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The Uni-Files

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

October 13, 2009

(1) Japanese English teacher stereotypes and (2) boring academic journal writing

1. What REALLY goes on in Japanese English teachers' classrooms?

Someone should do some fact-checking on whether Japanese English teachers really do teach largely grammar-translation classes, as per the popular NJ stereotype.

I ask this because I'm not so sure that we should believe the worst without reason. I sense that NJ teachers often spout the 'J teacher's teach grammar-transalation' line uncritically to uphold the rather smug (and often unfounded) belief that "we NJs" (apologies to Japanese readers but I think you know what I mean here) are invariably progressive teachers who have exciting, meaningful, and dynamic classes. On the other hand, the J teachers supposedly read the textbook and translate the English texts into grammar, putting everyone to sleep, and actually hindering the students' English ability in the process.

The truth is that I have never actually met a Japanese teacher who admits to teaching with a GT methodology. The vast majority that I've met certainly seem up to date in educational theory and practice and use what I would say, as a veteran teacher, are productive, progressive methods in the classroom. Of course, I tend to meet such teachers at conferences and training centers, so it is quite possible that the teachers who make the effort to come to conferences or training centers might be precisely the kind who tend to carry out more productive teaching methodologies in the first place.

But I've also watched several JHS sankanbi lessons (parent visitation days) and am familiar with some JHS and HS textbooks, none of which seem to focus nearly as much on discrete items or grammar or translation as most think.

Interestingly though, many J teachers I've met claim that while they don't personally teach that kind of content or use that kind of methodology, they believe that most others do. But if everyone is believing that it is only true of "others"...

Now, here's where it gets weird: If I ask my university students what kind of English they studied in high school with their J English teachers, almost all of them will say something along the lines of "discrete-item grammar translation". Fine. Except that many of them went to high schools where I know with certainty that old-fashioned methods are not used, and in some cases I even know the individual teachers involved- generally very progressive, inventive types.

So, I can't help but think that most students are not a reliable source on this. They BELIEVE their teachers taught them GT-styled 'preparation for uni entrance exams' English because they believe that's what is supposed to happen in a J English teacher's high school classroom. Pre-conceived notions are automatically fulfilled.

To wit- recently I asked several of my students what they were studying in my J colleagues' English classes. Now I happen to know that he is focusing upon discourse-based writing skills and developing their abilities in academic writing. Nevertheless, the students said that he taught them "grammar". There you go.

But of course the same type of uncritical prejudice may be applied to myself, as an NJ teacher. You see students are convinced, no matter what I actually do try to inculcate in my classes, that what I have REALLY taught them are "some new native-speaker words".
(I happen to know this because one program requires that students write up session reports after each class and I have to help fix them up, hence I see what they wrote regarding my own classes). So, even if I was actually teaching how to put medical data into a format in which doctors confirm or add data in collaboration with other doctors with a focus upon pathology, many students will remember primarily that I taught them: 1. "that the Japanese 'KY' can be expressed as 'X just doesn't get it' in English", because that item happened, by chance, to come up in that session, and 2) that I 'taught' them the words 'cirrhosis' and 'intubation'', although these were simply accidental items included among the data for carrying out the speaking task.

This reverse prejudice also seems to appear in many J teachers' and students' views of what NJ teachers are supposed to be doing in their high school classrooms. The stereotype here is that NJ teachers 'play games' and teach 'daily conversation'-. You know, Hello! How are you? English, regardless of what the NJs actually do (not that some don't just play games and teach 'Daily Conversation'). The unwarranted (and often self-serving) stereotypes cut both ways.

Anyway, it seems like refreshing, air clearing new research is in order to confirm or refute these stereotypes.

2. My problem with scholarly ELT Journals:

So, I've called for confirming research above but I do so with some trepidation.

I've written here and there on this topic before, but the reason why I feel uncomfortable with (many) academic ELT journals became clear to me while forcing myself through yet another such article (related to an upcoming presentation) the other day. Here's what I realized:

Articles in which there is too much quoting or too many references is BAD WRITING! It breaks the flow. It becomes, alternately, dense and jarring. It's thematically restrictive. It is rhetorical overkill. And most of all, it's boring. Having 80% of an article consisting of summarizing what previous researchers have said (and believe me they've said some quite contradictory things in our pseudo-scientific field) is simply a case of arguing that "somebody else said this so it must be true". Why write about what other people have said? It reeks of academic insecurity.

Yeah, yeah I know. It is expected that academics show that they have read the research, that they know the intellectual playing field, that they've done their homework. But why the apparent need to fill two-thirds of an article with this stuff?

Here's what I think. Many editors think they are dealing with papers from grad students- because that's what they actually do at their home universities. You know the situation- a thesis has to make clear what seminal works in the field the graduation candidate has read. So the candidate has to go out of his/her way to prove that they have read all the right stuff by dropping all the 'right' research names and dates all over the essay, like sparrow poop.

But we are not grad students anymore. Nor are the people who might read these journals reading them in order to grade or correct. So why demand (at least implicitly) that scholars write like grad students trying desperately to impress their thesis advisors? This has gotta change...

Editors work hard and perform a thankless service. But certain priorities and beliefs about academic and journal writing should be reconsidered.

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Hi Mike. Interesting entry. I agree with you about the need to clarify once and for all the methodology of J English teachers. Some questions might include: What is it that English classes are attempting to achieve? Are those objectives achieved? Are the objectives consistent with a basic level of output ability in the four skills? Without any research data, I feel that the results would yield a fair reading ability, almost no writing ability (beyond simple single sentences), some listening ability and very minimal speaking ability. At this point in time, the Ministry of Education seems to be demanding some translation ability (judging by the tests I see), some reading ability, some listening ability, no writing ability and minimal speaking ability. The disconnect is not so great. So then we're left with the question of the system and it's effectiveness in producing basic competency in English in the real world. I think we know the answer to that already. So we're back to square one. Just how do we evaluate the system? Is it fair to evaluate a system that might have flawed goals to begin with?

In regard to "scholarly" ELT journals, I strongly agree that most of the writing is terrible. Actually, this comment applies to many journals within the field of education. The academic culture is one in which a person is not respected if one communicates straightly without jargon. Many educators are guilty of creating specialized jargon to explain commonsensical notions. Once that jargon has become accepted, others repeat it, and when repeating it, one must cite the originator of that jargon or be accused of plagiarism.

I attended a writing workshop in America. The workshop leader passed out articles from a variety of journals and magazines to small groups of workshop attendees. We were asked to choose the pieces that were the clearest and those that were the most unreadable. The names of the journals and magazines were covered. We were unanimous in finding one particular article to be particularly difficult to comprehend as well as dull. The article was from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The attendees of the workshop were professional authors, public relations officers, company executives, and one teacher.

I am glad that you brought this matter up for discussion. For a long time, I have felt the same way. However, I must admit that I have written in the same vein when I was writing articles. Many teachers feel that they must write in this "scholarly" manner for their articles to be published and respected. I would love for a change in direction. Clarity and content are goals that are our profession should strive for.

As an ESL teacher in the Philippines and as an english teacher trainee here in Japan, I think the main focus of english language learning for Japanese is just to pass the university set exams, whether the JE teachers attend countless trainings, seminars or even lectures from Celce and Murcia themselves, they in practice will teach what is expected from them to provide simulation skills included in the university test. Inevitably, students suffer the most. They begin to hate the language because before they speak, before they communicate in english; their first exposure to the language is dull and wanting. Meaningful learning will never be achieved if the Japanese english class is soaked in grammar isolation practices. This goes against the grain, of course, but in language learning, one has to admit, and in any country, it has a political dimension built into it.

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