Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Game-Changer

On August 12th 1901, a ship carrying a very precious cargo sailed into Manila Bay.

A few years earlier, war had broken out between the United States and Spain following the sinking of an American ship off the coast of Cuba.  The war had two main theatres - the Caribbean, where Spain had a number of island colonies, and east Asia, where Spanish possessions included the island of Guam and the Philippine archipelago.  Spain fared badly during the war, which eventually resulted in the Philippines moving from Spanish to American control.

The US found itself in a novel situation as an imperial power.  It also found itself with a number of problems.  One of the biggies was education.  Everyone in the colony spoke either Spanish or an indigenous language.  Whilst the Spanish had built a rudimentary school system, it wasn't up to the task of churning out the English-speaking functionaries and specialists that would be required to modernise the new colony.

Which brings us back to the USS Thomas steaming into Manila bay with its precious cargo of....   teachers.  Five hundred and thirty of them to be precise.  These daring folk fanned out across the country, setting up schools even on remote and isolated islands.  English teaching was their main focus, however they also taught maths, geography and very practical subjects such as agriculture, housekeeping and manual trades.

What's interesting is that, to this day, most Filipinos still speak very warmly about the efforts of the 'Thomasites', as they came to be known, recognising that the economic development of the Philippines during the first half of the twentieth century was in large part due to their efforts.

Fast forward to 2010.  Georgian president Mihail Saakasvili announces a programme to establish English as Georgia's second language by 2014.  His action plan to achieve this aim is highly 'Thomasite'.  (1) Import 1000 young native English speakers from the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, (2)  Give them an 8-day crash course in Georgian language and culture, (3) Ship them out to the provinces, (4) Pay them a living wage (EUR 250 per month), and (5) Have them teach English to rural Georgians who otherwise wouldn't have the chance to learn.

Saakasvili's programme has two main aims.  One is economic: to compete in the modern world and to establish durable trade and commercial ties, Georgians need to speak major foreign languages.  The principal foreign language used in international business is English, so it makes sense for that to be the language selected.

The second aim is cultural.  Saakasvili wants to move his country definitively out of Russia's orbit.  He wants to remove the last vestiges of the soviet mentality and replace them with a liberal (dare I say Anglo-Saxon?) approach to life and work.  Giving his people access to western thought and ideas through the possession of the English language is an excellent way of doing this.

Now let's set sail westwards from Batumi across the Black Sea.  Navigating up the Danube from Tulcea, we arrive at Giurgulesti, maritime gateway to the Republic of Moldova.  What if a boatload of 500 EU-funded English teachers were to arrive here sometime in the next year or two?  What if they were to move into Russian-speaking and Romanian-resistant areas such as Gagauzia or Balti, stay for three years and teach English?

Wouldn't it be a great way of opening the minds of the population there and allowing them to balance what they learn(!) from NIT & Russian media outlets with news from CNN, the BBC and Discovery Channel?  Wouldn't it massively improve their chances of getting good jobs and building export-oriented businesses?  Wouldn't it be a game-changer in Moldovan politics, tilting the balance once-and-for-all towards European integration?  Think about it!

Unfortunately the Thomas was sold for scrap in 1928 (who knows, you could be driving around in a little piece of it...).  I'm sure there are other boats (and airplanes) capable of doing the job, however.  Now we just need the political will.


  1. Zimbru, a good idea. But please don't overlook the contingent of PCV (Peace Corps Volunteers - Corpul Paci) who are currently in Moldova, in the villages and outside the major cities, many of whom are teaching. It is not the 500 English teachers you suggest, but it is a small start.

  2. I agree, the PC volunteers have made a valuable contribution and their service should be recognised. But as you say, we need something with a greater impact.

  3. There are only two languages that are critical to know, one's mother tongue, and English

    everything else is optional. Even if China overtakes the US as the largest economy, English will still be 100x more important than Chinese.

    For those who live in Moldavia and other ex-commie countries, every second spent learning Russian is a wasted second(unless of course they already speak English, knowing more than 2 languages can never be a bad thing)

  4. Let us strive to peacefully provide "the will" if at all possible to do such a thing.

    September 27, 2010 11:42 PM

  5. if it is about language skills:

    you don't have to import foreign teachers to Moldova to teach English - there is an abundance of young Moldovans who have sufficient skills

    if it is about brainwashing pro-russian moldovans:

    a colonialist and oppressive approach esp. because you don't know what people you get (the peace corps has a very good reputation of gathering information on a country)

    does anyone really think that fully trained teachers from UK, US ... would like to move to georgia for 250 euros/month??? very funny.

    last but not least: there is enough opportunity for EU funding in education: textbooks, teacher salaries, teacher training ... if young teachers were paid more, the educational situation in this country would change rapidly.

  6. Anonymous, thanks for the challenges, which are useful. I do have the following responses:
    1. I think there is a role for both foreigners and locals. Locals are typically better at formal trainig (e.g. grammar, vocabulary) while exposure to foreigners can help a lot with pronunciation and modern idiom.
    2. I think my approach could be better described as 'brain-dirtying' pro-Russian Moldovans with a plurality of ideas.
    3. I agree that the last thing we want is oppressive colonialists wandering around the countryside. Candidates need to be humble and need to be chosen and prepared with care.
    4. Realistically we are talking not about fully trained teachers but about 'gap-year' students or recent graduates looking for overseas experience. Would they come? Absolutely! It's not about money.
    5. I completely agree that more money needs to be invested in education, especially in the countryside.