When attempting to teach foreign students English in a communicative way, it is important to try to engage them with issues that really affect their lives. That means the future of the planet that they live on, surely. Well, if only it was that simple.
In my classes currently I have a lot of students from Saudi Arabia, for whom the concept of global warming is totally alien, as life could not get any hotter in their country with temperatures there in the fifties most of the time. There are also a few students from the Congo, who regularly regale the class with stories of eating monkeys and elephants as being a huge triumph for the villagers where they live and something to be proud of. Then there are the Chinese students, who are proud of their country’s progress and can’t wait for them to become the world’s number one super power. For these people, the idea that taking a bus instead of driving a car is something that should be encouraged is bizarre.
The idea of the lessons is not to preach, but to stimulate debate that will force them to try to find ways of expressing their ideas more clearly. Of all the students we have, you would not be surprised to find out that the most environmentally aware are the Europeans. Funnily enough, from the people in my classes, it is not the Saudis (whose whole stay here is reliant on funding from their oil rich government and private companies) who are the least open to green ideas; it is the Chinese students. I have actually had a student from China saying to me in the past week that she really does not care what happens to the planet, as it won’t affect her because she’ll be dead by the time it has any real impact. It must be said that she was in a tiny minority, but I was still shocked.
The most common complaint we have from our students about life in Birmingham is that the public transport is awful and they waste huge amounts of time waiting for buses on which they feel unsafe when they do finally come. Yet the concept of public transport barely exists in Saudi Arabia and the students from the Middle East are actually impressed by the fact that life is possible without a car. In fact, a lot of them are very open to the ideas about trying to build a more sustainable lifestyle where car use is minimised, even though petrol costs about 1p a litre in their country. Congestion is a problem everywhere and almost everyone all over the world is desperate for a way to escape the jams and regain the time spent sitting in their cars for something more worthwhile.
If only we had a public transport system to be proud of in this city to inspire them, it would make for lessons less interesting for me, in terms of hearing about their nightmare journeys, but it would give them something to take back and say: “that is what we should be doing”. Let’s hope that this can be achieved some time soon.