What are we selling here exactly?
What do I get if I buy a doughnut? Answer: a doughnut. And if I buy a TV? Well, there it is – 36 inches of pure flat-screen atrophy and joy. But if I buy a place on a language course, what do I get then? A teacher, his time, a room, some chairs, some desks, a board, and sometimes, usually extra, a couple of books. O, and some knowledge. Kind of.
Kind of, because when I sell you a doughnut, I sell you a doughnut. I don’t tell you the recipe, hire out my kitchen, make you buy the ingredients and then train you to be a chef so you can make your own. If I did that you might expect me to pay you. Similarly, if I sold you a TV, you would be somewhat miffed if you got the box home and it had a 6000-page manual on advanced electronics inside it and the 3700 components of a flat-screen all jumbled up together. As a business model, only IKEA can do this, just.
But this is what we do when we sell English language instruction: we sell labour – our students’ own labour – back to them.
As a teacher, I can’t give my students fluency. I can tell them what it sounds like. I can model it for them, not unlike a gourmet demonstrating how to eat cake in front of a crowd of starvation-wracked waifs. I can even tell them how to get it, but only one morsel at a time – see, here’s a crumb of cake, imagine how good the whole thing tastes.
But it’s a service, isn’t it?
Of course, I get it – ESL is a service industry. We sell a service. We’re like people who sell karate lessons or cookery courses. We have an esoteric knowledge – we are experts, gurus, or, if you are called Swan or Thornbury, even swamis. But, actually, not really. For, there is nothing cryptic about English – there are more courses on the net than on a titled estate, more unopened books than in Gatsby’s library, and more pirated films than even Jonny Depp has starred in. English has a ubiquity that lays waste to the claim that ESL teachers are some kind of purveyors of cipher. English is not exactly the Engima code.
In short, we sell people information which is accessible for free on every corner of the planet.
How do we get away with it? Well, I assume we don’t: we are clearly not selling a product, or a transfer of knowledge, because if we were, we wouldn’t get away with it. So what are we selling? I wonder if the recent call to arms by CLIL aficionados doesn’t hold an attraction precisely because it addresses this question, if somewhat obliquely, and not entirely convincingly.
ESL really is a doughnut, kind of
So, I come back to the doughnut, and not just for personal affiliations. When I buy a doughnut, I’m not buying a doughnut at all. I’m buying the experience the doughnut gives me – the flavours and feelings, the cream neuron hitting the jam electron and them all bouncing off the big fat ganglia which quiver only in the presence of fried food laced with sugar. In short, the doughnut affords me 3.8 seconds of aesthetic ecstasy, like an abbreviated narcotic.
ESL is not a narcotic of any kind. Indeed, the only illicit thing about it is the faint tang of masochism that attends to mastering the abstruser aspects of reported speech, for example. No, the unique selling experience or USE of ESL is not of the hit-and-run kind. To be sure the early gains of beginner and elementary students are enormous – they may perhaps get a little heady with the amount of things they can say after only a few short weeks. But once they hit the buffers of pre-intermediacy, the ‘hit’, or the flow, is derivative less from the material itself and more from the experience. This experience is of two parts. One is the collegiate atmosphere, the random banter and in-situ friendships throw up by the ESL classroom. The second is a more intangible but longer-lasting feeling of self-improvement.
Thanks to more propaganda than Goebbels could dream of, learning English has come to be seen as a valuable thing to do. If you study English, you aren’t wasting your time – you’re making something of yourself. Sure, this is not the main driver of a refugee facing deportation and death unless she can triumph over the present perfect in the latest Home Office test, but for the vast majority of ESL students it has resonance. This idea of self-betterment is what keeps people coming back week-in and week-out long after the honeymoon glow of elementary level has faded, long after they’ve stopped doing homework, long after they’ve even stopped being remotely interested in the subject. They still keep coming, patting themselves on the back, getting that sense of well-being which comes as a kind of reflected glory when someone asks what they do with themselves of a winter evening:
‘O, I study English.’
‘That’s great. Wow, I just eat doughnuts.’