Udambor Bumandalai is an ESL/TESL instructor at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah. She teaches both ESL and TESL courses. She holds a BA in English and Russian Teaching and Translating from Oyu Foreign Language College in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, a BA in Linguistics from Brigham Young University, and an MA in TESOL from Brigham Young University. She has over ten years of English teaching experience in Mongolia and the USA. Her academic interests include developing listening and speaking skills in second language learners, teacher training and professional development, and CALL.
E-mail address: email@example.com
November interviewers: Hami Suzuki and Terry Doyle
- Please tell us about your background as a young student in Mongolia and your experiences learning English there. Why did you decide to come to the United States and how did you come to be a member of the faculty of the ESL and TESL Departments at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah? (Terry Doyle)
Terry, first, I am very honored and humbled to be interviewed for the NNEST of the Month blog. I am one of the readers of the blog who look forward to the interviews and get inspired. You and the blog team have invited many accomplished and exemplary professionals in the field and I hope what I have to share here will be worth reading for some.
I was first introduced to English when I was in eighth grade in a secondary school in Mongolia. It was in the early 1990s and Mongolia was going through a lot of changes partially due to the fall of the Soviet Union; however, Mongolia also had its democratic revolution around this time, which brought many changes especially to the educational system. As our country transitioned from communism to democracy, it seemed like the whole world had opened its doors and English was the ticket to enter this world.
I still remember my first English teacher who introduced herself as being fresh out of a summer English teacher-training program and that we were her first students to teach English to. She also explained that she had taught Russian for years and teaching was not something that was new to her, but English was. I found out later that year that all of our school’s Russian teachers would have lost their jobs because Russian had been dropped from the public school curriculum and was replaced with English, that Mongolia was experiencing a major shortage of professional English teachers and that the Russian teachers had to be put through an intensive teacher-training course so that public schools could still offer a foreign language without any interruption, but now the foreign language would be English.
That year, we studied from a workbook with mostly fill in the blank grammar drill exercises and occasional pronunciation drills. Even though it sounds pretty bad, I enjoyed learning English that year. In fact, I knew then that I did not want to stop learning this language and even started imagining myself as working for the president of Mongolia as his interpreter. As much as I wanted to keep learning English, my dream was cut short the following year when I found out that my school had dropped all English classes. Then, I took a two-year break from English while my parents assured me that I was better off not doing anything with English, especially considering it as a career, because learning foreign languages was simply a hobby and anyone could do it on the side. I followed their suggestions and tried to learn English on my own using a book called “Learn English—Self Study” (I do not remember who the author was, but it was in Mongolian), which was a compilation of all grammar points. Needless to say, my attempt to teach myself English failed due to lack of teacher directed instruction, error correction, and self-motivation.
Clearly, this was not what I was looking for in English learning, so after graduating from high school, I went on to study English and Russian at a private college in Mongolia and graduated with an English-Russian teaching and translating degree. The college that I went to had limited resources for teaching English and training us as future English teachers. It was mostly because English was fairly a new language to teach and most of my teachers were fresh out of college teaching for their first time. So the focus was predominantly on teaching these two languages rather than preparing us to become teachers of these languages. In my three years of college experience, I learned and memorized many grammar points and new words, analyzed and identified key components of words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, and translated several book chapters from English to Mongolian. Aural and oral skills were, therefore, left out of the curriculum (with the exception of one semester of listening and speaking instruction by some volunteer American humanitarian service missionaries which consisted mostly of playing games and learning a few songs) as language instruction was in the grammar translation stage back then. However, this did not stop me from taking charge of developing my listening and speaking skills outside the classroom. I watched weekly English lessons on the national TV channel and listened to Voice of America’s 30-minute world news on the radio once a week. These helped improve my vocabulary, listening, and pronunciation skills significantly. Working on my speaking skills was the toughest part simply because it was challenging to find people who could practice speaking with me. Foreigners on religious missions and random tourists were who I could find to talk to, but in most cases these conversations consisted of only small talk.
After college, I got a full time job mainly translating books and magazines, and sometimes doing simultaneous interpretation from English to Mongolian and vice versa for four years. My work was a validation for me to realize that all the hard work that I had put into learning this new language so late had been worth the great effort I put into it. Yet, times were changing again and I realized it when I picked up a second job as an English teacher at a small private elementary school. This job opened my eyes to a whole new world of realization. First, I found myself passionately enjoying teaching and realized that I preferred it to doing translation. Second, I found that more people were speaking English even better than me from a young age and more schools were offering English, and that there was competition among these schools. I also worked alongside NESTs with mostly positive experiences and support from the administration, yet I faced some parents and students who questioned my ability to teach. All of these experiences heavily influenced my decision to pursue a higher education, specifically in teaching ESL/EFL. I also knew that I needed to be better prepared for the changing needs/requirements of both students and employers.
Regarding my decision to come to the United States for my studies, first, I did not have an option to study in Mongolia because an MA TESOL degree was and still is not a program offered in Mongolian universities; second, I knew that if I was to really pursue teaching English, I had to choose to study abroad, mainly because of the credibility factor that the general public places on people who speak and teach foreign languages. In Mongolia, if you mention the words, “Yes, I have had experience living and studying abroad,” then, you are received a lot differently compared to those who have no experience abroad.
As for finding my way to work at Snow College, it all happened by chance. I had graduated with an MA in TESOL in 2013, and it was time to seriously look for employment. I applied to seven different jobs all over the world including Mongolia. Sadly, I could not even meet the qualifications for the Mongolia jobs (the ones I really wanted) though. There were two main qualifications that I lacked: full-time teaching experience and being a native speaker of English. Eventually, I heard back from three employers and Snow College hired me in the end.
- Can you introduce your home country, Mongolia, to our readers? In particular, could you discuss English language teaching in Mongolia? What do you see as the most important current and future trends? How are non-native speaking English teachers treated compared with native speaking teachers? What other foreign languages do people in Mongolia study and from when did English become a popular language to study? (Terry Doyle)
Mongolia is a small country of about 2.7 million people sandwiched between two powerful countries, Russia and China. For many years, Mongolia followed the footsteps of the Soviet Union, even calling each other brothers, so Russian was almost everybody’s second language until the early 1990s’ changes brought by democracy. The popularity of English rose as a result of this change, and to this day it continues to be in high demand. The reasons behind this trend are similar to what is happening in other developing countries in the world. English is used to connect Mongolia with the rest of the world as more foreign businesses invest in Mongolia. With the inflow of foreign companies investing in Mongolia, the need for bilingual workers rises and so do places offering English instruction. More Mongolians are also able to travel abroad for work, studies, and pleasure and English is a hot commodity for sure. Mongolians even say, “Without language, you are without legs,” and the ever-increasing need to learn foreign languages remains stronger. It also goes without the need to say it that the widespread use of the Internet in Mongolia has been one of the biggest influences for the increased need for English learning. Tourism is another big industry that has boosted the demand for English as a Lingua Franca. It is common to see foreigners, not just the ones who come from English speaking countries, speaking English to communicate in Mongolia. In all, it is safe to say English is the most prevalent foreign language in Mongolia these days. However, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Korean, German, and French are other languages that people are also learning, as there are economic, business, and educational benefits to learning them. Overall, Mongolians are highly motivated as language learners and will do all they can to reach their goals.
The path English language instruction has taken in Mongolia is an interesting fact to look at. As I mentioned earlier, when English replaced Russian as a second language in the public education curriculum back in the 1990s, Mongolia was not ready for it at all. We lacked both teachers and teaching resources. When it all began, Mongolia rushed to find solutions to its shortage of English teachers by allowing simply anyone who spoke English to teach it. This meant we saw the government allow foreign religious organizations to enter Mongolia in exchange for providing free English instruction at private schools and even in institutions of higher education. Some business savvy individuals started doing business using backpackers creating opportunities for them to not only come see Mongolia but also pay their way by teaching English without any credentials. This was simply how things started and I was (and I am sure many others were) happy to have access to these teachers.
Today, Mongolians have many options for learning English. There are still the free English classes offered by NGOs, and the quality of their instruction varies. But learners can turn to many different schools and businesses to learn English as long as they have the will and of course money. English learning is probably growing the strongest among the school-aged learners. This phenomenon is driven by the belief that language is learned more successfully when the learner is younger. As a matter of fact, some parents will go as far as paying up to $10K per school year per child to put their children through private schools where English is the medium of instruction. These schools have sound curricula in general; however some of their job postings openly include requirements for native English speakers. I personally believe they do this to live up to the marketing promises they make when recruiting students; that is, that students will be taught by native English speakers. Marketing pitches focused on native speaking teachers create incorrect notions among parents and students that native speakers are the ideal teachers of English. As for adult learners of English, the options for learning English are available through private businesses that provide English lessons and tutoring services for both conversational and academic English and higher education institutions that are privately and government owned. Again, the level of quality of their instruction varies, and the use of native English speaking teachers as a selling point remains popular among private businesses while the government owned institutions maintain the middle ground by hiring both native and nonnative teachers. However, there are not many government owned institutions, and therefore turnover for the workforce is very low leaving not many options for nonnative teachers who would like to get higher ranking and higher paying jobs.
- What is one of the memorable experiences you had while being involved in the NNEST IS as the webmaster? Do you have any advice for people in this position based on your experience? (Hami Suzuki)
I was a graduate student, in the middle of working on my thesis while having family responsibilities and a part-time job when I became the webmaster of the NNEST IS; so at times I felt like I was not contributing much. As the webmaster, I was responsible for maintaining the website by updating it with current information and responding to member’s questions and requests which were directed to me through the website. As a result of serving in this position, I taught myself (with the help of my husband) how to use the Adobe Dreamweaver, and today I am much more comfortable with creating websites and figuring things out online. So I am certainly grateful for the experience I had as a webmaster and would, without hesitation, encourage anyone to take on the challenge this position may bring.
Perhaps the most valuable lessons I learned from being part of the NNEST IS leadership board was to see others, who were on the same boat as I was, and to make time for the NNEST causes to be heard and lead the IS members. I have not been very outspoken about NNEST related issues mostly because I have not experienced much discrimination since I came to the USA. But I choose to stay up-to-date on NNEST related issues by being part of the NNEST IS and reading because I believe it makes me more confident and informed as an NNEST, and I believe that NNEST related issues especially in terms of inequality in workplaces should be addressed at all levels in all places. Moreover, as I become more informed, I get that much more prepared to teach and advise students in our TESL program. I hope more people join the NNEST IS and take active parts in it by both serving in its leadership positions and participating in/following the discussions that are going on.
- When do you consciously reflect on yourself as an NNEST? (Hami Suzuki)
The times I have reflected consciously on myself as an NNEST have been when my non-nativeness was challenged in relation to my work; however, it has not happened a lot. As an undergraduate intern, I had a few incidents in which some of my students expressed their doubts in my ability to teach English when in reality English was not my first language. At the beginning I did not take it well as I was inexperienced and insecure in myself as a teacher. I tried not to show it on the outside; however, inside, I felt crushed and wanted to give up because being a non-native speaker of English was something that I could not run away from whenever I wanted.
Today, I am much more confident in myself than ever. I share my experiences of learning English with my students, and it helps me connect with them instantly. Recently, a student mentioned that he was disappointed to see a non-native speaker teaching English in America when he came to America expecting to be taught by native speakers. He was just being honest about how he felt, and it was not a confrontational situation. To my surprise, his comment did not hurt me at all. I let him know that I felt the same way when I first started learning English twenty plus years ago, but then I told him some of my best teachers were NNESTs and also NESTs who believed in my ability to teach English. I then shared my belief with him that learning English is not only about who is teaching it. It is also about knowing how teaching works, how learning happens, how teachers identify students’ learning needs and many more things. This experience was a time to consciously reflect on myself as an NNEST and realize my value even more.
- What are some research interests that you would like to be involved in the future? (Hami Suzuki)
I have always been interested in how speaking and listening skills are developed in language learners, as it was the focus of my thesis. So, I like to read and would love to do more research on effective strategies that learners use to improve their listening and speaking skills. It would be even more meaningful to do it in an EFL setting these days as the Internet and technology have created a number of new opportunities for learners to improve their speaking and listening skills.
Effective use of technology in language learning is another area that interests me. As technology has entered our classrooms, it has changed the dynamics of everything that happens in the classroom. I try to use technology and everything that comes with it by making informed and educated decisions. More research is needed on the fair and effective use of technology in the classroom and for creating teaching materials in order to ensure success in both teaching and learning.
- When I asked you whether you would like to be interviewed, you mentioned that NNEST issues would be more important to you if you had decided to go back to Mongolia to be an English teacher. Why is this true? Could you discuss the importance of NNEST status to Mongolian English teachers teaching in Mongolia? (Terry Doyle)
Terry, even though I have not lived and worked in Mongolia for over a decade now, I have stayed interested in and informed about English teaching and learning in Mongolia by staying in touch with former classmates who work as English teachers, talking to and advising family members who have been learning English, teaching and talking to my Mongolian students who have come to the USA to learn English, doing my own independent research on job options while looking for employment after graduation, and more recently by talking to the president of English Language Teachers’ Association of Mongolia (ELTAM), an affiliate of TESOL International Association. However, I also understand that what I think and say may not be the same as what others in Mongolia may be thinking and experiencing.
Having said this, I would like to explain why NNEST status would be more important to me and to Mongolian English teachers, had I decided to go back to Mongolia. As I explained in previous questions, English teaching in Mongolia has come a long way and it seems to be certainly moving toward a bright future. However, I would still like to see some changes done in the areas of pre-service teacher training and in-service teacher professional development at the ministry of education level. As teachers, we are in a field, which is constantly evolving, and thus professional training and development of English teachers should not be overlooked. Being better trained and professionally developed means that these teachers are going to be better received by themselves, their students, and employers so that they can be treated equally. This would certainly help change perceptions of Mongolian NNESTs. For example, one perception is that Mongolia-educated teachers generally do not have enough teaching experience, so most graduates never go into teaching simply because they never get trained well enough to become English teachers. Another is that native speaking speakers should only teach listening and speaking classes, and Mongolian teachers should just teach grammar, vocabulary, and reading. Or there is the perception that some Mongolian English teachers do not speak or know English even as well as their students. Finally, some people say that Mongolian English teachers do not push their limits to improve their English knowledge, and they are in general lazy and lack motivation. Changing these perceptions at the ministry of education level can also lead to holding institutions more responsible for the work they do in preparing English teachers by focusing them on curriculum redesigning and development rather than just taking students’ money and claiming that they have prepared many English teachers. Well, I could keep going and name many more ripple effects this can have, but it is probably self-explanatory and so I will stop here. All in all, I think teacher preparation and professional development are two key areas that will help Mongolian NNESTs to get a better and well-deserved recognition in the future.
- I’m very interested in the topic of MA TESOL education and how it is different in the United States and other countries? Do many Mongolian English teachers come to the United States to study for MA TESOL degrees? Are they treated differently by employers, students, parents of students than Mongolian-educated English teachers are? (Terry Doyle)?
Based on the research I have done, I did not find MA in TESOL programs offered in any universities in Mongolia back in 2003 and still cannot find any today. So this means those who graduate in Mongolia and become English teachers are only going to hold a bachelor’s degree and it is obviously unfair to compare them to someone with a master’s degree in TESOL. Another very big difference in foreign language teacher education in Mongolia is the emphasis of all foreign language-teaching programs first on teaching the foreign language itself and also on general language theories followed by only a minimal focus on pedagogy and teaching practicum. In other words, teachers graduate from their universities and colleges having barely learned the language that they are about to teach with insufficient teaching experience and pedagogical knowledge. This is what I experienced when I got my teaching degree in Mongolia back in 1998 and based on a recent conversation with another Mongolian English teacher, it still is the same today in many places.
I am not aware of many Mongolian English teachers getting their education in the US. When I was a student, I mostly found Mongolians majoring in business management, accounting, engineering, international relations, sociology, and some in nursing. This is based on my experience studying in Utah and knowing some friends and acquaintances studying in California, Illinois, Washington, Ohio, New York, and Hawaii. However, I have worked in the past with some people who received their TESOL certification in Australia and England. In my recent phone call with the president of ELTAM, I learned that they have roughly 500 members and about 10 of them hold a master’s degree in TESOL from abroad.
As for the treatment of teachers, Mongolia-educated English teachers are at a clear disadvantage and thus are treated differently. I even heard a fellow teacher, an acquaintance of mine, say that I was of course better than her and one of the main reasons she brought up was the fact that I was exposed to more authentic use of English, contexts, and culture than she was. She even said that if we were to apply for the same position, employers would still consider her less qualified compared to me. In fact, this was the reason why she decided not to stay in the field of teaching and moved on to a completely unrelated job. It was (back in my time) and is still very common to see graduates not go into teaching English.
- What are your hobbies? How do you spend your time when you are not teaching, preparing lessons, and doing other work-related activities? (Terry Doyle)
When I am not teaching, I enjoy doing the following two things: homeschooling my kids on top of what they get in their public school classes and training for my next half marathon.
I see today’s college students struggling a lot trying to acquire many important study skills such as time management, critical thinking, prioritizing what is important (planning for both school and personal activities), listening and note-taking, etc. So it is hard to ignore these struggles when you have children who will be entering colleges and universities soon, and the thought of my children being the next ones who will be struggling makes me take my role as a parent and teacher much more responsibly. So I will probably never stop being involved in my children’s schooling until they are able to do it on their own.
As for the half marathons, I have never been a physically active person or good at any sorts of sports, but I discovered running as something I could do to stay healthy about four years ago and have been running at least two halfs a year going into my third year. I find running very freeing. It allows me to clear my mind as I focus on the road ahead and push myself to the finish line. Running also became more meaningful to me when a close friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer, so the races I run are usually for promoting cancer awareness.
Thank you very much, Udambor, for providing very thorough and thought-provoking answers to our questions. Your descriptions of Mongolia, the field of TESL in Mongolia, and your own personal journey to becoming an ESL teacher and teacher trainer in the United States will be very inspirational to our readers. Маш их баярлалаа!