November 1, 2017

If you Teach Someone to Fish

November 1, 2017

Many of my students would ask me what the fastest way to learn English is. I was always surprised because I certainly had no trick up my sleeve to make them suddenly fluent.

And if I did, I would have shared it long ago. What surprised me more was how the students more often than not placed the onus of learning English on themselves — that they were the sole carrier of responsibility for their success.

This is, of course, absolutely untrue. My students had no lack of enthusiasm or charisma; drive or motivation (well, depending on the day!). They were by no means unskilled or unable of expressing themselves. Maybe verbalexpression was more difficult, but give them a pen and paper and they can say something. What I saw it come down to, and what conversations with parents reinforced, is that the students where I taught just didn’t have enough resources — in all measures of the term.

I taught in Dong Ha, Quang Tri. One of the first things people would tell me, or mention offhandedly about the province, was how poor it is. Quang Tri was decimated by the war and, although on a good track to recovery, is still scarred by its remnants and if not, its memory. In getting to know my students, I slowly found out that most of my students come from agricultural backgrounds . Only a few came from a family that is not comprised of farmers. When I finally met a few of the parents who I had only read about, the parents told me about a farmer’s life in Quang Tri.

Many would mention the hopes they had for their children, and one of them was certainly that they do not come back as farmers.

What stuck was knowing the educational achievement of the families, the average monthly income, the hours spent during the day and the type of work they do. A lot of parents came to the conclusion that if they had more, they would give more to their children to continue their studies and support them to do well. Unfortunately, reality did not budge.

A lack of resources is not a factor that just suddenly appears — it is a trend. Those who are underserved tend to be continually underserved. My students parents struggled to stay in school as long as they could, eventually meeting their educational end of getting into a college or university. College was out of reach because of costs or not having enough money to pay for extra classes to test in.

Or, sometimes the parents had to work to support their parents. When they had children, they would have to divert income to raising their family. And knowing that the parents themselves were not able to advance their education, and their livelihoods have been more or less the same because of an agricultural career, the children can only grow from what they’ve got.

Sure, poverty alleviation is a real and tangible thing, but being out of poverty does not suddenly mean you are well-off. A lack of resources from parents extends right down to the children, and if the children are not able to break the cycle of lack of resources, then the economic gains throughout generations will only be marginal.

What I’m trying to get at is this: Students looking to learn English need to know that the circumstances to their English ability is highly contextual. Certainly there are outliers in both directions, but it should be noted that low socioeconomic status students tend to have lower rates of student achievement.

It just makes sense — if I couldn’t afford a private tutor for myself, how can I expect to get one for my kid? If I couldn’t afford to go to an English center with the money I had, how can I expect to afford that either? If I could not afford the time to read with my children every night because I had to work, or was too tired to do so, how can I expect them to build the habit of reading on their own?

There are so many exogenous factors at play, but our environments and upbringings are factors we cannot easily change. We are products of where we grow up and by the means in which we grew up. Should we address socioeconomic disparities, we must look at how to equitably allocate resources, defined as however would be most suitable to the situation.

There is no trick to learning English, but there are certainly factors that can make learning English faster. And many of those factors — yes — are not within control of the student.

There’s a popular English saying: If you give someone a fish, you’ll feed them for a day. If you teach someone to fish, you’ll feed them for a lifetime. The underlying question in this is whether you give that newly-minted fisher a rod, hooks, bait and the tools to gut a fish. Being part of this “blank slate” university, I know for a fact that Fulbright isn’t just going to teach our students to fish — we’re giving them the tools they need to fish for the rest of their life.

Vincent Pham- Fulbright University Vietnam

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