HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated September 14, 2014 – 12:00am
I learned something very interesting recently. The words “five” and “one,” when said sequentially, sound like “I want” to those in mainland China.
I was invited to give a talk to teachers who worked for a company called 51Talk. I talked to them about the noble profession of teaching and how much a teacher can change a person’s life and even his or her destiny. This was not the usual kind of teachers who teach at schools or universities, although many have done so in the past. Almost all had a few years’ experience doing that, and some are still doing so.
One thing in common with all of them, whether young or old, is that they have now embarked on a new path of this old profession. They now teach online.
And what do they teach? They teach English. Who do they teach? They teach middle class Chinese in China.
There are probably not more than 5,000 foreign English teachers in China. To hire them on a one-on-one basis is quite expensive. And while many Chinese learn English in regular school, the quality is quite low and, in the words of an educated Chinese person I talked to, “practically useless.” People who study in good schools and gain a high level of proficiency in China describe the average use of English as “dumb English.” Not only is quality sorely lacking, the graduates have very little chance to practice with real English speakers.
The biggest English language teaching company in China, New Oriental, will help you pass TOEFL tests by teaching you more about how to get around the multiple choices to pass the exams, but not how to speak the language with great proficiency.
Enter a startup called 51Talk. CEO and founder Jack Huang and Shu Ting, co-founder, recognized a great thirst to learn conversational English among Chinese in the Mainland and decided to do something about it. Initially, they looked at different Asian countries to search for the best talents they could find to teach their countrymen, only to discover that the best teachers were in the Philippines.
They found Filipinos to be very proficient, friendly, patient and there were so many teachers available. Our American style of English is also something that the Chinese seem to like.
In the beginning, the idea of Filipinos teaching Chinese to speak English was a hard sell. But the moment their clients tried the course, they were hooked. In three years, 51Talk has provided freelance jobs to more than 1,500 Filipino e-Educators. They are projected to reach 3,000 teachers this year and double the number by next year.
How does it all work?
Teaching hours are from 6 a.m. to 12 midnight every day. That does not mean all those hours are occupied. Teachers are on standby. Chinese students buy credits for 25-minute classes. They have lessons when they want and they can choose the teachers. The suggested schedule is three times per week per student, but that is flexible.
The approach to learning English is through total immersion. The teachers speak only in English but they follow a software instruction program that plays according to the student’s level of proficiency.
The setting can be anywhere. All a teacher needs is a strong Internet connection. The interaction happens via Skype. The teachers work mostly from their homes, which means they have no transportation costs. Beijing and Manila are in the same time zone so it not like working in a call center where your life is totally disrupted by the time difference. It is not stressful since they are in their element. They can take meals, or refreshments in between. The good teachers can earn up to P70,000 a month. The teachers and students, as well as the sessions, are evaluated by an academic standards team both here and in Beijing for improvements when needed.
I watched an actual session a few days ago and I was quite impressed at how easily it works. There is a real conversation going on. The teacher asks the students to pronounce certain words a few times, answer a few questions from preview sessions and tackle new lessons. The exchange is quite fast. There is much enthusiasm between teacher and student.
Do the students learn? I learned from the 51Talk executives that in a little over three months, Chinese students report a much greater comprehension when watching a regular American TV drama.
Young Chinese who know how to communicate in English have a much better chance at getting better jobs. The demand to learn it is unquenchable. And the opportunity to provide the service is clearly there.
Many Filipinos through the decades have gone abroad as OFWs and have often had to give up being with their families while they work hard to earn a living. The social cost of this cannot be accurately measured but we know that as a society, we are paying an enormous price.
In this setup where Filipino e-Educators are engaged in teaching online to students abroad, there are no families to leave behind. There is only productivity and pride in doing the work they are good at and like to do.
Lastly, in this age of tension between Philippines and China, I am pretty sure that ventures and exchanges such as this can only bring greater understanding between peoples of both countries.
To paraphrase an ancient saying, the Chinese students have long been ready, and yes, the Filipino teachers have appeared.
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To learn more about teaching, visit the 51Talk Facebook site and fill out an application form.