The last day of class, instead of having the potluck that my students were probably hoping for, we did a very quick analysis of the book we had just finished reading (Farewell to Manzanar) using Gee’s NIDA identities.
To briefly summarize what those are:
N-identity (nature identity) is the part of identity which is supposed to come from nature. It often includes visible traits like gender and race and the palette of traits and abilities that are thought to stem from them. As the Rachel Dolezal controversy shows, what is N for some people is I or A (see below) for others, and people can be quite unforgiving when they think an N characteristic is being wrongly taken on or rejected. My students were astute in noticing that even N identities change when the people around to perceive and interpret them change – the main character in Farewell to Manzanar has different N-identities when surrounded by other Japanese-Americans than with other Americans.
I-identity (institutional identity) comes from institutions of which one is part. For example, my ability to pass as a teacher comes mostly from my employment by schools, and not many people would accept the legitimacy of a “teacher” identity without it. It can be fun to imagine which kinds of jobs require institutional recognition to be considered a legitimate claim to identity – to me, “artist” is not an I-identity, but “animator” is. “Philosopher” is not an I-identity, but “researcher” is. My students said many characters in FtM lost their I-identities (in most cases, fishermen who worked together) when they were forced to move into the camps.
D-identity (discursive identity) comes from interactions with other people wherein one comes to be known as a certain “type” of person. This tracks what most people call a “personality”, but unlike “personality” has no implication of permanence. That is, one can have different D-identities among different groups of people. The Papa character in FtM is a bit of a stereotypical alpha in the way he interacts with others, which shifts from comforting to ironic as his life circumstances change from independent businessman to unemployed drunk.
A-identity (affinity identity) is similar to I-identity in that it relates to larger social groups of which we consider ourselves part. Unlike I-identity, A-identity doesn’t require any kind of actual membership in a group, only affinity for it. One can have an A-identity as a Premier League fan without any formal affiliation in the form of membership in a team or fan club. Notably, and as some of my very clever writing students mentioned, A-identity can be almost entirely imaginary – Papa from FtM imagines himself to be the inheritor of a samurai legacy, although the samurai ceased to exist before he was born and are well on their way to being more a cultural trope than a social class at the time the story takes place. One student mentioned this aspect of A-identity in a presentation, which was a great example of critical thinking.
What I like about these categories of identity is that they make clear both that identity is a multifaceted and context-dependent phenomenon and that it depends on other people and society. That is, you can have multiple identities, and none of them are purely a result of you choosing the type of person you want to be after doing some deep thinking alone or “finding yourself”.
My students did a very good job applying these on short notice to a book they’d probably grown quite sick of on a day when many people were already mentally on vacation. What they said reminded me of some things I’d been seeing on Netflix recently.
Geoff’s recent post got me thinking about my time in Japan trying to teach against or around a system that saw English as one of many quantified and commodified skills to sell. Like a lot of discussions involving Japan, it triggered some vestigial indignation somewhere in my gut which had to be purged.
The process of quantification of the skill we call “English” for the purpose of rational allocation of workers to jobs has proceeded to an extreme level in Korea and Japan, who may represent the high-water mark among numerous other societies where English skill as represented by a single number or a blank space on a resumé is a matter of life and death for millions of test takers and job seekers.
As you might expect given the overwhelming importance of that blank space, the skill that it is supposed to represent often gets relegated to the background in favor of easily understood and common-currency heuristics like a TOEIC score or a university degree. Tricks for gaming that number or raising it through brute force proliferate. “English teaching” at least in Japan and Korea is widely understood to be synonymous with standardized test preparation, and “washback” with connotations of dutiful responsibility rather than regrettable side effect. Because the blank space for “English skill” is of extreme importance while there are no corresponding spaces for “average hours of sleep” or “happy childhood”, young people spend much of their adolescence in classrooms preparing to give the market what it wants. This video brought back a lot of memories for me, including the sight of bicycles outside cram schools that I passed on my way home from work at 10:30 pm.
Geoff winds up concluding that because English teachers will find themselves serving this inhumane system, they should not go to work in Korea. I disagreed with this point at first, mostly because it’s exactly the countries with these hegemonic, neo-liberal (two words I never thought I’d use after finishing my BA) English testing regimes that seem to have jobs for English teachers without MAs; that is, a lot of good teachers’ careers wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t gone to work in one of these countries in their 20s. Therefore, I thought, these systems actually end up contributing a lot indirectly to global ELT. Also, I believed that good teachers doing honest work within those systems could still have positive effects on students’ lives beyond tests. My conspiratorial brain and my fondly-remembering brain disagree on this point.
A decent metaphor for the role of an anti-establishment English teacher in such a system is Daniel Kaluuya’s character from the 2nd episode of Black Mirror. This character similarly feels righteously indignant and rebellious in an inhuman system, but sees that rebellious energy coopted and ultimately used as a piece of the same system. If you haven’t seen it or don’t remember, Kaluuya’s character Bing has a musically gifted coworker at their grind of a job (hilariously, pedalling stationary bikes) in a vaguely dystopia future society where intrusive attention merchant-style media is omnipresent. This coworker takes a chance at using her genuine, pristine vocal talent to audition for a TV talent show. At her audition, instead of being made a popstar, she is coercively recruited to act in adult films instead, in a grotesque example of matching talent to market. Bing, distraught, returns to the talent show later under the pretense of auditioning, and in the midst of a seeming dance routine he suddenly holds a shard of glass to his own throat and uses the captive TV cameras to deliver a searing, authentically emotional speech into the TV cameras. The judges, suitably moved, declare his performance extraordinary and proceed to give him his own show where he delivers regular similar speeches, always with his signature shard of glass, for a devoted fanbase (still pedalling their bikes). The episode ends with Bing living the high life thanks to having found a market for his talent due to his successful “audition”.
To give my Black Mirror-like take first, even with the most stridently anti-test, integrative, teaching-the-whole-person way it can possibly be practiced, ELT in Japan or Korea ends up feeding the system of commodification, just stuffing it with ever-more-valuable commodities. Any attempts to break out of that single space just end up putting something all the more precious in it, as truly sincere and irreplaceable things are, like Bing’s speech, ultimately just rarer and accordingly more valuable products. Those “genuine articles” in our case can include communicative competence, international perspective, study abroad experience, and above all, a real feel for English not only as an academic subject but as a living tool of communication. All of these signify a truly high-quality English education, and to an HR office, a superior version of an in-demand skill. A sincere and genuine English education also raises the mean on everyone else, making still more inhuman grinding necessary from those not lucky enough to have a truly outstanding, break-the-mold teacher or opportunities for international education. A worldly, proactive, SKY’s-the-limit English learner represents inflation from the perspective of hiring or college admission boards. As Bing’s judges declare, That is, without a doubt, the most heartfelt thing I’ve seen on a resumé since ELT began.
That is what I fear my legacy of 12 years of English school ownership will be: a few former students with outstanding enough scores in a saleable skill to get salaries and bonuses 3% higher alongside hundreds more with only a vague memory that they once went to eikaiwa. Premonitions of this fate were common throughout the life of our school, as some of our star students reliably quit every year to devote more time to Center Test studies (our Suneung), made clear their intentions to drop English after getting into college almost as a rite of passage, or visibly stopped caring about any classroom pursuit that didn’t have a clear test payoff. Mind you, it wasn’t every student who gave us this feeling, and we always had enough students to live, but once 2 or 3 of the students that you’d really been seeing bright things in the future for tell you that they’re quitting because their juku (cram school) teacher told them eikaiwa is a waste of time, a bit of the shine starts to come off of every student. Parents even in some of the best cases tended to cement the impression that everything led back to tests – the most heartfelt thanks we usually got from parents was that they really appreciated how our passion and genuine connection to their kids had helped them increase their test scores. The students themselves sometimes echoed these sentiments, which didn’t please us as much as they seemed to think it would. Trying to beat the test or go above and beyond it only made us more successful at teaching the test.
That’s the dark take, and when I need some reason to feel better about my move to the US, it gives me some comfort, grass-isn’t-greener style. On the other hand, if I need to remove the shadow that that view casts over my time in Japan and the genuinely warm memories I have of my students, I need to accept that not everything that is part of a “system” is inhuman or corrupt. My former students making 3% more money doesn’t stop them from being complete individuals or having the same warm memories that I have. In many other circumstances, I would view the reduction of a complicated construct to a single value to be very useful, given of course that no such value will ever be free from questions of validity. A society-wide preference for quantifiable skills to an extent reflects a need to fairly and quickly evaluate millions of people a year, which isn’t a sin in itself. Maybe what is needed is not an end to commodification but more commodification – a line on college applications for “average time spent on non-school pursuits” to be weighed alongside TOEIC scores.
Many of us agree that teaching “at the point of need” (as I believe Meddings and Thornbury put it) is an ideal context for formal grammar teaching. Students’ trying to communicate something provides clear evidence that they need the grammar that would facilitate communicating it, and depending on how close they come to natural expression, evidence that their internal representation of English is capable of taking on this additional piece of information.
In interlanguage punting, I conjectured that taking a guess at grammar students may need in the future and organizing a lesson around a particular grammar point was justifiable if the lessons you used to introduce that grammar would be memorable long enough for a “point of need” to be found before the lesson was forgotten. At the time, I was teaching weekly 1-hour grammar workshops with rotating groups students at different levels, and as I could not teach reactively I had to justify my grammar-first (formS-focused) approach.
Read on for the last post before the new semester starts.
I’ve been out of Japan, my home for almost all of my adult life, for a year now. There are now some things I’d legitimately think of planning a vacation around to experience again. Some of these are of the nostalgic flavor variety, and others are more profound.
(If you had had the power to predict back in 1987 that one of the effects of a global information network would be that everything textual had to be organized as a list, would that have helped you to make any wise investments? What could you do with that information besides corner the market on scroll bars?)
Air conditioning. People tend to think of Japan as an ancient country. I disagree with the concept of “ancient countries” on philosophical and historical grounds (“ancient” being but one of many possible stances a modern person can take on the history of a current political entity), but in any case, you see no evidence of this claim living in an apartment in Japan. It’s quite rare to find any domicile more than 30 years old, and the facilities within any given residence are bound to be either brand new or from around the same time the domicile itself was built (again, not a very long time ago). Modularity is the philosophy of most interiors, leading to replaceable fluorescent ceiling fixtures, temporary flooring (often the rugs, tile, and the wafer-thin floor itself), and detachable wall AC/heating units. The philosophy of housing in Japan seems similar to the philosophy of food in the US – ultrarational and at the convenience of industry. My current residence in the US is older than any building I lived in in Japan, and its AC sounds like a fleet of Huey helicopters. The idea that American buildings are old and sturdy and Japanese buildings are new and full of ad hoc fixes clashes with stereotype, but more importantly, sometimes slapdashness has perks in easy upgrades. My AC in our school in Japan was practically silent in comparison. If only the walls had been made of material capable of keeping heat in.
Unsweetened food choice architecture. I still believe the point that I used to make, that the stereotype about everything in the US being incredibly sweet is false. However, the sweet things here are definitely more prominently placed and almost always the first thing you notice on any given supermarket shelf. There are croissants among the danishes and donuts, and plain yogurt next to the vanilla and strawberry yogurt, but the sweeter options are at least 2/3 of the options available and always hit the eye first. This doesn’t technically force you to buy sugar-coated or HFCS-filled products, but it does make them harder to ignore. Shopping here tends to nudge you towards cavities. At least the dentists wear gloves here.
Meiwaku. Interaction has a steep transaction cost in Japan. Initiating random conversation, asking an off-script question to someone whose job isn’t specifically answering questions, mingling, sharing, and basically doing anything that anyone else might conceivably see all come weighted with fees. Those fees come in the form of aversion to and fear of being called out for disturbing others (迷惑 meiwaku). I don’t remember if meiwaku was in that book on Cultural Code Words, but it definitely should be – if there’s any single word that explains public behavior in Japan, it’s meiwaku. Meiwaku, to me, is why people don’t usually talk on trains, get up to leave during the credits at the movies, or call out or loudly resist perverts on public transportation. I see the threat of being accused of causing meiwaku as an additional burden that one feels in every public action, encouraging fairly extreme adherence to rules because the threat looms so large. If it were a monetary cost, it would be a sales tax of 20% on all verbal transactions, pretty strongly disincentivizing public garrulousness. The thing is, the revenue raised by this tax also allows for quiet and well-maintained (or at least not willfully destroyed) public spaces and a priority placed on social order, and it is something you can begin to miss in its absence. Its near-complete lack in the US produces something also undesirable – reckless and risky behavior brought on by a lack of cost for disturbing other people – a recklessness subsidy, accompanied by a widely accepted cultural value on confidence and asserting onself. In public in the US, all options for public behavior are available to everyone at no cost in face or shame. As a result, people avoid boring, on-rails conversations but are much more likely to engage in all manner of misanthropic behavior because of how highly weighted self-expression is over public order or consideration of others.
The dream of a pretense of post-racial society. Japan’s mainstream concept of itself is explicitly racial. Not “we hate other races”, but “Japan’s story is the story of our race”. I’ve come to think that most countries are this way, and a legalistic, “our club is the best but anyone is welcome to join as long as they follow the rules” definition of citizenship is a distinct minority of countries. Now, if one squinted at US history and let the bloody details fade into the background, one could have said that this was the story Americans have always told themselves – that America is an idea that rises above race and class. In fact, it was true until recently that even the most conservative politicians publicly espoused a legalistic rather than blood-and-soil definition of citizenship. I worry that having had to defend this president will cause larger parts of conservative America to abandon even the rhetoric of equality. Cognitive dissonance and all that.
I knew there were elements in the US who envied the easy worldview offered by an explicitly racial view of their nation, and sought to tie Americanness to a mythic concept of “whiteness” just as Japan’s is to “Japaneseness”. I didn’t think these people would ever have a voice in polite society or have their chosen candidate win a national election.
Of course, it seems silly to say I miss the rose-colored view of my home country that I had while I was away from it, but that is the truth. I miss having the US as an example of a country that didn’t mythologize itself as the work of one uniquely virtuous race while I lived in one that did.
Shallow roots. The US is unique not in its newness (its government is actually very old compared to that of most countries) but in its inability to pretend to be ancient. Most people, when asked the age of a country like Japan, will inevitably answer in the thousands of years. If you consider a claim like this in practical terms, that means either that the denizens of these islands have imagined themselves to be part of a Japanese polity before they even grew rice or that a series of governments, even without continuity from one to another, have been able to exercise control over these islands since the bronze age without the benefit of any communication faster than a pony (or in the earliest days, any form of writing). Nonetheless, part of the current cultural software in some countries like Japan is a claim to continuous existence back into antiquity, made plausible by some historical facts (people really have lived here for a long time) and some guessing enabled by lack of evidence (nobody knows what these people did besides live in huts and make cord-inscribed pottery). The US, with all of the history of its current government being part of the written record, cannot feasibly claim any of this.
Belonging to an “ancient society” weaponizes many of the arguments conservatives tend to make in every society – that our way of life has been ever thus, distinctive and characteristic of our land and people, until vulgarians and foreigners infiltrated it and began its corrosion. Of course, you hear these arguments in the US too, but the difference is that in an “ancient society” everyone starts the discussion by ceding most of the conservatives’ points. Yes, our way of life has existed unperturbed for millenia, but maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to give women maternity leave. Yes, our culture is unique and distinctive, but a little labor flexibility would help our economy’s competitiveness. Progressives need to start with an acknowledgment of what they are breaking with or they will lose most people’s sympathy. As I said, the US has versions of these arguments, but people often have to outsource their roots (“Western” or “Judeo-Christian”, nothing on this continent) and the mists of time don’t seem to reach much further back than 1955. A loss of national or cultural identity can be quite freeing.
Of course, this is a list of the things I miss, and like in the last entry, moving here has certainly disillusioned me of my fellow citizens’ resilience in the face of appeals from antiquity. The president seems to come to his particular flavor of chauvinism simply by liking things the way he’s used to (white by default and free of the burden of empathy), but others, even progressives, have come to embrace the framing of conservative vs. liberal as traditional vs. non-traditional or continuity vs. interruption. I suppose I had hoped I would be coming back to a society that saw interruption as its tradition.
Here’s another of those posts where I try to slap a label on an ELT phenomenon I’ve noticed (Schmidt, 1994).
Translationism is the prioritizing of translation as a means of seeing and learning other languages. It is built on the assumption that different languages are sets of arbitrarily-differing tokens which refer to identical basic phenomena in the real world, and therefore that learning another language is a matter of matching the tokens from the L2 to the tokens from the L1 (tokens being lexis or grammar forms). It is more a result of slips in thinking or adherence to other ideologies than an ideology itself, but is common enough to warrant naming. Some of the ideologies that it results from are native-speakerism (NSism) and nationalism, which displace translationism when convenient for that ideology.
Disclaimer: Clearly, this post is sort of a holdover from my time in Japan, where I saw this ideology reflected in the approaches taken by both Japanese ELT and Japanese culture in general toward other languages. I don’t see as much of it in California and thankfully not in ESL. (To the contrary, I see ESL teachers, unhelpfully in my view, warning students against using bilingual dictionaries.) I have a feeling translationism is much more prevalent in EFL contexts, particularly ones in thrall to a national narrative that links the dominant ethnic group’s supposedly innate characteristics to its current culture and modes of expression. Maybe my blogging self misses living in a place like that and always having things to be outraged by.
What follows is a breakdown of types and effects of translationism. ご覧ください。
A few weekends ago I attended my second major CATESOL event, and I noticed a few more differences from my last teaching organization, JALT (the Japan Association For Language Teaching – yes, they capitalize “For”, meaning the acronym really should be JAFLT, or ジャフルト). I’ve come to notice what I think is a bit of a drawback to CATESOL’s highly dedicated and professional members. I’ll dance around it for a little before I finally get to it later on. Or maybe I’ll nestle it between body paragraphs so you’re not tempted to just skip to the bottom.
One thing you find when moving from one culture to another is that you frequently find yourself waiting for things that never happen, seeing social cues that are invisible to the rest of the population and waiting for a conditioned response that is curiously not forthcoming – a “bless you” after a sneeze, a door held open, or a formulaic conversation-ending phrase before your coworker leaves the break room. In CATESOL and in my first semester in ESL in California I’ve had this feeling very often. I keep expecting some hot-button topic to be mentioned, even gratuitously, and then it’s not. Or I expect the speaker to drop an author’s name just to let the audience know he/she knows his/her stuff, but he/she just moves on. In their place, sometimes things I’m not familiar with get name-dropped instead, or sometimes (this is most alienating) nothing happens at all. I find myself oddly unable to follow professional conversations in a natural way. Many conversations here seem like the first time I heard a telephone conversation in Japan, where nobody says “bye”, they just hang up when they’re done talking.
I’ve written down a few things I found myself waiting for and didn’t see – things that are conspicuously absent from my CATESOL/ESL experience. For reflection, I’ll follow them with some things that I hear regularly in CATESOL or ESL but I rarely or never heard in Japan or JALT. And for the record, I still haven’t lived in California for even half a year, so feel free to take my claims with as much salt as you need.
MIA in CATESOL
Native Speaker. I have heard this just once here, from another teacher from Japan. On the other hand, at least 2 of my superiors have been non-native speakers, and many more coworkers wouldn’t have fit the NST mold in Japan (i.e., they are not white). I have heard a bit about the advantages of learning from teachers who have experience learning English as adults, in that they understand where the students are coming from or are former ESL students themselves. Interestingly, this was not couched in a NST/NNST dichotomy, but rather the firsthand ESL experience of those teachers. I kept expecting the words “native” and “non-native” to be used, as they often were in Japan, to discuss the stereotyped strengths of the NST/NNST groups (in Japan, “foreign” and “Japanese”). Even more surprisingly, but I haven’t heard any talk of the supposed advantages of NSTs, whether for authenticity, correctness, or anything else. It’s almost as if people here believe that NS status isn’t as salient as qualifications or experience as a language teacher!
Interlanguage. This troubles me. The way I understand our profession, interlanguage is the ball we are always trying to move down the field, and everything else we do is just indirectly trying to do that. If I don’t hear any acknowledgment of interlanguage in discussions of what we do, I fear I may not understand the rules of the game we’re playing. By “acknowledgment of interlanguage” I mean recognizing that some aspects of students’ mental representations of English may have to come in a certain order (not the order that grammar textbooks present them in), that the representations we care most about aren’t always amenable to explicit teaching (i.e., “knowing” a rule won’t necessarily lead to its incorporation in IL), and that grammar terms are not necessarily the currency of the classroom, useful as they might be for other reasons. Way too often in CATESOL I hear people talk about “grammar teaching” as if its only possible form were “explaining grammar in metalanguage”, and “grammar syllabus” (or worse, “coursebook”) as a stand-in for “syllabus”. I see some indirect evidence that people think about IL, and in many cases it could just be that they think they’re too mundane to talk about. On the other hand, I’ve heard people dropping grammar terms as if they were celebrities they once met, and it seems taken for granted that lower-level courses are “grammar-based”. My brain threatens to abandon ship whenever someone describes lower-level ESL as “teaching basic grammar forms”.
I haven’t figured out what this lack of mentioning is evidence of, but a bit of open discussion on old staples input, intake, uptake, interaction, and natural order would go a long way toward putting my fears to rest. I feel a bit like I’ve been admitted to a prestigious medical school, but all I’ve heard discussed are 1) holistic ways to lengthen life and 2) the head bone’s connected to the (beat) neck bone.
Extensive Reading. I suppose this follows from the last one. A few colleagues at my current institution have talked about this, and I’ve heard rumors that it was once attempted. My school does in fact have almost a full bookshelf of graded readers (more if you include other languages), organized by one of the full-timers, so it may be ahead of the curve. I haven’t heard ER mentioned in presentations though, especially to the gratuitous degree it’s mentioned in JALT, even in presentations on totally different topics. To the contrary, I have seen a great many reading textbooks here, most intended for close reading as a class, with the more unfamiliar vocabulary the better. My fear is that the lack of concern for interlanguage is what drives the lack of focus on ER, or that people are making assumptions about their students’ exposure to English outside the classroom (potentially obviating the need for a focus on input in the classroom) that aren’t coming true. See next point.
Free conversation. This is generally a term of abuse in SLA, and many people would take it as a sign of quality that ESL teachers seem to avoid it. However, and this surprised me as much as anything about ESL, most teachers here also seem to understand that their students remain ensconsed in their L1 communities when not in the classroom. This being the case, and considering how infrequent cases of successful L2 acquisition that include no unscripted interaction are, we really ought to look for ways to actively encourage free conversation, even at the expense of stuff that is actually in the curriculum. I recognize that not everyone is willing to jump on the Dogme train (another term I haven’t heard in SoCal – Dogme, not train. Actually, train too) but if our students have little to no interaction, negotiation, opportunity for recast, etc. on subjects of their choosing, and instead have 5 hours of controlled grammar practice per week, we’re sacrificing probably the most important predictor of L2 learning for something 4th or 5th on the list. It seems very odd to me that teachers can see how close many of their students’ day-to-day lives are to EFL rather than ESL and continue to focus on form as if input and interaction were taken care of.
To recap, my main concern is that the lack of IL discussion that I’ve seen evinces a lack of knowledge about what really builds L2 competence, and that grammar books and dense reading activities have filled the gap that that knowledge should occupy. Again, some people seem to talk in a way that implies IL is a central concern and simply haven’t used the word, which is fine – they don’t feel a need to name-drop it. The thing is, I’m not convinced everyone is on the same page where this is concerned, as evidenced by the abundance of synthetic syllabi and grammar jargon. Many folks seem to think that their job is explaining English grammar, and that this will result in students being able to use it. I hope to be proven wrong.
On the other hand…
行方不明 (whereabouts unknown) in JALT
Credit/non-credit. By this term I mean the distinction between classes which lead to transfer and those that don’t. I’m willing to chalk some of my opinions on this topic in Japan to the fact that I spent almost all my career there teaching at my own school and later to non-English-majors at university. However, I’m convinced that almost all ELT in Japan is low-stakes, and no discussions on credit/non-credit classes are a symptom of this. Let me qualify that – almost all ELT that conforms at all to international norms is low-stakes, because ELT that is not test-prep is almost by definition irrelevant. If you are doing anything other than helping students cram in pretertiary settings, you are giving your students more “cultivation” and “character” than real opportunity to advance in society. The apparent lack of communicative English in the public school systems is a bit more complicated than I’m making it seem here (briefly, the high-stakes tests most parents think they’re preparing their kids for by teaching them grammar-translation don’t actually have much or any grammar-translation on them), but the point is that 20th-21st century approaches to SLA like CLT are on the losing half of a “serious/unserious” dichotomy, grammar-translation being cartoons from the New Yorker and CLT being Larry the Cable Guy. If you want to be treated as a professional, teach like it’s 1890.
JALT, an organization aligned much more with international ELT than Japanese public education, has a membership who sees grammar-translation as stone-age pedagogy (which sometimes makes it appear to old-fashioned grammar teachers as a professional organization of unprofessionals). Its ranks are full of highly intelligent and passionate teachers working in stigmatized “oral communication” classes, desperate for their work to be taken seriously. As with a lot of ELT in Japan, the closeness to international norms of any teacher’s approach seems inversely proportional to the seriousness with which society takes them. If you are a JALT member, your greatest achievements with your students are almost invisible to the machinery of social advancement.
In contrast, “credit” teaching in community colleges in the US is playing for keeps – you’re teaching students who more often than not plan to transfer to American universities, and the skills they get with you help them in immediate ways. What they get with your help will lead them to get along better with their classmates, make sense of a lecture, or understand what exactly about the latest Trump quote everyone is so alarmed/amused about within the very near future, not on some hypothetical far-off study abroad or business trip. Even “non-credit” students still have to live here, and in my experience are motivated in a way that seems less conducive to narrow-minded grammar study. If you teach in Japan you’ll have a few students who need English to achieve their heartfelt goals, and make inspiring use of their language skills – but my point is that if you teach ESL, they’ll be the majority in every class.
I don’t mean to say that ELT in Japan would be improved by the addition of more credit classes – but the prevalence of discussions of “credit/non-credit” classes in ESL (along with various other terms you hear bandied about, like “SLOs” and “transfer”) shows how much edifice is built around the idea that people in the US really need English education.
Immigrants get it done
As I said in an earlier post, a whiff of desperation and a nagging feeling of inadequacy can sometimes be a great motivator. Maybe teachers in Japan are overcompensating with their high-minded discussions of when output leads to noticing the gap, but their students are almost definitely better off for it – even if the circumstances that produced such passion for the details of SLA are unhealthy overall. Also, maybe being somewhat isolated socially, particularly from the norms of ELT in Japan (which, again, date back to the advent of village horticulture in the Yayoi period) allows JALT members not to be co-opted as much by an industry that would much prefer you just use a coursebook than plan tasks or have conversations.
I realize now one of the most essential aspects of JALT – it is composed of immigrants and deviants. The NSTs in JALT are mostly members of racial and cultural minorities, and the Japanese JALT folks are people who like to hang out with visible minorities. They would not blend in in a crowd of average citizens and gain little social capital from their careers. Of course they lack the youthful energy of CATESOL; very few of them went straight from their BA to grad school and then right into teaching. I suspect most of them (like me) had years of teaching experience before they got their first qualification. They also have an immigrant’s healthy skepticism of mainstream culture; a decades-old tradition of teaching one particular way has no meaning to an immigrant NST. They have little use (or little chance of establishing) institution identities around their places of work; they need professional identities established among other people with shared experience and expertise to take pride in their work.
Maybe I’m romanticizing the immigrant experience in Japan a bit. Still, I think “institutionalization” is my new favorite word for capturing the differences I’ve felt between CATESOL and JALT.
Appendix: Phrases that causes my jejunum to undulate violently
“when you get to that point in the curriculum”
“the present simple” (particularly in Chapter One of a grammar textbook)
“master a grammar point and continue on to the next one”
“reduced adjective clause”
“_________ clause” (when spoken to a beginning learner)
“know the meaning exactly” (meaning “know the accepted translation in Japanese”)
This blog is way for me to make sense of complexities of teaching and learning English as a Foreign Language. My aim is to research areas of interest to inform my teaching and increase the impact of my teaching.