McVeigh teaches in Middle East

MIDDLEBURY — Joe McVeigh’s special talent is in teaching English, but he hasn’t been spending a lot of time lately in countries where that language is most widely spoken.
That’s because McVeigh’s English teaching skills, and the books he has co-authored on the subject, have taken him to more than 45 countries where people are eager to absorb a language that they see as a passport to success in business, education and cultural pursuits.
A longtime Middlebury resident, McVeigh has lately been in particular demand in one of the globe’s political hot spots — the Middle East. He recently returned from a trip to the nations of Oman and the United Arab Emirates, or UAE, where he did some English language teacher training for the U.S. State Department and participated in a conference involving English language instructors based in several Middle Eastern countries.
The trip gave McVeigh a first-hand glimpse of Arab perceptions of the U.S. and its citizens; the extent to which English is becoming an important tool in the emergence of developing nations; and the degree to which English texts must be tailored to circumvent cultural taboos in the Middle East.
McVeigh’s latest odyssey was triggered by an invitation to speak at a Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) conference held in Dubai last month. TESOL is an international association aimed at advancing English language teaching worldwide.
“(The conference chair) then had to figure out how to get me there and pay for it,” McVeigh said.
That search led to the U.S. State Department, which agreed to bankroll McVeigh’s trip if he agreed to offer some teaching workshops outside of the conference.
“They support the teaching of English throughout the world, partly as a matter of what you could call capacity building and partly as a matter of improving our relations with other countries,” McVeigh said.
After agreeing to the conditions, McVeigh headed to the Sultanate of Oman, located in the southeast tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
He entered a society in which English was already quite well known. He explained the country’s higher education system is conducted entirely in English. McVeigh attributed this to previous British colonialization and increased globalization, with English standing as the most spoken language in the world.
“Although students have studied English in high school, they show up at university and they really don’t show up with the level of English they need to take university level courses,” McVeigh said.
As a result, the students enter what they call a “foundation year” to dramatically improve their English. McVeigh’s talks in Oman and the UAE were designed to help advance that teaching, with emphasis in the subjects of inter-cultural communication, reading instruction and oral presentation skills.
The teachers in McVeigh’s audience were a combination of Arab nationals and expatriates from other nations.
It proved an enriching, 11-day experience for McVeigh, who met teachers from Iraq, Iran and other Middle Eastern nations that have been in the news.
He recalled the Iraqi teachers sitting in on a conference that dealt in part with setting up Powerpoint presentations.
“They said, ‘This is really great, but we are lucky if we have electricity at our schools,’” McVeigh said.
While tensions are currently high between the U.S. and Iran, he said the Iranian teachers had “very warm feelings for people from the U.S.”
He was humbled to see that many of the teachers had not only heard of the books he has co-authored — including two books in the “Q: Skills for Success” seriesfrom Oxford University Press — some were reading the texts and had copies they asked him to autograph.
Those texts, McVeigh noted, have to be carefully edited to respect Middle Eastern religion and customs. No references to unmarried couples, pork, alcohol, politics or even Israel. The rules are even stricter when it comes to Saudi Arabia, where McVeigh was set to travel to this past weekend: No references to popular music, video games or social networks.
The UAE universities are segregated by gender, whereas the Omani universities are integrated, McVeigh noted.
McVeigh learned that the biggest challenge for native Arabic speakers is learning to read English.
“Arabic is so different from English,” McVeigh said. “You read (Arabic) from right to left and the script is different. The challenge is teaching people at the beginning level… because you have to teach people how this letter connects to this sound.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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