the personality of the teacher and partly on their ability to assert their authority over the language on the basis of their national identity. Anyone who has taught in such a context will recognise the frustrations described by George Orwell in his story ‘Shooting an Elephant‘. It is all too common for fledgling (and sometimes veteran) EFL teachers to develop the attitude of a colonial policeman and to dismiss the ‘natives’ as lazy, stupid “evil-spirited little beasts” who are out to “make (your) job impossible”. This doesn’t mean that teaching and learning is impossible in such a context but where it does take place it tends to be by accident. My own ‘teaching journey’ has taught me that any meaningful educational experience has to be based on cultural exchange. Every teacher who sticks at it works out eventually that if you’re not learning, you’re not teaching. The model I’ve been describing is about trying to impose one identity on another. What must take place instead is a recognition and validation of each others’ identities. This involves drawing on the students’ expert knowledge of their language, their experiences, expertise and social roles rather than dismissing all of the above and relying instead on a combination of communication games, bullying and luck. I would like therefore to put forward five suggestions for roles that EFL teachers can usefully adopt in a monolingual teaching/learning environment:
1. The students’ knowledge of their own language is an essential classroom resource. This means that both the teacher and the students sometimes need to play the role of translators. It also implies a ceding of control and a certain amount of humility on the part of the teacher. My students know their own languages better than I do and sometime meanings have to be negotiated and dictionaries referred to. This has the advantage of reflecting real language use; in any given human interaction where more than one language is involved discussions over corresponding forms, functions and meanings are ever-present and sometimes other authorities have to be invoked. Clearly there are activities where this is not appropriate, and the teacher needs to establish when and why only the target language should be used. In a cooperative environment with purposeful activities students will be happy to go along with this.
2. Tip number 1. implies that the teacher should speak or be learning the language of their students. There are, bizarrely, language teachers who have no experience of learning another language or who have never done so successfully. Such teachers are not able to understand and relate to the frustrations and ritual humiliations their students are exposing themselves to. Several times in my teaching career I have been put on the spot by a student asking me to perform a task I have asked them to do. Such experiences have helped me to reflect on how useful and how ‘doable’ the activity I’m imposing is. Once, with a class of Italian teenagers who were traumatised by the prospect of their Trinity Exam, I did the task myself in very imperfect Italian, getting them to play the role of examiners. A light bulb went on. They realised that they didn’t need to be completely fluent and that it was fine to make mistakes as long as they basically made themselves understood. They all went on to pass the exam. In order to be a teacher you also need to be a learner. This is a role no teacher should ever stop playing; there are always new things to learn.
3. If you are teaching in another country you are also a model of someone immersed, out of their depth, occasionally thrown in at the deep end, experiencing anxiety, and sometimes losing face. Your ability to articulate these feelings and reflect on those experiences in English will be better than that of your students****. This involves drawing on your own experiences. This paragraph itself could generate a very useful lesson for students struggling to articulate their own experiences with the language. It doesn’t mean that the teacher is an exemplary language learner but as someone who learns and also thinks about language a lot you do have insights to offer.
4. A teacher needs most of all to be a teacher, with a range of approaches and techniques to suit each particular class. Hence our role is not that of an oracle on our language and culture. Both students and teachers have gaps in their knowledge of the world. That is fine. A classroom can be a very useful place to identify things that we don’t know and to figure out how we can find out. It very often happens that I learn new things in English*****, and when that happens I point it out to my students. As a language teacher I know that some students fail to understand that one’s command of a language is never total. Pointing it out by using yourself as an example helps students to recognise that their English need not and can not ever be ‘perfect’. I am there in the classroom because of my teaching experience and ability, and not as a proxy for the Queen or for Cambridge University.
5. Teachers should also facilitate sharing of emotional experiences. We can help the students visualise their learning experience and identify specific examples of progress. One excellent way to do this is to explore learning metaphors: are they on a journey, climbing a mountain, working out in a gym, hanging out with some friends once a week? In tackling such themes the teacher is playing the role of a counsellor. In order for this to be effective the teacher needs to work constantly on creating an encouraging and forgiving environment based on an ethic of cooperation rather than on shaming people who make mistakes.
These tips are written with the teaching of English in mind. Some of them also apply to other languages. For example, I can’t say that the list of characteristics of various French supermarkets I spent ninety minutes learning in an intermediate French class a few years ago has helped me a great deal when talking to recent Senegalese immigrants in Rome. The same applies to Spanish and to an extent Portuguese; there’s not much point learning to lithp or to use o senhor appropriately when you’re off to live in Mexico or Brazil. Some other-language courses I’ve encountered have confused language competence and grammatical knowledge, with little room for error and a very narrow definition of success. The teaching of English does have something to offer language teaching in general given that there is simply more practise and research taking place. It’s different with, say, German, Italian, Japanese or Finnish, since almost all speakers of these languages are from those countries or have spent time there. Then learning things like the names of personalities and radio advertising jingles is important. At the moment I live in Italy, where what hinders my comprehension most is a lack of knowledge of the (admittedly very complex) culture. It is, however, only one of many possible experiences. In past I’ve tended to assume that my own learning experiences are the only or the ultimate model, which is clearly not the case. Several years ago in London there was a best-selling book/CD for English language learners called ‘Get Rid Of Your Accent‘. The cover featured a woman who looked like Agatha Christie and sounded like Lord Reith’s elocutionist. As David Crystalpoints out, learners do need a pronunciation role model but the notion there is one way of speaking is absurd. People certainly need to have a command of Standard English, but in a globalised world intelligibility is the main issue. The same goes for local varieties of grammar. A former colleague used to teach his newly-arrived elementary students to ask everyone they met “What do you do work-wise?”, a question guaranteed to draw a blank look from Akiko from Kyoto. It can be useful to teach students to understand local accents in questions like ‘wotjado?’ and ‘naamean?’, but it’s pointless and unfair to ask them to speak in that way. Sometimes over the years my lessons have been about making students talk just like me. That, to briefly use a particularly British English term, is bollocks.
* In some cases, very many very close friends.
** Mind you, there’s a wonderful story about teaching TEFL from the man himselfhere.
*** This is not meant to suggest that I have a number of wives from different countries. Maybe I should ask her how to rephrase it to make it more clearer. **** If it isn’t, you may have wandered into an INSET session by mistake. ***** Such as how to spell ‘bizarrely’.
The Chinese authorities keep a very close eye on the internet. Their objective is to prevent Chinese people coming into contact with information that shows their Government in a negative light. Just recently they have been trying to delete all references to the sometimes violent anti-Japanese protests. In this context, then, just why is it that an estimated 150,000 foreign teachers, most of whom are in their twenties or thirties and share a relatively informed view of the world, are allowed, mostly unsupervised, into classrooms to tell the new generation about how free and prosperous the outside world is?
In fact, I don’t think we’re here to present a positive image of the West. Actually I think we’re here to present a positive image of China.
Let me explain. The best selling book at the moment in China is a biography of Jiang Zemin, the former leader. Why is it so popular? According to the Washington Post:
The biography, “The Man Who Changed China: The Life and Legacy of Jiang Zemin,” by Robert Lawrence Kuhn, argues that the party has brought unprecedented stability, prosperity, global prestige and personal freedom to the Chinese people in the years since Mao Zedong died in 1976.
Who is Robert Lawrence Kuhn? Well, apparently he’s a managing director at Smith Barney Citigroup and an unpaid economic adviser to Chinese officials, ie a businessman. The Times also says that he speaks little Chinese and is not a China specialist.
And what about his book?
The book presents some new material about Jiang’s life, but most reviews of the English edition have panned it as a fawning work that exaggerates Jiang’s impact and seeks to defend him against almost any criticism.
The Chinese edition is even less revealing, with references to the internal political battles that Jiang fought to stay in power and other sensitive material deleted by censors. Kuhn said he was disappointed that portions of his book had been cut and said the work represented his own best effort to write a “personal story as told by Jiang’s family, friends and colleagues” that conveys Jiang’s “way of thinking” in the context of Chinese history and culture.
Now this is the interesting bit of the article, and I think it says a lot about why we were invited here:
Public reaction in China has been mixed. Some readers have praised the book for breaking a taboo against discussing the personal lives of high officials and for presenting details of Jiang’s life that were new to them. Others refused to buy it, dismissing it as propaganda.
“Kuhn is like a fan worshiping a celebrity. There’s no distance, no objectivity,” a Chinese editor who has read (the) book said on condition of anonymity. “It’s strange to us that a Westerner would write something like this.”
The editor said the fact that Kuhn is a foreigner is a selling point because many readers believe that any book written about the country’s leaders by a Chinese author must be propaganda — unless it has been banned.
In fact, a prominent Shanghai writer, Ye Yonglie, has alleged that the biography was sanctioned by the party and that officials quashed an early plan for Kuhn and Ye to write it together, perhaps because they wanted a foreigner’s name alone on the cover.
Now Chinese people, left to their own devices, might start to become suspicious of what the Government and the press in China tells them about China’s up and coming position in the world, given the corruption and mass unemployment they see around them. The Government here desperately wants people to believe that China is just another capitalist country, albeit one with massive growth. And who better to convey this message than foreigners?
Think about it. We are foreigners who live here, apparently comfortably. We are surrounded by McDonalds, KFC, shopping malls, English language media and all the trappings of Western life – remember, of course, that the overwhelming majority of our students have never actually been outside China, and don’t know what these things mean in a Western context.
When we talk to our students we talk most of the time about things we have in common – sports, DVDs, families, traffic jams. And contrary to what our students may have heard in the past about what foreigners think of China, we don’t seem to have any particular problems with life in China. We never mention Tibet, Taiwan or Tiananmen Square. We never talk about democracy or Human Rights and we never question the rule of the Communist Party. Instead, we talk about the massive changes that have taken place in China – the “unprecedented stability, prosperity, global prestige and personal freedom” – implicitly endorsing a crucial point of Communist party ideology, that it is only a matter of time until China achieves parity with the West and can be regarded as just another capitalist country.
The conclusion I draw from all this is that our presence here has very little to do with presenting the outside world to the Chinese – and, as we all know, very little to do with teaching English. It does have a lot to do with normalising China as just another capitalist country with which the West has no major issues.