“Hello, Mr., Can We Practice Our English With You?”

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Traveling as an English speaker is a luxury. English is essentially the universal language today, which means that wherever we go, someone speaks our language, with varying degrees of competency. Being able to speak English in the countries we have visited is a highly prized skill, one that everyone we have encountered in Southeast Asia has been eager to hone with us. But the strangest incident of English learning we have seen has been here in Indonesia, where for the past week, we have been physically stopped by kids looking to “practice English” at tourist sites.

A quick disclosure before I describe my mixed experience, for those of you who don’t know me: I am a big supporter of learning languages by talking to people. In a world filled with language books and DVD-ROMs promising to teach you a language in a matter of hours, the best way is to learn is to find someone who speaks that language and talk to him or her for as long as possible. It’s called immersion, and it works best when you have no other option but to speak that second (or third, or fourth, etc) language; trial by fire. Even so, it takes a very long time to learn a language; there are no shortcuts.

So it should make me happy to help young kids trying to learn English by speaking with them, right? Sure, but there have to be some ground rules. Let’s start at the beginning, our first language-learning encounter.

We were sitting at the pier in Lombok on our way back to Bali to catch our flight to Yogyakarta. A young man approached us and began asking us a series of questions. “Hello, Mr.,” he began, clearly unable to distinguish linguistically between Mr. and Ms. (it is apparent that I am female, right?), “do you have some time to talk to me and help me practice my English?”

“Sure,” we replied, anticipating that there was some kind of sales pitch to come at the end. Sadly, we have grown accustomed to people “talking” to us for the sole purpose of asking us for some money, so we are now naturally suspicious. But there was no pitch; he asked us questions, we asked him questions, and the conversation went pretty smoothly. Afterwards, we were approached by his teacher, who thanked us for his time and asked how he had done.

“He was great! This is such a great idea, and we were happy to help!” we excitedly responded. The teacher brought all of his students to the pier to talk to people who had nothing better to do but hang out and talk to his students. They get practice, and the English speakers (some native, some not) got something to do for a few minutes — win-win. So this was an example of how you could execute this strategy of language learning in an effective way.

In Yogyakarta, though, there was a different approach. Our first day there began after an early flight from Bali, and since we had all day and were already up, we decided to take in some local sights. We began at the sultan’s palace downtown, where we happened to arrive right in the middle of a dance performance with a live Gamelan orchestra — great timing! But right as we started watching, we were suddenly surrounded by young girls in headscarves who wanted to talk to us. It wasn’t a situation of one student; each of us was literally surrounded by between 10 and 15 giggling, nervous schoolgirls.

I braced myself. “Hello, Mr.” they began (I mean seriously, shouldn’t this gender thing be lesson #1??), “can we practice our English with you?” Checking my backpack to make sure it wasn’t open — forgive me for being a little paranoid since I was literally surrounded — I responded, “Umm, sure?” The girls then began to read to me off a list of questions their teacher had prepared. One girl spoke while her classmates watched, and then some started coming to me one by one to read the same questions. One or two wrote down my responses, but most did not, and then all 15 of them approached me for grades on a scale of one to ten on their little scoring sheets. The categories were for reading, pronunciation and listening. I graded about 10 of them, inventing grades for those who didn’t speak a word, and faced another onslaught before Rebecca and I put our feet down and walked away. We then realized that we had completely missed the dance performance.

The teachers were nowhere to be found to control the situation, and the kids had absolutely no intention of learning anything beyond doing exactly what they needed to in order to complete the assignment. (Kids are the same in every culture.) The most motivated of them, who spoke to us individually and managed to write down our responses, badly spelled them and didn’t ask us for any help or clarification. When we asked them questions in response, they had no idea what we were saying, and flat out ignored us. And of course, on top of that, they had completely disrupted our visit. They also ruined the possibility of our participation in similar exercises with other groups of schoolchildren; later in the day at the palace and at Borobudur the next day, we blew off two other groups of kids trying to talk to us. 

This poorly executed exercise was awful for us and absolutely useless for those girls. Accosting tourists in the middle of a site visit is very inconsiderate. We only have a small amount of time to spend at these places, and Rebecca and I do not need to practice our English. If they had been chaperoned properly, they would have at least approached us one by one and been required to dictate our responses, which was the point of the assignment. The grading thing was probably the most ridiculous; what do those teachers expect me to do, give them low scores right in front of their shy, cherubic faces? It did point out the obvious, that American self-esteem-based schooling is completely different from the in-your-face “No really, you suck” Asian method. If they expected honesty, they aren’t going to get it from Americans, I can tell you; we’re just not prepared to be that mean to kids.

So there you have it, our first encounter with organized English learning. It does explain why so many people here tell us they speak English but cannot understand a word we are saying. I’m sorry to say that if this is indeed a state-sanctioned learning activity — “Go forth, Indonesian students, and ambush tourists!” — it’s not going to work. They should stick to the Lombok method and find those bored, chatty people, and spend more time chatting, and less time repeating.

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