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The Uni-Files

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

May 15, 2009

Language Yaritori + 6 Frustrating Student Behaviors

First up today:
Language yaritori (give and take)

I suppose this qualifies as a rant- one directed at those who think that because I am officially in the same position as Japanese instructors at my university, I should do exactly the same work as a Japanese person.

At first it sounds reasonable, right? After all, since my position is not one founded on some kind of citizenship-based discrimination, such as being a designated ‘foreign’ teacher, I should perform the same duties as a Japanese. Equality is equality, right? But there’s a catch. Effort-wise it will take me at least three times as long as any Japanese person to read and/or fill in the various documents and other administrative paraphernelia that comes my way. So doing the same work as a Japanese person will require an unequal amount of effort from me. In effect, by trying to be equal it becomes effectively unequal.

Likewise, those many Japanese, both university faculty and staff, who have to deal with communication in English for whatever reasons (international exchange, business, research, lesson materials etc.) will take far, far longer to carry out those duties in English, than it does for me. It’s not equal. The effort will not be equal- so the actual contents of the job, and resultant expectations regarding language usage and skills, should not be the same.

Now, you might expect that since I’m living in Japan- and have been for almost twenty years- that working in Japanese should be second nature for me. And, as far as verbal communication goes, I’m pretty capable and comfortable. Cultural protocols are also fine with me. But reading, writing, and the capacity for all levels of interaction in the language? Whoa! Wait a second! I was not a Japanese major in university. I did not study Japanese in any way before coming to Japan. My job is not about teaching in Japanese- I am expected to teach in English. I have no natural or professional training preparing me for a fully 'Japanese role' and nor was I expected to have any when I was hired. I wasn’t hired as an administrator. It is natural that I can’t read, write or process Japanese (especially given the highly bureaucratic, academic, and dense Japanese used in administrative and managerial contexts) in the same way a Japanese person can. There was no Japanese anywhere in my life or surrounding environment until age 30- which can't be said for any Japanese person regarding English. So cut me some slack.

I cut Japanese colleagues slack as far as English goes. I COULD say that since Mr. X is an English professor he should be competent enough in English to require no help with developing educational materials, and that his English research should need no checking or revision, and that I would not be needed when there is some communication breakdown between him/her and folks abroad. After all, Mr. X was an English major, and that means- unlike myself- he has had concentrated study- direct, intensive training- in that ‘other’ language, and was actually hired to teach that subject as a qualified expert, a professional. None of this can be claimed regarding me and Japanese. But, hey, the reality is that they are not native English speakers and as such, and being separated from the English-speaking world on a day-to-day basis, I don’t expect native-level performance from them. So, I cut them some slack and help them with English where and when that help is needed. Even though THEIR job descriptions (and this goes for people in international affairs sections and related roles too) might assume that they should be completely functional in English, the reality is otherwise. And that’s fair enough- it’s just good common sense

So, that same principal that should be applied to me and the Japanese language. If people really expect me to operate at the same level of a Japanese person, logically, I would need at least a couple of years’ sabbatical from my regular work to fully concentrate on Kanji study. But it’s not going to happen. Just like in order to be absolutely and fully functional in English, all English-faculty and international affairs-related Japanese staff should regularly spend extensive and intensive time in English-speaking areas. But it's very hard to do so. Instead, we should give and take on the language issue and help each other out, regardless of our job descriptions.

So, on a committee where an English native-speaker’s touch is essential I would be happy to take a leading role. And on a committee which deals largely in Japanese esoterica, I will sit in the background more passively. When I am asked by some administrator to produce a lengthy Japanese report regarding my research trip, I will do the bare bones but I expect a Japanese person to help polish it, even though technically I am in an –ahem- ‘Japanese position’ and required to carry out this duty. But, when a Japanese professor of English has to write a research paper, or the Kokusai Koryuu (international exchange) chief has to make up an English document, they will come to me for more precise wording and an overall check, even though it technically falls under their own job descriptions.

It’s just common sense. It’s give and take and it’s best for all involved. Tell me that I should do exactly what a Japanese does, sink or swim, because of my ‘Japanese’ position and then I should duly refuse all those requests for helping Japanese faculty and staff with English because, hey, "that’s not what ‘Japanese’ do". Cut me some slack with the expectations about using Japanese and I’ll be happy to be a resource for aid in English. This sword cuts both ways.

Second up today-
Frustrating student behaviors part...?

1. The “Eh?” hiccup virus-
The students are in groups doing a communicative English task that involves some kind of question and response. Student A says something that student B doesn’t quite catch. Student B looks a bit panicky and says “Eh?”. To which student A replies, “Eh?”. After which student B turns to student C, next to him/herself, and says “Eh?”.
As if it is forbidden to say, “Sorry. I didn’t understand”.

2. The whiteboard trumps all part 1
You’ve got students focused on a task, in pairs, deeply involved. So you make a few notes on the board, maybe instructions for the next activity, maybe a language note to be explained later, hey- it could be your planned lunch menu, whatever. Suddenly, when you stop writing, you notice that all the students are looking at what you’ve written on the board and are either copying it down or are scratching their heads trying to fit it into the task they’re supposed to be doing.

3. The whiteboard trumps all part 2
You start off with a topic-based free talk in English. On the board you’ve written- “Your medical experiences. Have you ever been injured, hospitalized or very sick? Where? When? What happened? Tell your partner about it”. You tell your own story for a few minutes as a sample, make partners and then tell students to go ahead and free talk. And then you hear one student turn to his/her partner saying: “Your medical experiences. Have you ever been injured, hospitalized or very sick? Where? When? What happened?

4. The dictionary trumps all- especially you, Mr. Native Speaker part 1
You tell students that a certain English word does not always mean X, that in this case it actually means something rather different. For example, that Japanese “byoki” is not always “disease”, that “your condition” is often a better way to talk to a patient. So some student looks in his/her dictionary and tells you, “No. The dictionary says that ‘byoki’ equals ‘disease’”.

5. The dictionary trumps all- especially you, Mr. Native Speaker part 2
A new word or phrase comes up in class, let’s say it’s “preventative measures”. You explain the phrase, saying “things you do to prevent, or stop something from happening”. You give an example like, “It’s what Japanese officials are doing at airports to contain the H1N1 virus- checking all passengers from North America before they are allowed to leave”. You note for them the very revealing context in which the phrase arose in the class in the first place.
And after all this explaining, students just open their dictionaries and jot down the matching Japanese headword anyway.

6. The devil-word-you-know trumps the newbie
A student uses an inappropriate word while doing a speaking task, for example, “The virus is not so strong”. As a teacher you suggest “mild”. The student writes it down, thanks you and, as you walk away, you hear them say, “Because it’s a not so strong virus”.

Any others?

« Two rants for the price of reading one blog entry: Global Warming overkill, and positive learning ideas for new university students | Main | Japanese university students and groupwork/homework »


Mike. I love the rants! I actually chuckled as I read. With a bit of rejigging, these pieces would be downright comical.
Seriously though, anyone reading this site can relate. I enjoy the medical slant to your explanations as that is a completely foreign world to me.

There's a telling phrase at the heart of your job rant, Mike: invidious comparisons. I'm sure you and I aren't the only ones who have suffered from them, especially in the last decade or so.

There were some schools which even two decades ago required their NJ full-time profs to attend Japanese language courses (paid for by the the uni) but they were the exception. Mine didn't, in fact made it explicit the job didn't require Japanese language skills. It didn't take long, however, before the green devil of envy raised its poisonous head and talk began of "load sharing." It has now reached the supremely ridiculous point where we NJ, non-Japanese speaking staff are forced to attend lengthy faculty meetings, it being known full well we can understand only about one word: :"ijo."

When I pointed all this out to our department head, including that I wasn't hired for any Japanese ability, he came back with the lame "times change." I know I won't say because it would just aggravate the situation, but I'm sorely tempted to say the same thing next time he comes to my office with one of his regular requests for help with English.

Well, since you brought it up, that's my little addendum to your rant ;)

Although it's only a few teachers who play the "Whassa matter, can't keep up with the big boys?" language card it's still galling as I've made a pretty reasonable effort to master Japanese and can generally manage the language except in those most obtuse situations (such as convoluted 20 page 'shiryo' that some Japanese can't even understand). It's also ironic, since it can still be pretty common to get the very opposite "Nihongo o-jozu desu ne!" response for the most banal utterance out in regular society (although that old standard seems to be decreasing these days).

Just for the record here's a comparative scorecard of expectations:
Japanese English professor or teaching professional-
1. Formal study of this L2 (E) in high school (YES)
2. Familiarity with this L2 in general home environment (qualified yes)
3. Specialized study- even at graduate level- in university (YES)
4. Job revolves fundamentally around teaching L2 (YES)
5. Professional relationships involving L2 specialists (YES).
6. Use in workplace outside of teaching (very limited)

NJ University Teacher-
1. Formal study of this L2 in high school (BIG FAT NO)
2. Familiarity with this L2 in general environment (BIG FAT NO)
3. Specialized study of this L2 in university (BIG FAT NO)
4. Job revolves fundamentally around teaching L2 (NO)
5. Professional relationships involving L2 (J) specialists (only marginally).
6. Use in workplace, non-teaching (YES)


I'm sure you've noticed, Mike, how logic and evidence hit a brick wall when faced with dogmatic preconception. It performs in an Orwellian double plus ungood kind of way, war is peace, black is white, and the situation becomes so bleakly absurd one walks away... or brings a book to the faculty meetings, like many J instructors themselves do.

I could go on at length for the reasons for this state of affairs but it's your blog, not mine, and anyway I'd probably be just preaching to the choir, not that there's much of an audience apparently.

In the case of your particular gripe, Mike, the filling in of "kore wa nazo desu" forms, I'd recommend a passive-aggressive approach. Leave the totally enigmatic stuff blank and sooner or later somebody will come around and help fill it in for you.

A few years back we had a J associate professor who refused to publish for so long he couldn't be promoted to full professor in spite of his seniority. He was becoming an embarrassment to the rest of the J staff so three of them got together, wrote a puff-piece article for the local non-refereed journal, added his name to it, and voila, he became a full prof.

Mochiron, you're mileage may vary, but if they like you it's amazing what rules/requirements suddenly fly out the window. The converse is of course equally true. true, how true.

The whole dictionary business got to be more than I could stand a long time ago, so my students are forbidden to use them in class. I keep the target language and new vocab easy and achievable so that we can deal with each word one-at-a-time when they come up. I teach communication-based English classes, so we work on skills related to figuring out what new words mean (listen up, ask the teacher, etc.) or how to say something you don't know in English (describe it, gesture, give examples, draw a picture, etc.).

This is nice for in-class stuff, but of course it does not really help them to learn how to use a dictionary properly. That's a whole other story--something that I wish the Japanese teachers of English would cover since it's complicated and easier done in Japanese. But I fear that very, very few students know how to make the most of their dictionary.

Thumbs up to the column and something here to add to the rants:

Beyond the usual places in the classroom filled with utterances in Japanese that Mike's already covered is the Japanese I see in homework handed in to me.

Why do students, who have already had English, English, and more English before they get to my classes in college, write their names in kanji on their homework? And beyond that, they even write MY name in Japanese! (Yes, they do have full access to how to write my name in English.) Japanese is not only there, but scattered around the paper. Well, I mark it so they'll notice and it usually goes away after the first few assignments, but I still find it astonishing.

And it seems to me that things like formatting would be covered in all the years of English education that are rumored to be reading- and writing-based. But nearly all of my students need to be taught some very basic writing things, like capitalization (I'm talking basic here--like in the student's name and the first letter of a sentence) and indenting paragraphs. But they especially need help when using a computer, like how to use a word processor (a significant number can't even use one in Japanese) or sometimes how to type, and all kinds of formatting like typing in English input (not alphanumeric Japanese), using a font designed for English (not MS Mincho), spacing, margins, and justification issues, having the grammar and spell-check on and set to English (and using it), and so on.

Some might say these are minor issues, but 1) they're pretty easy to learn if you have a reference guide (I give students a simple one) and 2) if they're ignored, even well-written prose can look silly.

Hi Tristan. Thanks for dropping by.

It's certainly true that using dictionaries needs more coverage in EFL. Most students have the habit of simply translating the headword, regardless of context, actual word form, or most infuriatingly, what the teacher has just said about 'this particular case'.

Dictionaries are great tools if students get beyond just glancing at headwords and leaving it at that. it should be an integral part of any EAP (English for academic purposes) component.

Hi Tristan. I'd argue that structure, or formatting as you put it, is one of the biggest favors we give our students. As little children need structure in their development, so do language learners. Paragraphing is how we do it. Recently, we've been able to get the Japanese teachers on board with this at the C1 level and it's having a remarkably positive effect on the output; better grammar, longer sentences, use of transitions, etc. I think there is a fundamental lack of respect among Japanese teachers and students for formatting and it's necessity. I remedy this in one 5 minute demonstration in which I draw with chalk a large piece of Japanese writing paper with the boxes on the board. I then ask where I should start a Japanese essay. When a student volunteers to show me the indenting process in Japanese writing, I then say I don't like that particular box to start my Japanese essay and proceed to start somewhere else. Then I ask if this is OK. Of course, they say no. I then ask why would anything else than an appropriate indentation in English writing be acceptable. The light goes on instantly.

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