December 27, 2012
December 27, 2012
Here are some 'unpopular' opinions that have been tugging at my ticker after reading several articles and websites about English education in Japan. I don't expect that these are going to go down well with everyone but, hey, that's why you're reading this piece, right?
So, let's get right into it.
1. It's not the government's fault
Sure, sometimes governments enact policies that backfire, marginalize half the populace, or were never meant to benefit the citizenry in the first place. But let's face it, blaming the government is often a default, knee-jerk reaction, an unexamined, uncritical, stock response to any perceived shortcoming in society. Which is fine for chinwagging over brews at your local nomiya but is hardly a substantial riposte when actively dealing with the issues- issues like the alleged poor English competency of EFL learners in Japan.
Blaming the government is like blaming 'society' for some wacko's gun rampage-- ultimately you are effectively holding no one responsible and thus cannot expect positive change to be enacted. It's the political equivalent of blowing a dandelion fluff into the breeze and praying that somehow everything will turn out fine. You are crafting responsibility into thin air.
MEXT- 'The scent of whale meat?'
So let's apply this to English education policy in Japan. I know the popular image of MEXT policy makers is that they are a bunch of blue-suited, middle-aged men with bad comb-overs and the faint scent of whale meat on their breath. But unfortunately, the caricature does not match the reality.
Have you ever met a MEXT English education policy maker, or heard one speak? I have on numerous occasions. They have always been, in my opinion, experienced, fairly cosmopolitan, bilinguals with a sound knowledge of language acquisition theory and pedagogy. In fact, many have been drafted or borrowed from the ranks of academia, such as Kensaku Yoshida of Sophia U. or Osamu Kageura (go ahead look 'em up). These people know their stuff, and, no, they don't need comb-overs.
Critics should also take a gander at the MEXT English education policy website . There is an English version. There is no endorsement of grammar-translation or audio-lingual methods or the expectation that English = diagramming sentences. Over the past two decades there has been an explicit policy move to foster Japanese who have practical competency in English as well as fostering a sense of English for enjoyment and communication. The rationale statements say all the 'right' things.
One popular, widespread belief is that MEXT determines classroom policy in detail-- syllabi and curricula are defined by bureaucrats to a T and teachers are duly bound to follow suit. Nonsense. MEXT guidelines are just that, guidelines. The textbooks, methodologies, and materials used to expedite MEXT's policy goals are almost completely left up to the local education board, individual school, or teacher. No, every English classroom in Japan is not doing the same government-mandated lesson at the same time, not even close.
So, the bottom line is that if there is a methodological or materials problem it ain't the government that foisted it upon you. (Aside- the prejudice that national governments decide everything in Asian societies is a monolith and an outdated stereotype, and in many cases is based upon 'othering' ignorance. Let's get past it).
2. The university entrance exams are not to blame
Another auto-pilot whipping boy, where critics assume that equally antiquated university bureaucrats make the exams and fill them with obscure, arcane, grammar-translation questions that washback into the public school system, 'forcing' antiquated methods upon teachers.
The truth is easily discovered. You can peruse the Center Shiken or any university English entrance exam at your local bookstore quite easily. I've investigated these tests quite thoroughly in published research and, repeating what I've stated on numerous occasions, most second-stage entrance exams focus mainly upon cognitively challenging tasks, or at least demand competencies beyond mere ei-wa sentence manipulations. The vast majority of tasks address and measure a variety of skills (although, obviously, interactive, dynamic speaking skills can't really be carried out in these tests).
'Most NJ university teachers sit on these committees'
And you know who makes these tests? Probably a huge number of readers of this blog-- most NJ university teachers I've met in Japan sit on, and often take prominent roles in, these committees. So, if you want to point the finger at the university entrance exams you'll be pointing the finger at a number of well-educated, progressive, knowledgeable foreign teachers, not to mention that many of the Japanese teachers on these committees are well-versed in testing, pedagogies, SLA, and teaching methodologies too.
Ditto for the Center Shiken. Due to its nation-wide status, it has to be designed to be quickly calculable, machine-read, and as objective as possible-- but it takes only a quick scan to see that a variety of skills are being addressed and that a student coming from a grammar-translation based methodology will not be rewarded. I can also tell you that the Center Shiken committee is made up of prominent university professors (I know of a handful) who know the issues, know the field-- both in classroom practices and in theory, and would come across to any reader of this blog as being well-informed. And, yes, they include several gaijin too.
3. So is grammar-translation to blame?
Not really. Grammar-translation, as Paul Nation has stated, has a role to play. There is a place for it in our classroom, as long as it is balanced and supplemented by other supportive methods. It's not a 'bad' methodology per se, it's just limited and should not be the automatic choice or a methodological priority.
And while I'm at it, can we please toss out the tired, old dichotomy that assumes that Japanese teachers do GT while NJ teachers do the 'communicative' stuff that students really love, the stuff that helps them? It's getting old and does not correspond to much of what I've seen and/or heard from both camps (based on friends, colleagues, meeting academics, reading research and policy by both NJ and Js on the topic, not to mention having a 16-year old son in the system). It's a huge oversimplification, which often allows NJ teachers to be unduly smug and self-righteous. Equally odious is the reciprocal binary equation-- that J teachers do all the serious teaching, while the foreigners merely play games or teach 'How do you do?'.
4. So the problem is that English taught in public schools is not really practical?
I don't really buy this-- for several reasons. Public school education should not be oriented towards instrumental goals like helping students to order hamburgers abroad, chat with foreign guests, or help lost Gaijin on the streets of Kyoto. Public school education should be about setting foundations (which is why grammar-translation, drills etc. have a place) that can be later adapted to practice. There must be a formative, academic rationale behind public school education. It's not a place to practice chatting. It's not Eikaiwa land.
Now, here's the kick. The teacher who can set these foundation in such a way that they can easily be transferred into extended and meaningful forms of communication, and the teachers who can enable that transfer from the passive to the productive, are the ones who are likely to get positive results. More on this in a moment. But first we must ask ourselves...
5. Is there really a problem?
All along, we have been assuming that Japanese non-proficiency in English is a problem, that someone has to be 'blamed' for. But is this really a fair depiction?
Sometimes I can't help but think that many J English education critics have not travelled widely-- or at least in their travels have been limited to speaking with people in the tourist or related industries, and thus have a skewered notion as to the relative English proficiency of countries X and Y vis-a-vis Japan. In Japan instead, they would have been subjected to a wider range of interlocutors, many unwilling, most by force of public school education, mostly geographically removed from Shibuya Center Gai and the like. So, naturally Farmer Hayashi's kid in Oita Prefecture is not going to sound as adept as the receptionist at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok.
And, to be honest, when I do the 'tourist/visitor' thing in Japan (stay at Tokyo hotels, go to restaurants/bars in such an area, attend conferences, go anywhere in Ropponngi/Hiroo- God forbid) I see little difference in comparison to Japan's neighbours.
The international test results canard
Of course, someone probably feels duty-bound now to bring up Japan's low-ranking composite scores on international proficiency tests, where they tend to edge out, oh, Bhutan and Montenegro by maybe a few decimal points. First, there are many, many 'hobby' test-takers in Japan, not to mention people ill-prepared but who are encouraged by English teachers or institutions to do so a bit too early. But my main problem with introducing the test score canard is that many of the same people who raise this objection are also people who would argue that discrete-point proficiency test scores are not an adequate measure or actual language ability. Somehow, this paradox seems to be lost on them.
And it should not be lost on those Canadians like myself who studied French, a national language, for five years and can't communicate in it as well as our average Japanese can in English. Think about it.
'Japan needs English for... whatever'
Finally, I must mention the ubiquitous but dubious 'need for English' criterion. Slogans like 'Japan needs English for...' sound sensible at a glance. But although young Ayaka from rural Wakayama might intuitively grasp that some Japanese need to be able speak English to sell Toyotas to Americans, that has little impact upon Ayaka, who plans to work at a nursery in her town of 50,000 people. Last time I looked, nurseries weren't peddling Priuses to the great American public. Grand policy statements using the monolithic 'Japan' rarely apply to 'every last Japanese person'.
6. So just who is responsible?
If you think your students are not where they should be in terms of English skills- you are! And when I say 'you' I do mean 'me' as well. Giving up by passing the buck onto 'the system' or 'the man' is a cop-out. We are instantly absolving ourselves of responsibility. You see a weakness? It is your responsibility to try and fix it.
Lookit. There have been NJs teaching wide and far in Japan for three decades. The ALT/JET system has been around since the bubble period. Eikaiwa schools are on every block, staffed mostly by NJs. More and more universities have NJ professors in long-term, policy-influencing roles. If the English proficiency situation hasn't improved then we have to start looking at ourselves. We are culpable here. We have to stop assuming that we, and our methods, are the solution but the 'man' keeps us down.
Do you want to see improvement? First, ask yourself- is it really necessary for my students to become proficient at English? (MEXT thinks so). And then ask yourself, are my students really so bad? And if the answer you give yourself is 'yes' then please do the following:
1. Don't blame MEXT. Or at least get informed as to what MEXT is actually saying or doing.
2. Don't blame university entrance exams.
3. Don't blame the 'other teachers' (usually meaning the old, racially-charged, NJ-J dichotomy)
4. Don't throw out the grammar-translation/drill baby with the methodological bathwater.
5. Don't assume that public schools are institutions where students should be learning immediately practical 'street' skills in any subject.
And, more positively, think of what you can do as a teacher to enable students to transfer their latent, foundational English skills into more cognitively-engaging, meaningful production. It's all about helping our students' skills develop-- the basis of what it means to be a proficient teacher.