This was written at the request of IATEFL, submitted by e-mail as fast as I could, then neither was it published nor were there any apologies for non-publication.
Pan-Asia 1997 was a mega-conference like JALT or IATEFL, though still much smaller than American TESOL. It drew teachers from across Asia and was combined with the annual Thai TESOL conference. There will be further Pan-Asia conferences in Korea and in Japan. With so many concurrent sessions you can’t hope to arrive at any kind of sane appraisal of what was going on. Travelling speakers have other problems. I never watch anyone directly before or after I speak myself, which eliminates half a day per talk. I can’t concentrate immediately before I’m about to talk, and never feel like sitting still after I’ve spoken. I’ve also found that the most interesting conference talks are often the less obvious ones, by local speakers on local problems, and I know from experience that a well-known face or name tag in such talks intimidates the speaker. I can remember my own first presentations in 1978. Having said that, prospective speakers should never worry unduly about this. You will find that the well-known speakers will be the most supportive listeners. They know what it’s like to be up there! Another point is that as a speaker myself, I don’t think I’m entitled to review other speakers at the same conference. It would be tempting to do any anonymous one though. (Yet again the outstanding contribution came from Peter Viney whose brilliant talk was … )
I also had other appointments. I was visiting schools in Bangkok on the Monday, and wanted to spend some time at the OUP stand on the Sunday, talking to users of my books. This was slightly embarrassing as I was standing next to a blown up photo of myself. This was taken nearly seven years ago, and although everyone was too polite to mention it, I noticed their eyes flicking between my hairline on the photo, and the real hairline right in front of them. So my impressions have to be mainly of the plenaries and the surface buzz of the conference, and that was certainly present. People readily spoke to you in the lifts and corridors. That air of excitement, which seems to have largely disappeared from Western European conferences in recent years, was tangible. I got to speak to a lot of Thai teachers, who outnumbered the visitors heavily. The most interesting thing for me is talking to grass roots teachers, and necessarily the further people have travelled to get to these conferences, the more likely they are to be academics, administrators or publishers. I think every conference needs to have a large number of practising classroom teachers to keep it grounded, which is why conferences held away from major population / English teaching centres invariably have something missing.
I was talking about Communication Skills at the conference and the concept of basing a syllabus around them. This involves a great deal of cultural comparison, so for me, the mix of different Asian nationalities was fascinating. There was considerable discussion of the Asian dimension in language teaching by speakers and participants. There were genuine concerns about the impact of Eurocentric materials, and the lack of awareness of cultural differences that they show. An example given was the typical classroom question, ‘Did you go out last night, or did you stay in?’ It was pointed out that in Asia a vast majority of students would have spent the evening with their families, and were made to feel that this was unnatural behaviour by the weight of examples suggesting a different lifestyle in teaching materials. I have been working in a similiar area in recent materials, with the attention on cultural comparison and behaviour culture (e.g. body language, greeting gestures, humour, time keeping) rather than content culture (e.g. Thanksgiving day, The life of Charles Dickens, the development of the Morris Minor motor car).
During my week in Thailand, I spoke to a number of British and American teachers, who repeated the same refrain, ‘The Thais are some of the most receptive and charming students we have ever taught.’ This remark came from battle-hardened EFL veterans, whose passports doubtless bear the proud smudged ink of wide experience. I’ve taught Thais in multi-lingual groups and on Teacher Training courses, but this was my first visit to Thailand. They have relaxed and unforced communication skills, which can (and should) be exploited in teaching them.
One schools visit was bizarre. A young teacher started asking me about The Cambridge English Course. I said, ‘Yes, by Michael Swan and Catherine Walter.’
‘No,’ he said, ‘You wrote it.’
”I didn’t,’ I replied, ‘I wish I had. I like it. But I didn’t.’
‘You really did,’ he said, ‘It says Viney on the cover.’
‘No, definitely not.’
That sort of ignorance takes some self-confidence. Roy Gilbert from OUP was with me, and we were both laughing about it all day.
I’ve helped organise small ARELS conferences for up to a hundred people in the distant past, and can’t even imagine the effort involved in dealing with the logistics of this sort of thing. The same problems occur in all these large conferences. The time slot you get to speak is often on the basis of a lottery, and I drew the last afternoon of the three days for my workshop on communication skills. Your heart sinks as you see the queues to check out of the hotel before lunch, and the number of people heading off with luggage. It’s always the same, and so that’s no criticism of Pan-Asia. I think these things should end at lunchtime on the final day … or better still, devote the last afternoon to committee business and presentations directed at the local teaching community. After all local teachers don’t have a plane, train or bus to catch.
With Karen Frazier, Chiang Mai
I continued to Chiang Mai for an Oxford University Press day with Sa’ad, the OUP rep, and with Karen Frazier (Let’s Go author), where we visited the university, did a mini-conference, watched Thai dancing, drank awful Californian rosé wine and bought crystals in the market. The Taiwanese sellers were most impressed by Karen’s Chinese and I got a large discount. And we got virtually asphyxiated in a Put-Put. The hotel had both HP Sauce and Branston sauce on the breakfast buffet. That’s a first, anywhere. I was so surprised I skipped my normal fruit breakfast (the fruit being spectacularly good in Thailand) and had a rare full English to celebrate.
Then we went on to Khon Kaen for a North-East Thailand TESOL event. That was a weird flight because it was like a bus trip or the Circle Line on the London Underground. We took off and landed five or six times before we reached Khon Kaen on a circular route. It was just that we went 90% of the way around the circle to get there. It was also on an ancient Boeing 727 with white leather seats and chrome seat numbers of a style I hadn’t seen for many years. Karen Frazier and I were alarmed that everyone was using mobile phones during take off. We mentioned it to the flight attendant, who said reassuringly, ‘Don’t worry. Phones only affect modern equipment on planes. This plane doesn’t have any modern equipment.’
‘Ah. Well, that’s alright, then … WHAT???’
Everyone spends trips like this trying to find real restaurants and avoid hotel food, but the hotel in Khon Kaen looked spectacularly good, and so we ate there. It was the best meal of the trip.
These later talks were back to a manageable and more personal scale and were thoroughly enjoyable. I left Khon Kaen laden with gifts. I finally boarded the thirteen hour flight back to the UK, clutching my Pan-Asia conference tote bag (yet another publisher’s name to wrap round my duty-frees).
Peter Viney, January 1997