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My Final Blog Post: Ten ELT Opinions and Ideas I Bequeath for Posterity

After twenty years of writing feature articles or blogposts on English teaching for the Daily Yomiuri/Japan News (Indirectly Speaking/Be My Guest), ELT News, ETJ Japan Journal, the old ELT website (The Uni-Files), and finally here on the Language Teaching Professionals, I’ve decided that it’s finally time to hang up my keyboard, to close down shop, to bid adieu to blogdom (although there is a very good chance a book may soon appear, hint hint, compiling the (revised/rewritten) choice cuts of those thousand plus diatribes plus numerous anecdotes based on nearly 30 years’ teaching in Japan. Think of it as a ‘remastering’ of my old, ahem, hits).

 

It is only fitting then that I bequeath to my (dwindling number of) readers ten ‘English teaching in Japan’ ideas that, hopefully, outlive my appearance on this mortal coil. These are:

 

1.Testing should be a part of the education process, not merely the measure of it. 

Please, please, let’s differentiate between placement/aptitude, proficiency, and summative/achievement tests. If you teach a graded course, presumably you do the latter. In that case, do not give a test in your final class, meaning that you keep the test results, grant students only a number result (or worse, a simple pass/fail), without them knowing what they did right or wrong, without them having a chance to learn from their mistakes, without a chance to fix things.

 

Sure, placement tests can be marked once with a mere P/F forwarded to the test-taker, but if you are giving a course test your students deserve a chance to learn from it. So, instead, give the test in the penultimate class and in the final class give them their tests back so students can check them and you can go over common strengths or weaknesses. After all, it’s about educating, right?

 

2. Japanese in the classroom is your friend!

There’s no use pretending that all your students aren’t Japanese, that your classroom is some type of  make-belief UN or an ESL classroom back in Kalamazoo. Japanese can be used for framing, brainstorming, clarifying, noting linguistic nuances (although not in the standard ‘to explain the grammar’ sense) or, especially, having students think about how communication is organized and managed in their mother tongues. True, having strict designations about how certain activities must be done only in English is necessary, but that common first language is a tool — and any tool can and should be used beneficially in the English learning classroom.

 

3. Don’t pontificate on pronunciation.

The world is full of English accents — and thank goodness for the spice! There is no reason for anyone learning English to sound exactly like me (generic West-Coast Canuck). Japanese people should never feel ashamed of having a Japanese accent, and trying to sound like, oh, Douglas Murray, is time better spent on more productive English-learning pursuits.

 

Sure, poorly stressed individual words (i.e., the third syllable in ‘analysis’) or katakana-ization to the point of complete de-Anglicization (‘virus’ being a currently obvious example) do need specific adjustment. But mindless repeat-after-me, note-the-bilabial- fricative-position, sessions? Why?

 

4. Mutual intelligibility, not perfectionist precision, is the goal.

…and connecting to our previous point. Anglo-American English is for Anglo-American milieus. But when Brazilians talk to Koreans, yes, they are likely to use English as a medium but it is highly unlikely that they will  follow the standards of the Queen’s English. This is why not only studies in World Englishes (local varieties) has emerged, but also English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), which codifies the divergent approaches in which English is used as a common language between two (or more) non-native speakers.

 

Despite the nod most teachers give to the practical and ‘inclusive’ notions underlying ELF, many (including most non-native English speaking teachers) still teach and grade using an Anglo-American rule-bound detail-oriented perfectionist approach, as if Margaret Thatcher herself were about to rise from the dead to grade the papers. 

 

5. Teach English as a cognitive facilitator rather than for practical purposes.

Spending six years (minimum), countless yen, and a hundred-plus nerve-shattering English tests to prepare for the one-off chance that little Taro may encounter a lost foreigner on the streets of Tottori, or, that little Hanako may one day want to order a pesto in Peoria, does not seem like the greatest payoff for one’s English learning efforts. While specific prep classes for people entering certain professions or those who have clear English-related plans/goals make perfect sense, we should think again about the purpose of teaching English in most Japanese institutions.

 

Languages are usually lumped in with the notion of a sound humanities education because they force one to contemplate and deploy different systems of communication, variant notions of meaning, alternate approaches to idea formation. This is good brain food and, most interestingly, tends to have a positive washback effect upon one’s ability to articulate in their first language. So, learning English can actually help improve Mizutani-san’s Japanese. Who woulda thought?

 

6. Make more teaching use of ‘top down’ processing.

Everybody approaches a language encounter with a schema: What is the background or environment for saying or writing this? What is the communicative purpose? What are the social norms, what is acceptable or allowable? How is this bit of communication normally structured? What are the interpersonal/social relationships involved? What degree of politeness or distance? In our mother tongues these notions allow us to communicate successfully — we start from the general ‘architecture’ of the interaction and only after that do we choose the specific details.

 

Funny then how almost all teachers approach communication from the bottom up, as if a series of grammatically-correct sentences will somehow lead to effective or appropriate communication (which is why so many Japanese have trouble putting English ‘theory’ into practice). Sure, this makes sense with absolute beginners, such as children, but why it is still treated as the go-to approach more intermediate or advanced learners leaves me puzzled. We know that learners process language in both directions so why not make more use of top-down approaches in the classroom?

 

7. Avoid putting students on the spot.

Japan is a procedural culture. If tasks, expectations, and roles are not outlined clearly there is likely to be an oppressive awkwardness in your classroom. Suddenly calling upon students to expound in anything beyond a small seminar-type setting is asking for prolonged silences. After making it very clear what students are expected to do, and actively monitoring the task, I avoid this by quietly letting select students know in advance that I will be calling upon them. This allows them to prepare for the ‘prestige’ performance of responding in front of the entire class.

 

8. Let’s get past ‘giving opinions’ — to pressing commentary, probing questions, and pregnant responses!

The popular notion that deeper, more substantial language production manifests itself as ‘giving an opinion’ has long irked me. I’m sure you’ve all heard the adage about opinions, about what they are similar to because ‘everyone has one and they all stink’. On the internet, we can see everyone and his dog spouting an opinion (like this one, heh heh), that is somehow supposed to be sacrosanct, an affirmation of the writer’s right to exist. In the Japanese classroom, ‘opinions’ will be stated reluctantly as students seek what the teacher wants them to parrot (opinions are intimacies in many cultures). They are, as a result, often conversational dead-ends. I’ve said my opinion — I have a right to it, and there you go. End of story.

 

Much more fruitful is learning how to make commentary — the ability to add something of interest or significance to a conversation in order to stimulate or extend it. Likewise, developing the ability to ask probing questions (not necessarily of the muckraker type) makes for more interesting interactions. And, last but not least, learning how to respond in a manner that does not shut down the banter but itself offers further interactional pathways for the speakers to follow is a worthy goal.

 

9. Tread very carefully with those ‘culture’ classes and don’t succumb to the debilitating ironies of ‘wokeness’.

I’ve observed far too many ‘culture’ lessons in which, ultimately, the cultural content seems to exist largely to reinforce popular stereotypes, to essentialize people (as if, say, a Mexican is culturally bound to be thoroughly ‘Mexican’ in every aspect of his/her being), and thus to other-ize them, likely resulting in awkward interactions when one actually encounters, say, Consuelo from Guadalajara. This becomes particularly pronounced in those culture classes in which the stated goal is to highlight the differences between you and your type and me and my type. Or those that dote on thinks like folk costumes or dances as if the most pressing element of culture was its trinket value.

 

Related to this is the current ‘woke’ penchant for making everything about race, gender, sexuality to the extent that one starts to find it very hard to think of anyone ‘different’ as being, essentially, like oneself. The odious notion that these extant identities should be the primary interpretive mechanism to understand people almost works against the stated goals of inclusivity and equity. Woke missionaries from the West bearing such ideological crosses should be aware that Japanese people have their own ways of framing and managing human issues, that they are not necessarily ‘behind’ the ‘advanced’ West (there’s your irony, folks) and that thumping them home in your classroom is either neo-colonialist or culturally insensitive (irony dose #2). And let’s not forget, it’s not as if our students somehow lack concepts of compassion, respect for others etc. They don’t need Mr. Gaijin in their English class to presume that Sensei is the morally enlightened one and therefore has to offer these nuggets of virtue to the ‘unenlightened’ locals.

 

10. Make your classroom learning, not learner centered.

Note the italics above. Teachers often like to display their compassion credentials by announcing that they are learner-centered as opposed to teacher-centered. While the old fashioned ‘I lecture knowledge to you that you will absorb’ motif is indeed suspect, when we assume that the more productive approach is being learner-centered (as if the classroom is akin to a group counseling session), we are in danger of ignoring the elephant in the classroom — that classrooms are primarily for learning, and whatever promotes actual learning outcomes should be a priority.

 

Well, that’s it. I hope that in some way, something that I’ve written over the years might have inspired you in some way, may have positively contributed to your teaching skills, may have offered a new approach — and in doing so has ultimately benefitted your students. If that has happened, I’ll be satisfied that I’ve contributed something of value — and that’s all I ask for. Thank you all for reading, sharing, and commenting over the years. A special thanks must be extended to LTP impresario David Paul for allowing me this opportunity and for his continued support.

As for me, my work here is done (wipes hands — exits).

 

Mike Guest

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