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Poverty alleviation using the language learning metaphor Poverty alleviation using the language learning metaphor
by Joseph Gatt
2020-01-05 11:24:22
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NGO poverty alleviation workers and language teachers share a few things in common. Poverty alleviation is about teaching poor people how to make money. And language teaching is about “alleviating the poverty” of a foreign language a student wants to learn.

Some NGOs and NGO workers baffle me. Some language teachers baffle me. In poverty alleviation as in language learning, there are steps you should follow before you gradually rid the village or country of poverty.

pover01_400_01Let me start with an anecdote. I used to be a language teacher. I am also a language learner. Having experienced language learning first hand, and repeated the process for several languages, I know how it works. As a language teacher, the first thing you need to identify is how much of the foreign language your students know. So I try to identify how many words or patterns my students know. And I only use the language and patterns I know they grasp and fully understand. I then teach them about a dozen words, and only use what they know coupled with those dozen words. Then another dozen words. Then another dozen words. If you do that frequently enough they should be more or less fluent in about a year or two.

In Korea I had a Korean co-teacher teaching English with me. Setting aside my co-teacher's megalomania and complex of superiority (despite her very poor English) I used that method, that is of only and exclusively using the kind of English that my students could understand at a 100% rate (or 90% rate). That is I only used words and phrases my students could understand. My co-teacher tried to get me fired (and almost succeeded) because she thought I was using “poor English” because I didn't really “speak English.” I got summoned by the dean of the program who lectured me as follows: “Yossi, I know you're from Israel, I know you don't speak English very well. But your students are too dumb to notice that. So act natural and speak naturally in class.”

Now the mistake most English as a foreign language teachers do is as follows. They show up in class, and use full-blown English with their students. Their lecture goes like this “good morning class. Today we're going to study the past tense. The past tense is what you use when you talk about what you did in the past. For example I went to the haberdashery yesterday. Went is the past tense. Or I treated myself to a culinary treat last night. Treated is the past tense. Get it, class?”

Now in the example above what the students (especially lower-level students) really hear is “the teacher speaks English and I don't.” And what the teacher is really saying is “I speak English and you guys don't.”

So when teaching the tenses for example, what I used to do was ask the following questions: “what did you do yesterday?” and “what are you doing now?” and “what will you do tomorrow?” Then the students would answer, some in full sentences, others would just say something like “karaoke” or “coffee shop.” I wouldn't correct them, and would try to gradually, methodically, step by step, teach them with a long-term perspective how to use full sentences.

So as much as you have language teachers wanting to teach the entire language all at once, you have poverty alleviation workers who want to alleviate poverty all at once. They go to villages, give full blown lectures on hygiene and making money and lifestyle, and they expect the villagers, who are set in their own ways and rigid in their own ways, to revolutionize their lifestyle. That's not how it works.

If you want to teach villagers how to use soap, you need three things. First, you need soap to be widely available and sold in the village. Second, you need to guide villagers, long-term, into inculcating the soap using reflex among them. Third, you need to convince villagers that soaping up is healthy, and will rid them of germs, bacteria and illness.

I remember in 1993, being 9 years old, I was sent to a village to teach children how to brush their teeth. They gave me a bag of toothbrushes and toothpaste and I distributed them among boys and girls in a North African village. The boys were using the toothbrushes as swords and fighting with them, and the girls were combing their hair with the toothbrushes, among other funny things they did with the toothbrushes. I tried to teach this particular child how to use it, and she thought you could use soap in lieu of toothpaste. For hygiene education to work, you need to teach them how to brush their teeth, but more importantly, the local shop should sell toothpaste and toothbrushes at a very affordable price. Same goes for soap, shampoo and other hygiene products.

To me, poverty alleviation has priorities. First priority is hygiene education, because sick people can't work thus can't make money. Second priority is agricultural education. In 1994 I was sent on a mission to Northern Mozambique where people knew absolutely nothing about agriculture. People in Northern Mozambique used to wait for the rain to come and would harvest whatever crops the rain produced, without ever engaging in active agriculture. I worked with the World Food Program back then (despite only being 10 years old) and was appalled at how the WFP would just dish out food and get the hell out of villages. I thought the WFP should really teach local villagers how to plant seeds, water them, and harvest them. Such education involves spending weeks, perhaps months, perhaps years with local villagers.

So first thing is hygiene. Second thing is agriculture. Third is of course education and literacy. Again in literacy programs you have NGO workers who have the kind of “I know everything, you guys know nothing” kind of attitude. Literacy is one of the hardest things to teach, as most books donated to villages tend to be used as tissues or torn apart and used to cover shelves. So for literacy programs to work, you need to provide villagers with radios, televisions and newspapers, need to teach them about city life and village life, and need to make literacy available 24/7. Literacy is not just about teaching how to read and write, it is also about teaching the love of reading and writing and listening to media productions, and teaching them the need to stay informed.

So much more I could say about poverty alleviation. This is just food for thought.

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