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.


Sydney said...

This guy I met once said that the best language tool he's ever used is the Rosetta Stone program. He said that it's all about the spoken language and that once you can understand and say some basic stuff, then you learn the grammar behind it. That's how French was in middle school for me. And at French camp. We learned phrases, call and response stuff almost. For example, the teacher would say, "Je m'appelle Marie. Comment t'appelles-tu?" And you'd look at her blankly. And she'd say V E R Y S L O W L Y, "Zhe maaah-peeeehlll Maaarieeeee" and point at herself. Then you'd get it and say something in no way resembling "My name is" and your name, and, if your French teacher were Marie Letendre (L'Entendre? Yeah, "L'acoustique au crochet a fonctionné pour moi."), she'd say, "Very good, Cookie." Then she'd move on to the next student. And when I learned how to spell things and that verbs like "s'appeler" are reflexive and how exciting is that?!

You are totally right about High School French, though. Where was the excitement, the magic? I only ever had one teacher in French at LHS: Madame R. I never got the feeling she liked teaching that much. That class was awful. I took a year of French in the summer so that I could finish out fifth year as a junior and free myself from Madame R.'s hateful exercises as a senior. Hooray! The worst part is that I didn't even learn rote grammar in that class. My years of high school French should have pre-qualified me for third year at UO, but they made me take the placement test anyway. The placement test put me in 201. (!) I talked with the professor of 301 and convinced them that I could do a higher level of work. I got low marks on papers from grammar mistakes all term, but at least it wasn't re-covering those same damn worksheets.

It's really cool that you're taking up the cause of Better Language Education. If you'd like, I can do a lit search for you on pedagogy, etc, using my grad school access. Some of the research is really interesting, especially on second language assessment.

Eric said...

Yeah, I hated English and French in high school, and manage to fail one of them junior year. But I think that speaks more to the quality of the teachers teaching, since I did enjoy senior year HS English. I agree that we should focus more on the communication aspect of languages. The times I've been to France, I haven't needed to know the Passe Sample to read some short story. I needed to ask where the grocery store was, talk a little about the weather or places I had visited or some other small talk. If we spent 2 or 3 years focusing on that, then spent a year or two on the more structured grammar and reading skills after we understood the basics of communicating, that would be better. Isn't that how we teach children anyway? First we teach them to talk and then after a while we teach them to read and write? Why does this change just because we're 13 instead of 1 or 2?