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The Uni-Files

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

March 10, 2011

Eikaiwa at 40? In a university?! Something's wrong

I had just returned from a conference in Thailand and it must have showed (A faint whiff of Tom Yam on the breath? The debauched morning-after hairstyle? Overnight flight red-eye syndrome?) because when I met the gregarious and unusually extroverted Dr. K in the atrium on the way to my office he sensed something.

"Guest sensei, where are you coming back from?"
"Oh, I just got back from a conference in Thailand"
"A conference? What for?"
"For English teachers"

This revelation seemed to jar K a little. "So you have conferences where you learn about how to teach English conversation?".

Now it was my turn to feel jarred. Or rather, a little miffed. "Well, not really about learning how to teach, not training, and certainly not 'English conversation'. It's like a medical conference- people present their research, hold symposiums on pedagogical theory and practice, that type of thing. From the very theoretical to the concrete, across the field of applied linguistics in general".

He seemed a little perplexed by this. "I didn't know they had conferences for English conversation".

Now, I was this guy messing with me?

"Not English conversation," I repeated, "Applied linguistics. Actually, I gave a presentation myself".

"Oh! You presented what you do in your English conversation classes?"

Take this moment, dear reader, to bang your head on your keyboard in sympathy.

'Yeah,' I wanted to say. 'I told the audience how I sing Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes in my university medical English classes. And that I had the entire audience at this conference sing it along with me. That's what I mean by applied linguistics'. Instead, I started to make shuffling movements towards my office. "Linguistics and education," I said again and went on my way, no doubt leaving Dr. K to wonder how linguistics and educational theory were connected to teaching students to say, "How are you?".

I envision a future in which people disabuse themselves of the notion that English teaching in Japan, particularly English teaching by native speakers, equals Eikaiwa. But we're not nearly there yet. Maybe we only have ourselves to blame. The functional apartheid, in which it is believed that natives 'do the conversational stuff' while Japanese English teachers 'do the grammatical stuff,' is unfair and stigmatizing to both parties. And yet many Japanese and non-Japanese teachers alike seem to maintain this debilitating division, usually at the expense of sound pedagogy.

The reality is that English conversation has no place in a university, and, as I have argued frequently in the past, can't really be 'taught' anymore than you can teach someone how to 'have conversations' in their mother tongue (ok, charm schools and My Fair Lady scenarios excepted). I know that some EFL learners do want to chat, use their English to avoid it getting rusty or test themselves to see how they measure up 'in action'. That's natural, but that's not teaching. You can't do it in large groups, it hardly represents the notion of a 'course', and it goes against pretty much every idea of what universities exist for.

Let me dwell on that last point for a moment longer. A university, can we all agree, should be a place for engaging cognition and deepening understanding- thus there must be an academic dimension. It is not a place for 'fun' classes or settings where students chat with the foreign teacher. Rather, it is a place for stimulating classes where students increase both their understanding and abilities through meeting challenges worthy of the highest level of public education.

Now, some of my classes (but only some) are called 'Communication English', it's true. And in these classes I allow for more open-ended dialogues and interactions in English. One common feature in these classes is a lesson-opening free conversation on a topic that will dovetail with the main thrust of the day's lesson or activity. So, yes, there are some moments that might resemble an 'English conversation' class.

But, as I tell my students, you will not learn anything from having English conversations unless you use it as a diagnostic tool. What did you manage to communicate effectively? What could you handle well in your conversation? That should be reinforced. What could you not express? What items or patterns eluded you? That's precisely what you should study. Learn from the conversation. Learn from having tested yourself. Any conversation should serve a diagnostic function. It is a mantra I repeat all year long.

But after that opener, I'm sorry, I never, never, never 'do English conversation'. We communicate specialized content in English. We utilize English skills that allow us to express complex thoughts or complete certain processes (almost always connected to medicine). But we don't have conversations and I most certainly don't teach my students to (even though some will nonetheless later recount that 'Mike taught me English conversation').

Neither should you. And yes, here's where I'm going to get all dogmatic and preachy. There should be a stigma attached to teaching English conversation, especially if (like this guy from Little in Japan ) you find yourself doing anything remotely like it after age 40.

It's not because university teachers are or should be more dignified, highly regarded, or qualified than say, those who teach children. Not only do some people want to, and love, teaching children but there are people in that field who have more savvy, knowledge, ability, or experience in their chosen realm of education than many who teach in universities. The notion that university teachers are the truly qualified teachers and those who teach kids are merely unqualified vagrants is nonsense. I know of some children's English teachers who are a lot more successful, knowledgeable, and highly-regarded as teachers despite having no university education whatsoever than many with tenured university positions. These are people who use common sense, their instinctive teaching abilities, and apply their own vast experience to succeed. But the most interesting common denominator among them is that they don't teach English conversation.

I can understand the appeal of playing the chatting foreigner for those who are not planning to spend much time in Japan and have no intention of building a career in the field. In other words, Eikaiwa can serve a limited function for those in their twenties and, maybe, into their thirties getting some J experience. But after that? There's something wrong. And the stigma attached to it becomes justified. You know, the same stigma that is attached to calling yourself a poet-philosopher or model-actress. At age 40.

How so? Let's think of two scenarios.

First, if you have a reasonable formal education related to applied linguistics and thus have managed to place your foot in the door of tertiary education (and let's face it, most of us university folk have 'reasonable'- not outstanding- levels of formal education; there's something innately suspicious about someone coming from Oxbridge or the Ivy League to teach in Japan uninvited, seeking work of their own accord) English conversation doesn't belong on your pedagogical menu for the reasons I mentioned earlier about the role and function of a university. Please don't tar those of us who use communicative methods to teach meaningful content in an academically-challenging manner with the eikaiwa brush. Even if your university overseers call your classes something like 'English conversation' or 'Oral English' do not, for the sake of yourself, your fellow teachers, and your students, utilize an Eikaiwa pedagogy (which I would say is an oxymoron anyway).

The other scenario is where you may not have a graduate degree or specialized training in the field. So your employment prospects may be more limited. Fine. But that doesn't mean you have to limit yourself to Eikaiwa- and you shouldn't.

Biology seems to predispose anyone who is over 40 and not feeling in control of their lives and their work to a particularly pronounced midlife crisis. The prevailing culture can make this even more grueling for males. A sense of self-control, of empowerment, of maintaining dignity can be gained by taking the bull by the horns.

By age 40 you should be designing your own syllabi and curricula, not kowtowing to someone else's demand that you sing "Head and Shoulders". If no one asks you to design these because your not 'the boss', do it anyway. Take charge of the content and methods as much as you can while you are in the classroom. It's your time. You should also be making lasting sets of materials that work, based on your years of classroom experience. While these may employ snippets of conversational activities, they will not- should not- be Eikaiwa. If you can't gain even this much freedom from your employer, well this is when you should start thinking about creating your own school- and yes, school owner or businessperson certainly comes across much better at social functions than Eikaiwa teacher does.

OK. I don't presume or even want to speak as your 'life guide' but I do think I'm telling you what we all instinctively know about the Eikaiwa stigma. You can escape it by refusing to indulge it. In fact, if you hold any pretense of being a real educator, it is demanded that you do! I don't want to get pretentious about our roles in the lives of our youthful charges, conjuring up grandiloquent aphorisms about the paramount importance of our elevated status as sensei. But, on the other hand, who wants to indulge Dr. K's world view?

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Good piece, Mike. However, in some places you yourself seem to conflate communicative as an approach, with conversational as a--well, as a lack of an approach. For example, in your second-to-last paragraph you wrote, "While these may employ snippets of communicative activity, they will not- should not- be Eikaiwa."

I'm sure you aren't suggesting that communicative activities don't belong in English language classes. Rather, a bit ironically, it strikes me as an example of the line we ("Oral Communication" teachers) sometimes accidentally cross over ourselves in our rush to distance what we do from what we're thought of as doing. An academic Freudian slip, so to speak, from years of defending ourselves against the Dr. K's of the world.

So, while I agree 100% with you that we should take these silly and persistent notions of "teaching conversation" to task, we also need to remain aware that "communicative" is not in fact a dirty word. Making ELT more respectable doesn't mean we must deny that communicative language practice is always going to be an important component of a solid curriculum.


PS: I especially liked your point that conversations should be considered diagnostic tools. That's a really inspired way of framing it for med students!

Hi Marcos.

Believe me, any conflation of communicative approaches with conversation or Eikaiwa is unintended and due to my sloppiness rarther than ideology. Communicative is, of course, any approach that focuses primarily upon meaning- thus CBL (content based learning) or ESP (English for Specific Purposes) are both generally 'communicative'- and I certainly advocate these approaches at the university level at the minimum. And communicative need not even be speech-based.

On the other hand, conversation' or Eikaiwa is well... just that. In fact, wrongly conflating the two is the bane of the entire English industry. So, I have changed the wording in the 2nd to last paragraph, which did indeed appear to conflate them, as you pointed out. Thanks for the heads up.

"By age 40 you should be.."

Mike, can I take the liberty of rewording this for you? My suggestion would be this:

"Of course, anyone's choice of career at whatever age is up to them, and there are many individuals who get a great deal of professional fulfillment and enjoyment out of working at an eikaiwa school well into their 40s, and there are large numbers of Japanese people who value their service and are willing to voluntarily spend their time and money at eikaiwa schools, but if someone were to ask me for my advice, I would say to them that in my own personal opinion,..."

Is that a better way of putting it?

Hi Steve.

Well, your suggestion is certainly more diplomatic (-:.
I understand adding 'in my opinion' would hedge, but it is a blog after all and I'm assuming the reader knows that I'm expressing an opinion. What do you think?

Anyway, my concern is not that someone at that age would or should want to work, or enjoy working, at an Eikaiwa school (as you say, that is up to the individual and their circumstances) but whether they are actually 'teaching' Eikaiwa or not, which is more of a methodological/approach issue.

I'm assuming that someone of that age has enough experience or knowledge to go beyond the 'Eikaiwa' meme, that since such a person might be inclined to stay longer in Japan than the younger, short-term, less experienced sojourner, they owe it to both themselves and their students to challenge themselves and their students with more substantial, and pedagogically sound, content wherever they work. (Although
i have absolutely nothing against Japanese people who want to practice by chatting or those who make some extra money by providing chat).

In short, although a given school might be called an 'Eikaiwa' school, I would hope that veteran teachers at such a place take the pedagogy beyond the the confines of the nomenclature. This would also serve as a way for those who don't want to be doing Eikaiwa at 40 to get out of what is, for them, a rut.

So, while I don't want to be disrespectful of life choices I do think what I suggest has more value in terms of English education at any level and also might offer a more substantial alternative for those who want to avoid feeling like the guy in the cartoon.

Hi Mike

Largely agree, but have to point out that there is nothing wrong with 'head, shoulders, knees, and toes'. Our kindergarten classes love it and it has it's (limited) place in our curriculum ;)

Having said that, I largely agree with what you are saying.

My only reservation is that I feel most students coming into my university are very academically successful but have had limited exposure to English input and situations where they can use English. Thus my reading classes concentrate on extensive reading where students are expected to read at least 200,000 words of easy English per semester, while my communication classes concentrate on presentation skills. Not sure if these would meet your definition of academically rigorous, but I think my students benefit from them.

Hi Mike

Could you define 'eikaiwa' and 'english conversation'? I think you are working off a particular interpretation of them :)

Hi Ben.

Actually, 'Head & Shoulders' is the only English song which ranks up there with 'Donguri' and 'Oni no Pantsu' in my 2 year old's pantheon of cool toons. But it has nonetheless become the byword for children's class drudgery, even though there is no doubt a large and important place for songs in kids' English education.

I think your focus upon presentations could be classified as academically rigorous, or at least suited to a university setting, especially if these tasks/skills require cognitive engagement of content from your students.

An Eikaiwa definition? Well, I'd say this includes 'Chatting' classes, even with a bit of voc/gram feedback from the teacher, especially if it is not integrated into any more holistic pedagogical palette. I'd add cases where 'How to do' function-based lessons/dialogues are taught and practiced (What to say at the airport/How to order a hamburger)- highly instrumental stuff like that. These should be lesson incidentals IMO- and not constitute an entire approach. I might extend this definition...

With this 'definition' in mind, I'm thinking about what Stephen King wrote earlier about the possibility of 'professional fulfillment' for those teaching Eikaiwa. I must admit that I'm having trouble reconciling the two. I can certainly imagine someone satisfied at age 40 doing Eikaiwa of this sort because it's undemanding and they may get a steady and passable income from it. Such a person may not care too much about their job from a 'professional' point of view. That's their choice- they likely care about other things in life more. Fine.

But professional fulfillment? It seems to me that in order to have professional fulfillment one would have to care about the professional aspects of their profession, not just be satisfied with getting by in their current job. And that would seem to me to imply going beyond the confines of Eikaiwa.

Hey Mike, I agree with your premise that, for the most part, the average eikaiwa teacher falls into the category of: youngish, probably only here for a short duration, not all that knowledgable about applied linguistics, and not really seeking professional fulfillment. To use your own words:

I can certainly imagine someone satisfied at age 40 doing Eikaiwa of this sort because it's undemanding and they may get a steady and passable income from it. Such a person may not care too much about their job from a 'professional' point of view. That's their choice- they likely care about other things in life more.

But we need to remember that it is possible to be an eikaiwa teacher and take the job seriously and be professionally fulfilled by it, even if the majority of eikaiwa teachers might not do that. I taught at a small private eikaiwa before becoming a university teacher and I took that job quite seriously. I came to work early every day, prepared lessons thoughtfully, conducted lessons with what I'd like to think were sound pedagogical methods, and conducted myself professionally at all times. If I hadn't done this I'm sure the students would have taken their business elsewhere.

Again, you're assessment of the average eikaiwa teacher is pretty accurate, but don't rule out the possibility of being "professionally fulfilled" in these environments.

Hi Mark.

I probably should clarify that there is a difference between working what is called an 'Eikaiwa school' and employing an 'Eikaiwa' approach (described in my response to Ben above- BTW Ben, please let us know if you're OK when you have a chance). I have no problem imagining you or othes taking a very professional approach to work while at an Eikaiwa school. But if the boss wanted you to basically chat, serve as a human tape recorder, tell students how to order hamburgers, or just sing songs for/with kids I can't imagine someone like yourself would feel fulfilled. My suspicion is that you focused more broadly on communicative content while at the Eikaiwa and did your best to make the teaching pedagogically sound i.e, moving beyond the Eikaiwa rubric even though employed at an 'Eikaiwa school'- which is certainly what I encourage anybody who finds themselves in that situation to do.

I suppose I could liken it to someone who claims to be a beer connosieur but is satisfied drinking Bud Lite all the time. If Bud Lite is his/her choice brew that's fine, but then any notion of connosieurship pretty much goes out the window.

I think I may have come off as callous in my main post when what I had really intended was to encourage anyone who is concerned about teaching well and having some sense of fulfilment about their work to not get caught up in teaching English conversation as a methodology (or non-method to put it more accurately), even if the man who pays your bills thinks that what you SHOULD be doing.

Love the beer analogy, well said. I wouldn't worry about coming off as callous, I think your main point is something we all believe as well. And that is: If you're gonna stick around Japan for the long haul then get serious about your craft and do it well. It doesn't matter where you happen to be teaching. Whether it's at an eikaiwa or a university or private lessons at a Starbucks, do the job right, otherwise it reflects badly on those of us who are genuinely trying to make a change here.

Actually Mark, I'd go beyond that and say that we should try to end the workplace apartheid mentality (often tacitly accepted and/or propagated by NJ and J alike, teachers and non-teachers alike) that 'conversation' is what NSs are for and that the Japanese are there for the techinical side of English. And that teachers who feel burdened under such descriptions can and should step out from those confines into something more fulfilling.

Geez- I sound like a Marxist sophomore at Antioch!

Well, for that to happen I think there's need to be a major shift in thinking by society as a whole, not just in our field. We touched upon this a few topics ago, the ole us vs. them mentality. Japanese, for better or worse, see themselves as a unique, homogeneous culture,and no foreigner could possibly understand what they're all about. I'm not saying they think they are better than everyone, they just seem to feel they are different from other cultures (which, of course, they are). But they're almost hyper-aware of this difference, and it affects they're world view. I would argue that until this changes (by the way, I'm not even saying I think it needs to change, J have a right to hold on to this view if they want, but it would be nice if it did) then we'll always be viewed as the clowny guy who teaches conversation.

Hi Mike

Thanks. My family and I are safe and sound in Kanazawa (we left Sendai on Sunday morning).

Talking of eikaiwa, our school may well be finished. I like to think we did a fairly professional job with our classes :)

Hope to see you once things get back to normal.

Very relieved to hear that Ben. Please let us know about your school/job situation as things become clearer.

Mark- My understanding is that the 'natives teach the technical side, the foreigners do conversation' motif is held in several other countries too. Sometimes I think the non-natives also underestimate or undervalue the ability of local teachers to teach communicatively (including elements of 'conversation'- which serves to reinforce the dichotomy. In short, I think it can go both ways.

(Wow- I hadn't written 're-inforce the dichotomy' since grad school!)

I take your points (untrained teachers tend to chat ineffectively with students; universities are not the place for this), but I’d like to add a couple of things.

Conversation, in all its vacuous, enjoyable glory, can and should be taught, as Scott Thornbury explains in some of his books. In the introduction to Conversation: From Description to Pedagogy (CUP), coauthored with Diana Slade, we get the example of doctors chatting with their patients before weighing in to the business at hand. Which suggests that a sound approach to improving casual conversation skills has a place in a university curriculum for medical students. (The introduction to the book is available online):

Next, perhaps it’s just me, but the way you talk about university English classes sounds a bit dour: students “meeting challenges worthy of [university]’; “communicating specialized content”; “expressing complex thoughts.” If I wasn’t fluent in English to begin with, I’d be intimidated at the idea of coping with all that. It is possible, and I'd say preferable, to offer academically rigorous and effective pedagogy in a way that’s—I’m going to use the f-word--fun for the students.

I know…. Happy students being a bit noisy and moving around the classroom while engaged in tasks, even perhaps going outdoors, sends a frivolous message to academic colleagues. But if we believe in what we’re doing and know it works, we don’t have to worry about what the Dr Ks think about it all.

Hi Juian.

A coupla thoughts...

I know I conflated the two in my original blog post but I don't think that conversation necessarily means a 'fun' lesson. I've seen some very awkward and contrived conversation lessons that surely seemed to be painful for the students. I've also listened to academic lectures on esoteric subjects that were a lot of 'fun' so...

Actually, the 'f' word- fun- scares me at the university level. I'd prefer that my students not expect a fun lesson from my classes, if that means upholding the image of light, frivolous, playful. I myself would be bamboozled if I heard a N. American university student saying, "Let's take Poli Sci 405- Classical Society. It looks FUN". Stimulating? Yes. Engaging? Yes. But fun? It sounds to me like (strike ominous minor chord)... edu-tainment!

So, stimulating and engaging is what I hope (and expect) my students to feel with my Communication Eigo classes. As Med. students they shold be stimulated, challenged and enagaged by learning how to organize and carry out a patient history, how to go from case study data to diagnoses, or how to convey chart information in oral form to another doctor. These lessons utilize all skills, with an emphasis upon oral, and are active and dynamic. But they are most certainly not 'conversation' classes.

Having said that, I'll have to look at what Thorberry says about the pedagogical side of teaching conversation, so thanks for the link.

An excellent piece! I agree with you and I definitely think something similar happens in my university and school.

It's amazing to see the beliefs people hold about teaching English and teacher training, that's one of the reasons why I made the decision, as you suggest (I promise I made this decision much earlier) to open my own school. It's time we try to prove our teaching and learning hypotheses ourselves and see wheter we are right or not.

Thank you for this interesting article.


Bravo! I wholeheartedly agree. There are so many thoughts here that I've had; thanks for saying them on a public forum. I disagree with nothing; my support is complete and unwavering. I take it Dr. K. is not a language teacher. Non-language faculty also seem mystified about what an English teacher does when he's not teaching. Thanks for writing this.

Not much to argue with here, but then again you need to respect people`s decisions I think. Some people are happy with how they live. One of my friends for example, turned down a job managing an International School (he is bilingual)because he wants to spend more time with his family. His eikaiwa job suits him better. There is often such a story behind these people I find.

Another example could be myself, an ALT. I took this job because I had a health problem last year and it is about all I can physically do.

Again though, I agree with you that we should develop. Not developing is unhealthy and I believe will make you hate your jop.

I`ve taught in a few countries now though and one thing that strikes me about some teachers here is how smug they can be. It`s like they get such a complex working in the entry-level jobs and then become overly-pleased with themselves when they spend a fortune on their Master`s and read a few books on Language Acquisition.

It makes me laugh at how stuck up people can be about it, because I have never experienced this sort of looking down on other teachers like this.

You always see it on the internet. Everybody starts with "I`m an English Teacher but not your typical one, I can do this, this and this." It makes me laugh how insecure people are here.

Most people take it seriously I think, regardless of the level. It is just funny to see how easily divided English Teachers can be. You`ve got the Eikaiwa long-termers who dont need any of that training or reading about their job. And then youve got the Best Teacher in Japan side of it who are battling everything bravely to bring Applied Linguistics to Japan.

Here are some comments from a Metropolis article of a similar theme

- And most "teachers" in Japan haven't studied theory. While there is a subset who take the job seriously, there is an huge class of people who, like the author of this article, don't see teaching as a real job.

- I am a corporate trainer. Unlike 99.9% of "teachers" in Japan, I have a teaching degree. I have also managed companies and have some business education.

- I am proud to say that I am an English teacher because I am very good at what I do and I probably make more than 99% of "teachers" in Japan.

- I too carry a lot of animosity for such "teachers". They are degrading the standards of the profession with their lazy, uncaring attitudes.

Staggering. I dont think Japan realises how lucky it is to attract so many of this kind of best teacher.

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