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Cultural Challenges while Teaching ESL: Andrew Weiler of English Confidence Unlocked

Andrew Weiler

Andrew Weiler, of English Confidence Unlocked in Australia, shares how his own immigrant parents’ journey with English as a Second Language (ESL) inspired him to help others. Andrew moved from a job in Economics to become an ESL teacher, mainly working with Southeast Asians, Chinese and Japanese. He explains how different cultures affect the teaching process, the barrier of “saving face,” and subjects to avoid in conversations.

Highlights:

Moving from ECON (economics) to teaching English?

How Andrew’s parent’s journey with learning English inspired him.

Fundamental Differences between Australia and other countries

Having uncomfortable conversations and the effects on learning English

Andrew Weiler Bio:

Andrew Weiler is the Owner of English Confidence Unlocked, a school based in Melbourne, Australia. He initially trained as an economist but ended up in the area of English Language Teaching.

Andrew, himself a migrant from Hungary, learned a number of languages including Chinese and Spanish as a way to understand the teaching of English. He has also taught Indonesian. He has worked in Hungary, Japan and Cambodia training English language teachers. He now predominantly works with immigrants who feel that their spoken English, while at times quite proficient, is still holding them back in their career opportunities. Since Covid, he has been working with his clients online. They mainly come from around Australia but some reside in Southeast Asia.

His unique approach built and tested over 40 years of research and practice helps even those who have tried everything and still feel stuck.

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Full Transcript

Hello everyone. Since today’s guest hails from Australia, and since he studied Chinese and since he has some English teaching schools, I thought it would be appropriate to have a blooper from China, which is very simply a sign in both Chinese and English on a Shanghai construction site, and it says, very simply, “erection in progress”. That’s not exactly how one would express it in the United States or another country, but that’s how it goes. 

Today’s guest is Andrew Weiler, the owner of English Confidence Unlocked, a school based in Melbourne, Australia. He initially trained as an economist but ended up in the area of English language teaching. 

Andrew, who himself is an immigrant from Hungary, learned several languages, including Chinese and Spanish, as a way to understand the teaching of English, and he’s also taught Indonesian. He has worked in Hungary, Japan, and Cambodia, training English language teachers. 

He now predominantly works with immigrants who feel that their English, while at times proficient, is still holding them back in their business opportunities and career opportunities.

Since Covid, he’s been working with clients online. They mainly still come from Australia, and some reside in Southeast Asia. His unique approach, built and tested over 40 years of research and practice, helps even those students who have tried everything and still feel stuck. 

Welcome, Andrew. I’m delighted that you’re with us.

It’s great to be here, Philip. Thanks for inviting me. It’s an honor to be here. I’m looking forward to the chat we’re going to have and then seeing what we can draw from our past experiences.

So how did you go from being an economist to teaching English? It’s quite a distance to jump.

Well, it certainly was. I was surprised by two things, most of them at that time. Well, I left economics. I went into economics because my schooling was a bit fractured. My father was a dentist. He passed away quite early, and so my mother wanted me to go on and become a doctor or to become a dentist and  follow in his footsteps, but I never had any strengths in that area, so I ended up doing that and doing abysmally. 

And in those years, I either went into science or the other side, which was history and economics and such, and accounting, so I ended up moving over to that stream and economics, I ended up doing a degree at Monash University, at the end of which I just decided I wasn’t cut out for working in an office, which is where economists usually work, so I ended up traveling for a while, came back, and looked around for an opportunity. And a friend of mine suggested: Why not go into language teaching? English language instruction so I said, “Well, I’m not qualified”. He said, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. You’re of migrant background and speak another language”, which I, of course, do being of Hungarian extraction. So, I applied, and, lo and behold, they let me in. I haven’t looked back since, and I think part of it was because very early on, a lot of us didn’t have training. Adult Migrant Education Services [AMES], where I work, was once a government-run organization throughout Australia. 

Our organization service puts us through a lot of different kinds of training as part of our induction. It is also part of our ongoing training as English language teachers there. And I was exposed very early on to an inspirational way of teaching, and I think that more than anything else. It kept me there and has kept me sort of nourished, as it were, right through the years, because it was sort of aligned with my views of personal development and life. And I could express and could grow myself as a teacher. That, I believe, is why I stayed in there rather than returning to economics or a related field of business.

It’s fascinating, and I presume you found it very fulfilling.

Very much so. I look forward to it all the time. 

And, you know, in the time I went through enormous sorts of growth, because, starting from no formal English language training, English teaching, or English training, even in schools in those days, grammar wasn’t taught as such. So, there’s this whole thing about teaching a language through pronunciation, grammar, intonation, and all of that. I mean, it was a huge learning curve, but because of the way this whole approach to teaching looked at it, I felt it was more like a personal development journey rather than studying something. 

And so I grew enormously in those few years. Just to give you an idea of what transpired in the first few years, Melbourne University approached me and headhunted me to teach the first English language training course for overseas-qualified doctors. 

So, a pilot course was run to see how Australia could help these doctors coming in. So, there are four of us teaching the course in Melbourne, Victoria [Australian state]. Oh, and so I was surprised because at that stage I did not qualify at all in teaching English. It was all my experience, but because I’d made a name for myself in AMES, I was able to leverage it. People soon found out about it, and lo and behold, there I was, and from there I went on. And you know, I did my master’s and graduate teaching and blah blah blah. So, I ended up qualifying for it as well.

Did you say EMS?

AMES Sorry, it’s the Adult Migrant Education Services in Australia, which still exist. It’s not as big as it once was. I don’t think so. But it is still a very substantial organization that provides services for free. Free English language training courses for immigrants.

I also taught English to immigrants, but there was no ESL degree in our generation. We would call it English as a Second Language. There was no ESL degree when I started teaching English to immigrants, so we sort of made it up, and it was fascinating. I liked to teach the immigrants straight off the airplane. Or straight off the boat before they got corrupted by teachers who are perhaps less qualified or less experienced. I also have studied other languages, so I know what it’s like to learn a language from nothing. That’s pressure.

Yeah, yeah, thank you. I think that was the case here as well. There were virtually no qualifications at all in teaching ESL, as you say, and most of the qualified people came from whom I taught. We’re qualified either from overseas, somewhere in Europe, where there was quite an industry at that. There was an organization I recall out of some town; I think Armidale in northern New South Wales. I’m not quite sure because it’s a long time… 40 years ago. so, but I do recall there wasn’t much. There weren’t many qualified ESL teachers in those years here either.

I guess it’s a new field all over the world, except there  is no formal English teaching as a foreign language in other countries

A huge area now.

Yes, well, you’ve got a lot of immigrants in Australia now, just as we do here in the United States. When your parents came, did they know any English at all from their time in Hong Kong?

Oh, my mother, I think knew next to nothing, Dad. He was passable, you know, so he got by somehow, but not well enough. And so, the problem that he had been a dentist even in those years was that you had to pass a test in English as well as in medicine and dentistry. And so, he was up against it. I think that’s the reason in fact, why he passed away. Because I was born when he was 55 years old. Then we came to Australia when he was 60, and so you can imagine, in a sense, going through an English language test, and as I said, he had some English but had to pass a test in English as a medico. You know, it’s like not exactly just being able to get by in the middle of the street. So yeah, it was pretty tough going. This is real. For him.

Now, a medico is Australian English for a healthcare provider or medical worker, as we would say in the United States. Yeah, that’s fascinating. Yes, it is rather difficult to learn once you are that old. So, you’ve dealt with different nationalities. Of course, I understand that you have  many Southeast Asians, right?

In Australia, we’ve had it over the years. Because, as you said, we’re an immigrant country, and we’ve had massive intakes of people from all over the world. So, what happens is when there’s sort of an international, some sort of trouble spot in some part of the world, we accept immigrants from there. So, for example, we had the time of the Chile problems, a few years ago, we had massive numbers coming in from Latin America. At the time of the Vietnam War, we had the Vietnamese come in in large numbers. At the time of the problems in Croatia and Kosovo around there, we had, you know, lots of people coming in from those regions. 

I mean, people come from all over the world, but the hot spots of the world end up creating humanitarian problems for the Australian government over the years. They’ve been very active in that regard. And so, we’ve had people from all over the world.

Yeah, that’s that is fascinating, again, just very similar to the United States, Britain, and other countries as well. 

With the nationalities, you’ve worked with, how would you describe… Are there some fundamental differences or minor differences between Australia and, say, Singapore, Australia, Indonesia, or China? Pick a nationality and let’s explore that.

Culturally, you know, there are, of course, differences across cultures. At times, I feel reticent about getting involved in stereotyping, but we have to. In other words, it’s useful to do it in another way. Uh, because sometimes I found it over the years, just as a way of getting into the discussion. The question you asked me.

You know, having virtually taught classes to people from all over the world, I can sometimes find more similarities with people from some countries than people from others, right from my neighbors, because there are more commonalities holding people together and separating them at times, even across cultures, because we’re all human, we’ve got fundamental human experiences. As a result, in that area, there’s a lot of calmness which we have experienced. 

So back to your question. Probably the culture that I’ve found the most distinctive in terms of having to deal with and, in a sense, at times, even struggling with is the Japanese culture.  I’ve worked there for a time, and I’ve worked with a lot of people from Japan here as well because we had a lot of Japanese people come to Australia. 

Because of their — stereotyping, and I’m very careful about it — nevertheless, I’ve seen evidence of it. I’ll give you an example. I guess it’s the best way to sort of introduce it. 

Some years back, I ended up teaching a bunch of Japanese law graduates, so these people had been involved with the university studying law and were just about to graduate, and they came out to Australia as a bunch of law graduates to study English. So, I was put in charge of that class. I worked with them for a while. I don’t know. Something like three months at a time, I found the most difficult teaching experience I think I’ve ever had, and not because they were difficult students. But, as you know, they were too shy to answer questions or initiate doing anything. In a language class, you want people to talk to you, to each other, and to ask questions, and you know what you want.

I just found incredible difficulty in bringing them out. Part of the thing in Japanese culture is this thing about losing face. You don’t want to lose face. You know you don’t want to lose face. It’s so important in that culture. And that you’ve got to have a certain dimension, especially as a lawyer. I suspect it’s even more important. 

You have to have a certain stature, a certain way of being, and certain respect amongst your peers. And when you’re learning a language, you’re inevitably going to make mistakes, bloopers, problems, you know, sound like a bit of an idiot at times, but it’s all part of learning something. You’re going to fall over. When you’re riding a bike, you’re going to fall over. You cannot learn to ride a bike without falling over. Well, I’ve never seen it. 

Anyway, and it’s like that with English, you have to make mistakes. I think, you know, in this whole thing of having to sort of maintain face-making mistakes, I think I’m doing okay. It’s something that’s frowned upon, and you want to avoid it because as soon as you make a mistake, you’re going to be looked down upon. That’s the perception as I see it.

So, you know, by the end of the session, I was able to somehow start moving things along, and I started thinking things were OK. We’re moving along here, so tomorrow should be a little bit easier. Tomorrow, we came back to square one. 

Yeah, it was extraordinary, and for the whole three months, it felt like every day was like Groundhog Day. It was just like Give me a break. What were you doing to me?

If you would ask a question like, “What is your name?” I presume most people would answer that way, right?

So, direct questions were fine, but the problem is in learning the language. You have to, you know, go beyond this question and answer scenario.

Right? 

You have to start to implement it. You have to start using the language, making mistakes, putting them into context, talking to your neighbor, and so on. 

And language, I mean, I don’t know how this gets described, but language teaching is not about imparting knowledge, right? It’s not about that. Language learning is about learning a skill and improving a skill. You have to use it. That, I believe, is the problem. Maybe they expected to kind of study English. Well, you don’t study. You’re using it all the time, yes. And they found that very difficult and it kept on going back to this whole thing of saying nothing and doing nothing. It’s just to make sure I don’t make a mistake.

So just back to your question. That’s a huge sort of difference in terms of approaching, you know, life and your own. You know, talking to people. It is very, very much different from the experiences in many other cultures. Having taught people from right across Asia, I believe they were not confronted by Japanese culture. Yeah, it’s probably this. That’s the one that’s the strongest.

Koreans are very close in many ways. And so do other cultures in the East. But none of them. I’ve never felt that way. I had to keep working to get past that severe sort of wall there. And, having said that, it was more than 25 years ago, and things have changed a lot, and I believe things are changing there as well, from what I understand and how I’ve been teaching Japanese students and clients more recently, but still, that cultural overlay is there. 

That’s very interesting. When the Japanese learn English, it’s the same in most parts of the world, I think. One learns, you know, spelling, reading, writing, grammar, and so forth, and not so much speaking. There’s some speaking now, especially in high school and college classes, and so forth, but not as much. 

And depending on the age of the Japanese, they have special schools called Eikaiwa, which are English conversation schools. So, what one learns in public school that’s English for the test because you’ve got to pass the English exams to get your degree, and, of course, that’s reading, writing, and grammar. And understanding, reading, and writing, but speaking is something that they were not trained in traditionally. 

 That became a separate skill. And yeah, I taught English in Japan also, and I didn’t find the same reticence, but it was also because I was teaching in Eikaiwa, which was deliberately in an English conversation class, so people put themselves there voluntarily, which is different, I think.

Well, that’s right, that’s right. This cohort was very different. I mean, you know, legal lawyers who had their eyes set on practicing law in Japan.

And as you said, they didn’t want to look bad publicly.

When I was in Japan, there is that definite sign and this whole thing of keeping yourself looking good, put it that way.

What about your interactions with other people? Singaporeans, were they distinctive in any way? 

We have Singaporeans in Australia, but a lot of them in Singapore, it’s virtually bilingual. They have English as a second language as if it were a second language.

It’s used extensively

It’s used extensively and so a lot of the Singaporeans speak English pretty well. I can’t recall having many Singaporeans in the language schools I taught in. I’ve worked with Singaporeans at higher levels. But not at the lower levels.

Whereas for example, with Vietnamese and Laotian and Thais, where English is certainly not used at all in the countries, It’s maybe in business, some business areas in academe. But it’s not so when they come to Australia, and I’ve been there as well. You’re working with English, and English would have you know from foundational levels. 

I mean, for the most part, they interact. We’re quite happy to interact. They’re quite open to making mistakes, quite open to working at it. They’re very, very different in nature. Going back to this whole thing we’re talking about in Japan. You could say that it’s the prevailing feeling I get from a lot of the people coming from those Southeast Asian countries, leaving aside Singapore and, I think, even Malaysia to some degree, Malaysia has been more complex because of the Malay and Chinese sorts of communities that are quite different.  

That it’s more, sort of Let’s say you printed the words maybe in a  timid orbit and a bit more shy. I guess those would be the things that you could come up with because they’re not used to them again. Talking and being as loud and as interactive as possible, typically. So, in a classroom situation or social situation, it’s a little bit more reserved. 

That’s what you could, I guess, as a generalization, there are a lot of other things that are distinguishing features of his family and Cambodian life. But just as a generality, that’s the thing you know that you sort of find. It’s a bit more reticent to come forward and interact. And come to offer things very generously. People are generous, don’t get me wrong, but I’m talking about here just in terms of interacting.

You mentioned Cambodia. The Cambodians have been ruled by dictators for at least 80 years or more. And before that, they had kings, so they don’t have this sense of participatory democracy as Australia is. 

Do you find that the Cambodians are more reticent or timid as well? Or do you feel it’s political, cultural, or both? Is it dangerous to speak because you might get in trouble politically, or is it just simply a cultural issue?

Well, in terms of talking about things across all these cultures, I mean You know, talking about personal issues? I mean, again, it varies, but I typically think it’s one of those things when talking to people, I tend to stay away from political discussions.

Right.

For big classes or religious commentary or anything like that, especially if you have different people from different cultures in the same class, with different religions and different politics, you don’t want to get involved in it. You don’t want them to have any kind of intense discussion, because it detracts from working on your speaking when you’re trying to work on your skills. You don’t want to get distracted by emotional overlays, and that’s time that can happen.

Of course.

So, that’s generally speaking. I stayed away from all that, but I mean when I was in Cambodia. I interacted with the locals much more on a day-to-day basis, and I had the feeling that they didn’t want to talk about things that were out of the day-to-day or out of the school environment or out of the university environment.

Right.

There was an overlay of Big Brother watching and, at times, with one on one, things came out a bit, but I was always a bit wary about pushing it or encouraging people to talk about it. Because I knew that, and as a person, you can tell It’s a thing of dealing with cultures. The thing that I’ve become very aware of is the fact that one needs to be very, very sensitive to other people. Because the only way you can pick up on cultural differences and issues is by picking up on the vibes that this person is getting a bit uncomfortable with the conversation. 

And so, typically I source, then steer away somewhere else because, when you get into that kind of untouchable region of conversation, you know something is going on now, whether it’s a personal issue or whether it’s a cultural, political, or societal issue. Over time, you get a sense of what’s going on, but on an individual level.

It’s that the best way I found of retaining open communication is by remaining sensitive to whom I’m talking to and respecting the fact that this person, for whatever reason, is uncomfortable in this area.

Yes, that makes a lot of sense. 

Did you find that –I can give you an example from China, Japan, and Korea – but did you find it if you asked a direct question, the people did not want to say No. You know, Would you like to go to this restaurant tonight? I mean, that may be too simple.

“Do you feel that your children have been well educated” or something like that…that sort of gets political, but it also gets culturally, but if there’s an uncomfortable answer where they would want to say no. Do you find that they do say “no” directly, or do they avoid saying “no” and say it in other ways?

This thing of putting people on the spot, as it were, and trying to get a “yes” or “no” out of them. It’s something else again. It’s again, it’s something to do with this thing of being confronted, in a way. 

And this whole “yes or no” thing, whether it’s a yes or a no, people feel that you’re right. In some ways, people feel more at ease saying yes, and you may receive a yes even if it is not a true yes. Yes, might mean yes. I understand your question. But in fact, it doesn’t mean yes, I agree with you. Whereas in our culture, yes is definitely yes, I agree with you or not, I know I don’t know, whatever the question may be, where’s a lot of the time. Those kinds of questions I learned to avoid because I wasn’t sure what “yes” or “no” meant. It’s sort of a very different kind of response to that question. Just to give you an example of that, So when we were training these doctors back in that course I was telling you about earlier, It’s one of those things that in Australia you can ask a person a direct question in terms of, you know, consultation and then you’ll get an answer, and usually, the answer tends to be, the truth as far as the person understands.

If you’re asking somebody from a different culture, and here in Australia we do have people from, as we’re talking about before, many different cultures, so a doctor here has to understand that asking a person, a question like “Are you feeling sick? How sick do you feel? That’s a better question.

Do you have pain in a certain part of your body?

That’s right or something like that, or for example, maybe a better question might be to look at the person, the doctor explains, where did you get this, this, and this question? I’m sorry, you’ve got this in this tissue, and you’ve got this in this problem, and this is what you have to do. Do you understand what I am saying?

 The person is going to say yes. Now, whether the person understands them or not, is a whole different problem, right? And so, we train these doctors to say that you cannot ask questions like that because you don’t. When you’re talking to a person from another culture, you have to say, “OK, so this is what I explain to them. What the situation is or what their condition is, is what they have to do and say OK, so just so we are trained to say something like OK, so just to make sure that you understand what I’m saying, would you be able to tell me your understanding of what I just told you?”

And so here you’re asking them to repeat what you’re saying, no matter how broken their English is or how good your English is what the doctor said, and that once you hear that, the doctor can be assured Yes, we’re on the same page. Because there’s this issue of asking somebody a question like that. Or do you understand me? Or do you get this? The response is you cannot because you don’t know what’s going to happen. A yes does not mean yes.

Back to your question: What’s right across the board? What do you have to work on? That’s one way of talking to people that indicates that you’re on the same page in other ways rather than this blanket yes or no kinds of thing. Or the simple things like, do you want to go out for lunch with me? It depends on who the person is. They might have difficulty saying no. And so, you don’t want to put them in a situation where they feel embarrassed about it. And they say yes, and they ring you up as someone that’s saying, “Look, I’m feeling sick. I can’t make it. I’m sorry,” which is what may happen if they don’t want to come with you, you’ve got a sort of maneuver around that kind of question. And so, to get to the point where yes, we all agree, we’re going out for lunch.

Yes, a lot of this I’ve found in traveling, is really about saving face and others in other cultures.

The difficulty of saying no or saying no directly is that if you say no, it’s embarrassing to the receiver, the recipient of the “no” answer. Therefore, you don’t want to put the person in an embarrassing position, so to ask the questions, you do it in a roundabout way. 

Hey, you know, would you like to go out to lunch? Gee, I don’t think so. I think I’m quite busy tomorrow.

But you know, could you help me with this repair tomorrow afternoon? I’m not sure. it’s probably too difficult to do or too difficult for me to say at the moment. So, there are ways to say no without saying no, and that’s an art of learning that Westerners need to learn in East Asian cultures.

Absolutely.

You’re also right, of course, that” yes” doesn’t mean “no”. “Yes” means that I agree. Well, it could mean I agree with you, or I understand. It’s just “yes” because it’s easier to say at this point.

I mean yes. I’m listening to you, which is a very common response. People have I’ve found that yes can mean yes, I’m listening. It doesn’t mean “yes, I understand you.”

Yes, exactly where Westerners expected a direct answer to the question and others. It’s not just East Asians or Asians. It’s even Arabs and Middle Easterners in Muslim cultures also. You don’t want to embarrass people or put them in an embarrassing position, so it’s best to ask questions that again, they may answer in a way that may sound roundabout or somewhat ambiguous, but it means if you ask the same question three times, and you get the same kind of indirect answer, it means no.

It’s not.

That’s right. Thank you so much. Do you have anything else you’d like to add before we close?

I could say, going back to something I was saying before, is the whole issue of stereotyping. Is that it, or is it something similar? People fall into a lot of things a lot of the time, not just across cultures, but also within cultures. 

So, you can talk about, for example, whatever a working-class person may be or whether a successful rich person may be or a billionaire. Or how about a Chinese person? It’s easy to form stereotyping and we’re all guilty of it. It’s just something that makes life, I guess, easier to understand when we’re able to group people into bunches and say they are all billionaires. Or selfish, or all Japanese people want to save face, or all Australians are all laid back and easygoing. It just doesn’t work that way, right? 

And the most important thing I discovered is to avoid it. I mean to be respectful and understand that, but yes. There may be that there, but we are all different and to remain sensitive to the actual person whom you’re talking to or whom you’re dealing with and work with them as an individual and to sort of understand who they are and what their pressure points are, or whether their pain points are, or where they are their boundaries are.

Because all of us have boundaries in terms of what’s acceptable and what’s not, whether they’re culturally, religiously, or personally constructed, they’re all there. So, in terms of communication, find or be mindful that we all have them and do not push people past them or even close to them. And if you feel it, just back off because it interferes with any kind of genuine communication.

Yes, very true and very wise. Thank you so much. It’s a great pleasure to speak with you and learn from you. It’s like taking your words of wisdom seriously.

Thank you for being wonderful; it’s been a pleasure to speak with you.

Thank you. This has been Philip Auerbach of Auerbach International (www.auerbach-intl.com). I hope you’ll join us again for another episode of Global Gurus and their stories of international business. Thank you.

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