Allistair Elliott is an English language teacher with experiences teaching in South Korea and Vietnam and married to a Vietnamese. Learn a bit more about his teaching, experiences and his book which details his life as an EFL teacher – you can read a bit more about The Incomplete A-Z of EFL on EFL Magazine. A huge thanks to Allistair for agreeing to an interview with ELT Experiences.

Tell me about your yourself and how you got into English language teaching.

My hometown is Scarborough, but my spiritual home is Leeds 9. This is the LS9 post code area of Leeds, and an eternally unglamourous place. However, I have friends and family there, so it holds strong as my home.

And I began my EFL journey from Leeds (LS9). I had arrived at a point in my life that I was wearily too familiar with. As detailed in my A-Z teaching English book, I knew exactly and intimately what was about to happen. I did not want to go through the slog of signing-on and trudging around for desultory jobs. My friend was already in South Korea teaching English and urged me to go there. After a few weeks of thought, I did. My book is this the result of this decision.

What were some of the initial biggest challenges you faced?

I guess the biggest challenge initially was the obvious “culture shock”. Adapting to how things were done, rather than thinking why something was done, was tough. You will likely sink or swim in Korea (and elsewhere in Asia) depending on how quickly you get your head around this. As an example, how will you cope with being loudly shushed at by an irritated local, apparently because you are talking too loud on the bus on the KTX? Perhaps the first couple of times you are apologetic, and you accept the situation. Thereafter, you learn the rule and are mindful to keep your volume down, yet you still get brusquely shushed. What do you do? Taken in isolation, this sounds mundane and trivial. But the drip drip drip of culture shock, the ceaseless social rules, and your general bewilderment at everything, could well dictate otherwise.

Having spent some time in South Korea and Vietnam, what differences and similarities do you notice when teaching English in these countries? 

The differences in teaching flow from the differences in culture between the countries. South Korea is an intense country. The social rules seem to be strictly enforced. Việt Nam is less intense. Social rules are in place in Nam, though they seem to be less rigidly enforced.

Therefore, teaching Viet kids is more fun than teaching Korean kids. For a plethora of reasons, Koreans find learning English extremely challenging. Often, the struggle to learn is the focus of the lesson, not any attempt to learn. Việts on the other hand, will give it a go. There are difficulties, but overall, the attitude is much better here.

Where would you start your EFL career: Korea or Việt Nam?

Unequivocally, I would start in South Korea. For all the challenges of culture shock, getting through a sometimes viciously cold winter, and dealing with recalcitrant students, Korea is still a better place to begin your TEFL adventure than Việt Nam. You can get some reasonable money, and you will get rent-free accommodation. Combined, it might still be financially worth it. But note, the cost of living in Korea has gone up substantially.

Sadly, Việt Nam seems locked into what I shall politely describe as ‘old-school’ thinking. Power politics rule. If you are lucky, your contract owner might regard you with indifference. At worst, well, good luck. You will not be in a good spot. As a newbie, you can just about figure things out in Korea, in Việt Nam, you will need experience and a lot more luck.

If you could change one thing about English language teaching in South East Asia, what would it be?

Ha ha ha. No doubt EFL teachers spend a lot of time discussing what changes they would like to make. In my book I do make some suggestions too. It is my dream that one day, Việt Nam introduces a half-term break at the end of October to break up a 20-week slog from August to January. I would also like to see fewer tests. And, well, yer know, could we stick to the damn contract as agreed, please.

But my dream change would be the same for both South Korea and Việt Nam. Specifically, could we listen to the students more and better accommodate their needs. Korean students especially seem hyper-stressed all the time. Could we not find a way to improve the quality of their lives without necessarily diluting the fundamental principles of the country. Similarly, kids in Việt Nam seem to be equally overlooked. Though their lives are less study oriented, as Việt Nam finds ways of creating more money, so a lot of this money is going to be spent on private education. I would hate to see Viet kids’ lives immiserated as they are in Korea. Listen to your kids.

How has the global pandemic affected English language teaching where you are based?

Some, but in a somewhat sneaky way. Việt Nam has been exceptionally fortunate so far, and good decisions have helped. As soon as the virus emerged, Việt Nam closed the schools (and then the airports). There was an immediate short-term consequence for all involved, but as anxiety reduced, so the schools re-opened and the EFL business picked-up again.

However, some moms were canny, and used the virus as an excuse to scale back English tuition specifically, and private education tuition in general. In addition, some centres were less than scrupulous about honouring their contracts, and tales of financial shenanigans abound. Some school contract owners were also less than straight about dealing with the perception of Covid related changes, and many teachers have been, ummm, somewhat disappointed with how events panned out.

Anxiety has given way to vigilance and cautiousness, but suspicion remains. The virus is an issue in TEFL here, but it only feeds into the larger and existing problems that exist anyway. There is a lack of care, trust, or responsibility out here. Contracts seem worthless. These are the more insoluble issues.

Where do you see the future of English language teaching and remote teaching heading?

I do not know.

In terms of attitude towards EFL though, I do not see much change. There is so much money to be made from a complaining, but acquiescent consumer, that bad actors will emerge on-line, just as in the bricks and mortar places. Hopefully, they will be quickly found-out and overwhelmed by more straight-forward organisations. I hope that good online places emerge, behave more reasonably, and not dick people around just to grift another dollar in their pocket. But who knows really? My suspicion is that TEFL in Asia in its many forms will remain large, unruly, and ungovernable. Local cultural rules seem to drive the Asian EFL industry. Therefore, without cultural changes as to how people think, behave, and make decisions, not much will change.

I can now live with that. But it has taken 13 years to get used to.

Do you have experience of teaching in Korea, Vietnam or other countries? Have you any experiences that you wish to share, then please get in touch.