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

Of course to be an effective teacher you can’t just plow on ahead with a cutting-edge teaching philosophy that your students aren’t prepared for.  Your students still expect you to be a teacher, not a facilitator of their proactive integratively motivated incidental learning through tasks.

Like I said in the post where I first put down the title of this one, you don’t help anyone if your class style is so far from what people expect that they reject it, and withdraw either physically or mentally.

So language teaching requires a certain amount of tokenism.  Not as in inclusion of a perfunctory minimum number of racial minorities, but as in a perfunctory minimum resemblance to education as your students have known it.  Sometimes this means intentionally making your class less fun, because less fun in their minds equals more serious.  Sometimes it also means you need contrivances to bring about classroom activities that you feel students should reflexively want to do, like talking.

Talking, just so we’re clear, is an important part of language.  You could take a time machine back to the earliest proto-homo sapien community and you’d almost definitely hear some kind of spoken language, but not reading or writing or presumably multiple choice tests.  Talking is also of value for language learning, although it’s gone through periods of neglect.  Many of our students were educated in societies still in those periods.  They might see talking as taking something away from the teacher, who is supposed to be the sole source of all sound in the classroom.  They might also see the teacher asking students to create content as dereliction of his/her duty.  They might be under the impression that no utterance of theirs must be exposed to air until it is polished free of grammatical and elocutionary imperfections.

“Free conversation”, something of a maligned stereotype of the eikaiwa world and of NS-led classes in Japan in general, is also very valuable.  First, you can hardly claim to “know” a language if you have zero ability to navigate an unstructured casual encounter in it, so the academic condescension toward free conversation is quite misplaced.  Second, free conversation is an invisible hand-like arbiter of what vocabulary and grammar learners will need when they get out “in the real world”, since the kinds of things they want to talk about in class approximate what they’ll want to talk about outside of it.  This is not perfect, but it’s usually a much better starting point than their coursebook.  Third, conversation is a skill comprising numerous other skills that also come up organically and moderated by real need, all of which students in Japan are notably lacking, and which a qualified teacher can also teach explicitly as needed.  Last, free conversation is fun, and fun leads to more attention and investment by students in all the above.

Yet getting students to talk sometimes takes some doing.  I was asked at a recent JALT event what in my opinion hurt Japanese students’ English the most, and I said roughly that it was the fact that in Japan, silence is almost always less awkward than talking.  That is, sitting with people and having nothing else to do is no guarantee that a conversation will spring up naturally.  Starting a conversation in Japan is a bit like starting a campfire – you need the right conditions, agreement of the people involved that a fire is necessary, some items prepared in advance, and no immediate plans afterward.  An unplanned conversation is also something of an occasion for panic, a thing to be stamped out and water poured on as quickly as possible.

I spent a few years at the beginning of my career in Japan wondering why students weren’t taking the opportunities to practice speaking that classes offered them.  Then I started framing speaking as a class task with a means, a goal, and a time limit, and students started talking much more.  In time I learned that you can strip away most of that until all you’re doing is basically stepping into the teacher role for a second to instruct your students to say whatever they want to each other, and they will then proceed to spend most of their class time enjoying conversation.  A brief nod to the “traditional teacher” archetype leads to much productive class time.

I would say a lot of my experience when it comes to teaching English in Japan is in making conversation and participation palatable to students who feel like they need permission to speak.  That can come in the form of putting conversations “on rails” as far as grammar or vocabulary are concerned, giving them phrase cards with the conversational goal of using them within 5 minutes, scriptwriting, or sometimes just autoritatively commanding them to speak.  Sometimes it also entails changing my role.

Stepping down from the “teacher” role is another way of facilitating conversation.  I believe this is why so many of my non-Japanese colleagues don’t mind being addressed first-name-only by their students (who seem to be under the impression that everyone outside Japan is always addressed this way, although this certainly not the way things were when I was in school).  Refusing to be a didact in class is more in line with the ideology of teaching that most of us embrace these days – that we’re here to show them the way to maximize their own potential rather than demand that they replicate our own knowledge, and they should respect us because we know how to give them what they want rather than just because our business cards say 講師 (or even 教授).  However, you also give up a lot by surrendering your position as the head of the ritualistic space that is the Japanese classroom.

First of all, there’s no guarantee that the freedom from authority that comes from not having a “traditional teacher” leading the class will result in free conversation in English.  People aren’t always as motivated to improve their English as we’d like, and just like long, luxurious American summer vacations, sometimes freedom in the classroom is wasted on video games and idle chatter.  Also, there are many things that experienced teachers like to do after or during a period of conversation, whether it’s point-of-need vocabulary or grammar review or simply highlighting a successful or interesting utterance by a student, or anything else that needs the whole class’s attention.  As tempting as it might be just to do away with the whole “teacher” concept in classes in order to let students feel like they have permission to express themselves, there are times when you’ll need that authority.  When it’s time to impart some of your knowledge the old-fashioned way, it’s nice having a group of students who are well-trained to sit and listen.  So rather than abnegating the role that is expected of you and that our students come to class prepared for, it’s better to toss a few crumbs its way while basically hijacking it for CLT purposes.


2 thoughts on “A spoonful of medicine helps the sugar go down

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