My year teaching English at a Japanese university, part 2

I spent the last post going over why eikaiwa offer better English education than universities.  Now I’m going to contradict myself a bit.

There are a few points on which universities’ English courses are superior to eikaiwa classes.  In fact one of those points is nearly a fatal blow to the idea that eikaiwa can be considered proper education at all.  And that is:

University classes meet more often.  Not always, I know.  But my classes met for 90 minutes twice a week each, and the least I’ve heard of is 90 minutes once a week.  My eikaiwa classes meet for 50 minutes once a week, which is a pretty pathetic drip feed, although completely standard for the eikaiwa industry and actually above average for elementary or preschool classes (Amity offers classes to 6-month-olds for 30 minutes a week, which is educational the same way magnet bracelets are healthy).  If there were one variable I would single out as influential in SLA success, it’d be hours with the language.  An hour or less per week, 45-48 weeks a year is, to borrow someone else’s metaphor, like pouring water into the desert a cup at a time.

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Fast food is a common metaphor for eikaiwa, and apt except that eikaiwa teachers don’t get to wear hats or have facial hair.

University students do homework.  About half the time.  But more than adult eikaiwa students.  The image that the eikaiwa industry has is one of participatory but undemanding learning.  Students are supposed to show up, have a good time talking, then go home.  There is indeed a lot of support for this type of learning, provided you do it enough – until Long’s focus on form became a buzzword, many sub-PhDs were still hooked on Krashen and thought input and interaction (Krashen would say just input) were necessary and sufficient conditions for SLA.  Nowadays many regard teacher-fronted grammatical explanation as not only acceptable, but required as one part of a complete language course.  Students in university have just come out of 6 years of explicit grammatical instruction; they still view sentence diagrams and translation exercises as the default, and if homework isn’t exactly welcome, it’s still something they know how to do.  Adult eikaiwa students look at homework like their old PE uniform, which I their spin instructor have just asked them to put it on again.

Most consumers of eikaiwa don’t know the difference between schools.  My Lagunitas-Michelob principle assumes people can distinguish between products on the market based on quality.  In fact, most eikaiwa students choose their schools based on the nationality of the teacher and whether their friends go there.  One of the most dismaying portions of my MA research was a survey of my younger students’ parents, which revealed that the most common reasons that they sent their kids to eikaiwa were 1) the native speaker status of the teachers, 2) the fact that the kids were still young (in other words, the critical period hypothesis), and 3) the opportunity to interact with a foreign culture.  Needless to say, these ingredients are present at virtually all eikaiwa.  Prospective college students can’t distinguish good from bad in English programs either, but virtually all colleges require MAs of their teachers, ensuring some basic level of quality (or at least a sense among the teachers of what quality would look like if the administration didn’t prevent them from providing it).  Plus, higher-ranked universities do hire English teachers with longer lists of publications and presentations, which is a reasonable indicator of professional dedication.  That these teachers are all given the least important classes and fired after 4 years is a problem for another day.

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