Jenny Barnett (editor): The Human Face of English Language Teaching pp 54-57, Univ. Sth Australia, 1991,
ISBN 0 646 03766 8
Hazel has spent much of her life in mining towns. She grew up in a coal mining town in New South Wales, and later lived in Newcastle, then in a town that revolved around manganese mining and another that revolved around iron ore. She has taught English for some years in such environments and is now editing a community newsletter in the town where she wrote this passage.
The group of learners I am trying to target here is composed almost entirely of men, many of them in the thirty to fifty age range, most of them unskilled or semi-skilled, and all of them shift-workers employed by the mining company. Often they have been living in this mining town for years and speak a fluent and well established interlanguage. Many have a very low educational level from their countries of origin. Some (I suspect significantly more than admit it) are illiterate in their first language as well as in English. Their attitudes to learning English range from hostile and aggressively defensive through to highly enthusiastic.
Below are individual profiles of four male learners to some idea of the range of the group (most of which are indeed males):
1. A thirty-five year old South American, married with two children, four years in Australia, a tradesman in his home country, now a truck driver for the company. He works a four-shift roster, driving a 200 tonne ore truck. He is expected to use the two-way radio to receive instructions and report difficulties. This student is highly motivated, relatively well educated in Spanish, of above average intelligence and thus capable of following fairly complicated directions.
Pronunciation and grammatical imperfections are his major problems, especially when using the radio.
2. A forty-five year old Southern European, married with three children, twenty years in Australia. He has worked as a tradesman in the mine for approximately fifteen years. His spoken and written English are quite adequate for this familiar situation. However, now that restructuring is under way he has become anxious about his future and believes he may be forced into extra training for which his English is inadequate. Part of his problem is that the limitations of his English prevent him from fully understanding official communications produced by both company and unions. (These are generally characterised by a proliferation of abstract nouns, passive verbs and multiple subordinate clauses.)
This man has resisted for years his better educated wife's endeavours to persuade him to improve his English and has belittled her attempts to upgrade her own English skills.
He needs a better grasp of the kind of language used in official union and company documents and a refresher course and upgrade of the technical language used in his trade.
3. A twenty-five year old Asian, single. Elementary education in his home country where English was the teaching medium. Spoken English causes him very few problems but deficiencies in written English prevent him from being eligible for promotion and will hinder him from taking advantage of the training opportunities being offered under restructuring.
He needs literacy work.
4. A fifty-five year old Southern European, married, with a grown family, twenty-five years in Australia, wife followed approximately five years ago. He worked for the first twenty years in a line camp (isolated camp for maintenance crews on the railway line by which ore is shipped to the harbour for export). There the majority of workers spoke his native language. Almost illiterate in first language. Claims to speak and read English OK but in reality speaks an inter-language which most native speakers find difficult to understand, and can read only the simplest of materials and write barely more than his own name and a few simple formulaic expressions.
He needs to be able to read safety regulations so that he does not endanger himself and other workers.
I am seeking funding to establish a Self-Access Centre, which will focus strongly on computer-aided learning to provide the sense of sophistication necessary to build self-esteem in those men who are reluctant to admit their need of English tuition.
The main aims of the programs at the Centre will be:
a) Improved safety;
b) Harmonious relations with other workers;
c) Better communications resulting in greater productivity;
d) Better English to pave the way to possible increased work skills and promotion;
e) Better English to allow participation in company training programs.
A large proportion of the company employees work what is called a 4-shift roster, which is designed to allow 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week mining. This roster makes workers rotate shifts every few days and in the reverse order to that recommended by physiologists. There are many results of this system, which affect the lives of the workers. Sleep patterns are never properly established because of the rapid rotation, and consequently many workers are perpetually tired, especially those who also work overtime. Social life is very severely disrupted. Children see their fathers (and in some cases both their parents) for no more than a few minutes for days on end, while very young children may not see their fathers at all for days.
Attracting and retaining students becomes an important issue in these circumstances: students are more than usually prone to drop out because of the other strains imposed on them by their work. So greater efforts than usual have to be made to entice them in initially, and to keep them there once they have started. They expect to receive intensive instruction and practice and feel they are wasting their valuable time if they do not.
For shift workers who want to study there are obviously very great problems. Attending any sort of regular class is very difficult because in different weeks any given individual will be available at different times. Tiredness, particularly at the end of night shifts is a further complicating factor. These sorts of problems are even greater for migrant workers who have the additional difficulty of being forced to operate all day in a second language and being consequently more tired and less fit to attend classes after work. In a larger population it would be possible to arrange a class for each shift to fit around the roster system. But here there are never enough people on the same shift wanting to study the same things at the same level for that to be economically feasible.
To outsiders, English in the Workplace (EWP) seems to be the obvious solution to these problems. Yet for a number of economic and social reasons that too is far from simple. From an operating point of view, many sections of the mine are obliged for safety or industrial reasons to have a minimum number of workers at any one time. Once allowance has been made for sickness and holidays, giving additional people time off work for classes could at times force sections to close down. This is not an option that any manager is going to entertain. Moreover the mining industry has real financial difficulties now and is likely to have for some time to come. It is possible when next boom hits that we may be able to persuade the company to spend the money necessary to release workers for English classes on the grounds of additional work efficiency, higher morale and all the other admirable reasons propounded by the EWP people. However, for the moment this is not on the cards. Another factor is that non-migrant workers are likely to feel that they are being discriminated against if migrants are allowed extra time off work. (It must be remembered here that this is not an industry which has trouble attracting workers. For every job, no matter how unskilled, there is an anxious queue of applicants, both migrant and Anglo-Australian. It is not an equivalent of the clothing and manufacturing industries, which traditionally use migrants as factory fodder. Migrant workers could in some cases also feel insulted by the suggestion that they need English lessons.
Another aspect of the TESOL situation here is the issue of certification and legal responsibility. The Mines Act specifies that for safety reasons all employees must be proficient in English. However there is no definition of proficient, so the company can legitimately say that all their workers were employed as English speakers. Indeed they cannot afford to say anything else since this would be admitting that they had broken the law. On the other hand, there are serious legal implications for any English language teaching institution establishing tests and certificates of proficiency. Any test results to which either students or potential employers had access would be used in the process of sorting applicants for jobs. This would place on us, the teachers, the responsibility for deciding who has or has not enough English to be safe on a mine site.
A couple of years ago in this region an ESL student was driving a machine which crushed another worker to death. At the inquest the standard of the student's English was mentioned. If any teacher or institution had issued him or the mining company with any sort of assessment, then that person or institution would no doubt have been involved in the court - not a pleasant prospect! From this it can be seen that for teachers in mining towns (and probably for many others who are not even conscious of the potential industrial implications) statements of proficiency are a very serious, and potentially litigable, issue.