Getting rid of the native speaker concept

Denying or minimizing the importance of having native speakers (NSs) as teachers is a litmus test for modern language teachers.  Particularly where English is concerned, very few statements will get as many enthusiastic thumbs-up reactions on facebook, if your friend list includes as many JALT people as mine, as a denial that NSs should be given preference for certain teaching jobs or even that the NS concept is even valid.  Many professional language teachers in Japan seem to feel that the division that has grown between non-native speaker (NNS) teachers’ perceived roles and those of “foreigners” is unhealthy, particularly where it is seen as part of a worldwide trend toward the delegitimization of local teachers and the elevation of Westerners and the advanced educational cultures they supposedly represent. This dovetails with the anticolonialist (white) guilt many of us feel and leads to disavowal of the privileged position of NSs have in teaching their first language, and sometimes disavowal of their status as NSs as well.

As it currently exists, the NS/NNS divide in ELT in Japan prevents a lot of people from realizing their potential – most of all students – but also communicative teachers who happen to be Japanese, NNS teachers who are not Japanese, and NS teachers who see advantages in using Japanese in class.  Zoltán Dörnyei, for example, if he weren’t so famous, would have a rather hard time finding a job as an English teacher in Japan, NNS as he is.

As with the Critical Period Hypothesis, arguing against the NS concept involves acknowledging a certain level of biological reality while not letting that acknowledgement serve as justification for the huge and unwarranted extrapolations that the education marketplace makes based on that reality.  That is, I personally think the NS is a useful and real concept, but certainly not as clear-cut as the way the term is often used implies – much like CPH is observably true for immigrants, but using it to recommend 1/2 hour weekly EFL classes for infants is extremely specious.  Also true of both of these SLA hot topics is that even if the teacher is aware of the controversies surrounding them, most often he or she is the only person in the classroom who is.  Most students accept CPH and the NS concept to the degree ambient in their culture, making dismantling them an uphill battle.

So I agree with most of the fashionable modern abandoning of the NS concept, with the caveat that the problem with it in Japan is not ultimately one of broad favoritism for NSs in all arenas but pigeonholing and stereotyping of both NSs and NNSs based on easily observable characteristics (i.e., whiteness/Japaneseness) and prioritizing those stereotyped characteristics over professional experience, training, and identity as a language teacher.  As with sexism, stereotyping of 2 dichotomous groups leads to degrees of favoritism and oppression for both, and as entrenched as they are, has had some self-fulfilling-prophecy-like effects as groups practice playing out the roles they are forced into.  Does anyone seriously doubt that salarymen are as stuck in their prescribed role as their stay-at-home wives, or that if salarymen suddenly started sharing cooking duties, they could make something besides instant ramen?  Now, I’m not saying stereotyping yields equally advantageous situations for both sides, but the point is that neither side can cross over easily into the realm of the other, particularly when individuals have spent careers practicing their stereotyped roles.

The NS concept in ELT leads to both favorable and unfavorable treatment of both NSs and NNSs, and I don’t want to focus on the unfair lot given to one another of these groups, as both, particularly in East Asia, have lots of legitimate grievances. I instead want to talk about the sacrifices to their status both sides would have to make to render the NS concept moot, and why they probably won’t make them.

Google image searching “native speaker” in Japanese provides a good glimpse into how racialized the term is.   And by the way the page this image comes from is a very depressing ad for an online eikaiwa which stresses that its teachers “are not just Filipinos”.

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The Ideal L2 Self, detained at the airport

Part 3 of an informal series on L2 motivation.

Folks in Japan are fond of saying that Japanese is a hard language to learn.  It is, but not for the reasons most people think.  Yes, kanji present a kind of challenge, but are not all that different from learning spelling in English when it comes down to it.  Subject-less or otherwise ambiguous sentences can be confusing, but are a reasonable tradeoff for the mess of subject-verb agreement rules that one would need to master for another European language.  Actually, in my view the hardest part about learning Japanese is overcoming the constant impression that you can’t and shouldn’t.

I was reading a few chapters of Zoltán Dörnyei and Ema Ushioda’s Motivation, Language Identity, and the L2 Self, mostly composed of articles in support of the new Ideal L2 Self/Ought-to L2 Self/L2 Learning Experience motivational system, which has been proposed to replace the older integrative/instrumental dichtomy.  My interest in this book was spurred by reading this post by Scott Thornbury (taken to task by Geoff Jordan for being too uncritical, but what isn’t?) and reading it has led to some theorizing on my part about my own Japanese learning experience, as well as the English learning experiences of some of my students.

Basically, my contribution is that your ideal L2 self may be easier to visualize as you get farther from contexts where you actually use your L2, because L2-heavy contexts are full of evidence that stymies your ability to imagine yourself as fluent, capable, or successful.  In Japan’s case this means you may be most motivated to learn Japanese when you interact with people less or even leave the country.

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The “Reading and Writing” myth

You often hear, either as humble-bragging or as an apology, that Japanese HS graduates may not have much speaking or listening skill, but they are good at reading and writing.

This is false.  The more advanced students are good at applying a conventionalized system of translation to English, and reading is the only one of the 4 skills that gives them enough time to do this. The less advanced students are left in a total fog because they lack the skill or focus to apply this very concentration-heavy set of techniques to English text and lack the practice to understand written English on its own terms.

And as for writing, well, I don’t think anyone who has worked with Japanese undergrads believes that part to begin with.


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Pronunciation and ideology at Eikaiwa

Better pronunciation sounds like an objective good, and something every language learner should strive for.  There are several reasons though that language teachers don’t always push it too hard, including:

  • There is good reason to believe that a native-like accent is beyond the reach of almost everyone besides those who immigrate to the target language community sometime before puberty,
  • Teachers in EFL contexts have to make something of an arbitrary choice when it comes to selecting a “standard” dialect for teaching (even if that choice is English as a lingua franca, which students generally dislike),
  • Given that a native-like accent is out of reach for most students, enforcing that as a standard places them and all their compatriots in a permanently inferior position,
  • Not all “foreign” accents are as socially disadvantageous as some assume, and
  • Students sometimes take pride in their accents as part of their identities.

However, there is one context in Japan where teaching native-like pronunciation is practically dogma, and that is eikaiwa, my teaching home for the past 12 years, and sort of a Frankenstein’s monster of Japan’s cultural and linguistic phenomena.

First tip of foreign language pronunciation: You might need some sounds that aren’t in your first language.

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OC English by the numbers, pt. 3

This will be the last batch of statistics on our now-closed English school, this time dealing with attendance and homework.

Part 1, on overall student numbers, joining and quitting rates, and other random statistics

Part 2, on joining and quitting rates by month and by year

And this is part 3.  Guess what this pie chart is!

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Blue – present, Green – did homework, Orange – excused absence, Red – unexcused

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I spent much of my college years and the years immediately thereafter listening to a fairly popular subgenre of metal called “Swedish Death Metal”, supposedly identifiable by the “Gothenburg sound”.  For the layman, imagine Iron Maiden or other meat-and-potatoes melodic metal bands with screamy, not grunty, death vocals.

Several such bands, including In Flames and Arch Enemy, have achieved almost legendary status among younger fans now, much like Megadeth or Anthrax were to my generation.

Just to make sure we’re on the same page, here’s a mid-90s In Flames track.  To me what makes it supremely Gothenburgy is the Iron Maiden-esque guitar interludes and the implied melody underlying the vocals.  In a lot of other death metal bands the vocals are almost a rhythm instrument, but not so with Gothenburg bands.

(Anders, the vocalist, was still starting to learn English at this point, leading to some fun mispronunciations a la “architecture” around 0:45)

One of the less known bands from the late-90s surge in Gothenburg-style bands (most of which were indeed from Gothenburg, Sweden) but which has been one of my favorites since I was introduced to them by a drummer friend is Gardenian.  Gardenian had enough unique qualities to make them stand out among their class, and actually has gone on to play a role in the careers of other, still-surviving bands.

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A spoonful of medicine helps the sugar go down

A constant struggle for language teachers is having your craft taken seriously by the society around you.  It works against you that a lot of what you have devoted your career to is:

  • apparently just talking,
  • in a language incomprehensible to any outside observer, and
  • typically done by immigrants (including you).

A related but more specific struggle is working with people who have a very specific idea of what your job should look like, an idea born from myths and miseducation that much of your training was specifically aimed at overcoming.  It sometimes feels like trying to teach cubism to people who have been raised to think that great art should always feature a musclebound baby Jesus.

Jesus played by a younger Gene Hackman

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Memory, customized

I figure I’d better put my class activities up on this blog before I forget all of them.  This will probably be the last such entry to feature pictures since almost all our class materials are in garbage bags at this point.  Today’s activity is another take on an old favorite.

Memory, the game of trying to find matching cards which are lying face down, is a classroom staple in Japan (and amusingly called 神経衰弱 しんけいすいじゃく shinkeisuijaku “neurasthenia”), and along with karuta is one you can expect all your learners from preschool up to be able to play without needing to learn the rules, which with younger learners sometimes is an activity in and of itself.

Our version of this game, like our version of Apples 2 Apples, is flexible enough to be used with almost any type of card you have on hand – months, occupations, TOEIC vocabulary, past tense verbs, or whatever you and your students make.  The game is for small groups of 3-6, aged 7 and up.  I suppose you could use it with bigger groups too if you don’t mind copying and cutting a lot of cards for them.

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Haafu, pt. 2 – bicultural or just biracial?

My last post on the topic of “haafu” had all the hallmarks of bad blogging – too many points in too little space, made simultaneously with no trust in the reader to understand them and too many assumptions that the reader already understands the premises I’m arguing from.  I will try to put my thoughts in a bit more order here.

I almost always feel offended when I see people talking about biraciality in Japan – and not because a group that I am part of is being slighted.  In fact I’m more likely to be offended when biracial status is elevated somehow or assumed to confer some magic sauce of internationalism that eludes “normals”, and most offended of all when this is done by people with the benefit of a liberal education who should know better.  The way that this is most often accomplished is by conflating biculturalism with biracialism when it comes to haafu in Japan, and in doing so implying that race and culture flow from one another.

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