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The Uni-Files - internationalization Archive

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

February 10, 2010

Nationalism, 'Moral' Education, and English

"Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind”
“Nationalism, in my opinion, is nothing more than an idealistic rationalization for militarism and aggression.”

You might want to note the source of the above quotes: Albert Einstein

I'm sympathetic to this viewpoint. Nationalism is irrational and, in my opinion, little more than misplaced narcissism- projecting one's uncertain self onto a bigger entity, the nation. It tends to inculcate an us vs. them mentality, one that is devoid of deeper philosophical principles and based mostly upon primal tribal loyalties. In short, it is a gang mentality. The fact that you were born into a country/race/culture is quite an accident. It's not as if you somehow achieved it. My instinct is that those who look to membership in a nation or race as a source of personal pride must be lacking in terms of real personal achievement.

Whenever I meet someone who says, “I’m proud of my race/country” I feel uneasy because it’s really just extended egoism (what a shocking coincidence that the country you think is the greatest just happens to be the one you were born into!) and moreover, whether intended or not, it comes off as a type of challenge: My country can beat up your country.

Now you might be thinking, “Mike, aren’t you proud to be a Canadian”? And the answer is that being Canadian is not something I’m proud of per se (although I will be cheering madly for our hockey team at the upcoming Winter Olympics) but rather I’m glad that I’m Canadian. And I think I can be fairly objective saying this- I was lucky enough to be born into a prosperous, progressive, and stable nation (I think that Canada might be described as so by almost anyone) but it’s not anything that I personally achieved. I’m just glad that I was fortunate enough to grow up there.

OK- I can think of a few cases in which national pride might be justified (although I still instinctively feel uneasy about claims of ‘love of nation’, since 'nation' is often just a substitute for 'current regime' or 'status quo'):
- When you are officially representing your country or you have played a major role in making your country what it is
- When you make the choice to immigrate and take on the citizenship of that country
- For countries, cultures and ethnicities that have been decimated and dominated, where the people have lost a sense of self-worth, dignity or identity.

But Japan doesn’t fall into any of these categories. So I naturally feel a bit uncomfortable when I hear Japanese people talk about being patriotic, taking pride in being Japanese etc. It has nothing to do with the war record or anything like that. I simply feel uncomfortable when anyone from a strong, successful (as defined by most standard measures) country beams with national pride (which, as I’ve said, I always find to be implicitly contentious).

Japanese people already know who they are and what it means to be Japanese, quite possibly more than any nation on earth. There is no escaping Japaneseness if you were raised here. It doesn’t need any artificial buttressing, additional flag-waving or chest-thumping. Such acts seem to me to represent the pathetically forced bravado of the weak, and therefore is unbecoming of a nation like Japan, a nation that should have confidence and thereby no need for proving its self-worth.

So it is with interest that I have read of Education Ministry’s (Monkasho) attempts to foster patriotism and national pride in the past. Granted, the previous LDP administration tended to push this more so than the current Hatoyama regime (most famously the forced singing of Kimigayo and Hinomaru displays) but the current education guidelines were set in 2002 under the LDP, so any changes in the current administration’s mentality have not yet been enshrined in official guidelines.

Interlude- a few facts you should be aware of:
First, most ‘patriotic’ education is provided in classes called ‘dotoku’ (or morals) classes. The term might well make some people uncomfortable because 1) theses classes were the essential educational propaganda sessions during WW2 and 2) associating morality with love of country is a dubious enterprise. On the other hand, I have often asked my son (2nd year JHS) what goes on in ‘dotoku’ class and he has never noted anything remotely sinister, mostly content similar to guidance classes back in North America, and more of a focus on human/social problems and situations rather than pounding one’s breast to the tune of Kimigayo.

Second, Monkasho guidelines are just that- guidelines. They are not edicts. Teachers can apply them as they wish or even ignore them- and trust me, many teachers are unwilling to do Monkasho’s bidding.

Third, no such guidelines exist at all for universities. The professors and researchers would have none of it. Monkasho knows enough to stay far away from trying to influence the content of university education.

Fourth, the guidelines themselves are not so full of jingoistic rabble rousing. Here is a translation of one of the key sections on ‘dotoku’ classes found in the 2002 teachers’ guidebook (moral education guidelines):
Source: http://www.mext.go.jp/a_menu/shotou/new-cs/youryou/chukaisetsu/index.htm
“The 21st century is said to be "knowledge-based-society", in which increasing priority is placed on new knowledge, information and technology in many spheres of the society such as politics, economy, and cultures. In this kind of society, due to globalization there will be fierce global competition for ideas and human resources, while at the same time, there is an increasing need for coexistence with different cultures and civilization”.

And from another (source: http://www.mext.go.jp/a_menu/shotou/new-cs/youryou/chu/index.htm):
This basically states that moral education should be taught not only in ethic classes but also in different subjects while paying attention to the developmental stage of students. The purpose of moral education is:
"to nurture feelings of awe toward the human soul and life founded on the basic objectives of education defined in the fundamental law of education and the School Education Law" as well as:
"to create Japanese people who can respect other nations and contribute to peace and development of international society by learning the importance of the public good”In other words, an emphasis upon co-existence and cooperation permeates the document- that any sense of national pride should be subsumed under the rubrics of ‘international society’ and ‘the public good’. It’s hard to argue with that. Not nearly as insidious as some might think.

But how is patriotic education manifested in English classes? Here’s a section from:
http://www.mext.go.jp/a_menu/shotou/new-cs/youryou/eiyaku2/gai.pdf
B. Materials should be useful in deepening the understanding of the ways of life
and cultures of foreign countries and Japan, raising interest in language and
culture and developing respectful attitudes toward these.
C. Materials should be useful in deepening the international understanding from
a broad perspective, heightening students’ awareness of being Japanese
citizens living in a global community and cultivating a spirit of international
cooperation.


Regarding this, a (Japanese) high school English teacher I discussed this topic with stated:
“The guidelines for English is more balanced than other subjects like social studies and moral education. The only changes I noticed as far as I am concerned is that there is more content about Japanese people who are working outside Japan (like Sadako Ogata), or content that explains about Japanese customs or cultures, such as Japanese cuisine. There is a shift away from content based only on American cultures”.

This seems to be a move in a positive direction. Divesting students of the belief that internationalization or the English language is automatically associated with the U.S. is a welcome move (and I say this with absolutely no malice regarding the U.S.). And using internationally successful and/or significant Japanese people as topics can help students understand that Japanese can work meaningfully in the international arena.

What I hope to see teaches and administrators avoid is the old nationalistic motivation of learning English in order to explain about Japan and Japanese policies, culture and beliefs to non-Japanese. I’ve always urged my students to avoid this approach for several reasons.

For one, people no longer exist in service of their country. Students shouldn’t feel a duty to be a representative, a diplomat. Also, it may be that the individual’s beliefs, morals or habits are at odds with the alleged (often mythical) Japanese way. The notion that any given Japanese can and will represent Japanese thought implies a monolithic singularity that is nothing short of governmental hubris.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s just not effective. People want to meet people, not cultural salesmen or women. It gets a little too obvious, a little too staged, often pushy when your homestay guest pulls out his or her Japan rep manual bag of tricks. It actually works against genuine human interaction. People on the receiving end of rather forced national apologia (or equally staged ‘let’s exchange cultures’ motifs) will rightly feel they are being targeted and are thus likely to regard the perpetrator with greater distance.

Students should want to learn English so that they can communicate whatever they want to a wide variety of people, NOT so that they can merely propagate the national line. Whatever that's supposed to be.

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March 10, 2010

Some exceptional students; and one 'Debito moment'

I suppose the popular stereotype of medical students is that they are a bit nerdy, diligent and thorough, and come from fairly well-to-do families with a history of medicine in the background (Daddy runs his own clinic). As I've mentioned before, there is in fact a wide variety among our number.

Let me tell you about some students who stand out in particular:

Student Y: 5th year female. Exceptionally sociable, a real person's person. Comes from a family of seven (seven!) children and- get this- was raised by a single, welfare mother (her father was absent from the time she was born- I didn't ask why). Her mother worked at any number of odd jobs to help get her kids through school. When her daughter was accepted for medical school it was obviously a huge triumph for the family and for the mother in particular. Suffice to say that this student needs NO motivation and never seems to find the rigours of medical study to be too taxing. After all, it's probably a breeze compared to what she has already been through.

Student S: 6th year male. This is less 'inspiring' and more personally memorable. In their first year 'getting to know you' lessons students interview one another and one of the common questions is 'Who is your favourite singer/musician?'. The answers typically include the popular Western and J-pop divas, a few rap/reggae acts, the odd boy band (J or otherwise), indie J bands like Qururi or Spitz, and the odd folkie/MOR act like Kobukuro, but I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw that one completed form had 'King Crimson' listed as 'favourite musician'. Somebody in Miyazaki U. knows (and appreciates) those dissident tritones! After talking to the guy, he admitted a fondness for Van Der Graf Generator too. Ahh- back to my musically mind expanding post-high school days of the mid 70's...

Students A and K: Y is in her 5th year and K is starting his 2nd. Both come from tiny, remote islands. A is from one of those Okinawan outposts of about 500 people where the idea of going to university, let alone becoming a doctor, is rare and exotic. K comes from an island of about 100 people off a forgotten part of the Kyushu coast, accessible only by a once-a-day ferry. He's clearly a diligent and bright fellow- one of those kind who is always thinking and challenging himself. Somehow the dilligence required to succeed despite his locale followed him through junior high school where he was deemed academically fit to get full-funding to an elite boy's school in Kansai and then on to medical study...

Student E became pregnant during her second year, the father being a classmate. They did the 'right' thing, had the baby, and grew up very quickly, supporting each other and the child all while studying. Neither of them have failed a course despite now having two young children and a third on the way (!). Compared to this couple, students who think that the notorious physiology test represents the ultimate challenge don't know what tough is. Suffice to say that I would certainly trust a doctor with this much energy and gumption with my health.

We have numerous other interesting students, some with disabilities that they have to try to overcome, some who were raised abroad (of course some people in the J education system might consider THAT a disability), a few Todai grads who returned to Miyazaki wanting to become doctors, a few students who scored at the very top of the Center Shiken nationally but chose to stay in Miyazaki...However, I haven't asked their permission to mention them here (unlike those mentioned above) so I'll end this section by saying something about discretion and valour.

My 'Debito moment'

If you read this blog much you are probably aware that I'm not a big supporter of Japan's most well-known (notorious?) NJ human rights actvist (agitator/gadfly?). Debito bats about .100 for me, with about one out of every ten of his pieces in my opinion being accurate, balanced or worthy ('culture' as an overused and convenient excuse for dubious practices and the obsolescence of the koseki system being two that I agree with). But I'm sure that all NJs have our moments when we feel a bit put out by authorities in this, our adopted homeland.

This story concerns getting an international driver's license (I have a J license already) in Miyazaki. First, in filling out the international license application form I noticed a section asking us what our 'birthplace' was. Now this is tricky for me because, as you probably know, my citizenship is Canadian, as is my passport. But I was born in the U.K. (my family emigrated to Canada when I was 1 year old).
So I asked the clerk, "Why do you want to know my birthplace?".
"Because your citizenship must be noted on the license", she replied.
"But what if my birthplace and citizenship are different?" This took a few seconds to register with her.
"Oh. Ok. The country of your passport should be written in". I duly did so but mentioned that 'citizenship' or 'country of passport' should be the category, not 'birthplace' (you can just feel the long arm of the koseki here can't you?).

I then proceeded to the bottom part of the form where I was asked:
1. Where are you going?
2. When are you leaving and returning to Japan?
3. What is the purpose of your trip?

Now, for a driver's license this seems to me to be rather intrusive. What business is it of theirs as to why I'm going abroad, or where? This isn't the freakin' immigration office, is it? So, I told the clerk that this was private information irrelevant to issuing a license and said that I didn't want to divulge my private information in this way and so wouldn't fill that part in. I said this kindly but firmly, mentioning that I'm sure she was aware of the current importance of privacy issues in Japanese public affairs.

So she did what you could expect. She called the old Kacho guy from the adjoining office and explained it to him. I have less patience with these kind of people. You'll soon see why. He approached me and said "You have to fill this in. It's a requirement".
"Why"
"Because it's necessary"
"I'm afraid you didn't answer my question. Why is my private information, such as the reason I plan to travel abroad, necessary for a prefectural MV licensing center to know"
"Because we can't issue the license without it"
"Ummm you seem to be evading my quesition" (I then raised my voice- not in anger- but so that customers nearby could hear).
"It this because you plan to give citizen's and resident's private information to the police or immigration authorities?".
Saying this directly made him nervous, and rightly so. I didn't actually think this was the explanation but yes, I did want to rattle him.
"No. It's information like a census. If we know the applicants' travel data we can serve them better".
"Shouldn't it be voluntary then? After all this isn't North Korea, is it, where every reason for every movement has to made known to officials. Anyway, this data would already be known to immigration officials or travel agencies."
"We just collect the data, but it's not collated with the driver's personal details".
"It's not the Edo Period, where you couldn't move without permission from authorities, right? It's Heisei 22 and Japan is a democrracy, right?". (Now I was sounding like Debito. Yikes!)
"Look you don't have to write in detail. Absolutely anything you write there will do. But we can't move until you fill it in with something".
"OK".

So under "purpose" I wrote "private". Under destination I wrote "various" (this makes sesnse of course because the license is valid for a year and therefore for multiple visits. It's not like sigle permit re-entrry visa). And under 'departure and retuirn dates' I wrote that day's date (although I am not due to leave until later in March). He took the form away for processing.

I then asked the clerk, "I'm sorry about this but privacy is a current issue I'm sure you know and none of this seems relevant for a prefectural driver's license office. So as a resident and as a customer (you pay ¥2680 for the license) I'd like to make a complaint about this application form and ask that these questions be abolished in the future. Please mention this to your superiors or however you may process complaints. Oh- and one question. I'm curious. Do Japanese people sometimes complain about these questions?"
"Yes," she responded, "a few".
"Thank you", I said, "So please pass my comments on".

A few days later some beefy men in sunglasses in an official DMV car came to my home, demanded to see my passport, and tore out my Japanese visa. They also ridiculed my wife for being impure in marrying a foreigner and my children for being of mixed blood. Then, upon leaving, one added that 'Only Japan has four seasons' (I'M JOKING!!!)

But I admit that I did do myself in a bit. By being obstinate about the departure date I inadvertently caused that date to be named as the starting date of my license's validation, and not the day I leave- as a result I waste about three weeks' validity. Of course, instead of asking the intrusive "departure and return from Japan" question they should just ask, "From which date would you like validation to begin?".

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April 05, 2010

Classroom Nurse/Doctor discrmination? You bet! PLUS comments on the Foreign Nurses' EPA Trainee Program in Japan

Two sections today.

The first section is an outline of an interesting discussion I had with a ranking Faculty of Nursing member at our university regarding the controversial EPA agreement completed between Japan and the Philippines/Indonesia, in whichnurses from those countries are able to come to Japan to 'work' as trainees- but with a three-year time limit, unless they are able to pass the standardized Japanese nursing examination in Japanese. This program has been criticized by several pundits in the Western media plus many web-based Japan-oriented sites but there may be more to it than meets the eye, or at least the usual uninformed knee-jerk polemic that tends to surround public debate on such issues. (Those wishing to look at some survey stats on how Japanese hospital officials actually feel about the issue might want to peruse this.

The second section (with that eye-catching title) elaborates on why I discrminate in my classroom between doctors (or at least medical students) and nursing students.
But let's start with the Foreign Trainee Nursing Program EPA discussion.

Part one- The Nursing EPA Foreign Trainee Program

I had a chance to discuss the program's merits/demerits and surrounding details the highest-ranking individual in terms of introducing and administering the program at our university hospital. So far, they haven't introduced it here- and probably won't under the present circumstances. Here's the lowdown:

Me: Some commentators see the 'three years only' rule as unfairly limiting and ultimately leading to a de facto revolving door, use-'em-and-discard-'em, disposable nurse program where only Japan benefits from cheap labour.

Response: That's just nonsense, although I too have heard some foreign reports saying this. First it is a bilateral program. The terms of the program were hammered out in conjunction with the Ministries of Health in the Philippines and Indonesia. And they all agreed on the time limitation. Do you know why? Because they trained these skilled nurses for service in their own country, at their own expense. They don't want a brain drain, to lose them to richer countries. They want them to learn abroad, and of course it is expected that foreign currency will be remitted home, but officials in those countries most certainly do NOT want to see the fruits of their labour disappear abroad.

Me: Some commentators see it as a way of limiting immigration or assimilation into allegedly xenophobic Japanese society.

Response: The Ministry of Health worked out this agreement, not the Department of Immigration. They are worlds apart. It's strange that some people would confuse the two. But foreigners often see Japan as one big unit, like Japan Inc. It's a kind of prejudice or misunderstanding I think.

Me: But wouldn't a longer program provide an answer to Japan's nurse shortage? And wouldn't it therefore ease the burden on Japanese nurses?

Response: Not really. In fact, the program creates more work for Japanwese nurses.

Me: How so?

Response: The foreign trainees have limited Japanese or no Japanese language skills at all at first. That's just a fact. Now, a nurse's job is typically made up of four parts. First, housekeeping. Second, physical treatment and therapeutic administration. Third, personal care ('wellness') and fourth, paperwork. Paperwork is a huge part, especially nowadays with electronic charts. But unless a foregn trainee is fluent in Kanji they could not possibly do the paperwork. Treatment and administration also have huge liability issues so the foreign traineees are unable to carry out those duties. A mistake based upon a communication misunderstanding could have enormous repercussions so they'd be excluded from that role until they have a full Japanese license.

That leaves personal care and housekeeping, less than half a regular nurses' responsibilities, that they can carry out- and even the personal care issue can be dodgy if their Japanese verbal skills are limited. Now, the problem is, if these trainee nurses are registered as being on-staff the hospital administrators are allowed to increase the patient load accordingly, because the number of nurses has officially 'increased'. But because the foreign trainees can't do the same job it simply increases the workload for the regular nursing staff. In addition, they have to train the trainees too and sometimes even have to help them learn the Japanese language. So where are the benefits for the Japanese nurses in all this?

Me: Would the foreign trainees get the same wage as a Japanese nurse?

Response: As a Japanese trainee nurse yes, but there are other factors in the agreement that may make it slightly lower. The specific hospital administration does not decide the wage. But I can tell you that the nurses' unions are creating opposition to the program since they believe that by paying a lower wage to foreign nurses that they'll be priced out of the market and replaced by cheaper foreign nurses.

Me: Is that a real possibility?

Response: They could just pay them the exact same wage but in the end that would actually turn out to cost more because the hospital has to pay for some aspects of training, housing etc. and liability issues. And hospitals are expected to avoid being in the red these days. Even with program funding fiscal perfomance is very strictly monitored. Why operate at a loss with both increased liability and tougher working conditions for the Japanese nurses?

Me: Isn't it a bit much to expect people with little experience in Japanese to pass a professional exam after only three years?

Response: It's certainly tough but that will at least weed out the less than serious candidates. But understand also that if it takes any longer to prepare for the license it means that the extra work for the Japanese nurses involved also goes on longer. And, as I said, the governments of the participating countries are very worried about a skill and brain drain.

Me: Thanks for your time.

(As you probably realize, the above exchange is both paraphrased and translated, although I can say in good conscience that I have not deviated from the original responses in any substantial manner. I also hesitate to name the person I spoke to- I'm not a reporter and this is not reporting per se. Let's just call the person a ranking university official with knowledge of the program. Finally, I encourage knowledgeable readers who feel that the information contained above is inaccurate to comment)

Part two: Why I discriminate between nursing and medical students in my classroom

Sometimes discrimination, in the purest sense of the word, makes perfect sense. It does in this case too.

No, I do not treat the nursing and med students the same. I use different content, have different expectations and employ different evaluation criteria. Here's why:

1. The medical students are academically more proficient.
95% of Med student Center Shiken scores are higher than corresponding Nursing scores. And even if you discount the academic viability of the Center Shiken you might trust me when I tell you that the quality of school, juku and related records for med students is also substantially higher.

2. Med students generally are more proficient in English.
Our university has English as one of the two core subjects on its entrance exam, hence Med students partial to Eigo will tend to choose our entrance exam. On the other hand, English is not a subject on the Nursing entrance exam.

3. Med students are on average older and more worldly.
This is just a statistically verifiable fact. Almost all the nursing students are 18 and come from Kyushu. Many, if not most, have never worked or been abroad. The med students come from all over Japan and many are in their early 20's as freshmen, having worked or travelled (or having studied other subjects post HS).

4. Doctors will almost certainly use English in specific ways while in service, nurses much less so.
Doctors will certainly come across English in both reading and writing research, conferring with peers internationally, or attending conferences. Doctors will probably give a presentation or do an English poster session at some time. They are also more likely (by far) to be assigned abroad for research. The only category in which nurses might use English as much as a doctor is with the occasional NJ patient who doesn't speak Japanese (although here in Miyazaki that usually means only Korean or Chinese monolinguals, not English speakers). The chance that a medical professional out in these parts will meet a non-J speaking foreigner are not high or consistent enough to warrant it being a foundation of university curriculum design.

What then is the point of teaching nursing students English?
First, learning a foreign language, or at least engaging a 2nd language with a cognitive, content-based focus is part of a good academic grounding for any university graduate. Second, it could inspire those who do want to become bilingual, international medical professionals to go further (and we do have courses that allow for such students to expand their English skills and international horizons).

How does all this manifest itself in the English nursing classroom?
There is less of an emphasis on developing professional discourse and academic literacy skills than there is with medical students although in no way are these neglected. Rather, the content is less rigorous both in terms of expected English proficiency and content/tasks. The teaching moves at a slower pace BUT neither is it what we might call remedial or Eikaiwa-based. Evaluation is also more gentle.

Does this mean that med classes are more engaging, fulfilling, and easier to teach from the Prof's perspective?
Hell, no. The nursing classes are generally great fun. They are less intense, take themselves less seriously, and hold a somewhat refreshingly cavalier approach to the classroom and English that lightens the teacher's pedagogical load. In short, nurses classes seem to have fewer classroom 'issues'.

Does anybody else out there teach both medical and nursing students? What are your feelings on this?

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June 04, 2010

Japanese universities slip in Asia rankings- a few comments

Some readers may have noticed this headline and short article appearing recently on the eltnews website.

The rankings are based upon several criteria, including: academic peer review (40%), employer review (10%), faculty/student ratio (20%), citations per faculty (20%), proportion of international faculty (5%), proportion of international students (5%). (*The actual website includes more criteria so I'm not sure where ELTnews got the percentage breakdowns from).You can see both world and Asia rankings (plus the breakdown of each listed university via the links) here.

So are we to take it that Japanese university educational standards and performance are heading downward? In short, no. So, why did the Japanese universities slip and what are their relative strengths and weaknesses vis-a-vis these rankings? Apparently, Tokyo U. would have been Asia's numero uno had only academic factors been cited, so the slip cannot be said to come from a decline in academic achievement. The drop then seems to be based upon the two 'international' categories and 'student exchange' criteria.

Japanese universities have always tended to keep fewer non-citizens on faculty compared to other developed countries. No surprise here. As the vast majority of classes, administration and research will be carried out in Japanese, opportunities for those who don't speak the language are extremely limited, especially when compared to the Hong Kong and Singaporean universities. But this still doesn't explain the slip. Perhaps then economics come into play. The appreciation of the yen and hard times in general means that fewer foreign students and possibly, researchers (even though the Japanese hosts foot a large number of those bills) can afford to visit or stay.

On the other hand some J university rankings actually rose, not the least of which was my own humble place of employment, the University of Miyazaki, which made a significant jump- from 201st to 131st (although this would still be the 7th division if this were British football or the J9 league domestically). In our case, this is due to the fact that the number of international exchanges and cooperative ventures at all (student, faculty and research) levels have exploded recently as has- and this is important- the way in which we are now carefully compiling and providing this information to the public- which influences sites like the one linked above. (I don't imagine that our huge leap forward is founded solely upon the enormous amount of international respect this blog garners).

But while the language factor will always cause Japanese universities to lag somewhat in such rankings there is still no excuse for avoiding the development of international relations, of actively cultivating exchange. Our international profile expansion was founded largely upon GP (good practice) grants and has now become an established, permanent (?) part of the university program. And the English section plays, as you can imagine, a big role in both establishing and maintaining this. So the bleak economic situation need not adversely affect every aspect of international exchange- after all the YEN is still strong and the internet continues as a means for international exchange.

Since the J universities ranked highly in terms of research and academic citations, we can't say that academic level is a weakness. but there is a dimension in which I feel that Japanese universities might actually be lacking: Teaching skills. Education.

You see, most universities in Japan heavily favour hiring personnel with strong research backgrounds. People with a lot of papers, people with established names in the research field. And that's fine. Having students (usually grad students) apprentice under the mentorship of a world-class researcher can hardly be anything but beneficial. But most of these people also have to TEACH!

And they are often- ahem- not too great at 'teacher-y' things such as class management, communicating to large groups, creating tasks, the very items that undergraduates deal with almost exclusively. They usually don't have backgrounds in curriculum development and syllabus structuring. They are far from up-to-date on assessment and evaluation.

So here's the point- to improve Japanese universities on a more visceral level (I make it a habit to use the term 'visceral' at least once each blog entry) more attention needs to be paid to hiring people with these types of backgrounds to fill TEACHING roles.

The University of Miyazaki's Faculty of Medicine's international academic status seems to be built on the back of its world-class ranking in peptide research (note, that's peptide, not Pepchew) but unless the people involved in this highly-rated program also hire people who can teach and inspire the undergraduates, who may someday evolve into peptide researchers themselves, we will lose our ranking and, more importantly (viscerally?), advances in medical research may also come to an end.

Added editorial note- Apologies for initial typos in many blog posts. We are asked to compose on the blog page (and not just copy from Word), which when done with an IE browser, produces no spellcheck (Firefox though, does). On top of that, I tend to be oblivious to some of my own typos even upon proofreading. I know how ironic this appears when talking of university education and academia...

Will strive to take more care in this department instead of rushing to get the blog online.

I've also heard that my entries come off without paragraph breaks in some blogreaders. Suffice to say that my paragraph delineation seems perfect upon composing here and when it appears in the actual blog but I will take advice on how to fix this so that it doesn't happen on some blogreaders.

Mike

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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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November 08, 2010

Sending Japanese teachers abroad for English training- Does it make sense?

A little ditty in the Daily Yomiuri caught my attention last month.

The article tells of the government's mulling of a plan to send young Japanese English teachers to the U.S. to improve their English abilities. One thing immediately caught my attention- the estimation that it would cost 10 million yen annually for each teacher sent. As a result, sending just 1000 teachers would incur a total cost of 10 billion yen annually.

Wait a second. That's about $120,000 per person per year, right? So where exactly are they planning to house these young teachers? At the Four Seasons? One would expect that they would be housed at residences for foreign trainees connected to the institutions they'd be attending- which are invariably publicly subsidized. Add a per diem ($70 per day would be more than generous), air travel costs (150,000 Yen return) and study fees (variable) and you'd still be a long way from justifying a $120,000 package per person.

This is the kind of thing that generally passes over readers' heads, largely due to the 'stunned-by-numbers' phenomena. You know, where someone in the media states that there have been 'over 750 thermos-related deaths in Iowa in the past year'- until you realize that that means two thermos-related deaths per day in a single state! Or when you hear that the government has 'set aside 750,000 hectares for rutabagas experimentation at a cost of 6.8 billion dollars' but whether these numbers are realistic or not doesn't really register because they are so big as to become virtual abstractions.

Anyway, later in the article, something else a bit odd pops up.

The JET program is duly mentioned as being the current mode of English 'exchange'. But this is followed by the statement that the JET budget is being reviewed and, further, that the Ministry is requesting only 130 million yen- which appears to be the fiscal JET allotment- down 14% from last year's fiscal budget.

Say what?

So the JET program is to be allotted 130 million yen per year with which several thousand JET teachers are to be housed, provided a salary, paid travel costs etc. If we apply that to, say, 3000 JETs that comes to around 420,000 yen (about $5000) per year per JET. I know you can get some decent cardboard as walling for that price but...

Again, compare this with the $120,000 estimated for Japanese to study abroad. Consider also how cheap the U.S. is from a yen-earner's perspective right now. The numbers don't add up. Can somebody tell me what's missing here?

Anyway...
The article seems to be saying that sending Japanese teachers abroad might be a way of replacing the JET program, at least in terms of budgeting. So is this a good thing? Let's weigh it up:

If the numbers in the article are correct it would seem that hiring 3000 JETS is far far more cost-efficient than sending 1000 young Japanese teachers abroad. However, I suspect that the numbers are wrong. But by how much?

And what about the pedagogical side- the educational benefits? This is of greater interest to the Uni-files. Many (most) JETS are untrained, uncertified, and inexperienced as teachers. Most do not plan careers in teaching. The Japanese teachers are of course teachers by trade so it could well be argued that theirs is the better long-term investment.

One argument in favour of JETs though is that even if they don't bring teaching expertise into the classrooms, they introduce many young Japanese to foreigners and living English, which in fact has always been the stated purpose of the JET program.

It could also be argued that several JETs do in fact go on to become very good, qualified, professional teachers and that the JET experience provides training for them- which is later paid back into Japan's education system through their teaching skills.

On the other hand, young Japanese teachers going abroad to improve their skills has a certain obvious appeal. Although some JHS and HS English teachers do have a very sound grasp of English it is pretty clear (often by their own admission) that many struggle with dynamic, idiomatic English (and sometimes with anything beyond the textbooks they use). This is especially so given that the new Primary school English curriculum is about to be introduced as of next April.

I sense a few problems with this thinking though.

Although I would expect that their daily English skills would improve after a year abroad I'm wondering if and how this would improve actual classroom instruction in any tangible way. Textbooks in JHS and HSs are already set and I'm not sure that an improved ability to hear English more fully or having a more dynamic control over grammatical choice or vocabulary range would impact the type of things that the textbooks and curricula cover.

Nor have I seen much in these textbooks that is 'wrong' or unnatural English that 'improved' English teachers would be able to 'correct' (although many sections do seem a little stilted because everyone speaks too perfectly, with almost too much civility and without any evident personality). In short, I'm not sure how much idiomatic English would affect the teaching of foundational English or to help students prepare for university entrance exams. How would sensei's increased facility with the day-to-day lingo really benefit learners who have an existing, set curriculum to complete? JHSs and HSs don't exist to teach students daily conversation or 'how to do X' abroad.

My intuition is that poor class management skills, sloppy methodology, and/or inadequately developed curricula might be a greater factor in causing student motivation and skills to atrophy rather than a lack of native-like fluency. Perhaps then further teacher-skill training would have greater educational value than English study abroad.

Then, of course, as I blogged about recently in regard to Nobel Prizes and research, there is also the problem of having in-service teachers away from their workplaces so long. After all, only a small part of a teacher's work is bound up in teaching their main subject. In Japan, with the teacher-as-all-thing-to-all-people motif being what it is, having even one staff member away for a year could seriously impact the workload of others. Reducing teacher's extracurricular workload and using a budget to hire more clerical or specialist staff to carry out these extra duties would free up teachers to attend training sessions and become more competent at what they do.

Which is teaching English, not speaking it.

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October 08, 2011

Is this really an improvement for Japanese universities? Critiquing a critique

Think of all the bad cliches you can think regarding alleged Anglo-Saxon values (putting aside for a moment the fact that many people wrongly conflate 'Anglo-Saxon' with being white, or even with being Western). You know, the ones about winner-take-all cut-throat capitalism, the need to rationalize everything numerically, the low regard for the emotional welfare of the small fry, and an emphasis upon bottom-line results, all directed with ruthless efficiency.

It's a pretty damning caricature but one, as you will have surely noted if you are well-read or travelled, that is widely believed. I've often been in position where people have assumed these characteristics must inevitably be ascribed to my good self, being a wasp and all, despite my protestations that these attributes did not in fact reflect my personal values nor the education, formal or otherwise, that I received.

But after reading Paul Stapleton's article in the September/October issue of JALT's 'The Language Teacher' magazine I felt like this caricature had been not only underscored, but justified by being presented as virtuous.

Let me explain by outlining some of the key points made in Stapleton's article (although it is obviously better if you read the link provided above). Stapleton worked for twenty years in a Japanese university but recently left to take a new role in another country (Hong Kong to be exact). Stapleton's article compares the two systems and finds the Japanese lagging on many counts. Although Stapleton is careful to note that his experience cannot be assumed to be representative of Japanese universities as a whole, the conclusions he draws from this personal experience nonetheless are used to critique Japanese universities en masse.

'An atmosphere of mistrust'
For example, Stapleton relates how test grades given by individual teachers at his current (favourable, non-Japanese) institution will be subject to "internal monitoring and external review", and then possibly modified by others to ensure "fair and balanced grading". For me, having my own students'-- my own courses'-- graded assignments reviewed, and possibly changed, by other teachers violates the tenet of academic non-interference and smacks of institutional nannyism. Micro-management of this sort generates an atmosphere of mistrust. What is wrong with the idea that if you hire someone to do a job (such as grading) you assume competency, until some egregious problem raises its head?

Stapleton also explains how teachers at his current institution are ranked (!) based on a cumulative "magic score" garnered from student questionnaires about the teacher. Teachers who receive lower 'rankings' are called to task. He goes on to explain how this "can, and does" lead to non-renewal of contracts. First, the reason as to why teachers should be ranked against each is other beyond me. Universities are not Billboard charts. Student ratings and comments should primarily exist as a means of feedback for the teacher, and with an emphasis upon qualitative commentary as opposed to raw numericality.

Secondly, although Stapleton is aware of the dubious veracity of using student questionnaires as a measure of pedagogical competency, he does not address the likelihood that pandering to students in order to accumulate popularity points will be at odds with his supposed emphasis upon increasing academic rigor and accountability.

Low bar for research
Stapleton also criticizes at length the alleged "low bar" that Japanese universities maintain when evaluating personnel (referring to database scores which are carried out at all national Japanese universities, especially since the advent of 'houjinka' system, or semi-privatization). He mentions that dubious essays published in non-refereed department journal will suffice as research publications. But he also seems unaware of, or chooses to ignore, two factors that might considerably alter his perspective on this issue.

The first is that national universities rate publications by an established impact factor, so it is not possible for a throwaway piece in the department journal to have the same database value as a full publication in a top-notch publication. The second is that all teachers and researchers on the database can choose a weighting system for their contributions-- that is, researchers can choose to put greater weight on research scores, teachers on teaching roles, or on administrative involvement (which is a large part of a professorial role at national universities). In other words, people with different roles are not constrained by the same rubric, let alone some numerical "bottom line" acting as a cut-off barrier. It may seem fuzzy, but it is more flexible, and thus, I would argue, fairer.

Is the hamster-wheel scenario more humane?
Frankly speaking, it also seems much more humane to me. While Stapleton's faculty would appear to be running on a hamster wheel trying to maintain the bottom line under threat of losing their livelihoods, the "Japanese" system he criticizes recognizes the value of different roles and how individual contributions may not manifest themselves in fat database scores. While deadwood still occupies some Japanese academic offices to be sure, those (full-time faculty) with dubious scores or contributions will have their situations discussed so that all the affective factors can be made known.

While "clear benchmarks" may aid in illuminating expectations, set established minimal "bottom line" scores don't allow for such human variables. To me, Stapleton's approach seems more suited to the sharkpool world of retailing than academia: "Go out and sell a minimum of $50,000 or you'll be out on your ass!"-- Show me the money! I really wonder if this score chasing is really as conducive to raising research standards as Stapleton assumes, since I can easily imagine lower-tier academics focusing more on the tail-chasing act of maintaining numbers than on doing research because they love it or because it is truly beneficial to their teaching area. They produce because they fear the crack of the whip. Is that really a virtuous motivator?

Promotion- age, merit, or other?
And while Stapleton lauds promotion based upon merit (although he appears to conflate this with high database scores) I think he overstates the centrality of age as the determining factor in promotion in Japan. It is most certainly not the determining factor at my own university (although professors anywhere will generally be older because they have stayed in their positions longer, it's not that they originally attained that position solely or even largely because of age).

In fact, the whole notion of 'promotion', in the sense of the business-world model that Stapleton seems to be describing, doesn't really apply to national Japanese universities. Professorial seats, when open, are publicly announced-- and outsiders with excellent academic credentials or current Associate Professors very familiar with the existing system, who have been acting as de facto professors for awhile, tend to gain these seats. Moreover, department heads, deans, and committee leaders rotate regularly, often through internal elections. The need to jockey for position, to scramble, to outpace an opponent, is less pronounced.

'Who benefits?'
A bigger question might be this: Who benefits from Stapleton's system? It is telling that not one of the improvements that Stapleton mentions is connected to pedagogy, education, or improving learning skills. Rather, every one of Stapleton's comparisons is about bureaucratic efficiency, garnering academic brownie points, justifying budgets, and about maintaining control and "accountability" or, as I read it, about keeping people on their toes by making them anxious about the possibility of losing their jobs. There is no reason to believe that students receive better teaching methods or superior curricula due to all the factors cited by Stapleton despite his claim that good students are naturally drawn to such universities, so we can't say that it really seems to benefit the students.

Surely lower-rung academics wouldn't be benefitting from this dance-or-I'll-shoot-at-your-feet scenario either. It seems that those who might benefit most, as is often the case when "accountability", "bottom lines", "meeting numerical standards", and contract renewal are buzzwords are the people in power which, perhaps unsurprisingly in Stapleton's current institution appears to include Paul Stapleton himself!

'To hell in a happi coat'
Unfortunately, the article ends with an old bugaboo or, I might even say, cliche. Stapleton argues that without changes, meaning the adoption of the systematic "rigor" and "efficiency" carried out at the university he now works at, Japanese universities will be marginalized, since they are already "outliers" in terms of accountability; that the negative effects of these qualities rooted in Japanese culture will lead to decline.

The old 'unless Japan changes this society is doomed' (Doomed I tells ya!) slogan is something I have heard on every Japan-related topic over the past twenty years. Yes, there are aspects of Japanese society that, if not addressed quickly and appropriately, could lead to future hardship (i.e., the aging problem), aspects of Japanese culture/tradition whose time has come and gone and now are burdensome anachronisms (the koseki and juuminhyou system), and features Japan would do well to borrow from other countries (traffic roundabouts). But the notion that Japan is headed to hell in a happi coat, a downward spiral into oblivion, unless Japan adopts Stapleton's preferred model (the superior one apparently held by "developed" countries) this just sounds like the same old alarmism.

If this is the future I don't want to be a part of it
If I recall correctly, I met Paul Stapleton once and have also attended one of his presentations. In no way did he come across personally in the same manner as the procedures he advocates do. And although it's true that different systems bring out the best in different people, I wonder if he is aware of how his article might come across, if he is aware of some of the demerits of what he calls 'rigor', 'efficiency', and 'accountability'. For this reader at least-- if this is supposed to represent an improvement in academics, education, and of societal advancement in general then, sorry, but I don't want to be a part of it.

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January 10, 2012

Language Wars: This is Japan! Speak Japanese!

Recently, while in Vancouver I overheard two Asian men, likely Vietnamese, conversing in that language in a supermarket. I felt myself burning up inside. This is Canada! An English-speaking country! 'Speak English!' I thought to myself. Later, on the same trip I met up with my brother and his wife, who is originally from Thailand, at their home. Occasionally, my brother spoke to her in Thai. I couldn't stand it any longer. Why were these foreign languages creeping into English territory! "Speak in English! This is Canada!" I scolded him. Then he swore at me-- which was OK because he did it in English.

All right, I confess. Neither of the two anecdotes above really happened. However, I've met, both in Japan and elsewhere (often at linguistics conferences), people who seem to think that it would be a natural reaction-- that not only are native-English speakers generally linguistic chauvinists but also believe that such attitudes are default settings-- acceptable, normal behaviour regarding one’s mother tongue. Not surprisingly such people are likely to take a similar attitude with their own languages. Yes, I've been told, bold-faced, that I would certainly feel chafed if I heard people not speaking English in Canada, wouldn't I??? (putting the whole French issue aside for a moment).

As (I imagine) with most readers of this blog, my answer is absolutely not. It is unthinkable that I would ever think, let alone react, like that. In fact I will speak to my wife in Japanese anywhere in the world-- if only the two of us are talking. My rule is that on any given occasion the most acceptable language is that language which aids in reaching whatever the communicative goals are. Language is a tool and I'll use whichever tool is most likely to get the job done. As a tourist in a Anglophone country I will learn the greetings in the local tongue but beyond that will have to depend on English (sometimes apologetically so). The fact that my mother tongue happens to be the most widely spoken and understood in the world doesn't change the fact that this is the language that is going to get the job done for most outsiders.

I don't like English

My students often assume that English is or was my favourite subject. But I don't particularly like English. Nor do I dislike it any more than I like or dislike your average, ohhh, shovel. My mother tongue has little emotional impact for me. It is merely a tool, a means to some communicative end. But it seems that quite a few people find this hard to believe.

The idea that a language can have a personal, emotional impact or be treated as a political weapon, having any function beyond being simply a means of communication, is hard for me to absorb. I can remotely imagine being raised using a rarely-heard tongue which has since been superseded by linguistically hegemonic forces and feeling it tied to my personal identity-- but for me that's an academic exercise.

In fact, I've often gone out of my way to place myself in situations where I can't or won't hear English-- especially during my backpacker days when I ventured through about 50 countries all over the globe- a majority in which English was not widely used. I never felt that a part of me was lost in such English black holes, rather I felt stimulated by the unfamiliar environment. But maybe it's easy to feel this way when yours is the big language on the block.

‘We feel ashamed when this happens’

Recently I visited a tiny, nondescript, but unique craft beer shop located in the absolute suburban boonies of Kawasaki which from the outside looks just like your average Mom 'n Pop shop from the 60s. The proprietors (three middle-aged Japanese sisters who love craft beer- especially Belgian brews) were extremely happy to chat with me during my visit since I had come 'all the way from Miyazaki'. I asked them if they get many foreign customers (Japan-based beer connoisseurs may know of them online). A handful, they said. Can they all speak Japanese? I asked. No. What should we do then? How can we improve our English to speak to them? We feel ashamed when this happens.

I told them that it wasn't incumbent upon them to learn English when the visitor is on their turf. It was the visitor's responsibility to learn the local language. And if the person was in Japan only temporarily I'm sure they could muddle through basic beer talk and purchases, but that there was hardly obligation for the sisters to learn English solely for this purpose-- and certainly not to the point of feeling ashamed. They were both shocked and relieved to hear this response, as if they didn't expect it at all. They assumed that English-speakers assumed (or even deserved) some type of linguistic entitlement.

There seems to be a widespread belief in Japan that somehow Japanese are obligated to speak English to Westerners, and more to today's point, that somehow we expect or demand it. Because of this, some who can’t speak English feel a sense of shame or even dereliction of duty. And for some, this (unfounded for the most part) belief can lead to resentment and overt defensiveness.

‘You’re forcing me to use English’

Among those who are most prone to this response are, ironically, Japanese professors of English or other academics who are proficient in English (although this phenomenon is hardly limited to Japan). It seems that some see using English in Japan as a kind of kowtowing, the appeasement behaviour of submissive colonial subjects. I know of some cases where professors of English actually have rules that absolutely all conversations that take place between Japanese staff and non-Japanese staff must be in Japanese-- of course this includes all teacher meetings and briefings too. I know of cases where a Professor of English has demanded that non-Japanese English teachers give him a report in Japanese wholly and self-admittedly for the sake of testing that NJ teacher's Japanese level. I know of a few who tell their students in their initial classes things like, "I hate English".

Once I asked (in Japanese of course) one such Professor why he held this type of policy. He answered that if foreigners weren't functional in Japanese they would be 'forcing' him to use English, which he seemed to regard as a particular burden. This, he added, represents typically arrogant Anglo-Saxon self-centeredness-- the assumption that eveyone had to speak English to them (yes, I know that Anglo-Saxons are often wrongly conflated with NES). This was followed by the predictable, "This is Japan. They should speak Japanese!" mantra.

But most notable to me was the fact that the offense taken did not seem to be concerned with functionality, that such an NJ would be more useful if they were more proficient at Japanese, but was more emotionally laden-- that a lack of Japanese proficiency automatically constituted a type of cultural, even personal, disrespect.

I've also met some academics and intellectuals who believe that Anglo-Saxon native English-speakers in particular are on a very conscious mission to propagate their language, willfully and acting as catalysts in making the language a global standard-- hoping to put ourselves in the linguistic driver's seat while everyone else is a mere passenger. And that we think this should be the case, believing English to be a superior language and all. (No, the ELTNews doesn't get kickbacks from the British Council).

Competing lingua francas in the workplace

English teachers in Japan in particular face a dilemma in this regard because there are competing lingua franca forces at play in our daily lives. Our basic working language is English, at least in the classroom. And there is no shortage of Japanese colleagues who prefer to interact in English. Now, I've blogged on this point before (in 'The Politics of Hello') but who am I to deny the Gakucho, who speaks English very well, when he opens a dialogue with me in English.

Oddly though, the are also many who open dialogues with me in English but later, when talking to others, begrudge my alleged 'insistence' upon using English-- they seem to have assumed that I can not or will not use Japanese from the outset. (Sometimes students believe this too- even though I occasionally give some information or a summary in fluent Japanese in class they are surprised when they nervously come to my office for something and discover that I can and will deal with them in Japanese-- if that's the language they'd prefer to talk in).

The 'J or E?' dilemma

On the other hand, what should the protocol be when, at a meeting held in Japanese, a senior professor asks me a question-- in English? Since all other committee members are Japanese and have varying degrees of competency in English I think Japanese provides the most functional response, although I may add a brief English summary to please the questioner (who may have asked because he/she doesn't know I can manage in Japanese).

On the other hand, if Professor A addresses me in English and I reply in English, Professor B, who is standing beside A, might well assume that Professor A is kowtowing to the arrogant neo-colonialist. Then B may think- Why don't his type bother to learn the local lingo? On the other hand, if I answer Professor A in Japanese it might sound like I'm not playing his game, that I will choose the mode of discourse, and moreover am insinuating that A's English isn't good enough to engage him/her in. It's a dilemma.

I also have a minor dilemma when walking into Indian or Turkish (or similar) restaurants in Japan. Which language is going to be the most functional? Since their daily working language with most customers is going to be Japanese that would be my first choice. But sometimes they greet and treat me in English. If I sense that they are more comfortable in English then I'll go that route. However, if I use English from the outset I'm afraid I might come across as your typical Panama-hatted, white-suited "Speak to me in mah language boy!" plonker. And yet again on the other hand I may look like a show off or somehow unnatural using Japanese when the restaurant staff is perfectly conversant in English (though in fact they often are not).

The reciprocal use of English

I've had students in Japan though who've argued that when they go abroad as tourists they try to use English so when foreign tourists visit Japan they should learn Japanese. I remember once asking such a student where they had used English abroad and they answered, "Thailand, Italy, and France". Hmmm.

I delicately mentioned that if we are to hold the principle of language equality then tourists and other visitors from Thailand, Italy and France should also speak English in Japan since no one in this entire equation is a native-English speaker. The reciprocal use of English as a second language holds both ways. Since they were still perplexed, I added, "Well you didn't speak Thai, their native tongue in Thailand right! You used English. So..." The point was made. Then again, some of these students were the same ones who thought I must live in an American-style house (while I was in Tokyo!) and that I got paid in dollars...

Of course none of this justifies the attitudes of some NESs who walk into any and every non-English speaking scenario and treat the locals as if they were still living in Bumfluff, Idaho. If you can't manage the local parlance (i.e., you are a tourist, or if that person's English is clearly going to be superior to your version of their language, or if you truly suck at foreign languages but not for a lack of effort) showing at least some sense of humility and moderation is called for-- you are on their turf after all. But the widespread belief that English NSs can't or won't do so is, in my opinion, largely unwarranted.

It goes without saying (although obviously I'm saying it anyway) that if you plan to live and work abroad you should do your damndest to learn the local lingo. You are obviously of more use at any workplace in Japan if you can manage meetings, information and interactions in Nihongo. But this is a functional reality-- like the fact that getting your car insurance or explaining your computer defect will run smoother when you do it in Japanese.-- it should not be an emotional or political one. Interpreting language inability as refusal, or unduly attributing chauvinist motives to the NSs in advance, and thus taking offense against the violation of the sanctity of your linguistic turf seems to me to be a bit overwrought.

Functionality trumps sentiment at this point.


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June 05, 2012

My how different you look! 15 years of university changes

As the old saying goes, "If you turn a corner slowly enough it ceases to be a corner". Actually, that's not an old saying. I just made it up but it makes me feel clever and it is appropriate for today's entry so there you go.

This year marks my fifteenth teaching at a university in Japan. Having kept the same office on the same campus and using many of the same classrooms for all of that time, on a day-to-day basis it appears that not too much has changed. But if I was to enter into a time warp and go back fifteen years, I'm sure that I'd notice how much-- besides the inevitable construction of new buildings and parking lots-- has been altered.

More social support networks

The first would be social support networks. Now, there is a campus ombudsman and a women's support center, both with full-time staff and both in regular contact with teachers, administrators and committees about protocols, procedures, and sometimes, personal issues. There are now very clear, well-supported avenues one can take in regard to power harassment, sexual harassment, academic harassment, and even alcohol harassment. This, in turn, has forced potential violators to consider their actions as highly visible campaigns are carried out to discourage them and inform victims of possible recourses of action.

Unfortunately, this has also lead to more spurious claims of harassment, such as against a professor for warning a student about slovenly work and possibly failing a class, or a section manager asking an underling to carry out some standard procedure. Fatuous claims are, unfortunately, the reverse side of the otherwise healthy open-avenues-for-redress coin.

Newly forbidden activities

Smoking has pretty much gone the way of the leisure suit and the mullet. Fifteen years ago students smoked right outside the classroom, and teachers, researchers and office workers did so in their offices or hallways. It looked like a scene from Mad Men on occasion. Now, except for a small, hidden outdoors gazebo purposely-built, smoking on campus is utterly kinshi!

Even the notorious campus festival pre-party has been toned down. I'd say this was inevitable because it really couldn't have been 'toned up'. I'm no shrinking violet, but even I was shocked when I witnessed my first zenya-sai. I know that medical students worldwide are renowned for letting off steam but I had no idea that anyone would do that on a stage with a bucket of nattou, a flower arrangement, and a pair of Speedos. How they got the octopus on the lighting rig I'll never know. It's far more sedate now (a surprising number of OBs and OGs think the current students are a buncha wimps) and senior students now patrol the campus pot-fest for unruly behavior or to thwart drunk driving. (It is amazing to what degree, both positive and negative, the influence of seniors can weight upon the behavior of the juniors).

Money-chasing

The semi-independent status provided to national universities from the Ministry of Education, Textiles, Aquarium Maintenance, and Banjo Appreciation (or whatever it's called now) has had a palpable effect too. The first involves the need to raise funds for research. The importance of applying for, and hopefully, receiving, Scientific In-Aid grants has increased exponentially. The ability to gain research funding probably trumps pure educational skill in terms of value to the university. That might sound facetious, but it does mean that you can't afford to not be involved in research-- that universities are seen as research institutions as much as they are educational.

Transparency and full accountability has become a major issue. The requirement for full documentation, with all T's crossed and I's dotted for expenses, travel, and research activities, has probably increased everybody's paper-workload by about 20% but, as a public institution this is paramount. But even things like Valentine's gifts from students or o-miyage for fellow staff have become frowned upon for fear of being seen as an impropriety-- as a type of bribe. Visits to teacher offices by students are also now supposed to be notated-- day, time, purpose etc.-- in order to ward of possible subsequent claims. Unfortunately, this makes teacher-student relations less fraternal, less collegial.

(addition) Connected to this is a greater cognizance of privacy issues. Teachers used to be issued a booklet containing all student contact details, backgrounds etc., which I found very helpful. But now, due to privacy concerns, a request for any information must go through the Student Affairs Division. The same is true for using any existing patient information as classroom materials for students. It has to be scrubbed down and sterilized. The irony of course is that the new concern for privacy goes hand in hand with the call for transparency and openness.

Contracts and the DATABASE

Contracts have changed too. Tenure, in the old-fashioned sense, no longer really exists in national universities. Permanent employees instead are issued multiple renewable contacts. This wards off the possibility of maintaining academic deadwood, since one has to maintain one's database score. Thankfully, the old Gaikokujin Kyoushi positions of the late twentieth century have been laid to rest. And the ephemeral nature of research budgets means that part-time staff live a precarious existence-- roles and some income dependent upon whether the research proposal is passed or not.

Speaking of the database (which perhaps should be written in caps as: DATABASE) this incredibly complex item has become ubiquitous in recent years. Managing this ungainly collection of performance data (cynics might even say 'manipulating' it) is a necessary and time-consuming skill that never used to carry much import at all. Now, you might think that a database is (and please excuse the dense, technical terminology that follows) a 'base' of information from which specific 'data' can be collected. But you'd be wrong. When some committee or department or research project wants certain pertinent data from you they can't go to the DATABASE. That's because the DATABASE is an evaluative tool and therefore is not accessible to all and sundry (especially sundry). The committee or department instead has to make their own data form from which you input all your stuff once again-- except now the categories and details overlap or are somehow different, which means that a simple cut 'n paste won't (pun intended) cut it.

A drop in academic skill and achievement?

Have the students themselves changed? Demographic changes mean that competition for national university seats has decreased and thus cumulative admission scores are on average slightly lower than before-- especially at the lower end of the entry scale. However, I haven't really noticed this effect qualitatively upon the English skills of the incoming en'eki (straight from high school) students. What I do notice though is fewer mature students than in the past-- who often had real-world English experience, not to mention general academic and social maturity.

My students still don't have potential employment issues-- the dreary employment climate has had little to no effect. As medical students they know that their skills and qualifications are in demand so there is no extrinsic pressure to perform well as students merely for employment's sake. And, thankfully, we don't actually have to engage in song-and-dance recruitment tactics. Yet.

The M-F medical student ratio has remained about the same-- about 60-50 in favour of the males (110 students are admitted every year). But there has been a recent campaign to get them to stay in Miyazaki after graduating since we were losing large numbers to the bigger burghs for quite a while or enticing Miyazaki residents who studied other subjects at elite universities like Todai to return to Miyazaki and take up medicine. This has meant a more localized student body too-- as well as more students gaining entry based upon recommendations (such students tend to populate either the very upper or lowest tiers).

Less bureaucratic tooth-sucking

The university has become actively international. There is a pretty constant influx of students and researchers from sister universities in other Asian countries, international health care organizations, more visiting experts from abroad, and more opportunities for our students to pursue health care activities abroad. International contacts and relations produce less bureaucratic procedural tooth-sucking than they did fifteen years previous.

This openness has extended to on-campus commercial activity too (although this could still stand improving). When I started, there was one bookstore and food supplier that had a monopoly on our book-buying and on-campus eating choices. Now, local entrepreneurs are welcome (as long as they follow the rules) and we can buy our books from whoever we damn well please-- and with much, much less of a mark-up.

Of course in writing this I run the risk of unfairly applying my own university's situation to the bigger Japan picture. After all, one major development arising out of the new semi-independence scheme is that individual universities can be more flexible and idiosyncratic in their choices, that fewer and fewer general guidelines are passed down from Monkasho. So I ask you-- have you noticed similar-- or different-- changes at your own?

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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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