Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tongue Tied

If you speak and/or are literate in a language other than the one you learned from your parents when you were a child - then you will understand. If you are monolingual then you won't. If you were pulled out of school after only a few years, or never even started because your parents could not afford to have you not working, or because there was no school due to a marauding militia burning it to the ground and murdering your teacher -then you will understand. If  you started school around the age of 4 or 5 and completed at least 10 - 12 years of uninterrupted education, then you won't. If you fit into the first of those categories, you will understand how difficult it can be to move to a new country,  learn the language and find employment. If you work in a government office in one of those nations which receive refugees and asylum seekers, then you won't.

In Australia, one of the services we provide to migrants is English language training. The government operates two main programs. The Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) and the Language, Literacy and Numeracy Program (LLNP). The AMEP focuses on new migrants and offers 510 hours of free instruction. The LLNP focuses on employability skills and the hugely important role of literacy. It offers 800 hours of free instruction in four 200 hour blocks.

In order to progress from one block of training to the next in the LLNP, students have to demonstrate improvement in two different macro skills. For example, reading and writing. For each of these outcomes students must supply two pieces of evidence from two different text types. In other words, to show that they can write, they might have to write a recount and a letter. To prove they can read that might have to read a description and an information text and answer questions on both.

This can be incredibly hard work both for the student and their teacher, especially for older students who have never been to school and who are not literate in their native language, but also for students with learning disabilities. Throw in a range of medical problems which result in memory and concentration problems, as well as frequent visits to doctors. Add some attitudinal problems related sometimes to culture and other times to personality, and you will begin to get a clearer  picture of what goes on in English language classrooms around the country.

The system, the LLNP, is quantifiable results based and driven by the bottom line: you guessed it, money. It is largely incompatible with the needs and abilities of low level English learners. It is apparently run by bureaucrats with little understanding of people, nor of any principles of language learning. The fact is that no matter how adept the teacher is or how hard the student tries, anything more than extremely modest improvements in English language skills will remain elusive for a large number, even a majority, of refugees. The insistence on a certain level of improvement is a denial of reality.