Strain Theory, Eigo and Eikaiwa

Criminology, being more or less a specialized subset of sociology focused on how societies treat deviance, offers many lessons applicable to education.  Classrooms and student bodies are types of little societies after all, and it stands to reason that they would have their own versions of deviance, criminality, and sanctions; these being necessary parts of any society.

Merton’s Strain theory was one of the most memorable theories from my undergrad years (nominally spent studying social ecology, an interdisciplinary major of which criminology was a component).  Strain theory, as I remember it without referring back to Wikipedia, attempts to categorize deviant (non-mainstream) behavior in terms of acceptance or rejection of mainstream goals and means.

In general terms, under strain theory one can accept or reject mainstream goals (e.g., getting into college) and mainstream means (e.g., studying hard) independently of each other – you can dismiss college as the goal of education while being a fierce autodidact, or hold college admission as a goal while gaming the system by cheating on your SATs, or (for some reason) cheat on your SATs while not intending to go to college.  Which behaviors fall under the different categories below, of course, depend on the means and goals particular to that culture and/or society.

The canonical example of strain theory has financial success as the goal and employment as the means.  One could accept the goal of getting rich while robbing banks to get there, and this would be Innovation.  One could also give up on getting rich while still clocking in every day, which would be Ritualism.  Or one could spend all one’s time feeding the ducks at the park, in Retreatism.

OK, I had to check Wikipedia to make sure I had these labels right.

I’ve made two new versions of the above graph describing cultures of English learning in Japan, in which the goals and means for learning English differ.  The cultures corresponding to these graphs are captured under the terms eigo and eikaiwa.  If you are unfamiliar with these terms, chances are you have never taught in Japan.  The two are dichotomized quite strongly, and as we shall see, mainstream values in one are often stigmatized in the other.  Briefly, eigo is closely aligned with mandatory education and eikaiwa with English as a means of international (mostly verbal) communication.  For more detailed treatments of these different cultures of English in Japan, check out my MA thesis and its list of references.

Also see Diane Hawley Nagatomo’s new book Identity, Gender and Teaching English in Japan for a comprehensive and practical review of how these two ideologies of English affect individual teachers in Japan.

Strain theory and eigo

英語 Eigo (“English”) is also called “Japan-appropriated English”, “English for entrance examinations”, and “English as an academic subject”.  Generally, it is taught by Japanese (non-native speakers of English) teachers in mandatory education with the pretense that it is necessary for college entrance exams.  Due to its socio-cultural positioning as the means and measure of educational attainment and refinement, it carries moralizing weight as the way a responsible person learns English properly (see my post on English school advertising to see ways that this is presumed to be the domain of Japanese teachers).

For the present discussion, the goals of eigo will be metalinguistic knowledge of English sufficient for instrumental purposes in Japan, such as gaining the qualifications to be a public school teacher or obtaining a high TOEIC score.  The means of eigo will be study of discrete points of usage in Japanese linguistic metalanguage, as in the hegemonically common yakudoku (grammar-translation) method.


Let’s have a look at each of these boxes in turn.

Conformity in eigo

Conformity under eigo means you accept a definition of success that excludes transnational identity and spoken fluency, and really any competence besides on translation, in favor of forms of competence that are fully explicable to monolingual Japanese nationals.  You also accept as the means a regime of explicit grammatical and translation-based instruction geared toward discrete point testing that no theorist on SLA would suggest works (of course, very few people you have contact with throughout mandatory education have ever studied SLA).  Because you are unlikely to encounter fluent English speakers or trained SLA specialists in milieux where eigo is taught, you may go your entire learning career succeeding under the terms of eigo without encountering verbal fluency-based notions of competence (many adult eikaiwa students are spurred to enroll by the sudden discovery that proficiency at translating English into Japanese is not valued worldwide).

Because conformity to eigo entails acceptance of goals which are specific to Japanese society and Japanese public education, commonly understood terms may need to be read a bit differently when used in an eigo context.  First, “success” in eigo includes no notion at all of verbal fluency.  One can even be a well-known authority on eigo and still pronounce “world” as “waarudo” – in fact, success in eigo demands that you know the established katakana readings of English words.  Both syllabi and courses can usually be reduced to coursebooks, due to the required level of uniformity in the education system.  Last, grammar, meaning and knowledge can be replaced by translation or metalinguistic explanation in Japanese, as the goal of eigo is Japan-appropriated English knowledge, which must be intelligible to monolingual Japanese speakers. A great many success stories (successful according to the lights of eigo at least) from this corner of the graph end up teaching the next generation, as your heavily metalinguistic knowledge is rewarded and recognized as expertise by the general public.  Again, both the goals and the means are highly particularized to social advancement in Japan.

Innovation in eigo

Innovation in eigo means that learners are pursuing some form of English that is recognizable and explicable to the Japanese public, but pursuing it through something besides or in addition to explicit instruction in Japanese.  This could mean simply that learners add a bit of “communication” on top of their “grammar”, perhaps taking one-hour weekly lessons with native speakers in addition to cramming for written tests.  Notably, innovation doesn’t entail switching one’s goals away from Japan-centered definitions of English competence; the point is still to have an explicitly formulated representation of English in one’s head that earns social capital in Japan.  Innovators of eigo may simply view communicative methods as building a truer, more international representation of English in their heads which they still intend for passing examinations or earning “international Japanese” status within Japan (the terms 国際日本 kokusai nippon“international Japan” and 英語が使える日本人 eigo ga tsukaeru nihonjin “Japanese with English abilities” are well-known phrases, appearing respectively as academic departments at high-ranking universities and in government educational proposals).  Innovation in eigo means building English abilities through a variety of means but keeping the goals Japan-centric.

Ritualism in eigo

There is a large segment of the adult population that has given up on Japan-centered definitions of English competence and simply repeats the patterns of study behavior they learned in their youth, either for work or as part of an identity as a person who “does English” in ritualistic eigo.  Workplaces sometimes pressure mid-career office workers to have a certain level of TOEIC score before they can be promoted, but will be placated by signs of dedication in lieu of actual high scores.  This leads to simulated learning, where people appear to make efforts to learn, but appearing rather than learning is the point.  There are Communities of Practice (CoPs) of English learners in Japan similarly dedicated to making a show of trying to learn English; because these groups seldom include any fluent English speakers, signs of dedication to the process of study become more important than signs of progress and much time is spent discussing English study strategies and English test scores in Japanese than communicating in English.  Knowing the verbal cues of membership (e.g., knowing whether to congratulate or cheer up a studymate with a TOEIC score of 450) is more important than competence in some form of English.  Students embracing eigo ritualism are frequently long-term but curiously unmotivated students, who when asked will reaffirm their dedication to “learning English” but are clearly more attached to their learning cohort than to their learning goals.  Seen through the lens of strain theory, it becomes apparent that what is meant by “learning English” to these students is the socio-culturally defined ritual of learning.  These students may even join eikaiwa classes but attempt to apply the study methods and ways of knowing that are typical of eigo. Adults will also seek to put their kids through the same rituals, discussing their kids’ test scores in parents’ CoPs of education.  Much discussion about English but little progress is a hallmark of eigo ritualism.

Retreatism and Rebellion in eigo

Sometimes both the goals and means of eigo are rejected, meaning learners no longer seek Japan-centered English knowledge and refuse to apply didactic means and methods.  Often this results in nationalistic assertions that “we Japanese don’t need foreign languages” or that “Japanese find foreign languages difficult” often for quasi-biological reasons, and a refocusing of efforts or enthusiasm on the Japanese language.  This special pleading can take the form of a confession of weakness rather than strength, in an 英語アレルギー eigo arerugii “English allergy” by which adults claim a physiological discomfort with English.  The learned helplessness that marks retreatism from eigo can take many forms.  Learners who have given up on eigo may also adopt the goals and means of eikaiwa, the counterpart to eigo as an approach to English in Japan that seeks conversational abilities pursued through conversational means.

Strain theory and eikaiwa

英会話 Eikaiwa (“English conversation”) is also known as communicative English, English for international communication, or as Oral Communication when taught in Japanese high schools.  It is generally assumed to involve non-Japanese participants, either “foreign friends” or instructors called 外国人講師 gaikokujin koushi “foreigner teachers”, but as we shall see “teacher” are interpreted rather differently when applied to eikaiwa than to eigo.

For this graph, the goals of eikaiwa will be communicative competence in spoken English, as judged by native speakers of English.  The means of eikaiwa will be practice in speaking in informal or nontraditional classroom contexts, or “learning by doing” with little explicit instruction, with native speakers.


Conformity in eikaiwa

Conformity in eikaiwa involves learning to communicate by communicating.  This gives it something in common with many traditional forms of practice in Japan which emphasize inductive learning through hours of experience.  The goals of eikaiwa and eigo intersect in the priority placed on being an “international person”, but eikaiwa places little emphasis on being able to explain one’s English ability in Japanese, instead using the simple presence of spoken English and especially non-Japanese people to denote internationalism.  Eikaiwa devotees are likely to position themselves as outward-facing from Japan, although notably this does not entail a severing of one’s identity from Japan and Japaneseness – many fluent English speakers in Japan consider themselves truly successful examples of 英語が使える日本人 eigo ga tsukaeru nihonjin “Japanese with English abilities” as referenced above.

Not every fluent English speaker is an example of eikaiwa conformity; many Japanese who have reached high levels of spoken English credit their eigo classes rather than (typically) years spent abroad for their abilities, thereby rejecting the means of eikaiwa.  Eikaiwa conformists seek to learn to speak fluently by speaking, a goal and approach exploited by private English school chains in Japan (also called eikaiwa).

Innovation in eikaiwa

Innovation in eikaiwa, rejecting the purely communicative, implicit, NS-oriented means while maintaining the oral communication goals, often entails some acceptance of non-native-speaker-centered interpretations of English competence and correctness or application of explicit grammar teaching.  In this sense it may intersect with conceptions of modern English teaching found in MA courses or teachers’ organizations that emphasize the rediscovered importance of grammar teaching (as in Dörnyei’s Principled CLT) and the unattainability of native speaker standards.  As an eikaiwa teacher, I loved it when students adopted this stance and I sought (somewhat unsuccessfully) to implement heterodox eikaiwa learning methods in my classes.

My phrasing of “rejecting NS-oriented means” should not be interpreted as meaning the rejection of the means of studying recommended by NS teachers.  Rather, because as eigo and eikaiwa are dichotomized and associated with Japanese and NS teachers respectively, it is assumed that implicit, communication-heavy classes are taught by NS teachers, and inasmuch as rejecting the means of eikaiwa entails rejecting these types of classes, it also entails rejecting these types of teachers.  This is a feature of the cultures of eigo and eikaiwa and the essentializing NSism that is a part of both of them.  In my experience, most qualified English teachers, NS or otherwise, tend to converge on the necessity of both explicit and implicit learning.

Ritualism in eikaiwa

Ritualism, or continued application of purely implicit styles of learning despite rejection of native-speaker standards of linguistic or cultural fluency, is often found among long-term students of Japan’s private language academies (also known as eikaiwa schools, although they vary widely in teaching methods).  Many learners come to this position for the same reason that those of eigo do, they wish to continue participating in a CoP that values internationalism and verbal communication in a foreign language but no longer see those goals as achievable for themselves.  Ritual eikaiwa learners may find themselves with an abundance of shallow relationships conducted in one-hour class sessions or over social media, not expanding their repertoire of comfortable social situations or going beyond i-1 levels of input or output.  Learners may continue to embrace the “learning by doing” ethos of eikaiwa while no longer building or hoping to build greater competence.  As with eigo ritualism, these learners may transplant their goals onto their children, placing them in lessons with NSs at ages and developmental stages where only implicit learning is possible.

Retreatism and Rebellion in eikaiwa

Retreatism in eikaiwa will look similar to retreatism in eigo, as learners withdraw from the world of English classes and intercultural communication into previously-held hobbies and beliefs.  Often, this will entail a re-nationalizing of identities and interests, an assertion that after all, we are Japanese and we should speak Japanese and do Japanese things.  It may also result in rebellion in an adoption of the goals and means of eigo, as described above.  It is not unusual to see a learner switch several times between eigo and eikaiwa systems of goals and means as they grow disillusioned with each over the course of many years.

Conclusions and humorous parallels

You may have noticed the conformity to neither eigo nor eikaiwa would seem to promise ideal amounts of the usual suspects teachers are trained to see as part of a complete foreign language course – input, interaction, and grammar focus.  The ideologies of eigo and eikaiwa, just like the NS/NNS divide in Japan, necessitate at least 2 completely different courses (at different schools and with different teachers) for students to have something like the current recommended regimen of explicit and implicit teaching.  Success in learning English will involve some amount of deviance in both rejecting goals and rejecting means, regardless of whether one finds oneself in an eigo or eikaiwa class.  Aligning oneself too closely with either guarantees neglect of important aspects of SLA.

Imagine if this were true of other fields of inquiry.  Imagine if to have a comprehensive grasp of medicine one had to go to two different medical schools, one of which had a strict “no pictures” policy and the other of which was taught just by watching the Saw movies on repeat.  Or if piano lessons were taught by two different types of teachers, one of which believed actually touching a piano with one’s fingers were a debasement of their pure discipline and the other of which were all blues prodigies with no formal training.  Imagine also if the teachers and coaches at the former schools considered those at the latter schools completely unprofessional and vice versa.  One might be left with huge multigenerational groups of teachers and students cloistered in their own communities with their own local definitions of competence, feeding on each other’s mutual validation and recognition while barely aware that outside their walls most people use music theory and touch pianos to play actual music.

Again, just like the NS/NNS divide (which parallels eigo and eikaiwa in many ways, not least of which that NS teachers are always assumed to teach eikaiwa and NNS teachers eigo), the steps to heal the eigo/eikaiwa rift and bring English education in Japan toward a less bifurcated, more efficient and more effective place are obvious and elusive at the same time.  It’s not necessary for society as a whole to grasp some new conception of linguistic competence, just for society to acknowledge that multiple forms of competence can exist within the same person.  Siloed skills like metalinguistic explanation and oral communication are in fact useful for each other, and siloed goals like social capital within Japan and the ability to pass as a global citizen outside Japan can feed each other as well.  For the moment at least, this means for the individual student that not belonging entirely in the subcultures of eigo or eikaiwa, i.e. deviating in terms of one’s goals and means from those of the institution, class, or teacher; is the most likely to lead to a level of competence in English that is not beholden to one or another subculture but perhaps has more global currency.


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