JALT vs. CATESOL

I’m still digesting my first CATESOL conference, along with the fairly huge lunch that came with it, put on by my local Orange County Chapter, and I thought I’d post some reflections on the differences between JALT (Japan Association for Language Teaching) events and CATESOL, based on the years I spent in officer positions at the former and the whole one event I’ve been to from the latter.

Accents and internationalization

I.e., varieties of non-native accents.  JALT, despite its name, is mostly the NEST organization in Japan; Japanese English teachers and teachers of other languages participate more in other organizations like JACET or no organization at all.  As a result, you hear mostly BANA (Britain, Australia, North America) accents and occasionally Japanese accents.  I widened my circle of native English-speaking acquaintances quite a bit in JALT – and for some reason a hugely disproportionate number of those were from the smallish town of Nanaimo, British Columbia – and I made some Japanese acquaintances too, but not nearly as many at nearby dog parks.

The CATESOL event featured quite a variety of accents and national backgrounds.  I’m pretty sure I heard Korean being spoken in the background at at least a few points, I was approached by a Japanese student doing a semester abroad, the host is apparently from Russia, one of my partners for breakout discussions was from Spain, and several other people revealed having been born in another country during the normal course of conversation but had no (non-Californian) accent that I could discern.  This was quite a refreshing change from the internationalism that somehow results in homogeneity that I witnessed often among English teachers in Japan.

Internationalism is a bit a of a banal subject here, it seems.  No one talks about it; no one encourages it or dismisses it.  No English teacher here thinks it is his/her mission to internationalize Southern California.  Best of all, there is no Holliday-sian Catch-22 where the white BANA teachers are the only ones talking about NNEST equality and opposing linguistic imperialism while their local managers and deans openly use them and their semiotically valuable “Western” features as advertising to recruit students who still think white faces = authentic English.  Also none of the clearly hypocritical regressive liberalism when NESTs’ instincts to valide Japanese teachers’ identities result in agreeing to their claims of non-overlapping magisteria, Japanese teachers’ purview being supposedly impossible-for NEST skills like speaking Japanese and understanding juken.  I attended a presentation at the CATESOL event that addressed these issues, but the context was different – it wasn’t so clearly divorced from the consciousness of the community, including most language teachers, outside the room.

To be fair, this isn’t a negative point of JALT so much as it is of the surrounding population of teachers and learners.  It is an issue though that I am happy to put behind me.

Youth, cheerfulness of

I was easily one of the older attendees at the CATESOL conference.  There were poster presentations, most of which seemed to be put on by recent college graduates (although one turned out to be an old Japan hand like me who just looks young).  Many tables at lunchtime put me in mind of the archetypal high school cafeteria (as portrayed in film – my high school didn’t have a cafeteria), by the sheer conversational energy and assuredness of youth.  The Plenary speaker was older, but such things are expected.  All the presenters seemed to be my age at the very maximum.  This gave me a short frisson as well as I realized these people were also several years into a local career that I was now starting afresh.

JALT’s composition, mostly college teachers with MAs or better, pushes the age scale quite a bit upwards.  I’m pretty sure at least some of the other Chapter Presidents or SIG Coordinators were in their 60s, and mid-30s (as I was) seemed to mark one as thoroughly green.  If CATESOL is the NAMM show, JALT is the local symphony’s booster club.  One or two JALT folks were younger than me, perhaps young enough to have to show ID when buying beer (that’s a joke – no one shows ID when buying beer in Japan), but even they were well past the time in their lives when they could be sure what they were saying and their dreams were gleefully unrealized.

Motivation, to participate and to discuss

I mean this in two ways; motivation for being there and motivation as a point of discussion. Both provide some interesting contrasts between the two organizations.

I was surprised to find two people at my table in attendance simply to fulfill a workplace “flex time” requirement, which I suppose is the closest equivalent to having 研究費 kenkyuuhi “research funds”to spend and looking for the least boring way to do so.  Many of the local community colleges also apparently sponsor their teachers’ CATESOL memberships and participation in events like these; I know of at least one forward-thinking eikaiwa that does the same for JALT.

I mentioned before that the energy level among the attendees was high.  I attribute this (perhaps prematurely) to security in the meaning of their jobs; they know that professional development is rewarded by their institutions and appreciated by their students.  One lady in particular left a huge impression on me as someone whose work definitely mattered: she taught ESL in prisons.  That fact and concept alone, revealed to me before the plenary started, basically floored me for most of the speech, as I kept thinking about how small my world of TOEFL test prep and Ideal L2 Selves had been instead of listening to what I’m sure was an interesting and practical treatise on critical thinking. I asked her questions about it throughout our lunch, barely letting her finish her sandwich.  I still feel a bit like my perspective on SLA has been broadened suddenly by a factor of 100, possibly leaving stretch marks.  The point is, people in CATESOL know that their teaching matters.

I’m not totally sure that this is a drawback for JALT, though.  To be honest, the type of teacher who works for decades in Japan and doesn’t burn out is usually very good at deciding what to spend mental resources on, who to try to connect with, and how to best motivate different groups of learners.  English teachers in Japan may also describe their jobs as TENOR (this was whispered to me by the teacher and later presenter sitting next to me during the plenary, which actually made me laugh out loud – it stands for Teaching English for No Obvious Reason), but that means that because you’re not constantly being fed job satisfaction, you have to work to look for it or make it yourself.  JALT presentations sometimes have a faint whiff of desperate appeals for someone in society to take their job seriously, but this does make JALT members work very hard on professional-level presentations and serious research.  It’s overcompensating for the way most of society still sees English teachers, and NESTs in particular, but overcompensating has probably motivated a lot of great work in every field in which people have felt chronically inadequate.  It certainly didn’t hurt Napoleon or David Letterman.

Motivation as a topic was much less present in CATESOL than JALT, or so it seemed to me.  Again, motivation in JALT is a bit like water in Mad Max, it inspires cult-like worship when someone like Andy Boon seems to be able to turn it on and off like a faucet in his classes.  The rest of us realize how precious it is when chronically, post-apocalyptically deprived of it in ours, and the predominant issues in lesson planning become not how to facilitate development of students’ abilities but how to get them to care enough to answer a single yes or no question (besides Shunya; he’s always game).  At CATESOL motivation was more like water in Japan; the issue was not how to make more of it but how to channel it and dam it efficiently so as not to let it overflow its banks (unpacking the metaphor, discussions were not on motivation itself but what to do in classes that were presumed to have plenty of it).  There was one poster presentation on extrinsic motivation, and the study that formed its content was from the Philippines.  If you want to pack an auditorium at a JALT conference, just name your presentation some motivational variant on “Getting your students to speak”.  They may have to bump you up to the 大ホール.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing either for JALT, though.  The plebeians worshipping Immortan Joe in Mad Max aren’t wrong that water is extremely important, and you can bet that if they ever move to Japan they will appreciate the hell out of that Mt. Fuji runoff.

Lunch

Lunch was huge.  Did I mention that?

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.

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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.

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Eikaiwa, terrorists, and George W. Bush (and more Engrish)

I remember before the 2003 Iraq war started, George W. Bush appeared on the news telling Saddam Hussein to “disarm”.  He also spoke directly to the Iraqi public in formal speeches like this one.

I’m not sure how true the part about Iraqis being able to listen to him is, but it is certainly telling how everything he chooses to say to the Iraqis is something the Americans public would have wanted to hear, and that his comments to Iraqis were bookended by parts specifically toward Americans. As for the “disarm” comment which I don’t have video for, I don’t know if an Iraqi news agency reporter was present or whether or not Saddam had CNN.  I guess he would have, but of course if the message was really intended for him W. didn’t need to give it in front of the American public.  Presumably heads of state have means to reach each other without simultaneously reaching hundreds of millions of normal folks.

In guiding his ostensible message to Saddam toward the ears of the American public, W. was putting himself in company of both terrorists and children’s English teachers.  That sounds provocative but also confusing.  I have good, parsimonious and mostly apolitical reasons for saying this which I’ll explain below.

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Eikaiwa websites: Advertising ideology

The eikaiwa industry is to native-speakerism (NSism) what the Trump campaign is to racism. It is the largest legitimate beachhead the ideology has made in mainstream culture, and the clearest venue to see the its power in convincing people to hand over money and other resources.  Unfortunately, as I keep going on about, eikaiwa (for those not in the know, omnipresent commercial English schools in Japan usually featuring NSs) are barely touched on in academic research (exceptions: Appleby, Bailey, Kelsky, Kubota, Nagatomo). Part of this is because it can be hard to gain access to eikaiwa for research, and part of it is because the types who conduct SLA research tend to work in universities, where populations of undergraduates are already easily available.  The drunk searching for his keys under the streetlight and all that.

Just as an introduction to the ideologies of education one can see in the eikaiwa world, I’ve biopsied a small slice of eikaiwa websites from one city in Japan and its surrounding area.  Below I will name them and review the issues I uncover.

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GABA, nationwide chain, advertises itself like a dating service.

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Things (the game)

Here’s a class activity that like my last two is basically a frame for communicative use of selected grammar and vocabulary.  This one is based on a party game that I was introduced to on a trip back to the US called Things.  It has the advantage, in addition to its flexibility, of requiring very little in terms of materials or preparation.  For groups of 3-6, ages 9 and up.

The rules of the game are simple:

  1. Everyone writes a sentence or idea on a predetermined theme (e.g. “Things you put on a sandwich”) on their own small slip of paper.
  2. A player designated the reader collects the slips (in smaller classes, the teacher is usually the reader).
  3. The reader reads all of them anonymously, including his/her own.
  4. Players except the reader take turns guessing who wrote what.  Obviously, they can’t guess their own.  If they are right (other players have to be honest about whether theirs has bee guessed), that answer is eliminated and the player who wrote it is eliminated too.  The reader can read the remaining answers aloud again as requested.
  5. After all the answers are guessed or after a set number of go-rounds, the player who guesses the most correctly is the winner.

Read on for detailed steps, benefits for language learners, and 工夫 (customizations).

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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.

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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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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.

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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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Success and failure, pt. 2 – Blended learning, mixed results

Starting around 2010 I started putting content online for our students, each class with one page in its own hidden directory under our school’s domain.

I intended the kids’ classes’ sites as just a way to share the music and art the kids had made, and as a high-tech replacement for the special free classes for parents that we used to have on Saturday mornings.

The adults’ sites had links for videos and articles that we were using for homework that week as well as printable worksheets for weeks when I didn’t assign anything.  The centerpiece of an adult classes’ site though was a class dictionary which was updated weekly, and could be checked by all the students in the class in addition to being used in games and flash card-style javascript applications in the browser window.  Every week after my adult classes I’d update the xml dictionary file for their class and upload it with a few new words, chosen by the students from that week’s materials and discussions, along with definitions and example sentences.  Eventually most of those xml files came to contain hundreds such entries stretching back for years.

You can see an example of the kind of site that our adult classes had here.

So you can guess from the title of this post that not all went according to plan.  I’m still glad I made the sites, as probably are most of my students, but the overall lesson from this excursion into online territory is that you shouldn’t spend too much time designing additional content or services that are outside the norms of your particular teaching milieu.

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