Why Armenian Schoolchildren Still Can’t Speak English


In the three years that I've been living in Kalavan, I've seen three English teachers come to the village and work with the children at the school as part of the Teach for Armenia program. Each stayed one year, and the same pattern has repeated in a strikingly similar manner.

It goes like this. I introduce myself as an American author living in the village. I tell them that I have taught English as a foreign language in about a dozen countries around the world before retiring here. I remind them that I'm the only native English speaker in at least a 30-minute radius of the village. Having a native speaker to practice with is the fastest and most complete way to learn English, haven't you heard? I offer to volunteer my time to come speak with the children at the school and supplement the classroom instruction with practical, real-world English exposure.

Each of the three English teachers in Kalavan, upon meeting me and having this conversation, has shown enthusiasm for my participation in Kalavan's English education. They agree that it would be a big asset for the children's English development to have me involved. As a bonus, I only live a two-minute walk from the school. I can literally see it from my house. It would be incredibly easy for me to get involved on a daily or weekly basis.

And then nothing whatsoever happens.

A few months go by. Every time I see the village English teacher, I remind them of everything we talked about. I go over the basics of how important it is to get people immersed in natural and native use of English while they are young if they are ever going to achieve conversational fluency. Again, heads nod and agreement is mouthed.

And then nothing whatsoever happens.

After three years, I'm starting to see a pattern.

Last June, as the English teacher was preparing to end her time here and leave the village, I finally convinced her to set up a meeting with me and the school director to discuss the options for getting me involved with the English education. I even canceled plans I had made to go to Yerevan on the only day the director said they would be available because I knew how important this meeting would be for the future of Kalavan's children. At last, real progress was beginning to be made – progress that should have been made as soon as I arrived in Kalavan.

To my disappointment, the school director canceled the meeting at the last minute. They said it would be better to try meeting again three months later, in September, when the next school year would start. Of course, the teacher who helped organize the meeting would be gone by then, and someone else would be taking her place.

I recognized that if we had to delay for three months, the probability would be overwhelmingly large that the meeting would never happen. It would keep getting delayed indefinitely or they would suddenly decide they were too busy with other obligations to consider anything I had to say about the state of the village's English education.

I even made a $100 bet with the teacher that September would come and go without the meeting ever happening. This means that all they had to do to earn a quick $100, which is more than a week's salary for them, is set up the meeting with the school director and make sure it happened in September. Despite multiple reminders on my part, the meeting (predictably) never happened. It's now more than a year later. There's been a new English teacher here since last September. Still no meeting of any kind has happened, and I never got the $100 from that bet I won.

This kind of behavior is so perplexing to me. As a native English speaker and highly skilled teacher, I'm used to my skills being in high demand around the non-English-speaking world. So the fact that I now can't even give them away for free in the country I've chosen to live in and my maternal grandmother's nation of origin simply doesn't compute for me.

Yet, Kalavan is happy to accept State grants that have allowed it to establish a library full of English books, with selections ranging from Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat to James Joyce's Ulysses. I cannot figure out what function these books are supposed to serve when no one has bothered to implement an effective English education program for the children here to learn enough English to start reading them. A book no one can read is little more than a paperweight or wall art. Its functional value is reduced to an aesthetic level.

Why does this matter so much? Why do I even care about the quality of the English education in my village?

English is objectively the most useful language in the world because it has the highest number of speakers using it in the most diverse range of places and circumstances. What if everyone in Kalavan and other villages like it around Armenia could see the relationship between being able to speak good English and being able to participate productively in countless professional and lifestyle opportunities? What if they realized how English would bring their children substantially greater wealth, happiness, and purpose throughout life? How much more incentive would they have to make sure that they and their children learn to speak and write well in English, even if they never have an impressive-looking library or famous English-language novels like Ulysses to display on their shelves?

Kalavan's fixed mentality about education isn't just limited to English. I've tried to do the same thing on numerous occasions with music education, as I was a music teacher in California many lifetimes ago. When a piano was generously donated by a private party to Kalavan's school, months went by without any attempts by the administration to get it into playing condition or to get the children involved in learning about it in any capacity. I offered to donate several hours of my own time to fix and tune the piano and begin leading a rudimentary music education program. Though interest was feigned, my efforts were rebuked. So, the piano sat gathering dust, books, and coffee mugs—an aesthetically pleasing piece of furniture but not a tool for producing music and expanding the minds of the musically inclined.

I even went on to buy several of my own guitars, ukuleles, and violins, with which I offered to start giving lessons. Those instruments now mostly sit in a pile in the corner of one of the rooms of my house. On sporadic occasions, a small group of the village children will wander over to my house for an impromptu jam session, but that's the extent of the music program I've been able to implement here. The adults running the school show no interest in what I have to offer in this regard. One neighbor suggested to me that it might be because I let my pets come inside my house, and that makes me "unclean" in their opinion. I haven't been able to confirm this, though.

The strangest part about all of this is how eager the elders in Kalavan were to have me involved in the English education when they first learned I had bought a house and would be moving here more than three years ago. I attended a few meetings in the impressive and expensive community center then – the same community center that has sat mostly empty and without purpose in all the time that I've lived here. One of the topics discussed was the best role I could play in helping the children learn English because the elders recognized how beneficial Earth's lingua franca would be to disadvantaged rural Armenian children growing up in a globalized world.

But nothing ever came from those conversations. The ideas shared remained fanciful daydreams, and their implementation has been limited to performative festivities. The fixed Soviet mentality here prevents any meaningful improvement from entering the education system, despite the opportunity for it being free and available.

Indeed, that's the subject of the next book I'm working on – how to improve the way we teach English in developing countries like Armenia and the importance of doing so (Now available on Amazon: Our Global Lingua Franca). But until the people who have power in the existing educational institutions start to see the need for systemic change and act on opportunities when they appear, nothing will ever improve. Children here and throughout Armenia study English for years in school only to come out barely being able to parrot common phrases or have half a conversation in English.

Virtually every Armenian who speaks decent English will tell you that they primarily learned it through private tutoring, English television, and organic conversation with foreigners visiting Yerevan. Those are the conditions we need to begin to replicate in the schools here. The goal must be to get them to a point of real conversational fluency so that they can comfortably communicate with the developed world and organically continue their own education outside the classroom. I know no other way to do that than with practical immersion with native English speakers.

In the meantime, I've been focusing my efforts on reaching out to other villages around Armenia, such as Debed and Malishka, that seem to be in a better position to appreciate the rare opportunity I have been banging my head against the wall trying to offer to my neighbors here in Kalavan. All it takes is one person in a position of power to see the value in something for it to begin making systemic improvements in the lives of individual Armenians.

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