March 10, 2011
March 10, 2011
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 thinking...is 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?