Since I’m leaving Japan (soon, I promise), I have to give up on some planned research projects and articles I was planning to write that would have required a presence in JALT or access to Japanese students. I thought I’d put the graveyard of my article ideas here just so you can see how awesome my CV almost was.
The availability of input in grammar-translation classes
Krashen (he of the non-interface position and learning/acquisition dichotomy) would roll over in his grave if he saw a typical Japanese JHS or HS class and if he were not still alive. For comparison with intentionally input-heavy methods and techniques like Extensive Reading, I thought I would catalog exactly how many words students in grammar-translation classes actually are exposed to on a weekly basis and how many times they are likely to see the same word used in different contexts. In my mind, this article would fill a gap in theory-based literature on grammar-translation, and although the theory in this case is something of a relic, it is one that most teachers are familiar with and facilitates the use of an easily quantifiable metric (word counts) for comparing teaching methods.
Read on for more!
Stereotype threat and ELT
I was aware of the term and the basic concept in college, but only had the inkling it could affect L2 performance after reading Whistling Vivaldi, which gives a nice overview of the research supporting the concept. In a nutshell, people perform worse in situations where they are expected to represent their “group” and that “group” has stereotyped deficiencies in the skill being performed. I feel this effect myself pretty often when speaking Japanese in Japan. Like some of the research from the book, I was thinking of giving a suitably taxing but not impossible English test (I didn’t settle on a particular skill for this, but vocabulary seems like a natural place to start) to Japanese undergrads, and at the top of half of the tests having written, “You may have read that Japanese students are particularly bad at (this skill). This test has been designed so that it is fair to students of all backgrounds”. If stereotype threat is a force in ELT as I suspect it is, the students with the stereotype-neutralizing message will perform better than the ones with no message. You could probably make the effect stronger as well by reminding students of the stereotype before the test as well – for example by having caucasians take the test with them. If an effect from stereotype threat on student performance is found, it would have implications for how best to divide students into classes and who to have teach them.
Actually now that I think about it this article could just as well be written in an ESL environment. Don’t steal my idea!
The meaning of “meaning” in high school English textbooks
Back when I posted on grammar-translation, a fellow Shizuoka JALTer on facebook helpfully pointed me to the White Whale of grammar-translation in Japan, the so-called クジラ構文 kujira koubun or “whale phrase construction”, named so because of its canonical example, “A whale is no more a fish than a horse is”. When I saw the variety of pages dedicated to just this phrase, I noticed not only that most of the pages were filled with Japanese text explaining the correct way to interpret the phrase (this is normal in grammar-translation textbooks), but that the way they explained this implied a certain kind of relationship between Japanese and English which can only be called mechanical.
In a nutshell, the “meaning” of any English word, phrase, or utterance can only be a word, phrase, or utterance in Japanese, and grammar rules are introduced as reasons for why this transformation occurs rather than as tools for students to apply. Textbooks are also shot through with the assumption that the only possible way for a Japanese person to understand English is by first transforming it into Japanese, i.e. that it is impossible for a Japanese brain to form a direct relationship between English and the physical or social world. A typical textbook has an English phrase or passage, a Japanese translation, and then explanation of how to turn the first into the second. Typically, this explanation does not place the student as the subject in a construction like “You apply rule X to phrase E to produce phrase J”, but instead treats translation as an inevitable and natural process which phrases seem to undergo on their own, a la “because of rule X, phrase E becomes phrase J”.
An article on this would be a sort of discourse analysis on the assumptions behind the usage of words like 意味 imi “meaning”, 〜になる ni naru “becomes ~”, and what this says about the ideologies underpinning English education in Japan.
How public school teachers feel about professional development
JALT (the Japan Association for Language Teaching, the largest organization of its type in Japan) is a very valuable organization for its members, but whether it has much of an effect on English education for the majority of Japanese is questionable, mostly because the largest demographics of English teachers in Japan, those working in mandatory education at the elementary, JHS, or HS levels, are as rare in JALT as white people are in the Diet.
The article would mostly serve to give a formal, citable basis for the commonly held beliefs that public school teachers are too busy with various other job-related duties to be able to spend time on professional development, are more attached to their identities as participants of the education system than as language teachers, and see JALT as a playground for foreign college teachers with research budgets. That is, if they have heard of JALT at all.
How eikaiwa students feel about form-focused instruction
English-learning milieux in Japan are often divided by approach and tend to coagulate into either the strongly communicative and implicit camp or the strongly didactic and explicit one. At the risk of beating a dead horse, most contexts that Japanese people find themselves in most of the time are the latter. That includes almost all of their public education and in many cases university as well. Eikaiwa is a mirror image of all this – taught mostly by white folks whose credentials include not being Japanese, and devoid of all the hallmarks of mandatory English like grammar, translation, teachers who are referred to by their last names. Students at eikaiwa are often firm believers in the “learn by doing” method, and transplanting techniques like translation from the didactic camp into your classes can leave students baffled and disappointed.
Of course, modern SLA writing disapproves of purely implicit teaching almost as much as it does of purely explicit teaching nowadays, so eikaiwa teachers who want to make the most responsible educational decisions may want a little didacticism in their lessons. And eikaiwa teachers who own their own schools, of which there are many, are in a uniquely free position to do this. Still, they will likely face pushback from students and their parents who feel that explicit teaching goes against the entire point of eikaiwa.
An article on this subject would feature a survey of students or younger students’ parents and how they feel about various instructional techniques, like explicit negative feedback (“You said ____. That is wrong. Here is how you say it.”), bilingual dictionaries, tests, explicit positive feedback (“You said _____. That is good. Here are the reasons.”), etc. It would then tie the results to the dichotomy often observed between “grammar” and “communication” in Japan and how this has led to a sort of Balkanization of teaching milieux as students are forced to go to entirely different schools to have different English skills addressed.
Transfer errors in passivization from Japanese learners
I turned this into a blog post.
Grammatical factors affecting loanwords
This one too. I have a minor series of nascent ideas on transfer errors from Japanese to English, not because I think all errors stem from “habits” instilled by the L1 (one of my first lessons in the MA program was from my tutor who sort of embarrassed me for asking about what kinds of transfer errors my cohorts’ students made), but because in an education system where almost everyone learns translation as the means and the goal of language learning, transfer errors are practically encouraged. You can expect to see a lot more direct translations of “almost” than evidence of natural learning order.