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The Uni-Files - Culture Archive

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

May 27, 2010

J universities as bastions of progressive policy?

There are those who think that Japanese universities are a reflection of the top-down authoritarian structure that they see in Japanese government or large companies- in fact some think of them precisely as extensions of government and companies, as conservative bastions of the 'dominant culture'. Perhaps such people think of all Japanese as falling into line under a regimented authority structure regardless of the actual system employed, in order to suit their own preconceptions about this country. No doubt there are certain inaccessible corridors of power in Japan, like anywhere else, but how widespread is it really? And are universities a reflection of this?

Well, I can speak only for my own university, which I have every reason to believe is typical of national universities, and although located in conservative Miyazaki, the popular view of Japan as a top-down authoritarian society does not hold in this case.

Say what?

Well first let's take a look at the power structure. The president and all faculty deans rotate from department to department and professor to professor and are elected democratically by all full-time faculty. This means that there are no Self-Appointed President-for-LIfe types who founded the university based on their industrialist daddy's cash. Neither is the Riji-kai (Kyouju-kai at unis- like a board of directors) an unchanging cabal of stodgy old boys but rather a fluctuating broad-based set of educators. Here's where Japan's (in?)famous worker rotation system displays some tangible benefits. These are not bureaucratic 'suits' but regular class-teachin', lab-researchin' guys 'n gals MANY OF WHOM DO NOT EVEN WEAR TIES! Every department is represented and every educational (and more) policy of note goes through them. In fact, they tell the bureaucrats what to do.

When Monkasho wishes to implement a guideline or policy this group ratifies it and decides how, or to what degree or in what manner, it may be carried out. Suffice to say that Monkasho guidelines are not carried out like imperial decrees.

Most of the Uni presidents and deans I have known reasonably well and, generally speaking, they are well-travelled, amiable, broad-minded types. It is very easy to arrange a meeting with them. In fact, I recently spent 1 hour discussing the wider establishment of a discourse-based English education focus with the university vice-president, who also happens to be head of the English policy committee (of which yours truly is a member). This wide number of committees with rotating chairs helps to distribute power even more widely so that the power structure remains fluid.

Let's look a little further.

There is an ombusdperson section, openly advertised, with the provisions of due process for grievance are clearly laid out, and complaints can be carried out in confidence. There is also a widely-advertised support center, fully-funded, for sexual harassment, power harassment, alcohol harassment and other unfair or psychologically debilitating practices.

There is a support center for women, staffed entirely by women (and feminist supporters may be happy to note that they are a thorn in the side of some rather rigid older profs), which also lends tangible support regarding child care leave and aid. And yes, males can take advantage of this too (see Matthew Apple's story of taking child care leave from a university in Nara here).

NO ONE tells you what to teach and content is not checked by any 'authority'. This principle is almost religiously enforced, somewhat to the chagrin of visiting part-time English teachers who often want to, or expect to, be told what they should be teaching- and few such directives are forthcoming.

The university grounds are completely and fully smoke-free (although just ten years ago there were numerous smoking areas outside classrooms which became encrusted with a near-permanent yellow sheen and a 24 hour Eau De Marlboro aroma plus every other piece of consumer junk that students tend to leave around for the garbage fairy to pick up).

There are rotating ecology and watchdog committees to monitor mismanagement and abuses and to make/apply further suggestions. I realize that the latter might sound more ominous than progressive but it is management practices that are being checked and balanced so...

I talked about the movement to full access and disclosure (and associated problems) in a recent blog entry.

Another thing I've alluded to here before is the attitude of the office staff and/or bureaucracy. Since professors and doctors call most of the shots there is virtually no sense of being under the thumb of inaccessible boardroom suits. They don't decide policy, they carry it out- and this is reflected in the kindness (almost deference really) with which they treat the teaching faculty.

And how might the university look not-so-progressive? Well, by far the majority of senior profs are male, but that number will almost certainly decrease as the number of women in associate prof positions has risen propotionately in recent years (demographics, demographics). The support center also promotes female researchers/academics in this regard, plus the fact that among the medical staff (I work in the faculty of medicine with an attached hospital), the number of female doctors about to move into positions of greater authority is quite high.

One could say that the number of lecture-oriented classes is still too high, although that too is changing.

Despite these few hiccups, there is little doubt that the authoritarian image of Japan and Japanese institutions held by many does not apply here.

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July 01, 2010

One man, his son, and the J school system

Getting away from universities for a moment, I thought that readers might like to hear a few impressions of the Japanese public school system based on my own experiences, or rather, those of my son, who is now 14 and a third year junior high school student. He is a dual Canadian-Japanese citizen although he looks more Western than Japanese. He was born, and has lived his entire life, in Japan- save for a few holidays abroad.

Obviously the experiences of one school, one parent and one child cannot be generalized so take it for what it's worth. Also, as he has not started high school yet I have nothing to say about the educational meme at that level.

Allow me to do this 'interview' style- it's always much easier to organize my writing that way.

Q. Let's cut to the quick. Has your son ever been bullied because he doesn't look Japanese?

Mike: No. Not once. Even in minor schoolyard skirmishes no one has ever played the 'race card'. Discrimination of this sort is strongly, strongly discouraged at this school- and all others that I am aware of. In fact, when I've asked him about any such cases he has reacted as if the concept was foreign and confusing. All the kids have known him for several years and while they might have noticed his slightly different physical features when they first met him (when he was asked about it, he said "My dad's from Canada"- end of inquiry), nobody at school seems to notice or care anymore.

Q. Is he treated differently in any way at all?

Mike: Well, he speaks English well so kids ask him for help in that subject- and the guys want to know English swear words etc. He's quite happy to be regarded as 'good at' or knowledgeable in this regard. He's also seen as a bit of an internationalist as he has travelled abroad more than others.

Q. Has there been a bullying problem at his schools in general?

Mike: Not at all. There have been a few minor schoolyard scraps and a small handful of classroom outbursts but these are rare enough to have been big news on the school grounds, not run-of-the-mill occurrences.Compared to where I went to JHS (Whalley, B.C.- one of least desirable areas for young teens in Canada I'd have to think) my son's school is heaven. In my old JH school, brutal fights were a near-daily occurence (even teachers were attacked) and there were drugs, alcohol, sexual assaults- you know the situation. The idea of any of these infiltrating my son's school is just preposterous.

Q. How about any experiences of odd treatment by the teachers?

Mike: Yes, he's been on the receiving end of a few odd T-initiated experiences (although these are dwarfed by normal treatment).

Once, in elementary school, his teacher was setting up the lunch distribution which, that day, included pineapples. Suddenly she asked, "Does anyone know where pineapples come from?". One kid ventured, "Hawaii". "Right, and which country is Hawaii in?" she continued. "America," came the answer. Then she asked, "And who in our class also comes from America?". The kids were confused. They looked around. My son was confused and looked around. Then the teacher said my son's name. The kids all went "Huh?" because they think of him as Japanese and know that his Dad is Canadian. My son found this all rather amusing- not at all hurtful and thought his teacher to be a bit naive (and rightly so). Not long after it was revealed that this teacher was suffering widespread emotional problems so....who knows?

Another time, in junior high, when the social studies teacher was teaching U.S. geography he suddenly asked my son to sing the U.S. national anthem, which he doesn't know from Schubert's Seventh. The teacher thereafter asked him to name the U.S. states which again, is not something he has any special knowledge of. Later, as the class ended, the teacher asked him personally (and not in a nasty way) if he was going back to the U.S. sometime. This did piss off my son a little bit- as it should have. He clarified who he was to the teacher and, fortuitously, some of his buddies backed him up: "He was born in Japan, sensei! He's never been to America. How can he 'go back' there?".

This teacher was transferred around that time although I don't know why. I also heard though that my son was being a bit of a goof in that class and his behaviour may have triggered (but not justify) the odd requests from the teacher.

Q. Did you bring these situations up to teachers or other school authorities?

Mike: His mother did- in a polite way at sankanbi (visitation days). The teachers clearly understood. The point was made.

Q. Since he is fluent in English has that led to problems in his English classes?

Mike: Not much. He says he has trouble with teacher's accents sometimes but in fact the writing and spelling lessons have been helpful for him, as has some of the more detailed grammar practice. Some of it actually serves as good discipline for his English too- in which his attitude is almost too free and easy.

But here's one example of a recurring problem found on tests and worksheets:
My son will give answers that are discursively correct and represent the natural use of communicative language but do not conform to the official answer. The most salient example of this was a test wherein the students were asked to match characters from a story with certain items, utilizing the scheme "Which X is Y's?". My son duly matched a blue jacket with the character Jack and to the question, "Which jacket is Jack's?" answered, "The blue one". Which is wrong, you realize, because the 'correct' answer was, "The blue one is".
The criteria of treating a verb as necessary in this type of construction is obviously artificial and redundant. He finds this frustrating (as do I) but now plays along.

Q. What about the good old 'history textbook' issue, specifically Japanese WW2 history?

Mike: I've seen and read parts of the JHS history books, at least the 'relevant' parts. They are (IMO) well-balanced, accurate, and thorough enough for a JHS history book. The negative actions of Japan during WW2 and its current legacy vis-a-vis East Asia is made clear. Nanjing and other atrocities are dealt with without mitigation.

(Tangential rant warning: Most people who talk about the so-called 'whitewashing' problems in Japan's history textbooks, quite frankly, have no idea what they are talking about- which includes most of the Western press, who seem happy to regurgitate popular, unfounded prejudices as fact. There are, in fact, several approved JHS history textbooks and all have been required to deal with the WW2 issues in a manner that makes Japan's responsibilities clear. The most controversial of these books, chosen only by a tiny minority of Japanese junior high schools, had to make adjustments in order to pass scrutiny. You can find accurate English translations of these online.

I wish every country's history books were as well-balanced about their wrongdoings as Japan's are. Fringe, in-denial weirdos here are just that, a fringe, the same types that you can find anywhere. It is not at all normative in Japan.

The other thing to remember is that history is an academic subject- with a particular focus on cause and effect and the flow of ideologies and custom. It is not supposed to be a mere compendium of 'what happened' for the purpose of some 'hansei' (guilt reflection) upon one's wrongdoings or a prosecutor's interrogation intended to force one to admit guilt by national association. Rant ends)

Q. What's the hardest part of being an NJ parent with a child at a J school?

Mike: I can't help him with kanji- which is the basis of pretty much every subject, save English. Even in Math (which I'm not good at anyway) the goal or point of the problem is written out in Kanji. I suppose the other thing is the huge amount of notices and requests you get everyday. There's always something needed for some event and the details are (IMO) overly thorough. J parents may expect this but NJ's are likely to think, "OK, enough's enough".

There are some useless school rules and regulations too. These often seem like authorized bullying to me and have the negative effect of causing students to confuse rule-following with morality. As one example- my son's school tie was brought from the official school uniform supplier shop (expensive!) but was apparently cut from the last bit of cloth. This meant that near the bottom of the tie the design ended and the pattern from the next cut began, leading to a sort of linear discontinuity in the design. Upon school inspection he was scolded and told to get a 'proper' tie. We told the teacher responsible in no uncertain terms that this tie had been purchased at the school-designated shop and that we had paid (too much) for it. The teacher backed down immediately and apologized.

Q. What do you think are the strong points of Japanese public schools, at least based on you and your son's experience?

Mike: Every teacher has been hard-working and in 99.5% of all situations- extremely professional. I've seen excellent classroom management and teaching technique/methodology. My expectation that it would be more redolent of a Victorian era boarding school, with rote memorization, in-your-face authority, and with no emphasis upon creativity or autonomy has been undermined. Although schools naturally vary, I see this common belief among some NJs as a prejudice held by people who believe, offhand, that that's just what 'the Japanese are like'.

The teachers seem extremely concerned about the welfare of the students. And communication channels between teachers and parents, what with home visits, the aforementioned sankanbi, and in-depth notices, and PTA ongoings, is also excellent.

Most of the teaching I've seen or heard about has been learning centered, not teacher-centered, nor learner-centered- and the form/content of homework has almost always been helpful and pedagogically relevant, not just busy work or rote memorization. Many of the classroom methods I've seen practiced have been clever and innovative (although that should not imply off-the-wall avant-gardism). Math, in particular, has been noted worldwide for the interactive and innovative ways in which it is usually taught in Japan.

In fact, my biggest teacher worries have been regarding the native-English teachers- ALTs, JETs or otherwise. While some are indeed very good and seem to know about language acquisition, methodology, classroom management etc. either by instinct or by training, some really know very little in terms of how to teach languages, manage a classroom, or develop a curriculum. I feel unsure about entrusting my childrens' education to such people.

Q. What don't you like about the system?

Mike: For one thing there are too many days given over to preparing various special events, ceremonies, sports and culture days etc. The planning is almost too detailed and meticulous. In most of these situations, students spend a lot of time following orders and sitting around- getting 'form' right. It may be a show for the parents but I find it overbearing and a matter of wasting time- the 'show' backfires.

Of course, this may be said to have some cultural relevance but what justification is culture other than saying: "Well, the people here before us did it so we have to as well"? Although the undo-kais (sports days) are incredibly well-planned and run they can also be terribly annoying given the amount of time students (and parents) have to prepare, sit through meaningless speeches, partake in militaristic pomp and ceremony (usually while crouched in the hot sun), and spend very little time doing (or enjoying) the actual sports.

I think the teaching could also move more from the receptive to the productive mode- more task-based, demanding active thinking and creating from the students, a greater focus on cognitive engagement rather than just getting through the prescribed content, although those are far from being Japan-specific problems.

I'm interested in hearing how my experiences and feelings correspond with those of parents and/or JHS/elementary school teachers reading this blog.

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July 07, 2010

Riffing on 1) Extreme J student nerves 2) So-called "thinking outside the box", and 3) Self-introductions- Bah!

Three mini topics today...

1. Extreme J student nervousness

Today I held some role-play tests for my 1st year general English class (medical) students. These involve 2 students acting as doctors, taking a basic medical history, and putting the information on a chart while I act as the patient. Yes, it is a demanding test as it measures not only lexical and grammatical competence but also: topical knowledge, the ability to think on your feet and improvise, to predict and summarize. It also demands social and interactive skills and organizational skills for completing the medical chart.

I never expect perfection and that's what makes this test a learning experience. Tests should hold pedagogical value, value which is realized through having students face new challenges.

I naturally expect that students will be a bit nervous because this test does place them on-the-spot and, after all, a test is a test is a test. But I am often surprised at just how mindlessly nervous some students can become under pressure- which is not what you want to see in medical students.

Expanding a bit now, I suppose if I were to choose one widespread characteristic of Japan that I find negative it is this overbearing sense of nervousness. I'm sure you know what I mean. That scurrying and near-hyperventilation that accompanies most services and almost any sudden interaction between insiders and outsiders (not just Gaijin but anyone who might be considered non-household or friend). It seems that even the most innocuous situations, such as two housewives with kids at the same day care center meeting suddenly, are punctuated by this display of stress and tension.

Now, I understand that there is a 'cultural' factor involved to some extent here.This formalistic ritual expresses concern in Japan, that one is being attentive and actively involved in the other's sphere. Obsequiousness (is that even a word?) is a type of positive politeness, and a cool, relaxed exterior may be interpreted as a lack of concern for the other, that one is being lackadaisical or slovenly in one's relations. And as a cultural trait that's fine. Service is generally excellent in Japan, albeit over-laboured, and I have rarely met an arrogant or standoffish Japanese person in the service industry as a result.

But when students are taking a test they are not thinking about politeness or carrying out a social ritual. They are not partaking in the rites of 'Japanese culture'. They are all a-flutter merely because they are having a test. As a result one sees:
- students who almost completely lose their voice, on the verge of choking
- students who make a hash of the most basic patterns, the ones they've been absorbing for years
- students constantly breaking the lead on their 'shar-pens' due to excessive nervous force
- students becoming confused to the point of panic when hearing instructions such as, "Write your name on the top line of the chart"
- students writing the first stroke of an alphabet letter four times and erasing it each time for no apparent reason
- students dropping their bags and other goods off the desk after hurriedly placing them half on, half off
- students actively mopping their brows- the only times I ever see them sweating profusely

...this sort of thing. It's just too much. I mean, a certain amount of nervousness can spur one to a better result in many endeavours but too many students I've met here have it to the point of complete debilitation. In fact, you think that many would be so used to facing big exams that mine would be a yawner.

Anyway, this has negative applications outside the English classroom. Excessive J nerves when dealing with NJs can be annoying and sour relations. Communication becomes belaboured, artificial and awkward. The upshot of this is that many would rather duck away from an NJ rather than even risk the possibility of interaction (like the person who won't sit next to an NJ on the train out of fear that the NJ might possibly ask them a question in English).

It can come across as standoffish, self-absorbed, and exclusive when there is no such intention. For example, if you look at those (very, very rare) cases in which J business establishments have erected exclusionary signs the explanation/justification is almost always not that the person responsible had a pathological hatred of Gaijin, but rather 'couldn't speak English' or didn't know how to 'deal with foreigners' (Note- I'm not saying that these are legitimate excuses, but they are real). NJs make them nervous---- but as a result of trying to save face they end up coming across to the wider world even worse.

I've also noticed that Japanese people who make a lot of NJ friends tend to be those who are calm, cool, collected, and radiate what I might call that 'surfer bravura'. I find students who are not so tightly wound and wired to be much more pleasant to deal with. And the students who take my role play tests and try to engage me, the patient, with natural warmth and carry out normal interactive skills inevitably end up with higher grades for the test- not directly as a reward for having a desirable personality trait but because such students are more able to think on their feet, to adjust to the flow of the role-play content, and to find a way to circumnavigate tricky grammatical or lexical items.

But the question for you- dear readers- is... how can we reduce this high-tension sweat fest without removing any sense of challenge and authenticity (read: open-ended dynamic language use) from the classroom?

2) Creativity- Thinking inside the box

The theme for this year's national JALT Conference is, "Creativity- Think Outside the Box".
Hmmm. This bothers me for a number of reasons:

1. The term "thinking outside the box" is an old, drab, hackneyed cliche. Surely, if one wishes to address the issue of creativity one could conjure up a more original description?

2. People who like to use the phrase "think outside the box" generally attribute this skill to themselves and deny it to 'society', 'people' and anyone with any power or authority. And personally I've found that the self-platitude is inevitably a mismatch. In short, every mother's son believes that they "think outside the box".

3. This phrase reflects the dubious notion that creativity is indelibly tied with non-conformity or separation from confines, as if only outsider status confers the gift of creativity. To be frank here I find that a rather sophomoric, even naive, understanding of how a creative mind works.

4. People tend to make this claim about their ideological opponents- no matter what the ideology.

5. Real creativity, it seems to me, involves thinking from inside the box. We all live or have to work within box-like confines in one way or another and an undue emphasis on doing something 'different' is not always the most beneficial solution to a problem or the most endearing artistic expression of our lot. Creativity can easily be manifested by dealing with questions such as, "How can I re-arrange the contents of this box in a manner that most benefits myself and the others?" or "What contents of this box have the inherent ability to be manipulated into various shapes and relations- and which combinations of that will best allow problems to be resolved or truths to be expressed"?.

A great deal of twentieth-century art of all types has benefited from looking at the standard box, the detritus of normal life, and finding inspiration in the re-arrangement of the mundane, giving it voice through the commonplace, and ultimately finding creative expression in its repackaging of the banal. Show me that Brillo box again, Andy. I think I see something in it.

Kind of like this mini-treatise on creativity, if you will (wink wink).

3) Self-introductions- Bah!

Why on earth do English teachers in Japan pound the students with practice in giving self-introductions? Useless and boring? Indeed! Let me count the ways...

1. It is not a part of any naturally-occuring discourse. I have never in my life as a genuine, red-blooded native speaker of English given a self-introduction. The only time people carry this farce out is in EFL classes.

2. Self-introductions are inevitably boring because no one cares about the details and/or will not be able to remember 90% of what was said two minutes later anyway.

3. They take way too much time and, as such, are just a self-indulgent conceit. I've seen numerous 'International Symposiums' or round circles of some sort held in Japan where you have 15 people performing this pitiful soliloquy for several minutes each before you get to the actual topic of discussion, which by now has been now drained of any vitality.

4. Most people say the same thing or the bleeding obvious. For example, a foreign professor is meeting 4th year students at X university and each student duly says: "I am a 4th year student at X university". You don't say now!

5. I know that self-introductions may allow students to learn and practice basic identity statements. But if we want them to do so let's at least place them in the most appropriate discourse package. That is this: people reveal relevant self-information when they are asked for it or when the time seems right between interlocutors.

So, if I meet Dr. Y at a post-presentation wine & cheese doodad and start chatting, we may talk about any topic at hand. And at some point I may extend myself by saying, "By the way, I'm Mike". Now if Dr. Y wants to know where I come from, what I do for a living, or what my favourite type of Weisse beer is (Weihenstephan), I will wait until he asks, or there is sufficient reason to mention this. Otherwise I'm just a walking textbook pretending to engage in 'internationalization' by telling others data about myself.

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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.

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July 01, 2011

How to talk to Japanese women- EFL Version

I can imagine that some readers might have arrived here after Googling "How to meet Japanese girls" or some such thing. If you have, you've probably come to the wrong place. This is about how to manage English classes that are all, or predominantly, female in Japan. (In my university medical courses the M-FD ratio is about 55% M, 45% F. In Nursing classes it is 85% F. In the few classes I teach outside the university the Fs make up about 90%).

Let me start with what should be obvious-- the dynamics of female-dominated and male-dominated classes in Japan are palpably different (ask F teachers who teach all-male classes). Anyone standing in denial of this has probably not been in a Japanese university-level classroom (and is probably the type of person who thinks that Finnish and Brazilian cultures are pretty much the same because, hey, they're all just people).

Yes, it's true that neither classrooms nor genders are monolithic entities...
And yes, there are males who display some traits that we might normally apply to females- and vice versa. Yes, individual, idiosyncratic, psychological make up is always a significant factor-- but none of these change the fact that the general flow, rhythm, and atmosphere of all-female classes are not the same as with the men. So yes, some generalizations will ensue. And keep in mind that these comments are about Japanese students in an EFL classroom- they are not meant to represent all women. The interpretation as to which elements are gender-based and which are cultural or even domain-centered (the EFL classroom) is variable. So, YMMV.

All of this becomes especially pronounced when the teacher of the F-dominated class is a male, which is obviously the perspective I am taking today. After all, since I have never, to the best of my knowledge, been a female I cannot say anything meaningful about F teacher-F student dynamics.

So, how does the presence of overwhelming femaleness (dare I say feminimity?) affect classroom management? What adjustments or considerations should the M-teacher take into account? Here are 8 hints I can offer based on twenty years of dealing with numerous F-dominant classes in Japan, man of the teaching world that I am:

1. remembering JF names
All students want you to remember their names. It's validating-- they've made an impression upon your consciousness. But you know the situation-- you're walking down the hall and you see three of your students. You greet two by name but the third one eludes you. Most M students don't have a lot of trouble with this but the Fs take it very seriously. There is an almost automaic "He doesn't remember my name because he hates me and thinks I'm ugly and stupid and he remembers hers because he thinks she is pretty" quality in response to sensei not remembering JF names.

The (partial) solution? Make an extended effort to remember the names of quiet, simple, plain, unobtrusive Fs. They will very much appreciate this. The ones with big personalities or hairdos know you will remember their names soon anyway. And no one can claim that you are remembering names based on some vavoom or pizzaz factor.

2. notes/comprehensive detail
JFs are much neater and more organized than JMs in terms of sharp, crisp, clean note-taking and highlighting. This probably extends worldwide. JFs are usually much more comprehensive and careful about detail as well but this fastidiousness can actually hurt them. How?

Take the erasing fetish for example. JFs will often wipe out an entire sentence in order to 'fix' what, to them, is a poorly drawn dot on an i. Brainstorming sessions where "write six words you associate with summer" is written on the board will begin with her writing her name, student number, and "write six words you associate with summer" on a sheet of very new paper that she has carefully removed from her binder from deep within her bag, long after the scheduled brainstorming task time has passed.

Making a 'no erasers' rule and keeping strict time on such tasks may eliminate this unproductive behaviour.

3. cliques and partnering; chattering
I'll agree with a popular stereotype here. F students form cliques- and stand by them- more quickly and deeply than males and, related to this, will use more class time to chatter. Speech-based tasks make this clear. Many students, M and F, will quickly finish the task (often in a slipshod way). Ms will usually kick back or veg out at this point whereas Fs will almost inevitably extend the speaking task-- into personal chatter in Japanese. Sometimes when this happens the teacher assumes that the students are still dilligently on task.

Solutions? Partner or group students outside cliques or circles of friends (in mixed classes M-F pairs are great for getting both members to concentrate on the task). When extended chatter occurs sit down next to the pair as if to be 'listening in' on the task. They'll soon stop. Also- let students know that a task should be continued until a certain time and a have a follow up task or extension at hand to keep the chat devil away from those idle lips.

4. scolding/giving back bad results or re-tests
"Hell hath no fury...". Shakespeare was an EFL teacher in Japan it seems. Obviously humiliating students is never kosher but sometimes a firm hand is required-- hopefully to benefit the students as opposed to merely providing an outlet for the teacher's frustration. IMO, generally, males take scoldings much better than females. Perhaps they view it as a positive challenge. Many Ms seem to have been exposed to verbal tongue-lashings in clubs previously and thus take it in stride.

This is rarely so with Fs who will remember your vitriol for a long time, take it very personally-- possibly as an attack on her whole person-- and even drag her friends into an anti-teacher hatefest. Taking extreme care in scolding or critcism extends to giving back poor results or calling for re-tests. Some Ms seem to take doing poorly in English almost as a badge of male honour. The Fs do not. Feedback regarding poor work should be discrete and encouraging. That is a good rule for all negative feedback but doubly so for Fs.

5. dealing with Leggy Keiko/commenting on appearances
I'm sure that some male reader have scanned precisely to this spot. Fair enough. M teachers will know the experience of going into the JF classroom and being confronted by a pair of ostentatiously displayed legs or three, within obvious eyeshot (of course being the consummate professional I've only heard about this...). You will tell yourself, "Don't look at the legs! don't look at the legs" which is like telling yourself not to think of little pink elephants- now you are more conscious of little pink elephants than ever. Whatever your sex or sexual orientation, when there's an attractive person in the room you can't easily ignore her/him any more than you can put that sinister-looking, strung-out guy who's sitting behind you on the bus out of mind. You may even start to move like you've got a herniated disc in your neck in order to avoid gaping.

No less an authority than the wife has told me that the Fs always know it when a male takes a sidelong glance. Now, the lady showing lotsa leg may not care too much, she may be used to-- and may to some extent relish-- men checking her out. But every other student in the class will notice your roving eye and the resulting interpretation will less likely be "Sensei is a guy being a guy" than "Sensei is a randy pervert". Harsh, but true. Keep in mind that Leggy Keiko is not dressing up for your entertainment. Leggy Keiko thinks of you as a teacher first and has certain expectations about how a teacher should act. Ogling her probably diminishes your status in her legs... umm... mind.

It should go without saying that commenting on JF appearances can be a minefield. Make that a minefiled covered in eggshells. Everyone likes to hear compliments about how they look or have their new hairstyle/costly accessory/rad fahion statement noticed but let's face it-- there's a fine line between being pleasantly complimentary and coming across as a drooling lech who's paying just a little too much attention-- and we all know Ms who are completely oblivious to this line.

I've experienced awkward follow ups in the past by telling a F she had got a nice tan over the summer (she was on the rowing team but in fact wanted to be pasty white like many JFs so she didn't take it well), another that she looked like a young Kate Bush (She was an uncannily dead ringer!), and telling yet another that she could pass for a Thai or Filipina. The latter is a compliment from me but for what seem like socio-ethnic reasons I don't want to get into here, it didn't go down well. I now err on the side of saying too little unless I'm quite familiar with the student. I understand that it may come off that sensei's just paying a little too much attention to you- and is thus a bit creepy.

6. light talk and bad jokes from M teachers/teacher centredness
I've noticed that some M teachers seem to treat F students as if they are deserving of lighter, more frivolous talk or class content (whether in the hallway, ESS club, or classroom) than M students- a near dumbing down of interactions or topics, as if real women want to discuss nothing more than buying shoes and movie stars. Yes, I have noticed this in my own (past) behaviour too. Big mistake--Fs will really chew on a challenging, invigorating topic-- and of course being treated as intellectually and academically capable.

The same goes for treating Fs as a ready-made audience for bad jokes. I know that I'm riffing upon a stereotype here, but many Ms like to assume positions of authority with Fs. One way of buttressing the already-authoritative teacher's role is to reinforce yourself as the center of attention and assuage the ego by conflating this with admiration. The M teacher thinks the ladies will automatically laugh at his witty bon mots and in fact JF will often do so-- dutifully taking on the good audience role. It doesn't mean that your jokes really are funny, or even welcome, though. And we all know how teacher-centredness ranks on the scale of methodological no-nos.

7. being cavalier; pachi pachi eyes
In F only or F dominated classes the ladies will often be more cavalier in terms of behaviour, speech, and posture. This is not because of the presence of the M teacher but in spite of him-- they've forgotten that there are males present and therefore drop many so-called ladylike mannerisms. Consider it a privilege to see the inner workings of the JF natives on display. Don't spoil it by getting too close.

Having said that, there are still those who will treat the M teacher with exceptional male-only attention. This includes making coquettish poses and pachi-pachi eyes, especially if you look like you might be about to scold them. Call it culture if you want, but some JF students deal with most males this way- it's what they consider appropriate role-playing. No, it's not a singles-bar type of advance, Romeo.

This latter type of behaviour can negatively impact the teacher's small group or pair monitoring. On numerous occasions, I've sat near a pair or group of JF students to check how they're handling the task when they suddenly all turn to me as if, being both a teacher and a M, I must be there to lead, to assume authority, to tell them something. At this point I've become a 'jama' a bother or annoyance and they become passive. Eavesdropping nearby while pretending to do something else may be more effective.

8. room temperatures; 'stomach aches'
When a F student complains of a stomach ache in class let her leave to deal with it without prying. I shouldn't have to explain why but some Ms are (perhaps understandably) oblivious to feminine...discomfort.

JFs also seem to be more sensitive to classroom temperatures with what seems like a 0.1 degree range of comfort. Many are either fanning themselves like British explorers in the Sudan or shivering under Grandma's handmade quilts when even a moderate amount of air-con is applied. Encourage the Scott-of-the-Antarctic mimics to move to a desk that isn't directly beneath the air-con flow.

Is this the final word on JF students? Obviously not. If I've missed something important or you disagree with some item feel free to have your say.

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September 14, 2012

English as Imperialism- beating a dead horse with ELF

I don’t expect English speakers to look or sound like me. After all, that guy in front of me in the security line at Seoul's Incheon Airport last week- where was he from? I’d guess Romania or Bulgaria. Hungary perhaps. And he was speaking English to the Korean official. And at the plane entrance there was a woman I’d identify as Thai or Indochinese discussing some matter with the Turkish purser. In English of course.

All the English I heard was ‘accented’ (a loaded term, I know) and offered up the occasional missed article or misplaced pronoun-- but all the speakers were competent in communicating their needs. It was both efficient and successful.

It probably comes as no surprise to most readers that non-native speakers of English outnumber native speakers and that business, politics, art, academia, sport, and even words of love are carried out the world over by Lithuanians talking to Brazilians, Zaireans to Vietnamese… in English. This implies that new standards and norms arise. International intelligibility replaces native-like competency as a learning goal. Tony Blair and Barack Obama need not be your language role models.

A new, paradoxical reality

I’ve blogged about the emergence of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) here before, as well as in the Daily Yomiuri. This is not new stuff. But as English becomes woven indelibly into the fabric of international communication a new, rather paradoxical, reality emerges:
The old discourse about English as an agent of imperialism is a dead horse.

How's that, you ask? Isn’t the fact that all these non-native English speakers are compelled to communicate in a foreign tongue a perfect example of linguistic hegemony?

Not really. First keep in mind that these common, widespread examples are NNS-NNS interactions. There is no power differential here, as there may be in an NS-NNS exchange. They are on equal, neutral ground. Second, this emerging new ELF belongs to them. They create and negotiate this language. They are now its owners. I have my little piece of English property (North American variety) and they have their own English territory too. I won’t pee on their linguistic lawns.

The old paradigm- Anglos and ownership of English

The old paradigm of English as an agent of imperialism assumed the NS-NNS dimension as normative. It is ironic that Phillipson or Pennycook (the auto-quote sources when it comes to the ‘imperialism’ school) seem to implicitly assume that Anglo-Americans own the language and by way of financial, military, or political power and influence, foist it upon others.

OK, the fact that English has emerged as the international go-to language as a by-product of imperialism, hard version or soft, is beyond historical doubt-- but now that linguistic play dough is putty in the hands of others. It’s not our toy anymore and we can’t take it home with us. It’s like the train system that the British established in India-- that’s Indian state-owned railway now. End of story.

The flight I referred to earlier took me to an international English studies conference in Istanbul. There, several hundred specialists, academicians, and linguists engaged in seminars, lectures, hands-on sessions and the like. I’d estimate that Anglo-Americans made up about, oh, 2% of all attendees. Macedonians argued with Italians, Egyptians held discussions with Danes, Croats lectured to a potpourri of other continental nationals. In English. In their own way, not like a newsreader from Minneapolis or Bristol. As hard as I looked I didn’t see a lot of ‘imperalizin’ goin’ down. What I saw was a variety of ideas and ideologies being shared and expressed. Assuming that Japanese people in Japan are somehow obliged to speak to me in English would be imperialistic. A Japanese footballer giving tactical advice to a Slovenian teammate in the same tongue is hardly so. You can see the difference.

World Englishes- the polar opposite of ELF

Let me shift gears here a little now to clarify something about the World Englishes debate. You’ve all likely heard of the movement to accept and preserve local varieties of English, that Philippine English, Pastikani English, Singaporean English, and Caribbean English are all perfectly legitimate and intelligible language systems, often infused with local colour. Well, ELF is not about that. The World Englishes meme is all about accepting and recognizing differences. ELF, on the other hand, is about developing a unified form, a standard that makes disparate L1 speakers mutually intelligible, just not one based upon the Anglo-American model.

In other words, World Englishes is about legitimizing local disparity, whereas ELF is all about cross-national communication, defined by its speakers. Singlish (Singaporean English) speakers using their local patois when addressing, say, Belizeans are not likely to succeed—which is precisely what is implied by the term ‘local variety’-- its utility is limited, insular. But if there is some common ground, preferably one that doesn’t force them to sound like Jeremy Irons, communication will be more successful.

Fanciful notions of language as a moral agent

I have another bone to pick here too. I have always been bothered by how the ‘English as a tool of Imperialism’ forces have often mischaracterized language, perhaps willfully so. What I am referring to here is the fanciful, and scientifically absurd, notion that by learning English you also automatically absorb some of its foundational cultural values—that language means (or is somehow 'identifiable' with) ideology, culture, and belief systems. Besides the monolithic view that cultures have set 'values', there are so many problems with this simplistic association that it’s hard to know where to start.

I suppose the biggest fallacy is anthropomorphism, assuming that an entity such as a language has motives and intentions, that it is a de facto moral agent. Only animate objects, and perhaps viruses, can be said to have these qualities. All languages can express a wide variety of beliefs and ideas. It’s self-evidently far from true that every English speaker has the socio-political slant of a Mitt Romney. Virulent anti-Western, anti-Imperialist, anti-Capitalist scribes have been penned in English around the globe. It’s not like there is something indigenous to the language that somehow forces you to shop at Walmarts or invest in hedge funds. Saying so would be akin to believing that eating Chinese food in Dublin will somehow make the eater more sympathetic to the Chinese Communist party. In fact, this entire ‘viral’ view of language reminds me of Monty Python’s Deadly Joke sketch (the one that causes readers to die laughing), in which it is stated that a police officer happened to see a few words of the joke, leading him to spend several days in hospital.

Magical incantations and Potter-esque spells

It also imbues language with magical, incantational qualities. There’s something Harry Potter-esque about the notion that mastering verb declensions or relative clauses in English leads to imparting certain modes of thought. Chant the magic spell and presto, you too will become a middle class Caucasian complete with his or her big sack o’ values.

The fact that English entrenches itself deeper as a true ELF with each passing day attests to the absurdity of the view that the global use of English serves as a subtle conduit for Home County or Midwestern values. So does the fact that local Englishes worldwide absorb and reflect the local culture, not that of, say, Portland.

Reflection or creator of cultures and ideas?

Ah ha! the critic might say at this point. If I admit that language reflects the local culture, doesn’t English then reflect the values of its dominant culture (Anglo-American)? The answer is a qualified yes. Anglo-American English reflects Anglo-American culture. The specific, local language is certainly derived from the surrounding local culture. But it doesn't create that culture.

For example, Japanese keigo (honorific/respect forms) reflects a social hierarchy that is less evident in Anglo-American culture. Hence, Japanese employs terms like kacho, bucho, shacho (all types of ‘bosses’) who, in turn, require certain verbal inflections and address forms when spoken to. But while may one use these within the Japanese language/cultural milieu it doesn’t automatically make the speaker more respectful or humble or somehow create a sense of honouring thy superior. Hey, I use the forms too in Japanese-- in many cases towards people that I feel are cretins (and I can assure that almost all Japanese do the same).

We can discuss certain Anglo-American cultural benchmarks in Anglo-American English clearly because our variety has evolved to reflect that which is socially or culturally pertinent (as does any language). And you know what? We can trash and critique and scoff at those cultural benchmarks in our English too because the language, any language, allows you to do so! Being able to reference it (shared culture) doesn't mean you buy into it (shared ideas, values, beliefs). The ability to identify or define doesn't imply a value statement. And when English is used in Jamaica or Hong Kong or Malta it will reflect the foundations of those cultures too.

Why? Because the language I use belongs to me, I don’t belong to it. And when Yuki, Consuelo, and Mehmet communicate across borders in English, it belongs to them too. ELF- it’s very democratic. Everyone can be an owner.

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November 06, 2012

What's Wrong With Language Death?

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of diversity. Being a bit of a beer geek I cannot stomach the thought of a world in which only fizzy, yellow, industrial lagers existed (also known as 'the 70's'). As an avid listener of oddball music, the idea of a sonic universe in which only top 40 hits can be heard gives me the shivers. And, as an inveterate traveler, the entire thrill of heading into the great unknown is based entirely upon engaging something different and being stimulated by the challenge. And that includes the buzz I get when I'm surrounded by the cadences and sonorities of foreign tongues.

So the term 'diversity' has positive connotations to be sure but, since it is a bit of a pop philosophy buzzword, we should not assume that it constitutes a self-sufficient argument, a magical incantation or formula, for desirability or correctness. Sometimes unity is called for, sometimes a singularity of method or purpose is the most efficient means to an end. After all, I've submitted research papers for publication that are said to be too unfocused, lacking rhetorical unity, Vishnu-esque arms of discourse spreading out in all directions. I'm not going to tell the editor that this is a good thing, that I've done this deliberately in the name of diversity. Nor do you want all eleven players on the soccer pitch doing their own little runs for the sake of 'strategic diversity'.

Maybe we can say the same about languages. Sure, we have an emotional resonance to words like 'diversity' and language 'death' but is that sufficient to support the preservation of dying languages? This Columbia University linguist for one doesn't think so. And while I don't want the world to morph into a single patois it's hard to deny that life would be a hell of a lot more efficient if it were to happen.

Museum-pieces, quaint collectibles, and middle-class western conceits...

The fact that I like hearing myriad languages in my travels is probably a bit of self-indulgence on my part. I find them to be indicative of 'local colour'- they serve my traveller's sense of amusement. So perhaps I am guilty of treating them like museum-pieces, quaint collectibles, a middle-class western conceit. You know where this is going-- that we might be prone to keeping the comatose tongue alive on artificial life support because of the collector culture's need to preserve.

Languages have died, morphed, and melded since the first caveman grunts were snorted. And relative linguistic attrition is a fact of modern life as people have greater means of communicating and the ability to migrate. We can't pretend that the world is an amalgam of isolated villages no matter how quaint that may seem. Languages die because presumably there is no need for them anymore (which makes language death distinct from ecological diversity arguments where natural balances found in diversity need to be kept). The necessity to keep a language alive must have more functionality than life-support provided by anthropological gawkers.

If Korean were the global language...

But does this mean that the evolution of languages will lead inexorably to the global use of a single tongue (let's say, English, because that is the horse which has already bolted from the barn)? No. There is no reason to believe that major regional or national languages are under threat. Japanese, Portuguese, and Turkish are not going to disappear during any time frame that we are able to comprehend.

Of course one could argue that I'm likely to be insensitive to language death, considering that my mother tongue is the dominant species. Ok, so I'll try to imagine how I would feel if the dominant language was not my own but, for the sake of argument, Korean (unlike Kanji, Hangul is a script that lends itself to potentially widespread dissemination). And if English was now spoken only by a handful of people in my own neighbourhood, how would I feel?

To be honest, I think that to some extent that would be pretty cool- having a near private language that almost no outsider could access. I would also be very pissed off- that is if my family, community or education authorities had not encouraged or persuaded me to become proficient in the dominant lingua-franca, in this case Korean.

And what would that dominant Korean be like? Well, it sure wouldn't be like the Korean spoken in Korea now-- that's for sure. By the time each local area had their way with the language and had injected their local communicative needs into the tongue it would be, ironically, a diverse Korean, reflecting the local colour as opposed to creating it. The language isn't going to turn Samoans into Seoul-suited salarymen-- rather they'll turn Korean into something that seems more Samoan-flavoured.

'Identity' as middle-class Western armchair sociology

But with the impending loss of my native tongue what about my 'identity'? Wouldn't I be losing my identity as a member of the English-speaking community if my language died out? Wouldn't this be traumatic? Not really.

'Identity' is another of those middle-class Western armchair-sociologist concepts that has found credence in the common parlance, so that concerned people like to toss it out frequently, but are not really sure what it actually means. It just sounds like the 'right thing' to say. And we tend to ascribe 'identity' language issues to isolated minorities more readily because presumably we see them as frail, simple folk-- our typically reductionist projections as to how other people are supposed to feel. And apparently, these 'natives' are so weak that if their linguistic branch is cut off the roots of the whole tree will wither. This is what 'we' of course say about how they must feel. (Ironically, a Sri-Lankan presenter at the recent national JALT Conference made a similar remark about the ubiquity of this 'identity' concept ascribed to him after he had gone to the US, but was pretty much alien to the Sri Lankan ethos).

Here's my take on 'identity'. My identity, like yours, is formed by my experiences. So, my experiences living in Japan and in worldwide travel have formed a good chunk of my identity but my learning and using the Japanese language regularly hasn't. The language is a by-product of those identity-creating experiences, not the cause of them. Think of identity as a tree with experience as the trunk, then branching off into numerous branches of identity. One of these associated experiential branches is the code- the language. Cut that branch off, as immigrants often do when they leave for foreign shores, doesn't mean that the whole tree dies. (Claim that it does and I'll put you in bed with linguistic nationalists). The brain is a little more malleable than that, and I'll try to assume that the brains of those who speak dying languages aren't somehow simpler than mine.

The old 'disappearing culture' canard

And here's an interesting point. I have a greater sense of emotional tie to my 'new' language, Japanese, than I do to English. I start to miss Nihongo when I'm away from the country for long, I want to use it, it sounds pleasantly warm and comforting once I arrive in the immigration halls at the airport. The point is, there is no reason to believe that only mother tongue offers a sense of warmth and emotional comfort.

I'm trying to think of other objections too. One would likely be the old canard that when a language dies a whole way of life, a whole culture dies with it. I don't buy this. Surely culture, ideology, thoughts transcend language. The most obvious example is Latin. The language is dead but would anyone want to say that the culture legacy that emanated from the Latin world have been lost to perpetuity? The language of ancient Greece is an ex-language too but does anybody want to say that the associated ideology and culture have been erased from the annals of human history?

Language as repository of history and ideological determinant

Speaking of history, David Crystal speaks of the need to preserve languages as repositories of history. But this seems to be an inadvertent concession to the fact that it's the history, not the language, that is important-- that the language is only a means to the more intrinsic historical end. And histories can be written down in another language and preserved that way.

This is, of course, unless you prescribe to the Sapir-Whorfian notion that languages are so tightly embedded into individual consciousness that certain ideas can only be conceived and communicated in one language and not when another is used as the medium of communication. I've railed against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis on many occasions (and you can scroll down a little to see some of my arguments reproduced against this deservedly much-maligned theory).

Finally, one might argue that certain local idioms, which are rich but cannot be translated wholly into another tongue, would be lost. This may be true. But would anyone really want to argue that the loss of English idioms like 'raining cats and dogs', 'carpetbaggers', or to 'cry crocodile tears' would actually impoverish human culture as a whole? And would those who mourn the loss of such cultural bulwarks not actually be crying crocodile tears?

Addendum: Mike's handy-dandy Sapir-Whorf arguments-

1. Whorfians regularly commit category errors. For example the undeniable mutual causal relationship between language and thought in general becomes twisted into languageS (plural) and individual thoughtS (ditto). The human capacity for language and thought in general is a completely different animal from Spanish, Tagalog, Korean et al and he individual thoughts, beliefs, behaviours etc. that humans manifest. Their qualities and features and not transferable.

2. Whorfians confuse correlation with causation. The fact that descriptions of current capital systems are founded in English and are adopted as loan words in other languages and/or is referenced across the business world (correlation between language and practice) hardly implies that using that language legitimizes or endorses all the practices found therein (causation- that the language causes the belief or value system). This fallacy occurs so often that my desk has a little dent from me hitting my head on it.

3. There is a nasty inconsistency in the application of the hypothesis. Most 'English as Imperialist' fans (rightly) decry the old notions propagated by agents of the empire, that English somehow embedded higher, nobler thought, that it enabled science, progress, democracy. But the same people do believe however that English enables pernicious Anglo-American military-industrial values to be transmitted. English, it seems, is a conduit only for the values they oppose. Strange. What this looks like to me is politics masquerading as linguistics, with the politics taking priority and linguistics unsurprisingly 'uncovering' examples that suit their agenda.

4. Sapir-Whorf is a Pandora's Box for prejudices and bigots. You know, “You can’t negotiate with Arabs because they have no word for compromise and are therefore incapable of grasping the concept”. That sort of thing. We get this sometimes in Japan, linguistic nationalists who believe that non-Japanese couldn’t possibly grasp a concept that doesn’t have a matching single lexical cognate in English, and english speakers arguing similarly about irony and so forth, where the Japanese language has no single item.

5. I agree with Steven Pinker’s famous debunking of Sapir-Whorf as being tautological, that basically one finds what one is looking for in that ‘exotic’ language because one has already assumed the existence of the causal arrows. This is one of the main reasons it is not taken very seriously in linguistics these days.

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