29 Apr 2014, 12:28pm
career technology


One Future of EFL?


“Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” (John Donne)

I had an interesting conversation yesterday on Facebook. I was talking about the importance of financial literacy and how everyone should be saving for retirement or at least for an uncertain future. Some of the answers I got were along the lines of “I can’t afford to retire, so I will just continue working indefinitely”.

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about the coming jobs apocalypse and the conversation above got me thinking about how this will apply to teaching English as a foreign language.

I believe that within a relatively short amount of time, real-time translation and interpretation will be available to almost anyone. Auto-translate on websites is now a thing and voice recognition is accelerating thanks to projects like Siri. The inexorable progress of computer speeds and storage means that it is just a matter of (rapidly shrinking) time before good enough versions of these are on every mobile device.

At that point, what happens to foreign language education?

A few people will still need to develop foreign language skills, including diplomats or people who are planning to live in a foreign country. For pretty much anyone else, cheap and reliable automatic translation will meet their needs. In that situation,

  • will parents still see a need for their children to learn English?
  • will school systems still insist that everyone learn English and use it to determine educational rankings?
  • will companies still encourage their employees to develop their language skills?

I don’t know how long it will take society to adapt to the new technological paradigm. It could take a long time for inertia and precedent to be overcome. But I do think that in the near future the current mass-market for EFL will likely disappear.

If you are an EFL teacher and more than ten years from retirement, how do you see your career progressing? Do you have a plan B? 

I actually think because the world is becoming more complex and students, young and old, need to prepare for a working life with people beyond their immediate community, that foreign language acquisition will become more vital. I believe it will evolve from a traditional grammar and vocab format- which good teacher hasn’t done that already? It will increasingly involve cultural, historical and sociological components to ensure our student are prepared to work, live and compete on a global scale.

Hi Kate

Thanks for commenting!

I’m questioning whether EFL instruction will remain a universal thing. I think it won’t. If technology can do what the current beginner-intermediate 90% of people coming out of EFL instruction in Japan can do for them, then is it worth putting the resources into teaching them? Or will we see the EFL market (including public education) shrink to just concentrate on the top 10%?

I think it will be the latter, and furthermore technology will take the place of a lot of what teachers do now. As a country, Japan will probably get better results with just 1% of the current number of teachers. They’ll choose the best, the most skilled, the most professional. What is everyone else going to do?

I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with you here, Ben. I think the EFL market will definitely change in many ways, and already is. Much of foreign language learning is about creating relationships, however, and that simply can’t be done with computers even if accurate real-time translation becomes a reality. Additionally, the brain research on the benefits of speaking a foreign language is becoming even clearer, benefits that technology simply can’t provide. As an industry, we need to be ready for the changes, but technology has been used to sound the death toll for many an industry and it tends to create strength and opportunities for the nimble more often than leading to the predicted doom.

Hey Ryan

It might work out that way (that would probably suit me better, as I don’t have much in the way of non-EFL skills) but I’m not convinced. I think there is a place for highly specialized English teachers and schools at the very top of the market, but not much left for the rest.

We can see this happening in a lot of industries, where the best performers get most of the profit and almost everyone else goes out of business.

It’ll be fascinating to see how this works out over the next couple of decades, but I’d give you good odds that we are going to see a lot of unemploy(ed/able) EFL teachers in Japan in the near future.

29 Apr 2014, 7:15pm
by markingifu


Hi Ben!

Thanks for this fascinating topic.
As for me, I knew that I had to change my business model to survive. In fact, you were there when I made that decision a few years ago.

I teamed up with a large kindergarten last September. It’s been working out very well. I now have people who really know how to run a school plus resources and more status in my community.

I also have been working on YouTube videos for the last year and a half. I now have a revenue stream that is growing each month and will supplement me for years to come (hopefully YouTube is here to stay).

I’m embracing the future.

Hi Mark

That is great to hear. Now I have to find my own way to a prosperous future! Are you interested in writing a guest post about your experiences? 😉

29 Apr 2014, 8:14pm
by markingifu


Sure Ben. Give me an outline of some points that you would like me to write about and time to do it.

I’m already the head teacher at my school, but I don’t see much of a future in it, especially once my boss retires. I’m considering going back to grad school once this all meets a “natural” end, to get into a different career. 😛

Hi Alex
I’m just finishing my MA TEFL (deadline is next week). It’s been tough and not necessarily practical. What other career are you thinking about? I’ve been in Japan for fourteen years now so I’m not sure if I have any decent options apart from teaching (and writing, and speaking).

[…] Ben published a post that concerns me and many others who are teaching English conversation here in Japan. […]

Just came across this and am happy for you! I got my CELTA cert in mid 2012 but due circumstances, I taught Korean kids freelance in my home country [initially wanted to use it in Bangkok or Seoul, but neither issues awork visa to Singaporean teachers] until the end of 2013, when I went to Seoul for a short study trip. Now I am back and wondering if I should have applied for JET and studied Japanese instead.

I would like to know about how Asian ELTs are received in Japan. =)

Hi Tammy

I can’t really speak from experience (I am white British) but as far as I can tell Asian ALTs did very well in JET. In the private sector you may encounter preferences for more stereotypically ‘native’ teachers at some schools (but not all). Teaching experience, in-country work experience, and Japanese language skills will probably help in job applications. Good luck!

Dear Ben,

Thank you!!! The closing date is over so I guess I have 1 year to study some Japanese haha…

Hopefully I’ll get to visit soon and get a feel of the culture for myself!!!

Thanks a lot again!!!


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