Friday, June 14, 2013

THE HALF-LIFE OF ENGLISH


Half-life is a scientific term to describe the rate of decay of a radioactive material.  For instance, the half-life of Carbon 14 (C14) is  roughly 5730 years.   The material turns in to Nitrogen 14 (N14).  Suppose you have ten particles of C14, then in about 5730 years, you will have five particles of C14 remaining alongside five particles of N14.  Since C14 is present in organic life forms, this is how scientist determine the age of old dead things.[1]


Missionaries have been using English as a second language (ESL) as a means of missions for many generations now.  For some, it is a way in which they enter into a country that is closed to the gospel.  For others it is a way they can build relationships with a community in the hopes of spreading the gospel.  For the past five years, I have been a part of this dynamic, first in Chiang Mai and now in Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat for short).  I have seen the good it is capable of but also its limitations.  

Chiang Mai, while not the most well known city by worldly standards, has really become an international city of sorts.  According to Euromonitor, in 2012, Chiang Mai drew over 1.7 million tourists.[2]  That’s an average of over 32 thousand tourists a week.  Not a bad boost for the economy.  Not only do a lot of tourist come, but many farang (the Thai word for foreigners) live in the city as well.  With all of this in mind, it is no surprise that English, as well as many other languages, is spoken all over the city.  To the Chiang Mai community, English is important to learn if you are going to have a successful business. 

The Centre in Chiang Mai has been around for about twenty years now.  It has had its ups and downs, but God has used this ministry to be effective for the gospel.  Many students have come to saving faith in Jesus through its ministry and some have even gone on to become pastors at different churches within the city.  English as a means to bringing the gospel can be successful, and The Centre Chiang Mai is proof of that. 


Enter into the discussion a city like Korat: not a lot of tourists coming to visit, not too many farang living in the city.  While English is stressed as an important need by the governmental and educational authorities, it’s hard for the average Thai person living in Korat to see it as such.  The success of their business doesn’t depend on how well they can communicate with foreigners.

When I first moved to Korat and saw the university campuses and saw how many students there were, I thought to myself, "Surely what we were doing in Chiang Mai could be replicated here."  For one, there were no other informal English schools like The Centre in the city.  Also, the more formalized private schools were about four times as expensive as we were.  This should be no problem, right?  Well two years into it, and we have yet to see any real success.  We can’t draw enough students to keep the place open and the students we do get don’t stay long enough for us to make a meaningful impact with the gospel.

So what’s the point I’m trying to make here?  English as a means for evangelism can be done, but success is driven by the society in which you are trying to reach.  To the society that sees English as a great need, it can work.  To the society that puts English near the bottom rung of their ladder of importance, you will probably not find much success.


This drives home a much more serious question.  How long will ESL as a means for missions still be a viable option?  What is English’s half-life?  A little over a century ago, French was supposed to be the language that sat in the driver’s seat.  While French is still a major player in the world, I don’t see students clamoring to fill the seats of FSL classes.  Dominant world languages continue to change as history moves forward.  While English is currently in the front seat of the car with steering wheel in hand, Mandarin is sitting shotgun saying, “You’ve been driving for quite a while now.  You look tired.  Why don’t you pull over and I’ll take it the rest of the way while you nap.”

China is becoming the world dominant economic power.  If you have a MBA and can speak Mandarin, you should have no problem landing a job in today’s market.   But more importantly, if you’re a native speaker in Mandarin, God may choose to use you for future mission work.

With English switching seats, missionaries from the West are going to have to find alternative options when it comes to evangelistic strategies.  What if closed countries no longer want English teachers?  What if our English outreach programs are no longer enticing to the people we are trying to reach out to?

Personally, I’m feeling this pressure here in Korat.  In the next month or two, I’m going to have to decide where I fit in as a missionary.  I look at the work I’ve done at The Centre over the past two years and the work I’ve done through the church my family and I attend on the weekends and there’s no contest.  The church has been much more fruitful.  So I will most likely be making a move in the direction of church planting.

What is the half-life on English?  The world is too complicated to give any type of deadline.  But I know that as technology advances more and more, the quicker things fall out of fashion.  Ten years ago I heard a missionary say that there’s about a thirty-year window for ESL teachers.  I think that window has shrunk and will continue to do so.  While English is currently a useful tool for missionaries, we need to start preparing for the future.  It is time for innovative ideas to spring forth in missions.

5 comments:

  1. Good thoughts... although one implementation not working doesn't mean the whole idea doesn't work.

    And like you say, the dominance of languages does have a half life, but it'd be a pretty looong one eh, and still a ride-able wave.

    I agree 100% with the church-planting bit... So yeah, it can still be both-and, not either-or. :) Come in for a chat! :)

    Kevin from across the lake :)

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    1. You're right, one situation doesn't make a rule, and maybe I'm overreacting a bit. But I think the ESL wave is closer to shore than we imagine. I could be wrong. There's a lot of dynamics that play into it. A resurgence of the U.S. economy could change things. Some new, never thought of technology could arise that puts English back on top. But you should be safe either way right? If Mandarin becomes the norm, you shouldn't have any trouble. :)

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  2. Hey Cory,
    Ten years ago, I was in Phitsanulok and a new missionary joined our team to start an English teaching program like she had successful done in Bangkok. We planned for multiple classes at 4 different levels of ability... but struggled to have any more than a 1-3 students in any of the classes beyond beginner. The program was a hit in Bangkok but flopped in Phitsanulok. Sounds like you are also finding the same thing. Just because it plays in Chiang Mai, doesn't mean it will in Korat. Totally different animal.

    I think that English teaching should, in most places and situations, play a minimal part in our church planting & outreach efforts in Thailand. For one thing, it is hardly reproducible by the Thai (although an afterschool homework club to help kids in other subject is reproducible). Love to talk to you sometime about your thoughts of moving into more direct church planting.

    In the meantime, check out this blog (and especially the comment thread following the post on "Is Using English Teaching As Outreach Deceptive?"). We had a good discussion on this a little while ago.

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    1. Sorry, I forgot to give you the link for that blog: http://dahlfred.com/blogs/gleanings-from-the-field/213-using-english-teaching-in-evangelism

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    2. It is definitely a different animal. In Chiang Mai, we always had plenty of students and though we hardly ever talked about the Bible or the gospel in class, we were able to develop friendships and saw a number of students come to a saving faith in Christ. The after school club approach is being done by the church we attend. That has been really fruitful. In fact, we launched a new church because of it three weeks ago and have 50 plus in attendance every week. We should definitely chat sometime. Don't know when I'll be in Bangkok next. I'll give you a call when I do though.

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