shougayaki

WHAT IS ENGLISH?

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I FEEL LIKE I AM A BIG FAT LIAR. THE ENGLISH IN THESE TEXTBOOKS IS TERRIBLE. I’M EMBARRASSED TO STAND IN FRONT OF MY STUDENTS AND LEND THEM THE AUTHENTICITY OF MY VOICE. WHY DON’T THEY TRY TO LEARN REAL ENGLISH?

Language is a slippery fish.

If you were a middle-aged German housewife, spoken nothing but German for your whole life, would you really understand anyone at a German D&D convention? Or an old man from the German countryside?

That slippery fish of language doesn’t politely sit still and allow you to fully grasp it. It’s impossible because language is always moving and changing. So what is ‘real’ English?

WELL… REAL ENGLISH IS ENGLISH THAT EVERYONE CAN UNDERSTAND. LIKE IN A NEWSPAPER OR ON TV OR IN A BOOK.

I’d agree with you there. Nobody regulates the English language, so English used in the media is the de facto standard English of a given country. It restricts itself to words and phrases and accents and idioms that are understood by most of the people. While language is a slippery fish, the English you find in something like a newspaper is big, fat, and slow.

SO WHY DON’T OUR STUDENTS STUDY ENGLISH THAT IS USED IN ENGLISH-LANGUAGE NEWSPAPERS AND SUCH?

Because, in Japan at least, English isn’t a language.

…WHAT?

English can be a language, but English in Japan is like Latin in America: Americans study Latin, but nobody is expected to communicate in day-to-day life nor business using it.

The Japanese government recognizes that something is missing. Public education leaves its students underprepared to speak English even after six years of studying. In order to continue competing internationally, they realize changes are necessary. However, the changes that they employ are mostly slight revisions to the same textbooks that haven’t been working, and increases in the hours of class Japanese students spend using them.

Imagine trying to learn how to play baseball by reading a baseball textbook. A bad baseball textbook.

No matter how often you memorize the contents of your baseball textbook, you are simply not going to understand how to play baseball until you swing the bat.

BUT DIDN'T YOU STUDY ENGLISH FROM A TEXTBOOK?

Sure I did. Caveat there is that I was surrounded, from birth, by people who speak English, media that use English, and if I didn't want to starve to death, I had to understand and apply English every day to every situation.

This is the problem for Japan: How to make English something that students not just study, but also use.

For me, English is a subject as well as a tool. It is a class as well as a means of communication. English, the subject, reinforces English, the language.

Input plus experience leads to mastery. Just like your basic baseball game would improve if you apply techniques and theories from a text, the crude but fluent English you gained from experience as a child was refined by the English classes you received throughout school.

One of the problems with the Japanese approach to language learning is the sole focus on input-output. The ultimate test of a person's English ability is doing well on Eiken or TOEIC, two popular English exams. Being able to understand and use English in unstructured, free-flowing communication is not.

SHOULDN'T THEY BRING IN NATIVE ENGLISH SPEAKERS TO HELP WITH THE TEXTBOOKS?

Actually, they do.

THEN HOW DOES IT GET SO WEIRD?

While it's true that they hire foreign folks to work on the textbooks we use in class, take a look at where those foreign names are—the very end of the list. Also, notice how many of them there are compared to Japanese names.

Japan loves a hierarchy, and the lack of native English-speaking academics being involved indicates they have the lowest status on the team and have a drastic lack of editorial control over the final textbook that is produced.

SHOULDN'T NATIVE ENGLISH SPEAKERS' INPUT BE MORE VALUABLE WHEN YOU'RE MAKING AN ENGLISH TEXTBOOK?

First, it's thought that non-Japanese folks could never understand the intricacies of Japanese.

This means, for example, that when creating English documents in Japan, first a Japanese person translates Japanese into English. This English is checked by a native-English speaker. This is the definition of getting lost in translation: unless the 1st writer is on hand to answer questions the 2nd writer has (and they probably aren't), the 2nd writer would be forced to guess what the 1st writer wanted to say and hope for the best. If you've ever corrected TEFL student essays, you know how hard it can be to decide what 'correct' is without the original author there to tell you.

Second, there is a fear of disrupting students linguistic development. Many Japanese people I've talked to think that Japanese children should gain a firm grasp of Japanese before learning any English. Otherwise, they might become 'confused,' and not learn Japanese properly.

It's understandable that people would fear language delay or language confusion. It seems to make sense, because there's still things in my own language that confuse me, let alone one that's foreign.

However, this piece of folk wisdom completely ignores every immigrant child who has no such confusion, in Japan, America, and everywhere else. Bilingualism simply doesn't cause language confusion or delay. (pdf)

In fact, bilingual children's executive functions are more-developed than monolingual children. And it's easier for children to do this the younger they are.

But despite all that, this fear—of natural English being too confusing for Japanese students—remains. And I think it's a big part of why English in Japan is really… Japanese?

'ENGLISH IS…' THAT'S THE CRAZIEST THING I'VE EVER HEARD.

There's a reason everything is 'interesting.'

Your students are being taught to speak English by first translating from Japanese.

Learning a new language means having to learn a new way of thinking. When you study Japanese, you learn why the sentence 「私はボッブです」 means "I am Bob" but 「私はビールです」 doesn't mean "I am beer."

The brain develops to handle speaking and understanding another language.

But Japanese students are denied this development. Too often, they are shielded from unapproved, proper English—because it might confuse them.

The fear of confusing Japanese youngsters with English has resulted in the educators of this country making the English in textbooks as Japanese as possible. To make it easier for Japanese students to speak English without actually having to think in English, the greatest efforts are taken to make textbook English as 1:1 with similar Japanese grammar and vocabulary as possible.

I'm not saying we should expect busy teachers to be able to teach busy students perfect, natural English. It's also unreasonable to expect that students in Japan are taught English in the same way that students in an native English-speaking country are taught (this is why there's a difference between TESL and TEFL).

But with all the money Japan spends on English education, it makes absolutely no sense to persist in broken practices and to ignore what other countries have done to beat the English challenge. It's also absolutely pointless to employ native English speakers in education roles where they don't have the power to contribute anything other than sycophantic nods and say yes, yes, yes.

NONE OF THAT MADE ME FEEL EVEN A LITTLE BIT BETTER.

Well, the good news is it's better than nothing. While progress is embarrassingly slow, the revisions do include more opportunities for the students to speak to each other in English, when JTEs choose to use them. It's not worthy of a parade or anything, but it is progress.

BIG FUGGIN' WHOOP.

Well, now that you know why I argue that English in Japan is Japanese, you should also understand that exposure to your handsome and wonderful natural English is hugely important for your students.

Almost all the English in Japan is Japanese—except yours. Some of our masters here may be incredibly resistant to hearing it and interacting with us because of it (to the point of fear), but you bring an incredible potential to plant seeds that could someday give birth to 'real' English in Japan.

Now, don't take this as an invitation to make trouble. Don't give your JTEs a hard time. Also try not to make a big deal about single-handedly teaching 'real English' to your students, because as erroneous as it is, they are graded on the English in the text, not the English you speak.

But whatever you can do to promote a positive attitude towards English without rocking the boat, do it. Make your lessons as fun and communicative as you can get away with. But also think about what you can do outside of class.

I love Japan, and probably so do you. I want Japan to succeed in the English game. I think about the people who look at me with sadness in their eyes because they can't really speak English, and I want to prevent our students from the same fate when they grow up.

Eventually, it's guys like you and me who will draw Japan away from the inertia of English as 0's and 1's, and into the global arena of English as a tool for communication and expression and understanding.

Let's English, mother fuckers.

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You. Yeah, you. Do you like what you see? Leave a comment, gimme a like, Tweet me. Thanks a million.

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