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The Uni-Files

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

August 07, 2010

EFL big shot critiques two presentations- Live from suburban Hanoi!

This dispatch comes from Hanoi (somehow the word 'dispatch' seems to collocate naturally with Hanoi- especially with words like 'shelled' and 'bunker'), where I am attending the AsiaTEFL conference and, having just concluded my presentation, am now free to run wild- at the computer.

The conference is taking place at a hotel complex that's a bit of a throwback to 80's Viet Nam or China- that Official Communist Party Guesthouse locale, a dated rabbit-warren of low-slung buildings of "Serve-The-People Residence Block 3" style architecture, surrounded by high cement and barbed-wire walls, dimly lit, and staffed by some grim-looking folks (unlike the very friendly conference minders and organizers). It's also a bit of a distance from the center of the old town so attendees stuck there seem to be getting a bit stir crazy, since there are virtually no attractions within walking distance (although you really wouldn't want to walk in the Hanoi summer humidity with what is probably the world's most intense, in-your-face, traffic).

Fortunately, I'm not staying at the conference venue but at a hotel closer to the city center- hence I can write this in comfort and ironic detachment. How sophomoric.

I always enjoy Asia TEFL because about 95% of the conference attendees are Asian, no surprise there, covering pretty much every country on the continent. On the first day however I attended only presentations made by Japanese EFL researchers, eager to see what they were up to. Two caught my eye in particular, both in a critical way, enough so to warrant blog commentary.

Now, I'm not going to use this blog to point fingers at specific people (unless they're REALLY asking for it) or denigrate other people's research, since the same charges could be levelled at me. So let me start with this caveat- the following presentations were well-delivered by pleasant and knowledgeable people with strong academic credentials. But each contained something unsettling that compels me to write...

The first was a presentation on using a manga about non-Japanese residents of Japan to sensitize Japanese students to ethnic diversity and NJ identity in Japan (the manga sample involved an ethnic Korean resident), the scenarios they face, their status, histories etc.

Since many Japanese may be unaware of NJs in their midst, or what limits in terms of rights, different standards etc. they may be facing, this issue is relevant and was handled sensitively- no bashing alleged of the 'the Japanese are xenophobes' variety, no overdramatizing the plight of the NJ, and, especially, less of an emphasis upon finding the 'cultural differences' than one usually encounters.

(Tangent- I was, however, taken aback by the presenters' final call to 'celebrate differences'- I say this because it is precisely this overemphasizing of differences that leads to otherizing and any resultant notion that NJs can't really be culturally Japanese or just can't/don't fit in. Since the whole point of using this manga as educational tool was to emphasize the common humanity of the characters, who the Japanese had assumed to be fully Japanese, the sudden intrusion of the 'let's understand the differences' mantra seemed to take the wind out of the rhetorical sails).

More dubious though was a preamble about racial majority 'privileged groups' who set the societal 'norms' and thereby see themselves as 'superior' but thus 'don't recognize the plights of minorities' and 'are in denial' even if they claim not to hold such attitudes (claiming that others are in denial when they do not confirm your beliefs is of course a sloppy and fallacious argument). And, yes, this initial example served up that predictable old target: White Americans.

Now here's the rub- you are giving a presentation on trying to remove ethnic/racial discrimination and prejudices from young students and what do you do? You proceed to make blanket statements about how a whole race apparently thinks! Talk about pulling the carpet of credibility from under your own feet. And yes, as a North American white guy I did feel uncomfortable listening to people tell me about what I apparently must believe because of my skin colour.
(Tangent- I've been told how white people like me think we are superior and look down on others numerous times in Japan. I always complement such people for knowing- and subsequently telling me- what I apparently think about other ethnicities based only upon seeing my degree of skin pigmentation. I might also add a little bit about how their view was actually the norm a few generations back but that anybody who has an education, or lives within any interactive social milieu of sorts in N. America is likely to have had such views confronted from day one. And oh yes, I do realize that I have been privileged. I got through Sociology 101, thank you very much).

Now, to be fair, the presenter (again, who was Japanese) DID apply these same claims to the Japanese ethnic majority with regard to minorities in Japan- that most Japanese were in denial about it, but felt superior and so were unmoved by the sufferings of others, ignorant of diversity, etc..

So, at the end of the presentation I asked her outright (privately- and in a fairly congenial way I might add) if she would feel superior to me if we were both in Japan. She knew where I was going with this (I think) and duly dodged the question- not waning to apply her generalization to herself. But I pressed on with the argument that labeling entire races/ethnicities of people as having superiority complexes or of being ignorant of others was not a viable way to confront discrimination and racial-ethnic ignorance.

She also dodged my next (and yes, loaded) question about whether she thought that I, personally, being of pale skin and all, probably believed that I am superior to non-white people. After all, according to content of her presentation, I probably should. Of course, SHE didn't feel that way about NJs in Japan herself and implied that she believed that I would not feel that way about non-whites by saying that 'although not everyone feels that way many are still in denial', but then why use the 'present company excepted' escape clause after you've just indicted an entire race?

Go figure.

The next presentation was very different in tone and scope, focusing upon Japanese student turn-taking difficulties in English. The research locus (and the research data was very professionally compiled) was that of a Native English speaker (NES) chatting with three different small groups of Japanese students in Japan, and subsequently having the researcher analyzing the turn-taking mechanics of the conversations.

The native English speaker was asked his impression of the quality of each discussion (good, bad, or so so) and his evaluations were correlated with the number and type of turn-taking mechanisms used by both Js and NES parties in the discussions. As you can probably guess, most of the turn-taking signals and acts were initiated by the NES and, what's more, the fewer the Japanese initiated or signaled a response to a turn, the worse he rated that conversation. (You know the scenario- you have to do all the topic selection, ask all the questions, do all the repair and backchannelling while students simply nod or make mundane textbook-like sentences in response).

So far, so good, right?

It was the conclusion that was worrying. The researcher concluded that because English and Japanese turn-taking styles and conversation management are so different it leads to communication problems. Therefore, Japanese students should be taught English turn-taking mechanisms and strategies.

Still seems reasonable? OK- I should add that the researcher's view of J conversation management is that it is not a Japanese cultural convention to topic-select, interject, and backchannel but apparently to patiently wait until a turn has finished before venturing a support statement. Yeah. Right. This will come as news to anyone who has seen a Japanese variety TV show, drank with Japanese in an izakaya, or- hey- has seen any group of Japanese friends simply hang out together.

The reasons that the conversations between the NES and the Js was stilted seem obvious to me. For one thing they were staged, and thus seeing them as formalized, the Js did not follow normal discourse patterns- that is normal JAPANESE discourse patterns such as: topic self-selection, backchanneling... and so on down the list. It seems pretty obvious to me that there was a power dimension at play, that the NES was seen as a type of authority figure. So the responses (or lack thereof) from the Js was not a cultural factor but one of perceived power relations. They would react similarly to a Japanese person perceived to have power or authority. They were clearly not acting as Japanese people managing a conversation, but as Japanese talking in a formalized situation with a supposed authority figure.

So, what they needed to do in order to make the conversation flow better was NOT learn so-called English turn-taking mechanisms and strategies but to use JAPANESE norms and strategies, such as support statements, repair, backchanneling, topic-selection- you know, stuff that humans, not specific cultural groups usually do, in informal situations.

Why bring in the canard of 'different cultural norms' as the explanatory factor for everything? We're not all that different!

And, yes, I did raise this point (again in a congenial manner) in the follow-up Q&A sessions. The presenter seemed rather surprised and I didn't want to put her on the spot but my comment did draw a strong and supportive response from other audience members (some of whom disliked the presenter's implicit notion that it was incumbent upon the J students to learn alleged English cultural standards when conversing with NES's in Japan).

At least these presentations stirred me up. Made me think. I suppose this is why I'm here. And I can't help but wonder if anyone was thinking similarly critical thoughts about my presentation...

(Tangential ego-inflating section:
I was in the line for visas at Hanoi Airport when the guy behind me (to be fair I initiated by asking him something about visa formalities) said, "You're Mike Guest, aren't you?". "Umm, yes, how did you know?". "Oh- you're world famous (?!)". Although he was obviously exaggerating, this caused the other people in line to turn around, eager to see the world-renowned celebrity in their midst. They saw me instead.

At another recent conference, where I was asked to do a keynote speech, I overheard one attendee say to a staff helper in reference to my good self, "That's the famous guy". I hope he was being ironic because I'm not exactly fighting the fame groupies off.

At this conference too, I've had a few people say, "Oh so YOU'RE Mike Guest!" (which I can never, nor am I intended to I suppose, accurately interpret as either, "You're my EFL hero! Let's make children together!" or as, "Why does the Daily Yomiuri let unqualified, self-absorbed and height-challenged people like yourself write such crap?"). The world of EFL is so insignificant that it's a bit unsettling and awkward to have people treat you- even for a fleeting moment- as though you are anything more than what you really are, that is, a mere English teacher. Thinking that you're a big shot in the world of EFL is like boasting that you have the best outhouse in the Ozarks...

But, hey, since I'm now in the downside of my life span, if people want to say "Hey I really liked your presentation" or "I'm glad you wrote what you wrote" then I guess I'm happy, I'll take it. Being a mere English teacher you'll take whatever recognition you can get.

« A very brief blueprint for Japanese university English programs | Main | I never meta-cognitive skill I didn't like- and explaining Monkasho primary school policy: More reactions and responses from Hanoi »


Did you stay around for the closing ceremony on Sunday? That was weird. The megalomanic Prof. Lee claimed to have been visited by the ghost of Ho Chi Minh in his dreams, who ordered him to create a new 'Asian' English test to replace the TOEIC. He also pledged to replace all the Western Plenary speakers with Asian faces at next year's Asia TEFL in Seoul. On top of that, he pledged to fight to make 'we Asian people' the 'rule-makers, not the rule-takers' of the Global ELT industry. Asia TEFL is certainly not your typical ELT association... the way, it was only a 15 minute walk into town from the venue. About 200 yen in a taxi.

Actually, I didn't stay until the end. Hmmm. At least that sounds more -ahem- stimulating than what usually constitutes a closing speech.

But, yeah, who needs the bravado and divisiveness? Doubly so when the constantly reinforced theme at such conferences is "English is owned by the world". The "we X's" motif always appears to me as an admission of weakness, a small cat arching it's back at perceived enemies (such as someone innocently walking by) precisely because it is small and easily frightened.

I wonder how other Asian attendees felt about Lee's comments.

BTW- 15 minutes' walk to downtown? It depends how you define 'downtown' I suppose. My hotel was (more or less) between the venue and the old city and it took me at least 25 sweaty minutes to get anywhere near the lake at the center on foot. Of course if the sidewalks were clear of motorbikes, vendors, and entire neighbourhoods having a chat on plastic stools it might be doable but...
hey, that's local colour.

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