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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

April 25, 2014

Gettin' yer kids into college- Japanese university version

Before I launch into today’s topic, I want to (ab)use this platform to selfishly shill...
my epoch-defining novel ‘The Little Suicides’.
It’s available at and at (you can preview the opening few pages there). The story is set largely in Japan and the Philippines, and although rather ‘gritty’ in places (it’s classified as mystery/adventure), it should appeal to expats based in Asia, or anyone who likes travel/mystery fiction. You can also catch a few Japan-based excerpts here —although I admit it’s not the most gripping part of the book.

Now, onto the real blog stuff…

Years ago I was an idealistic father. I told myself that I would never succumb to the educational rat race, that I would eschew campaigning long and hard to get my children into the best universities. My kids, I told myself, would follow the educational paths that they had forged by themselves, one that was built on their own true passions and interests in learning. But then, last year, my son entered his third year of high school in Japan-- university prep time—and all my idealism spiraled out our study room window.

To be fair, I had to some extent, misjudged entrance exam hell in my younger, more naïve days, in Japan. I had mentally reduced the university entry process in Japan to something akin to the following:
1. High school teachers cram a bunch of facts into your head for memorization.
2. You take the national center exam and regurgitate this stuff.
3. You enter the highest rank of university your score allows you to.
4. You join a company.

The real process, especially these days, is much more complex and nuanced than that (and the tests are also usually more skills-based too). Since I know that many readers have children approaching the same milestone age, I thought this would be an opportune time, as a now-test-experienced father, to identify some of the signposts and alternative pathways along Japan’s university entrance route.

1. There are many ways to enter a given Japanese university

It’s not just a Center exam + University Exam = total score formula. It can vary incredibly, and once your spawn has identified a university he or she is targeting, it is absolutely indispensible to collect all information on potential means of entry.

The cleanest, smoothest, least taxing way is via recommendation. This avoids all the drawn out testing business (and might also mean that your child does little or nothing during their last 4 or 5 months of high school because they’re already ‘in’ university). Almost all universities have some recommendation allotment. The process starts early, often soon after summer. Recommendations will typically involve an interview on the campus, a number of high school documents attesting to the special skill or circumstance of the student (prepped by the home room teacher), and perhaps, a short one-or-two subject test. Many private universities in particular will have more than one recommendation session.

Many private unis also are connected to feeder high schools. Students graduating from such high schools (Nihon Univ.—or Nichidai as it is commonly known-- is the largest example) are often prioritized for uni entry in those schools' recommendation systems (but not on the so-called ‘ippan’, or general, exam-based entry).

2. Get detailed information from the prospective unis and study them thoroughly!

All universities have glossy brochures espousing their virtues, but also containing a fair bit of helpful data regarding entrance processes. Obviously, online websites will provide even more. Commercial books explaining how to get into this or that university, including previous entrance exams and test-taking tips for any and all unis, are readily available. This stuff is pretty much indispensable for knowing procedures, dates, and entry protocols. If you’re not a proficient Japanese readers you’ll need help (your spouse?). Your kid can read it, sure, but 17 year olds have the habit of glossing over important details…

Many universities hold open campus sessions during the year. If it is a potential choice for your little one, pay a visit, if only to find out whether it lives up to glossy, brochure standards or not. Check out the neighborhood too for transport, apartment/dorm, and shopping options. A pretty, spic and span university building plonked down in the middle of Podunk, Shimane Prefecture (sorry, Shimane-ites) might not look so appealing when you realize that its ten kilometers from anything resembling a restaurant or supermarket….

3. It’s not the university, it’s the faculty that matters!

Entrance standards and examinations differ by faculty. There is rarely a unified procedure for entering X university as a whole. It all depends upon which faculty your young-uns are applying for.

It generally works like this-- Masaki-kun wants to enter the Education Faculty at City University (unwisely, Masaki hopes to become a teacher). The requirements for entry will likely look something like:
A. 2 or 3 subjects from the Center Exam. For education faculties, typically 1 must be English, 1 must be Japanese. The third subject choice is optional (my boy chose World History). Engineering will be very, very different.

B. The faculty’s own, second-stage entrance exam, typically including both a ‘zenki’-first- and ‘kouki’- second exam, the latter allowing for candidates who couldn’t attend the first exam due to scheduling conflicts.

C. A personal interview (sometimes in English).

But in fact some faculties may require NO Center Exam results, or only one (core) subject. It may specify exactly which Center subjects will be considered. This allows, for example, math-phobics, to apply to a place where math is not part of the entry criteria.

This affects the content of the second-stage (local) exams too. Most will test candidates in only a few subjects (education will typically go for English and Japanese) so candidates should choose targets that match their strengths. Finding out which faculties require test results on which subjects is, again, absolutely indispensible in your child’s planning.

4. Utilize your kid’s home room teacher

High school teachers are not so much concerned with cramming data into students’ heads as they are making sure that the student enters the best university possible. Yes, it is a huge feather in a HS teacher’s cap (especially the home room teacher) if little Taku or Saya get into a name institution. This means that home room teachers regularly try to uncover students’ post-graduate goals. Based on the student’s aptitude and abilities, they will make suggestions regarding which schools the child has a legitimate shot at-- occasionally over-reaching in order to push their charges into preparing for the best possible outcome.

Other subject teachers will often be drafted in to give special, focused tuition to students who need to brush up on chosen test subjects. English teachers often help prepare individual students for English interviews. (My kid didn't go to a cram school, so I can't comment more on that aspect of uni preparation).

How do HS teachers and students know what unis they are likely to have a good shot of entering? Standardized mock tests are regularly given. Scores arising from these will indicate the student’s chances of making it into Prestigious University A or Less Prestigious University B based on these exam results (students will submit the names of the universities they are interested in entering in advance). If Saya-chan has a 60% chance of making into Waseda based on this mock exam, she can look at what her weak points were to raise her score in the future or she can settle her sights on a lower, but surer, target.

Typically, students will take 2 or 3 mock tests. The home room teacher will know the results and make recommendations for both application targets and study suggestions based upon these (again, other subject teachers will be drafted in to help students upgrade whatever subject needs a boost).

The home room teacher will generally be happy to discuss the likelihood of getting into a particular school with the parents. Most will be quite knowledgeable about entrance methods and means. Juku or yobiko (cram school) teachers will be absolute founts of knowledge on the same.

5. Public vs. private universities (aka ‘money’)

Public unis (especially national) are generally considered more prestigious in Japan, with a few notable exceptions. The big issue behind this is price. Typically, national unis cost about half of what private universities do (private are typically about 1,200,000 a year plus, public about 600,000 plus for the same). This makes competition for national schools fiercer and further bolsters reputations.

National unis engage in far fewer ‘sales campaigns’ and tend to have stricter, more limited entrance procedures (besides recommendations, the center exam plus second stage exam total is the norm). National unis will have a set, limited number of seats available. Private unis don’t. Private unis will often recruit by offering entrance exams in various parts of the country, and may accept numbers over the limit they advertise.

Parents should be on close lookout for scholarships from each prospective university. Being from X prefecture may garner a candidate 100,000 yen, hardship cases (single-parent households etc.) might get up to 50% reduction on tuition, certain special recommendations achieved might merit other monetary awards. Check scholarship pages (online) very closely!

6. The second (and third) choice factor

Early on (summer in the 3rd year of High School) your offspring should have three or four potential uni targets prioritized. They should never put all their entry eggs into one acceptance basket!

Timing the recommendation test/personal interviews and second-stage tests so that Johnny Jukensei can attend all four can be a difficult to achieve, but worthy, task. Many unis will held exams or interviews at the same time so staggering one’s choices to meet these schedules is essential (see zenki and kouki exams above).

Here’s where I can use my son’s experience as an example.

When university choices started becoming a factor in his teenaged brain he listed five universities and two faculties (English studies, International studies) he wanted to aim for.
These included:
A. Prestigious University with a lower chance of entry
B. HS affiliated, but lesser, university with an almost certain chance of entry
C. Two good, but lesser-than-A, universities
D. A local university (as a final fail-safe resort)
All were private (‘ouch’ comes a voice from deep in my pocket) universities.

Unfortunately, the preferred recommendation interviews and small ‘tests’ for both A and B occurred on the same day. My son, bless him, chose to take the difficult-to-enter A route instead of almost-certain B. He didn't get selected (the success rate was about 10%). This meant that any eventual fall back onto choice B would have to come from the so-called ‘ippan’ (regular) process (center test plus 2nd stage exam). Instead, my son set his sights on the two C choices.

He took the Center Exam (English, Japanese, and World History only, as it was these scores that would be the factors for entry here on in).

He then took the entrance exams for both C schools, including separate tests for two different faculties at one of them. These exams were held in Kyushu, even though the universities themselves are located elsewhere. (*Note that taking all these tests and interviews costs money. It is a revenue generator for thee universities.)

He passed all three (*the examinee numbers of the candidate are posted on the university website about 3 to 5 days post-test). This now meant choosing which one to accept. You have only about 7-10 days to send in a confirmation paper and make a small non-refundable down payment. My son chose the International Studies at one of the C schools. But wait...

He then found out from his HS home-room teacher that Prestigious University A was also offering some further, second stage, recommendation entries into their English studies faculty, based on the Center exam score and an extended English interview—but these were to be held (with only a small percentage of candidates succeeding again) after the closing date for papers and down payment had to be sent to university C.

So, we sent the papers and the $ to university C while still deciding to have him try for a last-ditch spot in Prestigious U. (yes, the travel expenses to attend these things do start to add up). Taking the Prestigious U’s final interview also meant he had to forego some scholarship applications for university C, which contained the caveat that the student must not be applying to any other university.

In the end...

My son didn’t make it into Prestigious U. (He wants to try again as a transfer student next year or, perhaps, the year after that). He entered university C, in the faculty of international studies. He was a bit downcast at first, not having hit the uni jackpot, but seems to have since adjusted well to his lot.

This long, arduous process took a bit of an emotional, as well as a financial, toll on both his mother and I. We were cheering with him in his efforts to go to his first choice school and keenly felt his sorrow when he missed. There was tension at times, but we all learned a lot in the process. I’ll be sure to utilize this experience when my daughter gets there in another twelve years.

Questions and comments regarding your own experience with your children in the Japanese entrance exam system are welcome.

I’ll be taking a break from posting entries on this website for awhile hereafter. Thanks to all readers and supporters who have followed the Uni-files thus far.

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February 12, 2014

Mike’s Handy Dandy Five-Step Guide to Fixing the Japanese English Education System

Unless you’ve been living in a Gaijin bar for the past few years it is hard to deny that the Japanese government has been intent on revitalizing public English education. Among the reforms we have seen introduced or proposed recently are:

- lowering the age of introduction of English into the formal education system
- requiring that classes be conducted only in English
- reforming the university entrance exam system so that the emphasis will now be placed more upon communicative proficiency (meaning-based proficiency, not conversation) and less upon memorization of discrete and decontextualized facts about the language.
- encouraging a wider variety of standards (read: more holistic) for entry into universities (not just composite test scores)
- providing for specialized English classes and schools that focus upon more interactive and cognitive functions using English (note- this most certainly does NOT mean practicing conversation!)
- increasing the number of assistant language teachers recruited from abroad

However, a quick online cruise through both a handful of English teacher blogs and online English media in Japan reveals to me that many practitioners connected to English language teaching, and foreign teachers in particular, seem to be unaware of these policy shifts. The criticisms and solutions routinely offered for Japan's alleged 'English problems' (see a representative sample here) seem to me to be well behind the wider English education discourse curve—it’s still stuck in the Juliana’s era of policy criticism. To be frank, a lot of the ‘solutions’ proffered also seem to me to be either glib pop, soundbites and/or maintain a grossly misinformed or unrealistic view of English education.

So, under the banner of glibness, I present to you today:

1. Stop propagating the false and unhelpful notion that ‘Japan’ has to learn English.

This popular fallacy is, if put into practice, a recipe for mediocrity. First, countries don’t learn English-- people do.
(I hope I’m not the only one who thinks that substituting ‘Japan’ for ‘each and every soul in Japan’ allows for specious, and often dubious, jumps in logic. If you count yourself among those who see think in terms of the unified, monolithic entity ‘Team Japan’ you should consider yourself in an intellectual bunkbed with the most virulent Nihonjin-ron spouting Japanese nationalists- May God have mercy on your soul).

Second, not everyone in Japan needs to learn English. The vast majority will never have reason to use it. Since both learners and Japanese teachers are very aware of this inescapable fact, as long as English is advertised as being a ‘necessity for your- Yes, yours, Taro and Hanako! —internationalization, teaching and learning will become an exercise in meaninglessness and drudgery. The lowest common denominator will be targeted in the name of universal and equal education. Spread wide, spread thin.

Why? Because the goal of international communication is so far removed from the average Japanese junior high school student’s list of perceived needs that the whole pretense of English's imminent instrumental importance is for them a transparent sham. This decreases interest in the language--heightening the belief that learning English is a matter of jumping through hoops-- and, worse, spreads more thinly the number of qualified teachers, watering down the quality of lessons, and lowers the bar for what can realistically be achieved.

Instead, the entire English education system in Japan should heed the call to...

2. Streamline! Streamline! Streamline!

Recent government proposals to implement specially designated schools for advanced and/or intensive English education are a good start. This had already existed to some degree with the SELHI (Super English Language High Schools) designations that have been around since the turn of the millennium but have been hampered by the cumbersome university entrance requirements (more on that later). English should be offered to those who want to learn it and be required only for those who need it.

Who needs it? I teach medical students-- they need it. Check the Required box. Izumi wants to become a pilot. Check. Takuma wants to be the go-to ‘global’ guy for his company. Check. Hiro thinks he'll stay in Niigata and work at his Dad's cake shop. Fine. But uncheck.

Of course, we often don’t know what our needs are at a young age. Such students could take an elective English course that will provide a foundation for future advancement in English skills, if someday they so choose to follow a serious English path (or another language, if they wish- and no, a late start is not an automatic impediment).

How about adult students who now need English but bypassed it earlier? Well, that’s what Eikaiwa schools and Community Center-sponsored English classes could deal with, not to mention what proficiency test prep classes (TOEIC, TOEFL) might offer.

JHS and HS English teachers would be more motivated with a streamlined English system because their students would be more motivated. Higher-level functions could be practiced with smaller classes. Content and methods would be more tailored to local needs with fewer teachers-- but those who teach would really know their stuff.

And speaking of qualified teachers...

3. Hire qualified teachers who can actually teach the language (not merely ‘native speakers’)

Let’s face facts, call a spade a spade, and get down to brass tacks. Being a native speaker of a language qualifies a person in precisely zero ways for teaching that language. I truly don’t understand the implicit, underlying belief that somehow listening to Johnny Anglophone will have some sort of osmosis effect upon students, as if hearing Johnny's ‘real’ English will magically manifest itself in student competency.

The average native speaker of English doesn’t know English any better than a five year old child playing in a playground knows the mechanics of running. Untrained, unqualified ‘teachers’ don’t know how to put a reasonable language teaching syllabus together, how to choose or pitch adequate content, they lack systematic and objective understanding of how languages work (no, that doesn’t just refer to a knowledge of grammatical minutiae), they don’t know how languages are typically acquired, or the cultural/environmental affective factors that may impede acquisition, and they often have no idea how to manage a Japanese school classroom. So let’s stop hiring such people with our tax money and school fees and hoisting them upon our children.
(I hope you know that the JET program was never considered for teaching purposes-- the stated ideal is for JETs to serve as something more akin to being mini-cultural ambassadors. How very Meiji period!)

Instead, hire qualified teachers who know how to teach, dammit! There are many experienced, qualified people in Japan scrambling for piecemeal work, while 22 year olds armed with nothing more than a BA in Psych from Some Western U. are imported from the great beyond at greater cost but with precious little return.

I don’t care if the qualified teachers are from Canada, Japan, or the Iraqi Marshlands. I don’t even care if their English doesn’t precisely conform to that found in style books or match Queen E’s clipped version (insistence upon conforming to 'correct' native standards is to fall into the abyss of hard prescriptivism and, more to the point, implies that Japanese students should be focusing upon achieving the level of instinctive grammatical correctness/awareness that native speakers have by intuition).

The above points may come across as a slight to JETs and some ALTs. It’s not (although I am pointing my finger at those without qualifications who feel that they should be given the responsibility of a full syllabus and lesson planning simply by virtue of the fact that they happened to be born in a certain country-- Don’t go near my kids flashing your English teaching creds, please!).

It is true that many former JETs and other ALT’s, recognizing their need to increase their qualifications, have gone on to eventually become excellent English teachers. But these are the people who need to be hired-- and duly valued and compensated-- in the first place!

4. Get English far away from the Center Shiken or any similarly unified national university entrance test

As I’ve said countless times elsewhere, the English portion of the Center Shiken is a well-designed test. Even exemplary, I'd say. Except for the minor intonation/stress section (too random and specific for my liking) I doubt I could make a better exam, given the severe constraints they have-- and testing is my thing, man!

The key word above is ‘constraints’. The problem is not the construct validity or inherent reliability of the test itself, but rather the fact that every Center Shiken candidate (usually 400,000 plus) is required to take it! This means that the test will always be focused upon receptive skills and be required to include ‘objective’ tasks-- so that the results can be considered uniformly fair, be machine readable within a week, and be used to bolster a nationwide ranking system. The very nature of the test means that English will be reduced to a shell of its real self.

English should appear on the entrance exams only at the individual university level-- as per the expressed purpose of that individual university or faculty. This would mean that examinees number in the hundreds, not the hundreds of thousands, and thus candidates could be asked to carry out productive and holistic tasks on the exam, further buttressed by essays or interviews, all allowing for a more well-rounded picture of Jane Jukensei. Now imagine, the washback effect that approach would have on high school English education!

To be honest, it baffles me that some universities still trot out a localized version of the Center Shiken as their second-stage English exam. I mean, what’s the point? They’ve already had those types of skills measured on the Center Shiken, so why repeat the process? Yes, I am here implying that universities should have people who know something about test design serve on the entrance exam committee, as opposed to old Prof. Teinen who gets a seat solely because he is a greybeard nenpai but actually knows diddly squat about testing.

5. Stop propagating the ‘Japanese need conversation skills/daily English’ trope without understanding what it really implies

This is where some corners of the foreign teaching community have to get their heads out of their collective assumptions. I’m talking about the false dilemma that pits the mechanical teaching of grammatical detail against ‘having conversations’ and thus reduces English education to a superficial methodological binary, a pedagogical either-or, when it comes to English teaching content.

First, while it may be convenient for rescuing your dear old Aunt Gladys when she gets lost in darkest Koenji while visiting you in Japan, the bald-faced fact is --cue repetition mode-- that most Japanese don’t need and don’t use English conversation in their daily lives. Junior high school and high school English should be academic. School-- compulsory education-- is, by definition, divorced from the street. Let’s stop pretending that our classrooms are supposed to be Maple Street, South Dakota. Having Japanese students in Morioka practice this stuff is about a relevant as a Kenyan colonial subject memorizing lists of British monarchs back in the thirties as the brunt of her 'history' lesson..

Academic English can be practical, whereas English conversation, for most Japanese, is not, I repeat not, practical. Please, let’s decouple the rhetorical train which assumes that English practicality is tied to the ability to converse in real time. Pssst buddy, you wanna know what’s really practical? At the early stages, building up a foundation in a second language so that you can read it comfortably and gain a feel for how it is put together to express meaning. Now that is practical.

Later, practicality would mean having business people learning English to be able to decode and compose correspondence adequately. Being able to give an English presentation or to understand another person’s presentation if you are a professional of some sort. Being able to expound a point logically in English to a non-Japanese audience if your office in life calls for it (and not merely to toe the government's implicit line that every Nippon-jin abroad should master English to serve as a national apologist-- explaining the 'Japanese' point of view to gaijin)

So how does conversation-- let's call them interactive skills please, it's much more befitting-- fit in here? Well, going back to Amy Chavez’ JT piece linked earlier, Japanese English learners need, for one, strategic competence-- the ability to manage breakdown and repair, to deal with vagueness and the inevitabe, ongoing negotiation of meaning that characterizes much non-native speech (which, as you know, constitutes most of the English that is spoken on this planet). Unfortunately, Ms. Chavez seems to have confused strategic competence with ‘critical thinking’, which itself becomes glossed over as 'speaking skills' in the subsequent commentary. Strategic competence is an interactive skill whose value goes well beyond manufactured conversation practice.

Getting past our cherished but outdated ideals

English education policy makers in Japan have been aware for years that there are problems inherent in the system and have been trying to act upon some of the better educational principles (the MEXT homepage for the rationale behind the guidelines says all the 'right' things), but sadly, certain corners in the foreign teaching community have long lagged behind in the dialogue.

Outdated ideals cherished by many in this community (ideals such as hiring more NSs simply because they are NSs and therefore can 'speak English correctly', the belief that ‘Japan’ must speak English, believing TOEFL to be a reasonable measure of proficiency for university entrance in Japan, the belief that practical English is reducible to average Japanese people learning how to converse, that starting English study earlier in life-- as opposed to learning it better-- will raise the national Eigo standard, or believing that English lessons should be taught completely in English-- hey, somebody just discovered the audio-lingual method!) have actually influenced government policy-- sometimes negatively.

Juliana’s is done and gone, folks. Let's get past it.

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December 17, 2013

EFL Teaching Crimes and Pedagogical Punishments

I hereby propose that the following fifteen categories of teaching violation attain the status of law among EFL teachers, with punishment, as decreed below, duly applied:

1. For holding a test in the final class session—with no opportunity for feedback to students.
Teacher’s salary and contract conditions to be held in secret without explanation until expiry-- and that to be done with a week’s notice*.
(*Yes-- I know that many teachers actually work under such conditions.)

2. For suggesting that university English programs should focus upon ‘daily conversation’.
Lifetime exposure, as a manager at a highly specialized professional firm, to university recruits who can flawlessly convey how they went ‘shopping for shoes in Shibuya last weekend’.

3. For encouraging high-school students to study grammatical minutiae more ‘because that’s what is needed to pass university entrance exams’.
Be required to take every national university entrance exam designed in the country over the past ten years utilizing only your knowledge of English grammar. Kudos if you manage to qualify for anything higher than, oh, a Dog Grooming Vocational School.

4. For asking general classroom questions such as ‘Has everyone remembered their textbook today?’ to a class consisting of more than ten students and actually expecting an answer.
Be seated in front of a national TV audience and asked repeatedly, “Have you stopped stalking underage celebrities?” until you can respond with a suitable yes or no answer.

5. For not informing EFL students as to exactly how many words or pages a written assignment consists of.
To be awoken every thirty minutes by an alarm that consists of an annoying twenty-something voice asking, “Are three A5 sheets enough for my Master’s thesis?”

6. For making bad jokes involving student names (*e.g. for Japanese speakers only* such as encouraging ‘Yukari’ to go ahead by saying, “Go Yukari, douzo.” Ta-tum!).
Be renamed Michael Guest and thereby be regularly exposed to hotel reception staff and immigration officials telling you, with great mirth, how you are a ‘Guest’ in our hotel/country. Nyuk nyuk.

7. For sitting with your butt on the top of a desk, ‘let’s chat’ style, while in class (East Asian ordinance).
Teach your entire next class wearing only a Speedo. Your students will consider it as an equally egregious breach of etiquette.

8. For searching for the single ‘best’ or ‘correct’ English teaching method.
To be given a Total Physical Response by being forced to wear an off-white Miami Vice-style leisure suit and be time transported back to 1984, because that’s where the perpetrator is apparently trapped, and then be given the Silent Method treatment by his or her peers.

9. For believing that your role in the local classroom is to enlighten students about their own country—under the presumption that the education system has hidden these truths from them.
A cross-Pacific flight (minimum 12 hours) seated next to an opinionated political know-it-all who thinks this is the best time to regale you with his ‘insider ‘knowledge’ of the secret world order. The one that you don’t know about because ‘it looks like they got to you’-- but hey, he’s on to them.
Return trip required if your original classroom spiel focused upon Global Warming.

10. For taking points off a student writing assignment for ‘each mistake made’.
A full year marking the safest, most boring, bland, least lexically and grammatically adventurous student-made texts known to mankind. Throw back a shot of tequila each time the sentence, ‘I keep a pet.’ appears.

11. For mischaracterizing your student’s simple question about how many paragraphs he/she should write as "an intense meta-discourse on the process of composition."
Required teaching of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow to a first year EFL class.

12. For assuming that students should be able to utilize a certain complex English skill proficiently because you ‘went over it in class’. Once.
Be forced to read the thirty-page thick ‘shiryo’ (meeting handouts) out loud at the Japanese faculty meeting because, after all, you studied from the book, ‘My First Two Hundred Kanji’. Once.

13. For making any student over the age of five sing, “Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes”.
Having to listen to any student over the age of five sing, “Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes.”

14. For making a lesson that consists largely of ‘teaching’ concrete words that any student could look up in a dictionary.
Spending an entire evening in conversation in your second-best language with a native speaker of that language, whose notion of conversation consists of pointing at mundane items and naming them.

15. For asking questions such as, “Do you like movies?” or, “Do you like music?” in the classroom, and believing that you are ‘teaching conversation’.
A complete and utter sudden loss of the ability to enjoy absolutely any movie or piece of music at all.

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November 04, 2013

International English norms and acceptability; What's the criteria?

Today I’d like to discuss about what’s normative and what isn't in the world of ELT. As we are going through the globalization perhaps we should alter our notions as to what is acceptable English. It will have much influence on how we teach.

Wait a sec. You got a problem with that paragraph above? “discuss about"? “going through the globalization" “what is acceptable English?” "much influence"?

Well, if you take issue with the above then I’m afraid you’ll have to step outside the classroom and go toe-to-toe with linguistic heavyweight Henry Widdowson, the pinnacle of pedagogical royalty, because he thinks they’re fine.

If a fellow Canuck had written that first paragraph, I would not consider that person to be very articulate, and possibly not too bright, period.

Ok. One has to admit that they do come off as particularly jarring when rendered as written text and perhaps doubly so when you realize that the writer is a native speaker. I admit that if a fellow Canuck had written that first paragraph, I would not consider that person to be very articulate, and possibly not too bright, period. So what’s Widdowson going on about?

At the recent AsiaTEFL conference in Manila, Widdowson argued that such utterances in speech are normative among non-native speakers of English, which as you probably know, actually make up the majority of English users worldwide.

This creates a dilemma for those who argue that descriptive grammar, and the resulting concern with what constitutes ‘normative’, trumps a more prescriptive view. Why? Because you would then have to allow constructions like ‘discuss about’ into the acceptable English canon. But why should we let this bedraggled foreign concoction through the clubhouse door?

Widdowson argues that such utterances are not wrong. This is not only because they hold ‘normative’ status in many ELF (English as a Lingua Franca- the English used by non-native speakers) corpora, but also because in no way do they impede the conveyance of meaning. Rather, he argues, these forms reflect a creative way of expanding the innate capacity of the English language.


This inevitably leads to a discussion about (see what I did there?) where lines are drawn, where acceptability reaches a limit. What criteria can be used to determine whether a non-native utterance is ‘utilizing a creative capacity’ as opposed to simply being a product of limited competence, first language interference, or out-and-out error?

An initial criterion might be, as Widdowson suggests, as to whether the utterance is an impediment to conveying meaning or not. But this alone is insufficient. The meaning of, “We go airport now. OK?” is very clear but I think very few people would fail to fix or address that in an English classroom. I don't think we'll be seeing 'Me love you long time' welcomed into the standard English lexicon anytime soon.

Let's look at some more subtle cases instead. A common construction used by Japanese English learners to check the nationality of foreigners is to ask, “Where did you come from?” (the past tense being a direct translation from the Japanese). Would you allow this? I wouldn’t. Why? Because the uptake is ambiguous.

Native speakers associate the past tense in this question as referring to recent past or “just now” (“Where did you come from? The parking lot!”) If referring to our home country, this construction violates the connotations inherent in the choice of verb tense. I can understand why many non-natives might say, “Where did you come from?” but it does lead to ambiguity and thus violates the meaning (or at least, uptake) criterion.

But how about, “I have much time next week so let’s meet then.” Widdowson is inclined to accept this. It certainly doesn’t violate grammatical rules regarding countables and uncountables, although it will definitely strike native speakers as odd. The question is, why?

Our instincts about what’s right and wrong tend to have two sources. One is our experiential awareness that they are not 'what we would say'. But this simply begs the bigger question as to why it isn’t normative. Is there any functional reason behind the habit or are we just slaves to meaningless form?

The other reason is that there may be some semantic property or pragmatic uptake associated with the item that is not being consummated.

So what about, “having much time”? I would argue that we associate ‘much’ with negatives (“don’t have much”) and comparatives (“much better than”), therefore using ‘much’ with (positive) time comes across to us as somewhat infelicitous. So, is it the NNS’ creative capacity that allows ‘much’ to be legitimately used in such cases (the meaning is certainly not compromised), or is it that the NNS is simply unaware of the word’s connotations and thus needs to be made aware?

Or what about that common NNS utterance: "I have to go back to home" (note, interestingly, that 'to my house' would be perfectly ok here) or "I have never been to abroad"? We know exactly what the speaker means, there is no ambiguity. But are there connotations inherent in using the locative 'to X' versus no 'to'?

This one is dicey. If most NSs can't identify the reason why we sense that 'to' is needed in some cases but not in others, it seems that "to home/to abroad" should be acceptable. But it is also arguable that the 'to' indicates a specific, objective location whereas 'home' and 'abroad' are general, even emotional, constructs. The connotations are distinct.

The notion of utilizing the language's creative capacity is of course common among native speakers too and is a key part of what has allowed our language to evolve. For example, no longer do users feel bound or burdened by old pronoun usage rules (I, me) that were based on Latin case grammar.

Or just look at the following:
"Two coffees here, please!"
"Wanna go out for a couple of beers tonight?"
Since coffee and beer are non-countables we occasionally teach students to make them countable by adding counter markers, such as 'cups' of coffee or 'bottles' of beer. But functionally, this seems to most NSs to be an unnecessary burden on the speaker, so in practice we usually ignore the rule because, even with the unloading of verbal baggage, the meaning has remained completely unchanged.

Likewise with the existential (and subject-verb agreement violating) usage of 'There is...': "There's about seven cars lined up in front of me". 'There is' has become accepted as an existential topic head, even with plural subjects, in naturally-occuring NS speech.

So, what is the upshot of all this for English teachers? I think we all want to be sensitive to the internationalization of English and most want to avoid using an imperialistic, prescriptivist mindset based upon Anglo-American codes as our sole determining template for international English acceptability. We also want to encourage a focus upon meaning among our learners and not hamper fluency by jamming in finger-pointing minutiae, particularly in real conversations or classroom fluency exercises. But at the same time, we should be wary of harming our learners by legitimizing utterances that ignore subtleties of uptake or other inherent connotations. The banner of 'creative capacity' must not be conflated with patronizing linguistic appeasement.

So, here's my criteria for acceptance:
1. It must be used across a number of different first-language zones (so we know that it simply isn't the product of L1 interference).
2. It must be used by fluent NNSs (or else it can simply be attributed to lack of competence).
3. It must not impede or alter meaning.
4. It must not compromise or ignore the connotations or uptake inherent in existing usage.
5. It should be a naturally-occuring speech form (as opposed to formal or written).

If you'd like to 'discuss about' this more, add your comment!

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September 30, 2013

Teacher Identity and Re-thinking the Idea of 'Teaching the Language'

I've noticed an enormous increase in the number of presentations and research papers in ELT focusing upon 'teacher identity' recently. To be frank, I find a lot of this enterprise dubious, the epitome of navel-gazing narcissism. It's particularly ironic that this research cottage industry flourishes in a world where 'teacher-centered' is the equivalent of a curse word. I mean, you won't see Nuclear Engineers writing papers and giving academic talks on how they, members of the nuclear physics community, have furthered their self-concepts and images as scientists. They research and write about science, dammit!

If we re-think our roles as teachers in terms of ultimately increasing productivity or effectiveness in our learners...then I'll entertain it.

Sure, there are Studs Terkel-like tomes observing the habits of working people in their particular communities, but these are invariably written from a detached sociological perspective, not as the spawn of community onanism. 'Student identity' research- yes, I can certainly digest that type of academic endeavor-- but you won't see me writing a manuscript on "The Self-Imaging Concept of 50-Year Old Male English Teachers Who Think They Still Look 'Sprightly' in Cargo Shorts" anytime soon.

But, ok, there is one aspect of the teacher identity mirror-gazing brigade that I can accept as legitimate. If we re-think our roles as teachers in terms of ultimately increasing productivity or effectiveness in our learners-- such that a Copernican shift in our 'teacher' mindsets causes us to revise a curriculum or fix a methodology-- then I'll entertain it. And so, in this light, I have a confession to make...

I've been teaching English for twenty-five years. And in all that time I can't say that I've ever really successfully taught one person English. Not. A. One.

Sure, the neighbours admire my kids' English skills and complement me on how well I have 'taught' them but both you and I, dear reader, know that I didn't really teach them. No more than their mother 'taught' them Japanese.

And sometimes, a particularly skilled student of mine engages with foreigners in English well and the foreign visitor compliments me on how well I've trained my charges. But I know that they are almost never 'good' due to my pedagogical input (nor are the 'bad' students poor for the same reason).

The fact is that most of my 'good' students inevitably come in to the university as 'good' English speakers. Many developed their English skills before by living abroad or spending substantial time outside Japan. Some come in with an intrinsic love for, and/or knack in, the subject. Some got it from simply hanging out with foreign friends or acquaintances in Japan.

And many choose self-study because they find languages intriguing or because they have always been aware that English skills will open a few more doors. In fact, while I don't know one Japanese student who mastered English solely through school lessons at any level, I know of many whose advancements came from self-study. Good, meaningful, proper self-study (more on that later).

Part of this is due to the fact that I work at a university, the tertiary level, so the foundations have already been set (and this is why making English look attractive from an early stage is essential). I am not set to be a lifelong teacher of the sort who might tutor musical prodigies. And the classes are generally large, required, officially administered, and contained within a once-a-week, fifteen-weeks-per-semester framework. It is not conducive to language teaching.

So-- and here's where the teacher identity theory kicks in-- maybe we should drop the notion that we are teaching English to university students. Give it up. It's a dead end street. It's an exercise in Sisyphean existential anguish. We are 'waiting for good-o' but he ain't visiting our classrooms.

A lot of non-teachers hold the false belief that university teachers must be of the best quality, feeding higher in the teacher pool, because we are teaching 'harder', 'more advanced' stuff (as if neurosurgeons must be better doctors than pediatricians because of what/who they treat) but the reality is that we are probably the least effective, the least influential teachers in the education system. At least, if we persist in trying to 'teach the language,' that is.

So, am I saying that my students have gained absolutely no benefits from my teaching, that it has all been a charade, a wasteful endeavor? No. Although I cringe at using New Agey words like 'enabling' and 'empowering', this is really the area into which my teaching identity has shifted. Let's look at what this implies, piece by piece:

1. That teachers should enable learner autonomy.

If most learners acquire languages largely through their own efforts, giving them the skills to do so-- showing them the most helpful corridors and passages-- should be a priority. Creating a classroom and related activities that foster autonomy is paramount.

2. That teachers should enable effective and productive self-study skills.

Many students view study as memorizing lists, slogging through textbooks, or dense professional-level texts where every unknown word is marked and looked up. Giving students helpful, productive, realistic, and meaningful study targets and hints on how to maximize efficiency will allow for real advancement. Just telling students to read English books or listen to DVD movies is not really helpful unless you offer up some strategies on how to manage this study method.

3. That teachers develop curricula, assignments, or individual lessons that cause students to reconsider what language involves.

As every schoolchild knows, most Japanese high school students believe that English is a combination of the mechanics of grammar and the slotting in of memorized vocabulary items into that formulaic framework. Most view the other side of the foreign language coin as 'conversation' and believe that what they are lacking is this 'conversation' ingredient.

It's actually far more complex and interesting than that. University is the time and place where students should come to understand that language involves management strategies (openings, closing, managing turns, register, dealing with breakdown, negotiating meanings), and the university teacher would do well to sensitize students to these elements-- that this may in fact be the missing fluency link.

Another feature university teachers can inculcate is an awareness of pragmatics. No, they don't need a formal linguistics primer, but they should develop some sense as to how expectations, uptake, and indirect forms make up a large percentage of discourse. (It's not so hard-- a three year old knows that if a caller says, "Is your Mommy home?" he/she calls for Mom rather than simply saying 'Yes' and standing there.)

Once students are liberated from the stifling grammar/vocabulary slot 'n filler schema and the false binary of grammar vs. conversation, some real skill development can start to take place.

4. That teachers be able to identify those areas and occasions in which chipping in, polishing, and refining are most beneficial and what the fix priorities are.

Rather than trying to teach or fix everything, guidance and repair should focus upon what is most necessary to complete the classroom task or carry out the activity. Preferably, this guidance should be transferable-- meaning that learners can apply the principle to other situations, to enhance the learner's existing language system. Allowing students to struggle and make errors by themselves and then offer a few select fixes to aid revision will allow for better internalization.

5. That teachers stimulate students at a cognitive, content level.

If the students aren't connecting the language to their major or something of intellectual value or interest, advancement will not be sustained. If, for example, prospective travel agents at a junior college see how the English language is actually working to achieve relevant, meaningful real-world travel ends there will be a corresponding positive cognitive jarring.

And the most interesting thing is that while none of these mean that you are teaching the students English, you'll certainly be helping them learn better. Maybe that's the teaching identity we should strive for.

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