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The Language of Opportunity

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Reflecting on his first attempt to establish a free-thinking university in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Eric Roth ’84 realized that a book, not a school, may be his world-changer.

Ask Eric Roth to recall a moment that sums up his effort to establish a “free-thinking” college at American Pacific University in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in 2009 and he brings up a problem with the plumbing.

“On the third floor of the building where we were teaching there was a bathroom that didn’t work—the toilet seat was gone. I reported it 11 days after I arrived, and four months later, it still wasn’t fixed.

“It would have cost $3.50 to replace, but it was cheaper to pay off the inspectors than fix it. And they didn’t want to put any money into the building because it was going to be torn down at some point. Their philosophy was, ‘Don’t just replace a part; replace the whole thing.’ Then they’d do nothing.

“This notion—if you can’t do everything, don’t do anything—is a mistake. When you’re trying to build something, you do what you can where you are with what you have. But over and over, we’d see how the perfect would become the enemy of the good.”

Roth transformed such obstacles into teachable moments, assigning students in his English class to inter-view one another about controversial issues at the school. He even passed out a questionnaire for students to weigh in on their own English course.

“Why not fix the toilet?” one student responded.

 “Actually, it was encouraging that someone asked a question,” Roth says. Students are reluctant to question anything—just one of many obstacles facing anyone trying to establish an American-style college in a society that has been “open and closed a few times.”

“People learn there are consequences for being on the wrong side,” Roth says. “Yet if students are going to be prepared to work for international companies in the global economy, they’ll need to ask questions, develop critical thinking. The trick is to disagree without being disagreeable, but it’s something you have to experience —as I did at Wabash—to realize it’s even possible.

“The country is growing rapidly—new skyscrapers are being built, new roads and sidewalks, and everyone feels like tomorrow will be better than today. Projects that are economically unimaginable in the U.S. right now are doable in Vietnam.

 “But the gap between what the country is able to do technologically and what it is able to assimilate culturally is considerable. It’s like trying to use a thimble to get a drink of water out of a fire hydrant.”

“I went in pretty naive,” Roth admits. “I believed they might be ready to move forward right then.”

The proof was in the plumbing.

Stopping by Wabash after speaking at an Indiana Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (INTESOL) conference in Indianapolis, Roth seems buoyed, not battered by his experience in Vietnam. He is confident that the American-style college will one day be established in the country.

But what he saw in Ho Chi Minh City—including blatant censorship of everything from the news to history books—convinced him that a project he began years ago is an even more immediate way to bring critical thinking to relatively still closed countries like Vietnam.

 In addition to teaching at the University of Southern California, the former congressional aide and journalist is co-author of Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics. The book is an alternative text for teaching conversational English as a second language (ESL). It is recommended by a leading trade journal of English teaching professionals.

And in case you haven’t noticed, English is well on its way to becoming the world’s dominant language.

“This is the first time in world history we actually have a language spoken genuinely globally by every country of the world,” writes David Crystal in English as a Global Language. As of 2005, almost a quarter of the world’s population spoke English as a native or second language. It is the de facto language of commerce and diplomacy. More than 80 percent of information stored on the Internet is in English. And while there are more speakers of Chinese, Spanish, and Hindi, they speak English when they talk across cultures, and it is English they teach their children in order to give them a chance in the world economy.

More than 20,000 ESL teaching jobs are posted monthly; no longer a fallback, teaching ESL is becoming a lucrative first or second career. Some experts predict that by 2030 more than half the world’s population will speak English.

In The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman writes that “the current wave of globalization is characterized by the newfound power for individuals to collaborate and compete globally.” The language of that collaboration is English.

Roth witnessed this firsthand. In 1998, following the death of his father, he took a year off work and toured the globe with his wife.

“We saw the world had really changed,” Roth says. “We found out how lucky we were to be from the U.S.—wherever we went we saw English was the international language.”

Roth had already been teaching ESL for several years. In 1996 he had written the grant that established the Community Enhancement Services Adult Education Center in Los Angeles, providing ESL and citizenship classes for immigrants.

“That was one of my most satisfying educational experiences. I got to hire five teachers who had been professionals in their own countries, and we helped almost 5,000 people—mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union—become naturalized citizens. “

But traveling the world cast a new light on his work.

“I had been teaching ESL to immigrants, and I knew English was essential to their lives in the U.S., but on this trip we saw English as a truly global language. It is the gateway to a modern world, and to 21st century lives. And in countries like Vietnam and other developing nations, English is sometimes the only accessible means to advance yourself.”

After his travels Roth returned to the classroom part-time—today he teaches ESL to undergraduate and graduate science students at USC—but the seed for Compelling Conversations had been planted.

Combining his teaching experience and his liberal arts background, Roth collaborated with his mother, Toni Aberson—an English teacher for 35 years—to self-publish the first edition of the book. Dedicated to his father, Dani Roth—who spoke six languages and “could talk with almost anyone”—the book provides an alternative to “presentation-practice-production” approach to language learning, instead using quotations, questions, and proverbs to prompt conversation.

“Some [quotes and questions] will have students roaring with laughter, while others require careful intro-spection,” wrote a reviewer for the ESL journal English Teaching Professional. “They are highly effective for promoting student discussion.”

 “In the classroom and in the book we try to create a space that’s tolerant and rigorous at the same time,” Roth says. “The focus is on learning by doing, and we want to give people room to make good mistakes—errors that help us learn. When people expect themselves to be perfect, they go silent.”

Most of the book’s prompts ask for recollections or personal opinions.

“Whatever perspective you bring to the book, I want you to find validation in some great thinker, that it’s okay to see things that way. That gives us all the freedom to be ourselves and less of who we think we should be, or who we’ve been programmed or conditioned to be.”

Roth believes that the English language itself can be liberating.

“Learning English can allow some to escape the prison of their national background. In many languages, the words are either masculine or feminine. English doesn’t do this. Much has been written about why English-speaking countries were the first of women’s rights; the language doesn’t discriminate against women structurally.” 

Thousands of copies of Compelling Conversations have sold worldwide, and new editions are being tailored for specific countries. Roth’s longtime friend and former U.S. Assistant Federal Defender Steve Riggs ’81 worked with him in Ho Chi Minh City as he tried to establish the university and edited the book for students in Vietnam.

“At first I’d planned to bring Compelling Conversations into my classroom, but I was reminded that might not be a good idea,” Roth explains. “One of the first quotes is, ‘Free speech is a rare and precious right.’ But free speech is not a right in Vietnam.”

So he asked Riggs to “tailor the book in a way that acknowledges the tremendous influence of national culture.”

“You take out some parts authorities might object to, but at the same time you’re giving the people language skills to find the truth on their own,” Riggs says. Riggs and Roth initially edited a version of Compelling Con-
versations for APU International schools, then worked together to create a thinner, more culturally rich edition, which APU has adopted.

“Establishing a university in an authoritarian culture is not a summer project, but a generational project,” Riggs says. “Yet as people learn English, they are empowered to live their own lives. There are tremendous opportunities to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of people—I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t gone there and seen it.

“You can empower people to learn, and that is the key. The most radical thing possible may be teaching English. This is an historic opportunity, and Eric is right at the center of it.”