…an ongoing attempt to put into words what it is I think I’m up to…
“Success depends less on materials, techniques, or linguistic analyses, and more on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom.” –Earl W. Stevick What’s at Stake?
EFL in Japanese Universities
I’ve taught students of all ages, from Pre-School Hearing Impaired students, to Post Doctoral STEM professionals, and every age has its special charms and challenges. But for me the best gig has been teaching undergraduates here in Japan. There’s a special blend of adult seriousness and youthful optimism that’s simply refreshing day-to-day.
That said, English teachers in Japanese universities often face a particular challenge. Students come to our classes with at least six years of English study behind them and as a result of the way it is usually taught in schools, most of them dislike English. A fair number hate it. And why not? For them it’s been a bloodless, airless, yet high-stakes grind of complex, convoluted grammar and nearly random arcane vocabulary–and little more. Our classes should be, first and foremost, an attempt to do better than that. For that, we have to pick students up from wherever they’ve been run over, help them see the relevance of English to their lives, and encourage them to continue down the road. Sometimes, success is simply keeping them from giving up entirely.
Uncovering The Personal Connections
My classes begin with my personal tales of becoming a Japanese speaker, how it’s a lifetime journey, and how foolish I often still sound. I point out, however, that communication is not about being “perfect”, but about conducting an exchange of information, feelings and ideas between people.
Language, whether a first, second, or thirty-third, is rooted in this exchange. Without this interaction, it may be impossible to develop any language at all. This interpersonal exchange is also recognized as key to growing a healthy, vibrant “self”. Developing a self that can also communicate in a foreign language adds a depth to the human experience that is singularly satisfying. But it goes further than that, especially with English.
While only five percent of the world’s population are native English speakers, it’s estimated that one in four people on the planet communicate in English regularly. That suggests that the overwhelming majority of personal exchanges in English are between non-native speakers. It also emphasizes the unique role of English in addressing the myriad global challenges we face. Without English, it is more difficult to be an active participant in any of the global conversations that occur millions of times a day online. The sad fact is, these global conversations occur largely without Japanese participants. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Helping Students Recognize What They Can Do
While there are hopeful signs that things are starting to improve a bit, most of our students have not had a genuine opportunity to communicate in English. They remain convinced that however much they may know about English, it’s not enough to begin to actually communicate. This is demonstrably false. Armed with just a handful of words from a guidebook, it’s possible to navigate in a foreign language environment–all that’s really required is a certain fearlessness. But even the weakest students I see have a depth and breadth of English that far exceeds that simple minimum. The emphasis of my classes, therefore, is on showing them what they can do with English and expanding that, and not necessarily trying to increase what they know about it.
This shift in thinking is best reflected in the goals behind the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) and its localized version CEFR-J. Developed over several decades to give teachers of various languages a more efficient way to communicate and coöperate, the framework describes levels of communicated competences with an emphasis on practical, pragmatic abilities. These levels are defined by “can do” statements that are simple and to the point. For example:
Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment).
This gives both teachers and students concrete targets at which to aim, quite unlike many opaque language assessment tests, and prompts the question, “What do you think you need and/or want to be able to do in English?” That question, in and of itself, helps clear a lot of brush in the classroom.
Teaching EFL Writing
I’m not sure if it’s 98% or 99% percent, but almost every English teacher I know hates teaching writing. It’s arguably the most labor-intensive part of the job. A typical scenario sees every Sunday during the semester sacrificed to pile of mind-numbingly boring essays to be read & marked before Monday. The writers and the reader are only interested in what grade can be generated from the text, and share the goal of getting the experience over as soon as possible. This situation produces a very special kind of headache for everyone involved. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Writing is a craft, and should be approached that way. Instead of having students “complete an assignment”, have them craft real writing, for a real audience. This means bringing them into the editorial process from the beginning, working with the teacher to create a piece of writing whose final audience is beyond the classroom. Publication, even on a humble website, changes the tenor of experience completely–students are eager to do multiple re-writes.
This is the thinking behind the student-written site I run, Life in Kochi. The site attracts real readers from all over the planet who are interested in our little part of Japan. Occasionally, there are even comments on articles that students are required to read and respond to.
I’ll just admit it: I’m suspicious of the notion that students can be taught how to read by learning “reading skills.” It’s true that fooling with these skills can eat up admirable amounts of class time, and that they are relatively easy to test for, but I’m not sure how helpful they actually are. There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done before anyone can begin to read with much power in a foreign language, but as Frank Smith pointed out long ago, the ability to read emerges. Once students have acquired a certain level of basic English, they can begin to function as real, if limited, readers.
At the university level, EFL students have had all the basic training they need to start functioning as real readers of English. What they lack, by and large, is a reason to engage the world of written English outside of textbooks. In other words, they have to actually start reading real and relevant English.
My “Technical Reading” course for STEM students is designed to get students reading real, though lay, articles in English in their individual fields. We go through several class readings together, and then I send them out on their own to find and collect articles that genuinely interest them. They are required to write summaries of the articles (a skill I do teach) along with their person al commentaries and queries. By the end of the semester, they are reading on their own, in their own field. That feels like success to me.