The Most Common Problems Students in Mongolia Face When Learning English
English language learners at high school and college levels in Mongolia face a variety of structural and cultural difficulties that often prevent them from moving beyond an intermediate or even-low level in spoken and written English. This post will look at a few of the core issues and examine some of the ways to help improve the type of instruction provided in Mongolia that could prove beneficial for future language students.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Ariel W.
The Issues Facing Students and Teachers
First and foremost, teacher training in areas like lesson-planning, teacher/student talk time, impromptu speaking and writing activities, and classroom management needs to be improved. This problem stems directly from the outdated and completely unsuitable Soviet-style teaching methods still employed by many schools and universities through which students passively sit in silence and listen to the lecture provided by teachers. Also, at the core of what must be changed to see improvement across the country should be a comprehensive, multi-sectoral review and revision of existing standard English teaching curricula. To understand the current situation with TEFL in Mongolia, however, it is necessary to understand how English language teaching was launched in the country.
Brief History of English Teaching in Mongolia
One of the first reforms made in the newly democratic Mongolian nation in the early 1990s, was the official transition to English, and away from Russian, as the primary foreign language taught in all secondary schools and institutions of higher learning. Unfortunately, this shift in foreign language instruction was conducted in a rushed manner, without a longer-term planning perspective, and without the proper resources to ensure success.
Basically, teachers of Russian were told by the Ministry of Education that they would now be required to either teach English in addition to Russian or to only teach English, and that through a short 8-week certification class, they could easily make this switch. This hasty and haphazard approach was not effective. Many of the teachers, some still teaching today, never mastered even the basics of spoken or written English, and the students were in even worse shape. Lessons consisted of rote memorization of vocabulary (often mispronounced through thick Russian accents), construction of sentences in the simple grammatical tenses (i.e. present simple, past simple, etc.), basic and standard greetings with no room for any variation, and with little to no reading or actual creative conversation.
Lack of Creative Thinking and Resources
One of the core problems with TEFL instruction in Mongolia is the absence of interactive classrooms that promote student participation, creative thinking, and the expression of independent ideas. During the immediate post-Soviet era, there were also no standard TEFL texts in existence in the country. Not only were teachers unprepared, under-trained, and less than enthusiastic about teaching TEFL, they also had no resources available and little idea of how to teach a living language in a classroom, even if they had been motivated to do so. Things have improved over the last 20-odd years, largely down to the influx of foreign TEFL instructors during that interim, but there is still much room for improvement.
The Problem of Self-Taught English
In modern Mongolia many young people do speak and write in English, but that has little to do with the classroom learning provided in that language and more to do with the availability of English language content on the Internet. The problem, however, with students learning English from movies, television programs, and social media content is that it is overwhelmingly informal and riddled with vulgarity and imperfection. This also puts the teachers in the awkward position of feeling less confident of their mastery of the language, based on their own limited formal education in English compared to their much younger students. In short, teacher training in TEFL must be improved.
This can be facilitated by a focus on the Engage-Study-Activate (ESA) structure of a lesson through which a student group first has their interest in the topic of the lesson peaked by the teacher, then is taught the core material (i.e. grammar point, lesson vocabulary, usage, etc.) in a straightforward manner, and is then allowed to make use of the material learned through pair-activities, group-activities, or independent student activities.
The ESA Method
The ESA model emphasizes a balance between student-talk-time and teacher-talk-time, with a focus on allowing students as much time as possible to express themselves verbally in English. It also involves advanced lesson-planning so time is not wasted during lessons with the teacher, back-turned to the students, writing on the board or overhead projector, and on having visual and eye-catching (but easily understandable) materials to appeal to students from a variety of different learning styles.
ESA also strongly emphasizes effective communication between instructor and students, partially through building a friendly and comfortable rapport. None of these elements are formally taught in present day Mongolian teachers TEFL courses, and to make such a change, that would incorporate the ESA model for all language learners, would involve a frank and objective review of all current teacher-training for TEFL conducted in Mongolia.
TEFL curriculum in today’s Mongolia is a hodge-podge of poorly written/produced texts for various levels (of which there are never enough) that are filled with high levels of amateurish mistakes. This means that there is no real and accepted, high-quality standard text for any of the levels of language learners in Mongolia – and no standardization across the different levels of TEFL learners in the country. A complete and objective effort to review all TEFL instruction texts needs to be undertaken, and this should be done over an extended length of time and in partnership with reputable international TEFL accreditation and/or curriculum development experts and the local English Language Teachers Association of Mongolia (ELTAM).
Hope For The Future
However, all is not lost, and as Mongolia becomes more integrated into the regional East Asian, and global, economies people are waking up to the fact that the actual and functional mastery of English (rather than a passing score on a grade report) is what is needed for the nation to effectively participate on the international stage. The good news is that there are many native English language speakers in Mongolia who are informing the conversation on effective TEFL teaching and learning, either on a paid or volunteer basis. Also many teachers, especially younger ones, are demanding improved coursework and curricula development for themselves and their students. In short, despite some very serious and entrenched cultural roadblocks that are mainly holdovers from Soviet teaching and learning models, change has begun and will most likely continue apace with regard to improvement of TEFL instruction in Mongolia.
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