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The Uni-Files

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

February 23, 2012

10 Dumb Things That English Teachers Do in Japan (part 2)

A continuation of the previous #1-5 dumb things...

6. Teach culture as a series of discrete-point contrasts (othering):

The belief that Japanese ways and habits are quite distinct from those of 'foreigners' is quite widespread in Japan. It often creates psychological barriers for communication, not to mention intercultural paralysis, and often results in awkward stiltedness or standoffishness in J-NJ relations.

In extreme cases, it can adversely affect interactions. Spurious claims to the effect that "Foreigners won't like futon", or "They won't understand how to use an onsen" because customs elsewhere "are different" can be interpreted as exclusionary and easily end up drawing (often fatuous) claims of racism. The vast majority of such instances are not malevolent-- they are attempts at 'taisaku', taking preventative measures to avoid causing offense or problems-- but often, paradoxically, lead to more of the same.

I've had highly positioned people assume that foreigners can't understand the concepts of goodwill and modesty or don't value their families because, for example, "care for the family is a Japanese value"... and foreign cultures are different (I'm not claiming that such bold instances are normative but they are nonetheless an outgrowth of the general 'foreigners are different' perception).

In the overwhelming number of such cases the problem is not so much a Japanese belief in superiority over, or fear/hatred of, foreigners but an unwarranted hypersensitivity to potential differences, an over-stimulated "we are not you" syndrome, founded upon a heightened 'different cultures' motif.

So why feed into this? Why teach culture primarily as a series of discrete points highlighting differences, as though this is the fundamental definition of culture? I'm shocked by how many so-called Culture courses are prefixed with "taisho" (contrastive) or "hikaku" (comparative), and are marked by a series of how 'we are not you' samples. This leads to essentialism, the belief that everything a person of culture X does is indelibly marked by that culture, which becomes the interpretative mechanism for all that person's actions and beliefs. It also leads to 'othering', the distancing of outsiders by exoticizing, or at least exaggerating, the differences.

How many times have I heard Japanese students say they are interested in other cultures because they want to learn "the differences". It is true that one way of defining something is by outlining its distinctive features in comparison to similar items. Beer is not wine. A table is not a desk. But this divisive approach is hardly the only, or even primary, way of defining or understanding an item (or a culture) or isolating its essence.

Endeavors and common values that we share as humans which come under the rubric of culture can be outlined and discussed without drawing a big red circle around the differences. Distinguishing the personal from the social is another valid analytical tool that helps avoid culturizing.

Buying into this "culture = differences, so let's confirm how I'm not like you" mentality is to perpetuate a sense of distance between Japanese and non-Japanese. If there's one thing I want to leave behind for my students it's a sense that our instincts and feelings as humans are largely the same, and when they differ, (national/racial) 'culture' may well not be the decisive factor.

7. Constantly reformulate classroom instructions and questions:

The quality of teacher talk is probably more important than the amount of teacher talk. One class energy-sapping habit I've noticed among novice English teachers and visiting lecturers (who are invariably content specialists, not English educators) is a tendency to obscure questions and tasks by over-talking. You often hear something like this:

"So, I want to ask you... Is there any way we can diagnose this patient with certainty. Can we be sure of our conclusion?" (The students are with the teacher at this point but the teacher doesn't hesitate long enough and...) What I'm trying to say is perhaps we haven't gathered enough information. I'm just putting this possibility on the table. So let's just explore this possibility. (Now the students are getting lost-- which becomes apparent to the teacher). So, do you understand me? Our diagnoses are not always foolproof. (Silence and staring at the floor, awkward twiddling with pencils) . Do you understand what I mean by foolproof? (More silence) Do you understand diagnosis? (A few very, very hesitant, slightly embarrassed, cautious nods) I see. (Aside to me): They don't even understand what a diagnosis is! And they don't seem to be aware of the fact that their conclusions might be wrong!"

Suggestion- Make all task assignments extraordinarily clear and succinct. Use numerical stages of instruction and write them on the board if they are at all complex. Practice the wording before the class. Focus all questions clearly, to specific students, and ask once. Allow time to gauge visual responses and to allow the student some 'prestige form creation time'. Don't elaborate unless students ask you too. Repetition, if necessary, is better than circumlocutions.

8. Assume English for specific purposes (ESP) is mostly a matter of teaching terminology:

I have a particular bug in my asphalt about this one. Teaching medical students, I am all too aware of everyone and his cardiologist assuming that medical English equals general English + terminology. It doesn't. Specialized English domains have standardized and institutionalized norms of discourse which includes everything from ways of processing information to the intricacies of social relations. Knowledge of numerous disease and treatment jargon will hardly ensure that a doctor can take a decent patient history.

And no, terminology is not 'hard'. Many people assume so because the terms are rare and localized, have a narrow meaning range, are often hard to spell or pronounce, or are lengthy. But terminology, having a very narrow meaning range, usually have very clear one-to-one cognates in other languages. If you know the item in L1 it is very easy to find the dictionary equivalent (which is why they don't usually need to be explicitly 'taught') in L2. Try doing that with any language's equivalent of the 'be' verb. Now that's hard!

9. Confuse denotation and connotation:

Not long ago, an English professor I know balked at the use of the word "tribalism" in a jointly-made text. He argued that the notion of "tribes" was an oppressive category employed by whites to demean African ethnicities. I argued that the term "tribalism" simply described a way of thinking, a type of local identity that was exclusionary, and thus suited our descriptive purpose in the test. He responded that since tribalism was negative we shouldn't use the word (of course the word 'murder' is negative too I argued but that shouldn't stop us from using it as a descriptive term). He was confusing the connotation of the word with its denotation. Sure, Referring to Africans or North American Indians by 'tribe' may be dicey by connotation-- redolent of a colonialist mentality-- but merely mentioning the concept of tribalism (denotation) is hardly so.

It's the same problem (just reversed) when someone argues that "Japs" is just short for 'Japanese' (denotative). It's not. It's full of all sorts of derogatory connotations-- you can almost feel the spittle flying out from the mouth of the redneck hurling the epithet. You'd have to be particularly out of touch to be unaware of such connotations-- yes, even the most outback-ish of Aussie farmers will be aware that Australian TV announcers do not refer to Japanese athletes, for example, as "The Japs". Connotations.

In a less politically charged vein-- teachers often mess the two up in the language teaching classroom when students ask about word or phrase meanings. What, for example, does 'sit through X' mean? Giving a mere denotative response (i.e., "attend") doesn't do it justice. The term, like many, is marked wholly by its negative connotations (e.g., "I had to sit through Mike's entire lecture just to hear his predictable rant!"). Imagine saying, "I sat through my sister's wedding on Saturday".

So is 'set in'. Fog and darkness 'set in'. The sun doesn't. Depression sets in. Happiness doesn't. If a teacher offers up 'changed to' or 'became' as an equivalent they are missing the connotative essence of the word.

Or how about explaining the word “dining” as eating? “I dined on a bowl of Cap’n Crunch this morning!” . Somehow, the connotation of the word has eluded the speaker—which is the source of a lot of comedy.. (Of course, being middle-aged I don’t actually eat Cap’n Crunch anymore- I prefer Froot Loops).

Many teachers have a fetish for the purely semantic explanation but language doesn't work only on the semantic level. Prosody, the attitude or stance that a term implies, is often of primary importance when explaining items to students. Connotation is all about prosody.

Although this distinction might look rather academic it is actually very practical and common-sense. And just as a caution, please note that this is all very different from 'evaluative vs. descriptive' language scenarios.

10a. Support the idea of autonomous university 'language centers':

Wonderful! That is, if you think the language teachers and teaching should be seen and treated as an adjunct to the 'real' university-- divorced from the academic core, serving as a de facto on-campus Eikaiwa or TOEIC training center. Expect more part-time, in-and-out-the-door, teaching contracts and few chances at promotion or taking on important pan-university roles under this system.

10b. (tie) Assume that a bunch of lessons equal a course

A course has goals, some sense of direction, movement, some connected purpose. Fifteen disparate, disconnected lessons does not equal a course. Without a sense of flow and direction, less is retained by students and the language practiced is more likely to be processed as ‘a bunch of stuff’ as opposed to skill development or internalization of content or form. Lessons in a course should be interconnected and gradated, recycling and incorporating previously learned skills and content. The discrete lesson approach reflects more of a ‘if you throw enough mud at the wall some of it will stick” mentality. Avoid!

Is there anything that you'd like to add to this list?

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Addtion to "Dumb things that English Teachers Do" Wear sunglasses for their profile photo

But William, they give me that cherished badass look!

Actually those are my regular glasses. They darken automatically in the sun because I am photosensitive in my left eye.

Sorry, but I get paid $100 an hour to teach ''terminology'' as you put it!
Only about 50% of what you've written here has any substance - the other 50% is just complete garbage that you've decided is right, based on your own ideology!
I can't believe I've wasted my time even reading through the whole thing!

I thought you were a bit more "on" with your first post. As for point#6; I'm not sure I see the logic of trying to sweep back the tide with a broom. Those raised in Japan were raised on "othering" just as surely as our generation was raised on sugar, fat, and Saturday morning cartoons. There will come a time when the individual realizes on their own that these things are not entirely healthy for an adult, but they still revel in it until they decide not to. IMO external forces play little to no affect on this.

As for point#7... Outsprinting students in English is just another feeble attempt at establishing dominance over the group. It has nothing to do with teaching as an end goal.

As for the overall read, it was interesting.

I have to second Denshichiro's comments I found part one was more poignant. These are coming off more like personal pet peeves of yours, mixed in with maybe some lazy practices of professors. It's quite a leap to imply teachers employing any of these listed peeves of yours are dumb or inferior without some sort of research backing up your claim, specifically to claim 7. In your example, of course, it is easy to see. But I have seen other teachers that reformulate the way they word things on purpose and to great effect I for one like to employ the KISS method but I am not so naive to think my way is the only effective way.... maybe the issue is with at the speed at which some teachers may do this but from what I read it seemed you had more of a beef with the amount of talking not the quality of it, which are 2 very different things (there is concise simple instructions and there are redundant instructions with alternating vocabulary just depends on the goal of the lesson and instructor: complete a task, or communicate an idea to wide variety of student interests and background knowledge.) Our two examples of this being effective or ineffective are nothing more than anecdotal evidence that one way is superior to the other. This I find is an unfair assessment without some further research or clarification.

In point 6... I can understand the conscience attempt to avoid feeding the myth, being their enabler, to borrow the Alcoholics Anonymous parlance... but at the same time when does does YOUR 'sense that our instincts and feelings as humans are largely the same, and when they differ, (national/racial) 'culture' may well not be the decisive factor.' break you other mantra in part one of not preaching your ideology or what's wrong with Japan? I have to disagree with Brian while I don't agree totally with how you framed it I did find it a good read.

Thanks for the comments.

One caveat for all readers coming to this blog/column is that everything you read here is personal opinion, although informed by 20 plus years of experience and what I'd like to think is a sound theoretical basis. This is not a research blog. So, as far as these being subjective pet peeves go, guilty as charged. These are based on observations but are not objective per se, and many are founded on my own past mistakes. (Edit- In other words, teachers who do any of these- and we all have- aren't dumb. But the practice IMO deserves a red flag. If you can tell me why not, why it's legit, that's fine).

As for task/question reformulation, there are practical and successful ways of doing this but preventative preparation medicine can go a long way towards nipping this in the bud. The biggest boo-boo IMO is to continue on in ever increasing circumlocutions or paraphrases.

@ Morgan:
I'm not sure I understand your question regarding part 6. You seem to be implying that I'm being inconsistent or contradictory so if you could explain again, I'll try to address it.
Edit- And can you explain the KISS approach that you mentioned in your post? Thanks

I'm sorry Mike I'm not wanting to sound pedantic... I was playing devil's advocate with regard to circumlocution verses clear cut directions... I agree as I too try my best to Keep It Simple Stupid... KISS with regards to any teacher talk or instructions (i.e. what you have advocated)... I however have seen effective use of teachers using circumlocution as a way to introduce difficult vocabulary reinforce with a simpler synonyms. I even vaguely remember maybe there had been a paper or study or two on this topic. I brought it up because I thought it might generate a link or two supporting or denying this premise, is all. In the short amount of time my life allows on the internet alas I was not able to find anything, which is not to say much.

As to the where I find inconsistency, in part 1 you argue not to teach students about Japan, rightfully so. I guess Denshichiro said it more eloquently; to then try and sweep the tide of this 'othering'... isn't that kind of another way of teaching them about Japan? I mean I hate this essentialism as much as the next person having to teach Japanese raised in a different style of school system... but Alex Kerr said it best when comparing China and Japan "The Chinese have published few books endorsing the Chinese equivalent of the 'theories of Japaneseness' 日本人論" I guess my contention is one teacher's preaching is another teacher's way of engaging students to play a part in their learning and society.

I concur as this is your blog your prerogative which format to follow and I'm sure your experience is well earned and qualified...

Thumbs up for Mike Guest's blog. Keeps me coming back to ELT News. Great stuff, thanks.

Sorry for a late reply as I was doing the 24 hr. return from North America trip until this morning.

@ Morgan-
Your post didn't come across a pedantic at all. And, I don't want to use my experience as a type of argument from authority-- I do so rather just to make the point that my contentions derive from more than mere whimsy.

To the points you raised--
Regarding point seven and reformulating...I certainly would argue that the quality of teacher talk is paramount, hence my emphasis upon being concise and prepared. It is interesting that successful strategic competence tends to emphasize avoiding misunderstandings before initiating repair strategies. And while it is true that NS-NS interactions involve huge amounts of false starts, elaborations, vague and general language, and embellishments applying this to NS-EFL learner interactions is very likely to lead to an acoustic blur.

Regarding culture-- I would argue that in bypassing, or at least de-emphasizing, the discrete-point contrastive approach I am in fact striking a small blow against the Nihonjin-ron ethos (which, I might add, is not as prevalent as it used to be) since that world-view really depends upon othering as a default position.

I often feel that loading up students with discrete cultural facts about differences hampers actual interactions, often to the point of paralysis, much in the way that too much of a concern with grammatical rules and minutaie causes students to draw blanks when actually speaking English.

This does not mean that I want to endorse a maudlin "We share the same humanity" motif but rather that I put the emphasis in my classroom upon drawing common cultural denominators (i.e., all cultures employ hedging in language to show deference or politeness) before introducing differences (i.e., In Japanese this is done using formal titles and address forms, as well as keigo, whereas in English you can't do it the same way and may try to rely more on intonation). I want to avoid feeding the notion that foreigners are fundamentally different from the outset.

@ Tristan-
Any hockey analogy is welcome at the Uni-files. And I know exactly what you mean-- although we rarely master anything in life to the point where it's absolutely flawless-- and thus could always improve-- if we don't actually use it practically in the context in which it is meant, learners lose motivation.

@ Steven King-
Thumbs up sign goes here.

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