Wednesday, April 02, 2014

IATEFL Harrogate Online 2014: David Graddol

David Graddol's opening plenary for the IATEFL conference in Harrogate was entitled English and economic development and all about "the extraordinary growth in the learning of English around the world" which has " largely been premised on the economic rationale that English will help make its speakers and those countries which invest in it richer".

For the plenary, David drew upon information from some of the many publications he has been involved in, many of which are available as a free download, such as The Future of English (pdf), English Next (pdf) and English Next India (pdf), and Profiling English in China (pdf)

We now live in a world where large corporates are taking ownership of much of ELT businesses. Recently, EF published a report (the English Proficiency Index) which included a graphic showing a link between GDP per capita and the proficiency level of English. David Graddol feels that although this was "no more than a piece of marketing", it received a lot of media attention and there were a number of problems with this kind of graphic. He finds it very misleading. The biggest one is that "we just don't know what the cause and effect between these two parameters are." He asked whether it was the case that "wealthier countries are able to invest more in English" or whether it was"the fact that learning English produces wealth somehow? In some mysterious way?". David warns that this is a misuse of data and is concerned that it is being used by some governments around the world and the information in it taken as fact. 

Graddol believes that these are questions that we have to be more inquisitive about, and he has recently been talking to a few economists who have been trying to wrestle with this problem. What is clear is that there is a large number of variables at work (the size of the country, native language spoken, trading partners, etc). In the rest of his plenary, Graddol said he was going to unpack some of these and also look at the bigger picture.

The increasing use of online programmes has also made things more difficult. For instance, ask the questions "Where were the online programmes developed?" and "Where are the programmes hosted?" and you find that this is very much a trans-border activity.

Return on Investment (R.o.I.)

Although asking about R.o.I. makes some people in ELT uncomfortable, as the sector is also about personal development, social transformation, etc., Graddol wants to focus on economic issues today. 

Referring to globalisation, Graddol asked if we are now, for example, seeing something akin to the East India company's initiative in the 19th Century of teaching local people English because it was cheaper for them to do this than employ English nationals. Looking at league tables of the competitive advantage of out-sourcing services in different countries, you can see why this may be attractive. 

Looking at A.T. Kearney's global services location index (pdf of 2011 index - page 2, showing the India, China and Malaysia as the top three), Graddol  discussed the parameters such as financial attractiveness (i.e. how cheap is it, how much do you have to pay for someone?), the people and skills availability and the business environment (i.e. red tape,  setting up a company, how easy is it to hire and fire staff, tax structures, etc.). When people become more expensive in certain countries, but don't increase their skill set, countries drop down the ranking (see analysis of this related to 2011 index here) and companies out-source to another country which can provide those skills more cheaply. 

Indian call centres is one example of this. Being a cost sensitive industry, David found there was work being done by call centres to identify the precise English skills needed to perform a particular process. A target profile (C1 level in listening comprehension and socio-linguistic appropriacy, but only B1 writing skills necessary) was created by one such centre. B2-C1 levels in accuracy, fluency, interaction and pronunciation were also created. Many call centres would hire at B1, train to B2 and expect them to get to C1 over the next year, and would move them to different desks and pay better depending on their level of English. It also explains why when ringing a call centre, you press different buttons for different queries (some of which require more sophisticated language skills). 

In developing countries such as India, children have been born faster than they have been able to build primary schools. It is very difficult to cope with changes required in these situations, with changing demographics. David proceeded to share some detailed demographic information he has been collecting. He showed a very interested animated demographic graphs of China, India and Morocco from 1950 showing changes that affect educational policy. 

In  English Next, Graddol talked about the new world rush to English and said that China had been very influential in announcing their intentions to teach English from grade 1. China has now changed this to teaching English from grade 3. 

David next shared his graph of the total number of English learners in the world from English Next, which showed a huge spike in the number of learners and then a decline. What this shows is a massive increase in young learners. The graph showed a transitional moment with English as a life skill, but if English becomes a basic skill learnt early on at school, then these young learners will move from being English learners to English users, and that is why the graph shows a drop in English learners in the future. 

An interesting change that Graddol has noticed is the change in the minimum level (IELTS 6.5+) required for university entrance. At the moment, most countries' education systems are not producing students with the right level for this. However, if English learning is started earlier, then this changes, which becomes an attractive option for policy-makers. 

A lot of action now is happening in the bottom (A1) and the top levels (C1-2). Although for some jobs in the tertiary (services) sector of the economy (restaurant workers, for example), A2 is sufficient, for jobs in the quaternary sector, however, C1 is the minimum required level. 

With reference to the CEFR, David notes that many have realised that C2 is not at the top of the scale and there is work on developing beyond this (C3, C4, etc).

Regarding English medium teaching, Graddol believes we have to come to terms with some quite unpleasant truths. Studying a course in English, for example, when the students' proficiency level isn't up to it, is problematic.

After dismissing the EF (the English Proficiency Index) data again, David talked about the tests undertaken by Surveylang, saying that these was "probably the most systematic test of language proficiency that has ever been done." The test for English showed that France, for example is struggling to get students at the age of 16 with an A1 level of English. In comparison, Sweden has most of their students at B1-B2 or above. With a single labour market in Europe, this is quite troubling and it is something that we have to engage with. 

Although large scale implementation of English learning has been undertaken throughout the globe, it has been done on an economic rationale which is largely unproven. We don't know the answers to many of the questions he has asked today. What is the relationship between English and national GDP? We need to distinguish who is benefiting and who is paying out and need to look more carefully at the relationship between levels of English, educational systems and the job market. 

David Graddol finished with a list of conclusions that he has come to (see image above) and hoped that we can explore these difficult questions during the conference and beyond. 

You can watch the complete plenary in the video below:

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