Aug 25, 2007

America-Bound (for a time)

So, I'm going to the States for a couple of days, then coming back to Japan. This might be a little weird- I thought that my time here in Japan would be a singular, uninterrupted journey. Instead, I'm going home and then coming back. It kind of weirdly underscores the fact that I live here now...

Aug 18, 2007

"In junior high school, I hated English..."

Multiple times now, I've had students tell me that in junior high and high school they "hated English." This is almost always followed by a qualification that now they actually like English, mostly because they now feel they can actually speak it.

I would love to sit in on a Japanese English class. From what I've heard from my students and coworkers, the general quality is not especially great. The teacher explains grammar in Japanese, the students listen, and then they have to fill out a regimen of worksheets and tests. One of my coworkers said to me that if I was curious, he could show me. He proceeded to write the phrase "I have a pen" on the board, and began muttering in Japanese about the technicalities of grammar, labeling the various words with technical parts of speech, affecting a bored manner, and speaking no English whatsoever except for the phrase "I have a pen." "That," he said to me, "is why companies like ours exist."

While school districts here do employ native speakers via the JET Program, apparently a lot of those teachers are merely assistants in classrooms, giving examples of native pronunciation and intonation and not providing too much to the overall lesson. Also, lots of them apparently travel from school to school on a regular basis, leaving students little time to use their English with a native speaker.

I do know that locally, the school board in Kurashiki has been trying to get native speakers who are proper English teachers, but I don't know what kind of degree of success they've had. Nevertheless, I'm glad for their efforts. I'm sure that there are dedicated Japanese English teachers out there who try their damndest to teach well. In fact, I know there are, I work with a few. But, I think that broad changes to infrastructure, like what Kurashiki is trying to do, need to happen in order for real change to take place.

Hearing about my students' previous experiences with language, I can't help but think of my own high school French classes. I don't know how similar it was to a Japanese classroom, but I do remember quite a lot in the way of worksheets, wrote memorization, tests, etc. There were sometimes speaking activities, but not often.

And, I remember being bored to tears by French. I hated it. Hated, hated, hated it. The only D that I've ever received was in high school French, and I think it stemmed from the fact that I could not find a reason to give a pair of dingo's kidneys about the language. French, for me, was writing out all of the different conjugations of "etre" in my workbook. It had nothing to do with communication or talking to people.

Now, I can read French alright and passively understand a lot of it. But I can't communicate with it. I can't speak or write it, really, or express my own ideas. (Though maybe someday I'll fix that…) After some three and a half years of it, I can't do what a French three and a half year old could do. That's saying a lot, I think.

I find it fascinating and curious that language classes like my French class and English classes in Japan so often miss out on the whole point of language: communication. Language, after all, is not some mystical, weird, abstract thing that is valuable in and of itself. Language is valuable because it facilitates communication. And, in the development of communication lies the development of language.

I'm steadily getting better at Japanese because I have to use it on a regular basis to do entirely normal things like going to the store or getting a haircut. Those banal, regular things that require a basic level of human communication are what make the language real for me. Worksheets, memorization, or sundry busywork could never do that.

When I'm at work, I try to make things as "real" as possible in a communicative sense. Exercises and such are still artificial, but it's always my goal to make the students actually use English as much as possible, something that's rather new for some of them, even though they've been "studying" it for years. But of course, I'm only one guy at an eikaiwa who's trying to put in some good work. There are just as many native teachers, I think, who work at eikaiwas and don't give a shit how well they teach their students. For many of them, they talk about teaching merely as a means to an end viz living in Japan for a year. That's a shame, really.

If Japan really wants to speak English (and the demand is there) then there's got to be some kind of grand shift in how it's taught. I hope more school districts follow Kurashiki's lead, and there has to be something that companies such as mine could do to boost the quality of native teachers. Encouraging teachers to stay on for more than a year would probably help quite a bit.

In any case, I'm fascinated by the twists and turns of the educational and linguistic infrastructure here. Now, when I see examples of so-called "Engrish," I can't help but think about the culture and pedagogy that produced them, and how those things might change.

Aug 10, 2007

The Great Happiness Space: "We sell fake love relationships."

Do you want to see something weirdly interesting yet very depressing? Oh yes you do!
I recently watched The Great Happiness Space, (link mildly NSFW) a documentary about an Osaka host club, and found it both surreal and utterly familiar. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of host/hostess clubs, they are places where people pay attractive members of the opposite sex tons of money to talk, drink, sing, etc. with them. They are not fronts for brothels. There are fronts for brothels in Japan, but those are very different. These places really do make tons of money just selling time with people.
It seems that if something can exist, it can be sold. And Japan is one of the most consumerist countries on earth. If it can be sold, someone here is probably buying. Quite the grim little film here about the power of money, sleaze, and blind, pitiable dreams. Have fun.