Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Guest blogger: Teaching English - and liberty - in Eastern Europe 

Fifteen years ago the people imprisoned in the great late Soviet Empire revolted and won their freedom. But the work is not finished yet (is it ever?) and the instinct for liberty, suppressed for so long, has to be nurtured and assisted in its growth.

A decade ago, Stephen Brown, together with some friends, founded the Language of Liberty project. Every summer in Lithuania, the project offers a summer camp of intensive English lessons, using as reading texts works that explain the fundamentals of political liberty and free markets. In the past, the camp attracted students from Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus and even Romania. Now, the Language of Liberty is slowly trying to move from a part-time all-volunteer outfit to a legally registered and full-time funded organization. This is its story.

The Language of Liberty Project

This past summer we held the eighth annual Liberty English camp in Trakai, Lithuania.

The idea of the English courses was conceived more than thirteen years ago when I privately taught a Polish lawyer who wanted to read Adam Smith in the original. (In the old times he defended dissidents and kids caught putting subversive stickers up in public places – an offense that could get you seven years hard.) I warned him that the dialect was a bit archaic, he replied that it was, but that it was so much easier to understand because the argumentation was so logically laid out. I don’'t even want to think about what this means about modern writing….

This inspired the idea of an English course designed to teach students how to read, and discuss the original documents important to the history of liberty in the English-speaking world. I created course material with an introduction that gives a quick overview of the methodology we use to get people who are not professional ESL teachers into teaching quickly. Much remains to be done though. For example, we badly need a Business English course. There is a tremendous demand here for Business English – and everywhere I'’ve been, nobody is really happy with the available courses.

The Origin of the Idea

The idea of a camp for teaching an intensive course was actually suggested by a young Bulgarian girl who had been to a few libertarian-sponsored seminars in Eastern Europe. She remarked to me that a great many of the young participants arrived with inadequate English preparation and were simply sitting through lectures nodding politely, understanding perhaps one word in ten. She suggested that a weeklong intensive course before such a seminar would help prepare them to participate more fully in the presentations and discussions.

I suggested this ten years ago at the Rome conference of the International Society for Individual Liberty, and further suggested that it would be quite cheap to hold it somewhere in Eastern Europe where cheap, if somewhat primitive facilities were available. My friend Virgis Daukas from Lithuania took up the idea with enthusiasm, virtually the only enthusiasm displayed for the idea, not surprising given that you really have to live abroad to understand exactly how important fluency in English is to personal and professional success all over the world. Virgis arranged for us to us an old Young Pioneers camp -– what a delicious irony!

Lately we have started to attract funding to sponsor students from Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and Romania and the idea has been imitated in India and Turkey. We are presently discussing plans to hold more than one camp at various locations around Eastern Europe. And our friend Barun Mitra in India would be very glad to welcome teachers at their camp in the foothills of the Himalayas! Barun took our idea up with enthusiasm and in the first year of operation held a camp bigger than any of ours so far.

The Rationale of the Camp

English is the international language, that is beyond doubt these days. Fluency in English is the sine qua non of success in most high-level professional positions. For example, it is estimated that you have to have some English for 90% of the decent jobs in Warsaw. You have to have some English to work at McDonald’s in any Eastern European capital.

And as it happens, the great bulk of political literature that concerns the creation and maintenance of free states is either written in English or available in English translation.

The goals of the Language of Liberty project are:

1) To help the friends of liberty in the countries of the former Soviet empire and elsewhere to develop their English language skills, for the purpose of promoting their personal and professional success, and hence the influence they have in their countries.

2) To develop liberty-oriented English language course materials. (In case anyone should wonder if it is appropriate to use English lessons to spread our ideas, I assure you it is already being done – and not always by our friends.)

3) To inject these ideas into the public discourse in the recovering societies of the former communist world and elsewhere by means of these courses and materials.

4) To offer linguistic services to friends of liberty in these countries such as proofreading and correcting English language manuscripts, help with CVs, consultation with translators of important works into the local languages, writing texts in English etc.

5) To place full-time teachers in situ and develop a teacher support network across these lands.


6) A great many of us have been troubled by the notion that the libertarian movement is "theory heavy and experience lite". The movement can only benefit by the seasoning of libertarians in these lands now in the process of transition from command economy tyrannies to something approaching market democracies.

Our primary goal at the camp is to teach English, not to proselytize. If we cannot get that working, we will be just another lib org whose goal is to get a captive audience together so we can preach at them.

At the first camp we had a lot of beginners whose English skills were not up to the level necessary to read and discuss these ideas yet. Fortunately some of us were trained in the direct method for teaching beginners. We realized immediately that even if we couldn’t use the advanced materials with these students, it was still worthwhile to teach them. Simply put; help them with their English and they'’ll remember who their friends are. (And in fact, one enthusiastic beginner at one camp a few years back was a lady who is an influential official in the Lithuanian Ministry of Education and responsible for getting Karl Hess'’ "Capitalism for Kids" in the school curriculum.)

For materials, I prefer to work on developing lessons using historical writings for the following reason: the historical texts are, independent of their importance to our purposes, also useful for the professional education of anybody interested in an academic career in English and American history, Political Science or Law.

What we offer are lessons based around the presentation of ideas on liberty in their historical context and equip the students with the linguistic tools to discuss and debate them. The ideas are not always going to be those we personally hold, and indeed are not always going to be internally self-consistent. The practice of freedom has generated a lot of different ideas throughout history. Our purpose is to equip the future leaders of their countries with the cognitive tools they need, not to tell them what to think or push a particular political agenda.

For course materials in business and economics, more contemporary writings may be appropriate and "The Adventures of Jonathan Gullible" by Ken Schooland has been marvelous for skits and plays in the camp.

Much remains to be done. We have gone as far as we can go as a part-time volunteer-supported organization. We have to organize the Language of Liberty Institute as a registered non-profit foundation with a full-time staff in order to do serious fund-raising. We have the experience, we have the contacts and we have the track record. And most important, we have a large body of student/ participants who are relying on us to go forward with the idea. And most exciting, we have an offer to do a full camp next year in Sarajevo!

Stephen Browne is a writer, technical editor and has taught English as a Second Language in Eastern Europe since 1991. He has worked with Libertarian dissidents in Yugoslavia and Belarus and was elected an Honorary Member of the Yugoslav Movement for the Protection of Human Rights in 1997. He is currently living with his wife Monika and son Jerzy Waszyngton [George Washington in Polish - AC] Browne in Oklahoma while he pursues advanced study in journalism. Stephen can be contacted at SWaBrow "at" msn "dot" com.


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