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25.4.12

The Corporate Diploma

A person who speaks many languages is a polyglot.
A person who speaks two languages is bilingual.
A person who speaks only one language is an American.

It's an old joke, and usually told with Englishman as the punch line, but it works either way.

After centuries of British and American imperialism, demand to learn the English language is quite strong.  The two empires have dominated global trade for nigh on 300 years.  The British being pompous, and the Americans being willfully ignorant, refused to learn anyone else's language.  They simply declared that if you wanted to do business with the only game in town, you had to learn English.

The English racket is still quite strong in Asia, though Europe has cooled a bit over the years.  Asia is handicapped by written languages that are all but incomprehensible.  They are further hindered by pronunciation that requires years of practice to perfect, especially Mandarin.  Furthermore, the invention of the computer virtually demanded the use of the Roman alphabet for several decades, though that is slowly being rectified.

Consequently, the demand to learn English throughout Asia is very high.  Classes begin in kindergarten and run through professional development seminars.

It's much like Europe and the West until the mid-1800s.  For literally millennia, a person was not considered educated and literate unless they knew both Latin and Greek.  It was simple pragmatics.  The Roman empire dominated global trade, and both Rome and Athens were centers of culture and learning.  If you wanted to get ahead in life, you knuckled down and dived in.  Even my own education included Latin, though I had to teach myself Greek and stayed for a time in Greece to work on it.

We see the same motivation, only the language has changed.  For a century or so, America dominated the global economy and was the center of learning and invention for as long.  Though that era is fading fast, the English language will likely remain the international trade language for quite some time, to the great irritation of the French (which still dominates Africa).

As a consequence of this demand, English schools have sprung up all over creation.  Vast chains of these language factories are densely scattered across Asia.  Names such as EF, ILT, TBI, and dozens of others all offer their brand of 'quick and easy' English training, meaning about two years of intensive immersion classes.

To achieve their promises, these schools climb all over each other to bring in native speakers to teach, so that the students can learn the accents, slang and other vagaries of the tongue.

Only one problem.  The profit motive.  Well, OK, two problems.  Corporate backers seeing green because their exploited labor classes can understand their Masters.

The profit motive is simple.  These schools compete fiercely for a limited number of students, and there are a lot of schools.  They are like McDonald's in America.  You can't walk ten feet without tripping over one.  So the schools cut as many corners as they can.  They offer cheapers classes with fluent local speakers.  They cut back by using cheaper curricula.  And they try to recruit any white face to fill the teacher slot, with little or no attention to the person's qualifications.

As a consequence, the schools become teacher mills.  They have revolving doors on the teachers' lounge.  They dangle visas and other goodies in front of the unsuspecting white faces, and when the person figures out the scam, they are replaced with the next victim.

Other than the fact that these hapless 'teachers' grew up speaking some form of English, they have little or no qualifications to teach the language.  Some are barely able to muster more than inner-city trog-speak.  They wouldn't know a tense if they tripped over it.  And spelling?  Well, how many people do you know who are ace spellers of English?  Next to Gaelic, it is one of the most difficult languages to write for that very reason.

Hell, most American schools don't even teach what I would consider the Mother Tongue anymore.

At any rate, the schools also try to get away with not paying out the immigration fees demanded by most governments.  Among them, Indonesia is one of the most egregious tax hounds.  A year-long work visa here costs north of $1,200, give or take some palm greasing.  Most Asian countries also have requirements that teachers have a degree in their subject.

Of all the English teachers in Indonesia, I know a handful with English degrees, much less a degree of any kind.  The odd one here and there might have a IELTS or other teaching certificate, meaning they sacrificed a couple of months of their lives to gain the necessary skills for teaching one of the most complex languages around.

It's a double-edged sword.  The law demands a degree, and the pitiful paychecks these schools offer mean none of the degrees would consider the jobs.

So, the schools are left recruiting barely literate knuckle draggers, in many cases.  And since they are defying the law anyway, why pay for visas and such?  They likely couldn't get them for the unpapered warm bodies in the classroom anyway.  In the end, they take their chances and pocket the difference, at the expense of the students.

Oh sure, scandals break out on occasion.  Several years back, it was EF.  Then it was Penabur.  Now it's TBI.  Mostly, these things just slide past, because too many .gov types get greased to look the other way and most customers don't care, as long as the kids are learning SOMEthing.

The real story behind these schools, though, is much darker.

Because the schools are mostly cash operations and the books are easily padded with invisible students, they are likely to become money-laundering fronts.  Set up a language school, pad the books with extra students, and pass the cash through the door.  It comes out squeaky clean.  This is much more common than folks would suspect.  It also provides a prime motive to cheap out on every corner that can be cut.

Another dark character in the background is the multinational corporation.  They quiety back many English schools around the world, because it serves their interests.  If they can train up a few thousand cheap laborers, put them in management positions to act as go-betweens, then it makes running Nike and Apple sweat-shops all that much easier.  It also provides a financial motive for the students who realize better jobs and pay by learning English.  They can stay off the shop floor and push paper.

You have to dig deep to find the corporate backers, but they are there, lurking around to pick off the talented students to run their job-jacking operations in developing countries.  There is even subtle hints of advertising in the classrooms and text books.  And of course, you can't learn a language effectively without picking up the culture that goes with it.  All of which serves the imperialists' goals.

In the end, the students are the victims.  Their parents shell out good money in the hopes of giving their kids a step up in business.  But the profit motive of the schools, and the corporate ghosts in the background, conspire to reduce the quality of the education while churning the cash crop.

It's a slimy business, and one which makes the thinking person pause and shake the head.  This business is not unique in having these problems, but it is one which few people think about regularly.

Even more unfortunate are the professional teachers who not only have their profession cheapened, but get smeared by the slip-shod operations whose only real reason to exist is profit.

It's a crying shame that business is the ONLY model folks can find to motivate them.

Me?  I'm learning Mandarin.  當我回答的機會敲