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There are students who can't even understand when the class is run in Japanese, so can classes conducted in English truly be possible?

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A 31-year-old English teacher at a combined junior high and high school in the Kansai region, expressing skepticism at the government's proposal to have junior high school level English classes conducted completely in English. (Mainichi Shimbun)

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Running an English class in Japanese is what is absurd - that is why they can't understand it.

1 ( +6 / -6 )

Well they never had concerns the other way around, my Japanese teachers only spoke Japanese from day, rightly so. Teachers need to get a little creative, use visual help to make themselves understood. And she should ask herself why students can't understand plain Japanese ...maybe they shouldn't be in junior high.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

This teacher is just making excuses. The learning process isn't a hail mary pass from the teacher in hopes that the student might catch it. Education involves the teacher finding an engaging method of getting the message across in a way that the student is capable of relating to.

This is one of the problems in Japanese communication, the responsibility falls on the listener to grasp whatever vague message is being conveyed. This means most people would rather feign understanding than risk looking foolish.

In English, I will make perfect sense but if the people around me are too dense to understand, they look at me like I'm the idiot for speaking incomprehensibly. They're right though, it is stupid to believe I shouldn't have to dumb down my language.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

syzyguyDec. 16, 2013 - 09:15AM JST This is one of the problems in Japanese communication, the responsibility falls on the listener to grasp whatever vague message is being conveyed. This means most people would rather feign understanding than risk looking foolish.

Actually this isn't entirely true. The speaker's duty is to be clear and communicate effectively and comprehensively. The listener's duty is to list attentively. The problem is complicated by the fact that in Japan there's a reluctance to ask questions as, in Japanese culture, they're seen as implying that the speaker didn't do their job. The result is that unclear speakers don't get their feelings hurt by being told they suck, and listeners never clear up misunderstandings. The problem here is on both sides of the coin, and both teachers and students are victims in this scenario.

In English, I will make perfect sense but if the people around me are too dense to understand, they look at me like I'm the idiot for speaking incomprehensibly. They're right though, it is stupid to believe I shouldn't have to dumb down my language.

That is a very condescending point of view. Why not start off with the assumption that people are as intelligent as you, and then clarify in simpler terms if they don't understand.

In Western culture one is not an idiot for assuming that the other person you're talking to is as intelligent, or more intelligent, than you are. I encounter the attitude a lot from people from the U.S. (in fact the author Neal Stephenson, a U.S. author agrees with me in his book Cypto-Nomicon). In the U.S. there seems to be this knee-jerk defensiveness whenever they encounter something they don't understand, and they automatically assume that the speaker is an idiot... rather than more correctly pausing to consider that there is something they might not know, and asking for clarification.

The resulting situation is that people from the U.S. come across as condescending when speaking, and insulting when responding to what they've just heard.

Japanese students, on the other hand, will often delegate a single individual (or pair) to come and speak to the teacher in private (to avoid any embarrassment) if they don't understand.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

Because you let them sleep, you pass them when they fail everything, participation is irrelevant and there are no consequences.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

One of the problems with teaching English in English is that the teacher has to use their creative minds to communicate the concepts they are trying to teach. If the class is in Japanese, teachers just have to say the same thing they've been saying in past years. "English is SVO." For example. And assume the students know what SVO is.

If they are to teach completely in English, they will have to show - multiple times, perhaps - what an S is, what a V is and what an O is. Or abandon the teacher-centered lecture methodology and come up with something different; something students can learn the language from; something that will require teachers to understand the learning process.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

How about having English teachers volunteering for two weeks in a different English speaking country each year?

Think of the new perspectives they could bring to the classroom, and how engaging their lessons would be.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

In English, I will make perfect sense but if the people around me are too dense to understand, they look at me like I'm the idiot for speaking incomprehensibly

And when someone speaks to you in Japanese that makes perfect sense but includes a few vocabulary items or syntactical structures you haven't come across before, is that person an idiot for speaking in a manner that is not comprehensible to you, or is it just that you are too dense to understand?

I despair when I come across teachers who expect any language to be taught predominantly through the medium of another language. All they're doing is strengthening the students' dependence on the mother tongue as a means of communication, and enforcing the notion that English (or whatever the target language is) is just something to study for tests, not a tool to be used for communication. It takes more preparation on the part of the teacher to carry a whole class in the target language, the work is harder and at first progress might seem slow; but building a sound foundation is essential.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

I was a JET and in spite of my incredible amount of initial motivation I learned pretty quickly that the old dog teachers just wanted a tape recorder. I could make some impact out of classes with team activities and English club.

In my opinion the main problem is teachers teaching to the test which is mainly grammar. I am not sure why Japanese feel they need to know the esoteric nuances of English grammer better than an Oxford librarian,,,

10 ( +10 / -0 )

One major problem is that those students who can't even understand Japanese are lumped into the same class as the other average and above average students. Whether you conduct the class in English or Japanese, there are always going to be students who get it right away and students who need extensive practice and confirmation of every single new piece of information. If they're really worried about the slower students, they need to create more extra help lessons for all subjects, to those kids can learn at their own pace.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Lol, sounds to me an English teacher that can't use English to explain the stuffs he's teaching, great.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Students are lazy, and teachers are idiots.

Students say "I don't understand" simply because they're too lazy to put in the effort.

The teacher, of course, believes them. Hmm, they say, must be because the material is too difficult.

Must dumb it down some more, so the precious little angles don't hurt their heads.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

@Frungy The problem is complicated by the fact that in Japan there's a reluctance to ask questions as, in Japanese culture, they're seen as implying that the speaker didn't do their job.

Indeed, there are situations where the listener wouldn't want to risk offending the speaker by asking questions, while there are also situations whereby the listener is neurotic enough to believe that their shortcomings in grasping are more to blame than the speakers inability to communicate. I would think that deducing the frequency of these situations (and how much blame is to be placed) is very much guess work.

In a high context culture such as Japan, I believe there is more significance placed upon the listener's role in the interaction. Here, it's a social construct conveniently built to reduce the questioning of authority and protects people in positions of power (teachers/bosses/parents) from having to explain themselves. This helps them save face from the fact that they don't actually know anything.

@Frungy Why not start off with the assumption that people are as intelligent as you, and then clarify in simpler terms if they don't understand.

Why not start off with the assumption that I do give everyone the benefit of the doubt and attempt to speak intelligibly, and only adjust after realizing they didn't understand? Why are you assuming otherwise?

@cleo when someone speaks to you in Japanese that makes perfect sense but includes a few vocabulary items or syntactical structures you haven't come across before, is that person an idiot for speaking in a manner that is not comprehensible to you, or is it just that you are too dense to understand?

First off, my point was only regarding communication between native speakers. If people around you (or those in the group that matter) can clearly understand, while you don't know the meaning when your own language is being spoken then yes, you are too dense to understand and it is your (the listener's) fault. Just because the listener thinks the speaker is an idiot for being incomprehensible doesn't mean it's true.

In the context of one person being a teacher and the other being a student, if the student does not understand then a proportion of blame needs to be placed upon the teacher, whose role is to simplify complex concepts according to the level of the student.

In an everyday context where a non-native immigrant doesn't fully understand what is being said in their adopted home, it falls upon that individual to do a better job of studying the language being spoken in that country, though saying they are "too dense" isn't fair.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I'm sick and tired of hearing about government proposals to improve English levels. I've been hearing about it since I got here. The expression flogging a dead horse doesn't come close to doing it justice. 7 years of English education has produced a majority who can't give directions to a train station or order in a restaurant. An absolute waste of time and money. It's time to focus on quality rather than quantity. The majority I mentioned don't need to use and probably don't want to use English and will live fulfilling lives and make a living without it. I'd estimate that around 70% of the staff at my company can't speak English beyond simple greetings ( that would be 0% in my department where it's essential )and don't need to. Teach it in JHS and make it an option in HS with a focus on speaking provided by well-trained teachers who can actually speak the language ( make it a prerequisite to pass a rigorous interview conducted in English ) and employ decently-paid ALTs who are trained and valued.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Not sure about now, but when I was at university in the UK if you studied a language you absolutely had to spend a year in a country where it was spoken or you couldn't graduate. Should be the same for everyone studying English at university here.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I don't believe they have enough teachers even capable of conducting class completely in English. I did the ALT thing and most of the "English Teachers" weren't much better than the students. I'll give them an "A" for effort, but I wouldn't be surprised if this becomes a sort of in-name-only situation.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Running an English class in Japanese is what is absurd - that is why they can't understand it.

Not strictly true, to be fair. How many of us took foreign language classes when we were in JHS? Were those classes taught entirely in the target language? Of course not. We had bilingual textbooks and our instructors peppered the class with a lot of English in order to clarify grammar or pronunciation points.

The problem here is Japan has yet to decide what kind of foreign language learning it wants to pursue. Does it want to teach English as a Foreign Language (EFL)? Or English as a Second Language (ESL)? The two are distinctly different.

ESL is aimed at multilingual classrooms that want to hone their skills at a target language that is spoken by the majority of people just beyond the classroom walls. An ESL student will have ample opportunity to immediately test-drive what they just learned in real-world situations. With this near-instantaneous practical application of what they've learned, ESL learners can -- and do -- excel in the target language

EFL, on the other hand, seeks to impart competence in a language that is spoken primarily "over there," i.e., in some foreign country. EFL students will only likely ever get to try out their newly acquired skills if they happen to travel overseas. Without the emersion that ESL learning automatically entails, fewer than 5% of all EFL students in Japan will ever actually become proficient at the target language. And any proficiency seen will almost certainly not be due to what they've learned in a JHS classroom.

Japan is attempting to use ESL teaching techniques in what is, at its heart, an EFL environment. And it simply doesn't work. This idea of hammering the kids at an earlier age with ESL methods will underwhelm, just as everything else up this point has.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

No, because all it takes is a student to not understand one word for them to enter a "vocabulary vortex", whereby time is wasted on subsequent words / explanations that they may not understand. Syntax should be taught I their mother tongue, with a designated time set aside for English only (say 10mins of one lesson).

The whole teaching approach needs an overhaul - it needs to be engaging. Like Jimizo mentioned above - textbook drilling is a complete waste of time if it isn't put into action. The focus should be on situational English (eg. giving directions,). Make it F-U-N.

If students want to sleep, they can be shown the door!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

When I used to do some English lessons I tried to insist at first that no Japanese be used, period. I quickly learned that that is simply impossible when the students lack the fundamentals to get a message across. You can't walk in and expect a switch to be flipped and the students be able to understand and communicate in the target language -- that goes for anyone and any language. That said, coddling the students and a focus on rote memory to pass entrance exams is a major problem here. Sometimes when asked to do a class at elementary schools by the city, the kids -- the most enthusiastic learners I taught -- would be given translation for EVERYTHING by the classes' homeroom teachers. If you say, "stand up" and gesture or use body language as an example, you do not need someone to translate it in Japanese. Give the people a chance to understand and absorb it, not just hear what you say and then shift eye-contact to the person who will deliver them the meaning, if they can.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

How many of us took foreign language classes when we were in JHS? Were those classes taught entirely in the target language? Of course not. We had bilingual textbooks and our instructors peppered the class with a lot of English in order to clarify grammar or pronunciation points.

That's true. And my French is as abysmal as the English of most Japanese people who have gone through the usual school English lessons, aka virtually non-existent.

I tried to insist at first that no Japanese be used, period. I quickly learned that that is simply impossible when the students lack the fundamentals to get a message across.

You cannot simply walk into a class of people with close to zero English ability and insist they hold a meaningful conversation in English. Early lessons need to be rigidly structured so that you give them the fundamentals they need in a readily-understandable form, give them the chance to practice it appropriately, and give them feedback on how well they're doing. Then build on what they've learned.

In the context of one person being a teacher and the other being a student, if the student does not understand then a proportion of blame needs to be placed upon the teacher, whose role is to simplify complex concepts according to the level of the student.

Yes.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

cleo: "You cannot simply walk into a class of people with close to zero English ability and insist they hold a meaningful conversation in English."

That was part of my point, hence the 'impossible when the students lack the fundamentals'. But there ARE times when the fundamentals can be naturally acquired as opposed to constant translation and explanation. I mean, do you need to show a picture of a pig and follow the word 'pig' with a translation?

Anyway, what the whole thing boils down to is apathy, be it on the part of the teachers, the students, or the system as a whole. The bilingual rate for people in Canada from my age group (who had to start learning French from about 11 years of age, roughly the same as JHS here), is sadly not much higher than 10%. At some point in time the government made it mandatory, and made an actual system, that children start learning French/English from the age of Kindergarteners. The rate of people who are fluent in both languages has increased. Proof that starting at an earlier age, with a decent system, helps.

What the government needs to do, and needs to do NOW, is stop making laws that English be mandatory here and there, and then leave it up to the local boards to decide on how they do it (and those boards have to stop leaving it up to the schools!). Make a nationwide curriculum, same as with all other subjects (something I respect about the education system here). Right now it's basically chaos; one school LITERALLY teaches one hour of English a year so they have 'taught the students English', and the next school has foreign language teachers coming in nearly every day. It's uneven. Then you have the problem of Japanese teachers who wrote on their resumes that they studied English at some point and so are demanded by the board to take on the English classes when in reality all they did was get a relatively high TOEIC score.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

syzyguyDec. 16, 2013 - 12:03PM JST

@Frungy Why not start off with the assumption that people are as intelligent as you, and then clarify in simpler terms if they don't understand.

Why not start off with the assumption that I do give everyone the benefit of the doubt and attempt to speak intelligibly, and only adjust after realizing they didn't understand? Why are you assuming otherwise?

Because of what you wrote in your first post:

In English, I will make perfect sense but if the people around me are too dense to understand, they look at me like I'm the idiot for speaking incomprehensibly. They're right though, it is stupid to believe I shouldn't have to dumb down my language.

You are the one who claimed that it is "stupid" to believe that people are as intelligent as you (what arrogance!) and that you have to "dumb down" your language from the start.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

All it will take is one parent to complain, then exceptions will occur then it will quickly unravel

The key to learning a language is respecting a language as it presents itself to be. How can than concept even occur when Japanese are replacing their own language?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Some people get overheated about this issue; I really don't think it's a huge problem, especially now that students have 24-hour access to all kinds of natural English via the internet.

I use plenty of Japanese in class. If I stuck religiously to English the atmosphere would be much less fun; I wouldn't be able to crack jokes about the daft pictures in the textbooks, use irony or compliment someone's new bag or haircut.

Or rather I could do all of those things, but it'd bring everything to a standstill while I repeated and gave lengthy explanations.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

You could easily do it in elementary school because nobody at that age has learned it isn't possible yet.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I could do all of those things, but it'd bring everything to a standstill while I repeated and gave lengthy explanations.

Your students might learn how to pay a compliment or even crack a joke in English, though.

But really, if something as simple as 'That's a nice bag' or 'I like your hair' needs such a lengthy explanation that everything comes to a standstill, maybe your students need more of smitty's pictures of pigs? - back to fundamentals!

By lapsing back into Japanese for 'fun' stuff, you're basically telling your students that English isn't really for everyday use; for that, even the English teacher needs to resort to Japanese.

-4 ( +2 / -6 )

By lapsing back into Japanese for 'fun' stuff, you're basically telling your students that English isn't really for everyday use;

I hear this a lot, but I think it's an idea that reveals a underestimation of students' ability to think. They know English is for everyday use all over the world; my speaking in Japanese doesn't "show" them any different.

And,sure, I could say "I like your haircut," and be understood, but couldn't follow it up with "When are you going to get it finished?" ; )

4 ( +4 / -0 )

more to the point, the majority of Japanese English "teachers" in high school or middle school don't actually speak the language themselves. They can read and write it, but speak? No way...

This is what this is really about... I don't think its a good idea for Japanese teachers who do speak limited English to be passing on their crappy pronunciation anyways. If they had native teachers teaching the classes, with no old Japanese teacher speaking Katakanaized "Engrish" in the room, then we would be getting somewhere.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Various issues here - as mentioned. One main thing I see it that a) many teachers don't know how to grade their language, more so Japanese teachers. They don't tend to use simple English and build a foundation and b) Japanese teachers insist on total comprehension of whatever was said. Say it in too difficult language and the students don't 100% understand? Japanese it is. I've taught all grades here at the secondary level here in mostly only English and I had very few problems in student's comprehension on what was said and what they needed to do. Then again, I am not explaining ridiculous grammar structures and using vocab that they will rarely use. Get rid of the damn center shiken and watch things improve.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

And someday soon, all this debate will mean exactly nothing. Universal translators will arrive LONG before English education sees reform in Japan!

Japanese Technology from the Future... ooops, Saturday again! - http://j.mp/1j6u3Ce

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The real problem seems to be that at the young ages kids are the most capable of learning a second language in an easy natural way, they are the least motivated to. By the time they are even slightly motivated (for passing exams, exchanges, etc.), their brains are no longer as adaptable and it becomes a struggle. But Asian countries like Singapore and the Philippines enforce early English teaching in a culture that is predominantly different. When the Japanese education authorities say they want to get serious about English, they apparently don't mean serious to the same extent. But why not?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I've learned that recently tests are changing somewhat to ask students to think more and express their opinions on issues rather than just recite what they've learned via rote. While I welcome this change, they are still being marked on spelling and grammar instead of the ability to get the message across, which defeats the point of the change. The system is the problem, and the fobbing off of responsibility from one party to the next is completely irresponsible. The kids may not be up to grade in studying, but I'm sorry to say that is the fault of the system, for the most part. You give a boring speech that no one can understand, don't expect them to be enthused and remember it.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Before I had some problems I taught English in a natural way that I devloped myself. Students said they enjoyed it and in fact it was that intimacy that really helped us all succeed. Teachers who cannot establish repport with kids never have a chance.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Steve FabricantDec. 16, 2013 - 09:09PM JST The real problem seems to be that at the young ages kids are the most capable of learning a second language in an easy natural way,

True. Sortof. We can most easily learn new sounds when we're young. This is just one component of language learning though.

they are the least motivated to.

False. Children learn everything they're told to learn, generally without any sort of judgement involved. If you taught a class of kindergarten kids how to recite Khalil Gibran's "The Prophet" they'd learn it without any complaint and they'd learn it well.

By the time they are even slightly motivated (for passing exams, exchanges, etc.), their brains are no longer as adaptable

False. On two counts. Firstly, examinations don't motivate, neither do exchanges really since in both cases the scoring systems used in Japan are so opaque as to make the results seem meaningless to students. Secondly, there's only a really noticeable decreased in the brain's ability to absorb new knowledge in early adulthood, not in childhood. It is true that recognising new sounds becomes more difficult from about 3 years old, but unless you're advocating starting mandatory English classes at 2 this is irrelevant.

and it becomes a struggle.

True. Learning a new language is HARD. Anyone who tells you differently is a complete and utter liar... or has already mastered 5 or 6 languages and has a list of tricks to keep themselves motivated as long as most encyclopedias.

But Asian countries like Singapore and the Philippines enforce early English teaching in a culture that is predominantly different.

... It isn't about culture, its about necessity. When Japan was the number 2 economy in the world people came to THEM. They spoke Japanese to curry favour with the Japanese businessmen. Now that Japan has slipped down to 3rd place (and by some measures 4th place) this is going to change as Japan slips lower and lower. People are not going to spend 5 years studying Japanese just to make Japanese businessmen feel comfortable. Nope, Japanese people will HAVE to learn English and learn it well if they don't want to slip down the ranks even further.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Frungy, you know more than I do about this subject, but I have experienced my own kids who, in 2 cases learned English rapidly and fluently (not just the sounds) after being plunked down into school in the US at first and fourth grades. The learning "tool" was not books, ESL, or other teacher(s), but the other kids while playing together. They were not told to memorize The Prophet or anything else - they just acquired the language rather miraculously by immersion, because their motivation was social inclusion. In contrast #3 started school here in Japan and is now in 6th grade, so I have had the chance to watch how she learned (or didn't learn) English. She gets motivated by the Eiken every few years (note in my original post I said students here get "slightly motivated" by exams) but still cannot communicate well in English because she is immersed in Japanese.

Not too sure at what age language acquisition skills taper off. In my case it was in middle age. In the case of most of my JHS French classmates, it must have been around 10. I don't think the final word is in when it comes to language learning. Maybe we need to study the exceptional teenagers who pick it up by watching movies or listening to pop music, and adapt similar techniques. No doubt someone could make a class of Japanese 3rd-graders memorize the Gettysburg Address, but where would that get them?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Nothing they dol will change anything until they actually start teaching "English", as opposed to "Theoretical English Grammar (in Japanese (when the kids don't even understand what an S or a V or an O are even in Japanese))"

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Steve FabricantDec. 16, 2013 - 10:12PM JST Frungy, you know more than I do about this subject, but I have experienced my own kids who, in 2 cases learned English rapidly and fluently (not just the sounds) after being plunked down into school in the US at first and fourth grades. The learning "tool" was not books, ESL, or other teacher(s), but the other kids while playing together. They were not told to memorize The Prophet or anything else - they just acquired the language rather miraculously by immersion, because their motivation was social inclusion.

I learned my second language by immersion method, so I agree that the immersion method works. Again I agree that it goes most smoothly when the learner is self-motivated because the majority of their peers speak only the target language and the learner wants to fit in and play.

However, this approach simply isn't possible in Japan. To achieve this goal we'd have to import significantly more English speaking kids than there are Japanese kids (a goal that is, however, getting more and more realistic as the Japanese child population shrinks).

The way I learned my second language a much harder way. We started at about age 12. It was immersion method in a classroom. We had the class every day for 1 hour, and the teacher spoke ONLY the target language. We learned through stories with pictures. We learned several key sentences like, "What is in " and were only allowed to ask for translations of single words (so we couldn't get the teacher to act as a translator), but we were still producing sentences in the language from virtually the first day.

For about the first year it was "monkey see, monkey do" imitation, and I hated the teacher and the incomprehensible language with a fiery burning passion. I hate the teacher, I hated the class, I saw no reason why I had learn it. The language was utterly irrelevant to my daily life, my social interactions, and my future.

After about a year of this torture one day... well, it was like a light went on in my head. I suddenly realised that I was actually UNDERSTANDING what was going on in the class. I was able to formulate original sentences and communicate with the teacher... who I still hated with a fiery burning passion (I realised years later just how unfair I had been and how kind and patient she had been while doing a difficult job, and I visited the school to apologise to her and she just smiled and said that it was nice to hear... and then proceeded to fine tune some minor grammar mistakes I had made, because she STILL refused to communicate in any language other than her native tongue).

Every student in the class made the same breakthrough I had made, some sooner (one guy was chatting away with the teacher after about 3 months... I hated that guy too... again, I realised later, quite unfairly), some much later (one guy took two years before he got the language).

After 6 years instruction we all spoke AT LEAST business level in the language, and some of us could pass for fluent (a bit of an accent on some words). We could all read a 600 page novel in the language without breaking a sweat and without reaching for a dictionary... and for our final year we had to read two novels that length.

The immersion method works. Every single study, every single scientific trial, every single paper has reached the same conclusion. The problem is that it isn't "fun", and that's the real problem with Japanese English education, there's this idea that English education should be "fun". Japanese Teachers of English want native English teachers to make their classes "fun". We have so-called experts like Krashen going on about affective filters and how the content must be appealing and engaging.

Forget appealing and engaging. If you want the kids to learn English then accept the fact that they will HATE English for one year (worst case maybe even two years), but that after that they'll become good at the language and will later come to appreciate it. Until someone at the Ministry of Education has the guts to make that call though English education in Japan will continue to suck, and won't get any better, because no matter how well-intentioned one simply cannot learn a language by "playing" with an ALT for 1 hour a week then following up with another 4 hours a week of some Japanese English teacher droning on and on in Japanese about English grammar points.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Frungy,

That post was spot on.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

In Sendai, my Japanese friend's 6-year-old speaks much better English than his 11-year-old brother. Start 'em early, make it fun. What surprises me, as an English major and now retired ad exec and public speaking instructor is that ESL providers in Japan don't want someone with my experience, they'd rather have a young newbie. That 6-year-old son of my shin yuu absolutely dominates my time when I'm there, while his older brother plays video games.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

TrevorPeace1Dec. 17, 2013 - 01:17AM JST In Sendai, my Japanese friend's 6-year-old speaks much better English than his 11-year-old brother. Start 'em early, make it fun. What surprises me, as an English major and now retired ad exec and public speaking instructor is that ESL providers in Japan don't want someone with my experience, they'd rather have a young newbie. That 6-year-old son of my shin yuu absolutely dominates my time when I'm there, while his older brother plays video games.

With all due respect Trevor, but I think you have reached the wrong conclusion. The reason that the 6 year old speaks better English than the 11 year old is self-evident to those who understand what's going on. The 11 year old wants to fit in with his peers, so he speaks Japanese more, and plays video games because that's what he talks with his peers about. The 6 year old wants the approval of adults more, so he speaks English more. For the 11 year old English has become a school subject, i.e. something that belongs at school, and is a chore. For the 6 year old English is a novelty and something to be enjoyed. I could go on, writing about code-switching, the distinction between ESL and EFL, identity formation, and how they influence this situation, but suffice it to say that you are not the first to notice this pattern, and not the first to draw incorrect conclusions on the subject. If you stick around for another 5 years and carefully document the two children's language development you'll notice a regression in the younger child's English as he gets older.

And fun is not the key, as I pointed out above. For reasons that would be far too complex to go into in a forum post, but that I have touched on above, simply making classes "fun" is not going to do the trick. Your experience as an English major, an ad exec and public speaking instructor are all valuable assets, but you'll need to supplement them with a lot of reading on the subject of EFL before you're equipped to teach English in Japan. I do acknowledge that I am being unfair, most of the young, fresh-faced JETs who come to Japan to "teach" have absolutely no clue, and you are doubtless 1000 times more qualified than they are, however comparisons are odious and lead to incorrect conclusions. Being better than someone with no qualifications and no clue does not necessarily make you right for the job.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

They know English is for everyday use all over the world; my speaking in Japanese doesn't "show" them any different.

The majority of them have no direct knowledge of the rest of the world; before their very eyes, in the 'real' world of their own classroom, they see first-hand that the teacher needs to resort to Japanese in order to speak 'naturally'.

And,sure, I could say "I like your haircut," and be understood, but couldn't follow it up with "When are you going to get it finished?" ; )

Are you being paid to teach English or to initiate them into the intricacies of the British sense of humour? :-) Actually letting them in on your sense of humour through the medium of English is a great way to motivate them - it's a method I've used myself in the past - but if you do it in Japanese, you're throwing the opportunity away.

that's the real problem with Japanese English education, there's this idea that English education should be "fun".

You know, my impression is the exact opposite. Japanese English education is as far from being fun as it's possible to be. Rote memorisation of stock phrases and obscure grammar points, endless vocabulary tests, in fact just endless tests. Kids who try harder don't get encouraged by the teacher for trying to compose a longer sentence, they get shot down because their longer sentence, while being perfectly comprehensible, contains a tiny mistake. Test answers have only one possible 'correct' answer, and any slight deviation is wrong, wrong, wrong. There's no fun, it's almost like the teachers have taken a course in How To Make Kids Hate Language-Learning.

Language-learning, especially for younger kids, should be fun. If it isn't fun, they aren't going to see the point and if they don't see the point they aren't going to be interested, and if they aren't interested they aren't going to make progress and if they don't make progress it's never going to be fun.

Of course 'simply' making classes fun isn't going to do it, as Frungy points out. It has to be structured fun that allows the language to develop and grow; just singing songs and playing alphabet games ad nauseum isn't language-learning. But neither is memorising lists of vocabulary items that you have never seen in use and that you cannot put appropriately into a coherent sentence.

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cleo Dec. 17, 2013 - 01:13PM JST

Of course 'simply' making classes fun isn't going to do it, as Frungy points out. It has to be structured fun that allows the language to develop and grow; just singing songs and playing alphabet games ad nauseum isn't language-learning. But neither is memorising lists of vocabulary items that you have never seen in use and that you cannot put appropriately into a coherent sentence.

I couldn't agree more. If you can make it fun then do it, but the problem I've found with this approach in Japan is that the English level is so low that the teachers inevitably cave in and translate, which is a deadly error, because then the students just lean back and ignore the English, waiting for the translation.

First do the hard slog, acquiring enough English to communicate, then they can watch the Simpsons, and talk about the episode, or sing songs, etc. and it'll actually have an educational objective. Doing these things before the kids have enough English to understand? A complete waste of time. Start off with picture books (or better yet, comics!) and then build up from there, but with a strict "no translation, no Japanese, English only!", rule. The kids will absorb the vocabulary, whether they like it or not. Fun is a nice extra, but it is exactly that, an EXTRA, not the core of the teaching approach.

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An indication of how English teaching has failed to improve is that many middle-aged conversation students who went through English hell in the 70's and 80's are quite competent in grammar (except for articles - did those never get taught in Japan??). Of course it would be better if they had learned useful vocabulary and how to form and pronounce sentences, but al least I hardly ever need to explain the grammar to them.

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Start off with picture books (or better yet, comics!) and then build up from there, but with a strict "no translation, no Japanese, English only!", rule.

I like this. It would require a change in expectations regarding testing. As cleo pointed out, everything is basically centered around testing. Giving students grades for effort as opposed to results right off the bat would be a nice change, too.

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First do the hard slog, acquiring enough English to communicate, then they can watch the Simpsons, and talk about the episode

It should be hard slog for the teacher, not the student, at least not for students who are little kids. For example you can have little kids mindlessly chanting numbers and memorising boring colour charts (or more likely soulless word lists of the red=赤 variety), or you can have them counting toys and asking each other for two blue trains, or five green cars (picture cards or better still, toy models). Understanding and discussing the Simpsons is way advanced.

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cleoDec. 17, 2013 - 05:38PM JST It should be hard slog for the teacher, not the student, at least not for students who are little kids. For example you can have little kids mindlessly chanting numbers and memorising boring colour charts (or more likely soulless word lists of the red=赤 variety), or you can have them counting toys and asking each other for two blue trains, or five green cars (picture cards or better still, toy models). Understanding and discussing the Simpsons is way advanced.

Fair enough. Thomas the Tank Engine then? Books for a start, with a few "video lessons" a year thrown in as rewards?

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Thomas the Tank Engine then? Books for a start, with a few "video lessons" a year thrown in as rewards?

Little kids love TtTE, so he's a great teaching tool. Books - with lots of pictures, not too many words - are great, used as something to talk about, not read from. If the budget runs to it, toys are more versatile and therefore more engaging. Videos are also for teaching, not 'rewards'. At the level of kids who will be interested in TtTE and Friends (kindy/first few years of school?) every lesson should be/contain a 'reward'. But don't expect 4/5-year-olds to sit quietly through a TtTE video and then discuss the storyline in fluent English!

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