When people start learning English they usually have a goal in mind. For most learners this goal is to become proficient in the language of Shakespeare. While becoming a fluent speaker is probably the most important objective for most students, textbooks usually integrate the four skills: speaking, listening, reading and writing. This is only logical as there can hardly be any speaking without listening, nor writing without reading. The two former skills are necessary for just about everyone, while the latter ones are especially useful for young learners planning to study abroad and professionals who need to do a lot of reading and writing in their job.
Let’s have a closer look at textbooks. When teaching English, teachers usually use a course book. For many classes, especially the ones targeting young learners, this course book comes with a workbook or activity book, in order to give students some additional practice. If students only want to focus on conversation, a course could be taught without course book; however, I think that having one usually gives more structure to the lesson and makes it easier for the teacher to prepare a lesson. Starting from scratch gives teachers a lot of freedom to tailor a course exactly to the students’ needs, but also involves more lesson preparation.
There are a lot of excellent books on the market; most of them are produced by major publishers such as Oxford, Cambridge, Longman and Macmillan. The problem a teacher can encounter during an English lesson in Asia is that these books are not always culturally suitable for the learners. Although many of them try to implement world culture into their approach, all too often there are cultural references which simply don’t make sense for Thai learners. I’ll give some examples later, but first a word about the role of English as a foreign language.
I don’t really want to discuss the small differences between EFL, ESL, TESL TESOL and other acronyms because I don’t think it really matters. True, it is important to know where the students of English come from and where they are located. Teachers use a slightly different approach when teaching Asian students in an English speaking country compared to Asian students studying in Asia. In the former situation, introducing English culture, American, Australian or even South African culture into the language lessons can be really interesting and relevant to the students. However, if teachers try to teach irrelevant English culture in an Asian classroom, they will only complicate matters for both themselves and the students.
Just to make it absolutely clear, I think that introducing cultural elements into an English lesson can be very rewarding and give learners a different and broader worldview, but it shouldn’t be a must. The English language doesn’t belong to England or America anymore. I support the view that English has become a global language - a worldwide commodity so to speak - that can be taught without all the cultural strings attached. I think it would be a lot better for local students to focus on the use of English to talk about their own country and culture instead of the country where the course book was written. Why should a Thai student be able to explain what steak and kidney pie is when they will never have the opportunity to see or taste one?
If course books focus on the traditions and culture of the country where it was made, Asian learners of English will be puzzled by a wealth of materials that are completely alien to them. Here is a brief list of examples where culture can interfere with relevant language learning.
o Food: Have you ever used a book where the characters eat cottage pie or flapjacks? Quite difficult and rather senseless to explain what those are, especially knowing that most students don’t even know the English names for the most popular Thai dishes such as fried rice, noodle soup, spicy papaya salad or sour lemongrass soup.
o Festivals: I don’t think many Thais will get overly excited when a teacher is telling them about Bonfire Night or Thanksgiving. Making students talk about festivals they actually celebrate themselves will definitely stimulate them to talk more.
o Religion: In a lot of books there are references to churches and sometimes even the odd cathedral. Why not include a temple instead or a mosque instead? Or even better, leave out religion completely as I don’t really see what it can contribute to language learning.
o Geography: Course books will often focus on the geography of a country and this approach can give students a broader worldview. Knowing where Ben Nevis is or what the Appalachians are, is a different matter though and not really relevant for many learners.
o Sports: Why are books full of locally unknown or unpopular sports such as cricket, American football or even curling? Thais would probably be more interested in badminton, Thai boxing or krataw (similar to volleyball, but played with the feet and a small rattan ball, a kind of cross between football and badminton).
o Famous places: Instead of teaching about Trafalgar Square or Mount Rushmore, I suppose an English lesson about the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha would be more useful.
o Weather: All course books seem to assume that everywhere on Earth, there are four seasons. Sorry guys, but spring, summer, autumn and winter just don’t fit into Thailand. Here we have the hot (or dry) season, the rainy (or wet) season and the cool season. Southern Thailand doesn’t even have the latter.
Here is a short classroom conversation showing what can go wrong if books have irrelevant content.
= After a reading exercise about Christmas =
Teacher: So children, did you like the Christmas story?
Little Somchai: Yes teacher, but I don’t know what is turkey.
(Class guffawing or giggling now and saying ‘tur-kii’ to each other repeatedly; by the way, ‘tur’ is some kind of pronoun meaning ‘you’ and ‘kii ’is brown and smelly)
Teacher: You mean you don’t know what a turkey is. A turkey is a big bird people traditionally eat at Christmas. It’s like a big chicken.
Little Somchai: What is Kitsemas pudding?
Teacher: It’s some kind of cake people eat at Christmas. It’s dark brown, sweet and it has got raisins in it. Sometimes people put cream or custard on it.
Little Somchai: What are raisins, sir?
Teacher: Well, you know, they are dried grapes that have become very small and sweet. They sell them in every supermarket. Ask your mum to buy you some.
Little Somchai: What is cream, sir?
Teacher (starting to get a little annoyed): That’s some kind of thick milk people use to cook or put on cake or apple pie. Costs a bloody fortune in Thailand.
Little Somchai (persisting): What is pie, sir?
Teacher: That’s the same as cake.
Little Somchai: And is custard the same as mustard, sir?
Teacher (getting exasperated as the lesson isn’t really going as planned): Yes, it’s exactly the same; it’s just not as yellow.
I really think that Thais should be able to talk about their own country and continent in English. Ask any Thai student to tell you what in English Thailand is like and what it has to offer and the answer will be probably be a blank stare. The better students might tell you that “Thailand have many beautifool place, have tom yam and somtam that very delicious and you must go to see Wat Phra Kaew”, but that’s as good as it gets for the average student. None of this makes sense to someone who hasn’t been in Thailand of course.
So how can this situation be remedied? In my opinion, international publishing houses should be persuaded to market a local edition of their popular course books or – if that’s not possible – at least market some kind of more “neutral” international edition, where most irrelevant cultural references are removed. Encouraging Thai education authorities or Thai publishers to design their own books will only lead to disaster. Just have a look at all the locally produced textbooks. They are either full of grammar and spelling mistakes, they are always unattractive and they don’t integrate the four skills; instead they focus primarily on grammar. Thus, going local is definitely not an option.
The aforementioned international publishers have infinitely more resources and qualified editors. Local publishers will never be able to compete and produce top-quality books that are accompanied by good audio and the necessary supplementary materials. Will this ever happen? I think it might, as I’ve recently seen a course book series that has an Asian edition. Changes don’t happen overnight of course and until all major publishers start doing this, I guess teachers will have to continue to supplement course books and skip irrelevant passages, something I hope most of us have become good at.