The Economic Migration of English Teachers in Asia

Recently, there has been a lot of attention given to my idea of English teachers in Asia as economic migrants. Much of this attention is focused on what I had to say about the children of English teachers. This discussion of the children of English teachers was initially a minor point that Mark Liberman at Language Log picked up on due to his differing personal experiences with people raised overseas. I replied to this comments, and the discussion was born.

While I have enjoyed the chance to answer Dr. Liberman’s query, the difficulties of raising children in the lifestyle of an English teacher is really a side issue that resulted from speculation on my categorization of English teachers as economic migrants. If it is the case that English teaching can only be explained as economic migration, certain other issues are bound to arise. But rather than focus on the potential social problems of English teachers inAsia, I want to try and summarize why I categorize us as economic migrants.

The Central Issue

Since sometime in the late 1980’s, an enormous number of Anglo-americans have flooded East Asia to teach English. The English teaching market for Anglo-americans existed in Asia before this time, but it appears there was little supply of teachers. Since that time, a number that I estimate to be close to a million Anglo-americans have taught English in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. This movement of people shows no sign of stopping — or even slowing down. While a large market for native-speaker English teachers exists in other Asian countries, such as China, Thailand, and Vietnam, Anglo-americans English teachers seem concentrated in the affluent regions of north-east Asia.

I have vigourously explored a number of other explanations to explain this observation but have been unable to find one more satisfactory than this. I am of course open to other explanations or even refutations of the validity of my data.

What is a Migration?

Perhaps the strongest point of disagreement I have encountered concerns what I call a ‘migration’. My use of this term is quite technical and varies somewhat from the way in which the term is used colloquially. Colloquial usage often refers to a conventional American sense of usage that distinguishes between ‘sojourners’ and ‘settlers’. A great deal was written about these concepts by sociologists and historians dating back to the 1920’s, and this ultimately led to the concept of American migration as a ‘melting pot’. This usage contrasts sharply with a more contemporary understanding of migration based on more complete data. Highly readable research based on this more contemporary understanding can be found in Immigration Reconsidered: History, Sociology, and Politics edited by Virginia Yans-McLaughlin. In this volume, one of the leading sociologists writing in this field, Charles Tilly, discusses different types of migration.
Tilly urges readers to (p. 88),

…stop thinking about migration as a single homogeneous experience and start recognizing its sharply contrasting forms.

He continues with a discussion of 5 different types of migration: colonizing, coerced, circular, chain, and career. English teaching as I am describing it resembles most closely what Tilley calls ‘career migration’ which,

…characterizes individuals and households that move in response to opportunities to change position within or among large structures, such as corporations, states, and professional labor markets.

Although I suspect that in many ways English teaching is coming to resemble ‘circular migration’, which he states,

…consists of the creation of a regular circuit in which migrants retain their claims and contacts with a home base and routinely return to that base after a period of activity elsewhere in the circuit.

A closer reading of the volumes technical literature available on the great migrations that populated the Anglo-american world, as well as South and Central America, point to several other important characteristics.
a) Return migration was extremely common. Depending on the ethnic group, return migration may have been the norm, with some individuals returning twice or even three times before finally going ‘home’ for good.
b) Migrants do not move as individuals. Rather, their movement is typified by groups that form networks of culturally and linguistically similar peoples in communities that live and often work together.
c) These migrations were not driven by poverty and desperation, but were frequently highly literate people for whom opportunity (rather than food) was the biggest drawing factor.
d) While we hear mostly of the immigrant success stories, migration is typified by vice which, depending on ethnicity, may include gambling, drug use, and prostitution and occasionally leaves behind broke, destitute migrants.

What an Explanation of English Teachers Must Explain

I have talked about this elsewhere, but here I will try to summarize why I say that English teachers in Asia are driven by economic forces.

Many individuals have written me to suggest that they personally were driven by some force other than money in their move to East Asia. I do not doubt the authenticity of any individual narrative. Nor do I doubt that the money to be made in Asia is less than in the mother country of most English teachers. However, neither of these points seems a particularly strong rebuttal of anything I have said.

“English teaching’ is a social phenomena that needs an explanation. Where did it come from? Why is there a seemingly endless mass rush out of Anglo-american nations?

An explanation of this mass exodus must explain other characteristics as well. In the past, emigration from the USA moved predominantly to other highly developed, English-speaking nations, such as Canada. While tens of thousands of people moved to such places as Japan, Mexico, and Israel, this migration was motivated by ethnic affiliation. For example, Americans Abroad: A Comparative Study of Emigrants from the United States reports that from 1970 to 1974 over 23,000 Americans emigrated annually to Japan. Almost certainly, all of them were Americans of Japanese ancestry and not white or Americans of African ancestry. The migration of English teachers would appear to be the first large scale movement of Americans to a significantly lesser developed region. Why is this decision being made now?

Anglo-american groups are represented inEast Asia as English teachers in proportion to their disadvantage in their domestic labour markets. My anecdotal evidence is that English teachers are overwhelmingly liberal arts graduates. While there are some working as English teachers who have science or professional backgrounds, they represent a tiny minority. Also, I have statistical evidence that citizens ofSouth Africa andCanada are overrepresented by teachers at the lowest level of employment while Americans are overrepresented by teachers in the most competitive jobs. If this is correct, why would it be so?

While the commercial English teaching markets of the better-paying nations are increasingly so full of teachers that businesses and governments have reacted to the oversupply, the poorer-paying markets can’t seem to attract enough. It is widely believed among teachers in Taiwanand South Koreathat better paying jobs in Japanare unobtainable. This is increasingly the case in Taiwanas well. In China, Thailand, and Vietnam, on the other hand, jobs are so easily obtainable that there is no need to think of getting one as a problem. In fact, I have heard of Chinese universities knowingly hiring high schools graduates to teach their students.

The Social Problems of English Teachers

It is the social life of English teachers that I have the least factual information to refer to. Unfortunately, it is also the aspect of the discussion that attracts the most information. For example, it was my speculation that the children of some English teachers could go on to suffer from social and linguistic disadvantage that initially attracted attention to my posts.

In fact, my speculation is based on a very small sample of people that I know personally. I will readily admit that I may be way off base on this one. Still, I often wonder what will happen to those that we all know who have taught English for years, but saved absolutely no money. This may represent a fringe element of long-term foreign English teachers — although I am not really sure about this one either — but it is a problem that will occur. While Japan may have the economy and social development to handle this, South Korea and Taiwan do not.

The kind of problems I am speculating about may or may not be common enough for our growing community to be forced to deal with. But there will be problems like this, even if there are only a few, as the population of long-term foreign residents ofTaiwan and other Asian nations increases.


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