In an excellent article about English teaching in Nepal, Yakity-Yak, Chris Sowton states that 'English is being turned into the weapon of the elite'. His picture of language learning in a resource scarce setting is bleak, but much of what he says matches what I see around me in Cambodia.
In the statistics given in the publication Cambodia- Demographic and Health Survey 2000: National Institute of Statistics, Directorate General for Health, Ministry of Planning, & Ministry of Health, give a picture of the education available:
The majority of Cambodians have little or no education, and females are considerably less educated than males. Nineteen percent of males and 34 percent of females have no education. The same amount of males and females have been to preschool (a little more than 1 percent). Fifty-three percent of males and 50 percent of females have only some primary education. Less than 7 percent of males and 4 percent of females have completed primary education only, and 17 percent of males and 9 percent of females have attended, but not completed, secondary school.2 Only 2 percent of males and 1 percent of females have completed secondary school or higher.
Progress is being made and current figures should reflect an improvement, but there is still a long way to go.
Against this background, ESL schools in Phnom Penh and the other towns are booming. The importance of English to this country is high; required for tourism- Angkor Wat is a major financial asset- and jobs with foreign companies and NGOs, a vital part of the economy of a country where the government is financed largely by donors, with under a tenth of revenues coming from taxation. The best ESL school costs three times the salary paid to government employees, effectively excluding huge swathes of the population. English is a commodity that is readily available to the wealthy, and essential for many of the better paying jobs, yet access to it is difficult for the majority, who are dependent on the tuition provided by the state. Schools with highly qualified native speakers are training an elite group of students, many of whom will go on to study in foreign universities. Other schools are staffed by more transient native speakers, backpackers, but these are still very expensive for locals.
The rise of English will impact negatively on a population where half are illiterate in their mother tongue. The politics of the English language do seem particularly oppressive in resource scarce settings, though the development of a population able to communicate internationally is vital for a nation's progress. In the medical sector here a doctor working for an NGO can earn ten times as much as a counterpart working in the state sector, which fuels resentment and creates an incentive for the elite who speak English to maintain the differentials. In many developing societies, English will indeed be a weapon of the elite and many will be permanently excluded from the benefits that this knowledge brings. The gap between the rich and the poor is almost certainly going to be widened by the spread of English. Chris Sowton says that the emphasis of much aid money is on turning BAs into MAs. The dilemma is that the people with the higher skills are necessary for any modernisation, but the people modernisation is supposed to benefit willincreasingly be trapped in low paid areas without access to opportunity for betterment.
Before I came here, I had never been to a developing country and had little real idea of the issues and problems they have to face. I certainly had never seen English as a means for exclusion, but now I see the problems. Those with the money can buy into a better quality commodity, while those outside are dependent on what is made available through the state. In societies like Britain, this is still the case, but in many developing societies, it means that those who can afford an education for themselves or their children have access to all the best jobs, while those outside have little or no chance.
Categories: Asian Blog