Tuesday, November 24, 2009

English Edumucation?

I have been meaning to write a long post declaring that I have thrown in the towel on English education in Japan. Not that I am quitting my job, but that I am quitting on the idea of my job. I just haven't found the time to write it, and I don't have it now.

The decision that I have reached can be summed up as follows: If Japan isn't committed to doing English education correctly and completely than it should stop doing it at all.

Now that is vague. I will try to make some point in the ten minutes I have before I have to mop this office. I teach kickboxing to teenagers on Fridays. What if every Friday I told them that you punch by holding your fist as high over your head as possible and jumping on one foot? What if I told them that, and other absurd things for three years? Over and above this being absurd, what if part of the reason I taught them this was that I suspected it might be absurd but all I had to go on was a description of how to punch that I had been issued and that my students would be tested on and it appeared to suggest that this was how you punch? The answer to these what ifs is that I would be a ridiculous excuse for a teacher and doing a disservice to and student with a real interest in punching anyone. This isn't far from the reality of English education in Japan. I constantly teach from textbooks with incorrect English. I tell the teachers, the Japanese teachers who at their very best are non-native speakers- that what we are teaching is incorrect. "Oh well," they will say, "What is in the textbook is on the test." This means extensive use of the passive form, beginning sentences with "and", "but" and "so, and serious infractions on sensible writing. And that is just the textbooks. The workbooks are comical and teacher's worksheets are tragic. Recently a new English teacher, a full time government employee who is now guaranteed a job a paycheck and bonuses, made a worksheet with these sentences:

"I want to go to Tokyo Disney Land. There is the most popular amusement park in all of Japan."

This is after my proofreading the sheet, taking out the worst parts, and correcting this mistake. I don't mean to be too rough on her, but this is everyday. Would these mistakes be acceptable in another subject? Is 2 plus 2= equal to 5? The English my students learn is tortured and unnatural. It does nothing to improve their speaking and communicative abilities. It is only a detriment.

I am looking through the 2nd years textbook now and I see the infamous, to me anyway, sentence: "They think that the life of a people is in its language. When a language disappears, the culture also dies out."

Hmm. Profound. Thoughtful. Today I asked a typical 2nd year student "How are you?" The same way I have asked everyday all year. I translate his response for you; "What? I don't understand. How could I possibly know what you are talking about? I don't know. Ask somebody else." That is the rule, not the exception. Who in their right mind thinks they will be able to process this though experiment on Ainu language being the basis for their culture? I have been in a few meetings with professors of education giving us suggestion on how to teach. I never thought that I would be one to crank that well worn handle on the anti-intellectual music box, however, what self-serving, jack-off office have you been sprawled out in, drinking hi-balls and staring at your bookshelves? I am a fan of multiculturalism, but my students can't even count to ten, much less contemplate the implications of an Okinawan folk music revival or urban heat islands.

I say in complete seriousness that my students would be better off reading Hop on Pop and watching Sesame Street reruns. Ask any Japanese English teacher for one word that rhymes with "cable" and see if it is possible to time a blank stare. I feel bad lambasting these teachers because they are some of my better friends and allies but you can find better speakers of English waiting for the surf to break in the backs of their broken down vans or working part time washing dishes in a restaurant. The education system imports native speakers and then precedes to undermine our position and never solicit our opinions. I can't think of once in eight years that I have been asked to help plan curriculum. I would challenge the system to give me one class for a year and compare their test scores to those from around Japan, but we all know what the likelihood of that is.

As I am writing this I can hear a kid in the hall calling "Tanaka teacher! Tanaka Teacher!" At how many schools, how many times in how many ways have I told people that that isn't English? That we don't use the construction "Last name -teacher." I sound like a killjoy saying this but it is a symptom of the problem. Of all the times that I have said this, how many times has the information been processed? I would wager none.

If I were to develop this text further I would make the surprising declaration that Japan isn't culturally mature enough to do English right in junior high schools. That would seem like a terrible, jingoistic thing to say. That would seem paternalistic at best and coldly racist at worst. It would sound that way, and I am sorry to pull rank, to anyone who had never worked in a Japanese junior high school. I don't want that statement, coming from an American to be construed as contingent on the with the suffix "as compared to America." I don't intend that, and I would have no basis for saying that. I would merely contend that if I was given a new class of 1st year students I would spend the first month or so with them making them understand that Japan was one nation among a community of nations. I would want them to accept that being Japanese didn't make them any more or less predisposed to speaking English than anyone else in the world. But it isn't the kids faults, TV is the main cultural driver in Japan and the only thing, repeat, the only things it feeds the public is that Japan is a special kingdom and everywhere else in the world is absurd. As an American reading this, I think one might be predisposed to caution, "America also thinks it is the center of the universe and...." Yes. Believe me I understand that. The situation in Japan is different however. Most people I know in America grew up knowing someone who didn't look like them. They have probably heard people who don't speak English as a first language speak before. They have probably not thought anything of it in a while. Of course there are racists and bigots in America but......The buts would take a treatise to clarify. All I want people to understand is that their is a barrier to overcome here to arrive at the point were people who speak English aren't comic buffoonery. Could you conduct a science class were people broke down laughing every time you used the metric system.

Irony of ironies I have to go to English club now. Which might not actually count as irony, come to think of it. The point that I am making is that Japan should sing an armistice with junior high English. It should offer foreign languages as electives in high school and majors in college. If it decides to do education for real, then maybe it can give it another try.

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attempting to silence the voices in my head.