There is No Royal Road to Language Learning: a week in Japan

As I mentioned above, I had the very good fortune to be invited to Japan by the organizers of the LET as a former president of IALLT in order to celebrate their 50th anniversary/conference at the Yokohama, Japan hosted by the brand new Yokohama City Municipal Yokohama Science Frontier High School (a school that has the motto “Seeking Knowledge Through Surprise and Awe” …lovely).

Disclaimer: After only 6 days in Japan I am hardly an expert. But thanks to the hospitality of our hosts (as well as their limitless tolerance of my incessant questions) I have a couple of observations that I would like to share here.

Feel free to comment, critique, or debate any or all of these points… I am still learning and want to learn more.

1) Lost in Translation and Then Some:

Click on image to enlarge.

Every now and again, it is a really good idea to put ourselves in our students’ shoes and feel what it is like to not understand a language and what it takes to make meaning where there seems to be none.

While we were in Japan, we took mass transportation most everywhere. This is what the subway maps looked like. Some of the lines had romanized words to accompany the names of the stops in Japanese, some did not. Some lines had cheerful Mary Poppin-like voices chirping the names of the stations through muffled loudspeakers in jam-packed cars. Usually we were with our hosts so we did not have to pay attention too much. But later, when a friend and I tackled the bullet train to Kyoto and then Kyoto’s subway system on our own, we felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment when we returned to our hotel, having not succumbed to the temptation of a taxis. (A lot of people exclaimed at how much romanized text there was in Japan these days, quite frankly I don’t know what they were talking about as I was clinging on to any letter I could find…)

My point is this: for some of our students, this is what learning a second language feels like on a daily basis…especially at the beginning of the term. It is scary. It is unfamiliar. Learning takes gynormous amounts of concentration. Your brain hurts. It isn’t easy, even though as teachers we are trying to make it fun and friendly and such… We need to put ourselves in their shoes more often.

2) Pictographs:

When you don’t understand the language, other cues are indispensable. After having (almost) been mowed down several times bicycles (on the sidewalk, in the street, in both places at the same time and from opposite directions), this little reminder before I stepped out onto the curb was helpful.

Sometimes though, these drawings tell stories we didn’t realize needed to be told…

3) Japan’s love/hate relationship with all things English:

Japan seems to both revere and destroy all things English simultaneously. This website has chronicled people’s sightings of these linguistic disasters beautifully, and below I have added a few of my fave sightings.

How telescoping English words can sometimes end badly…

An I.T. truck near the conference venue

May all of your advisors be super.

Somewhere, Julie Andrews is wincing.

The Toyota Avalon, renamed

4) Shared Concerns: Different Lands:

As we talked with language teachers at the conference (most of whom were ex-pats teaching ESL) we discovered several areas where, despite the differences in culture and geography and even language being taught, there were areas where our worlds intersected. Some examples:

* Access to technology in the language classroom, on a regular basis, is a problem Yes, I knooooow, isn’t that amazing? Even in Japan, a culture that our media machines would like for us to see as more technologically saturated than our own, they have this problem as well.

According to this presentation by Marcel VanAmelsvoort about how to teach without technology in the classroom (which was presented w/o technology of any kind because the room where he was presenting had none… an ironic twist indeed), school districts in Japan have limited resources for technology in the classrooms and the idea of putting computers in language classrooms is (culturally) not seen as necessary. So… teachers have to create materials on their own, on a shoestring, as well as continue to develop their own language and teaching skills too. Marcel’s presentation has a fine list of available resources for ESL teachers and students. Check it out. (N.B. Marcel...if I have mis-represented you here, please let me know in the comments section and I will make the corrections!!)

* To learn a language you have to speak and be heard speaking. This means the teachers’ voice cannot be the only voice in the room. And yet, in Japan, where it is culturally problematic to be seen as challenging or confronting the presence of the all powerful sensei, it can be hard to encourage students to speak actively and practice the language in the classroom. I had a glimpse of this during the presentations and during my keynote. (It’s funny…Americans and Brits see comments, questions and even the occasional hurled rotten tomato after a presentation as a form of validation… you heard me, and you are now commenting….the Japanese see it as impolite or improper. It was tough to get used to the silence.)

* There is No Royal Road Road to Learning… a quote found inside the promotional flyer for the Yokohama City Municipal Yokohama Science Frontier High School. Borrowed from Ptolemy and referring to the teaching of geometry , the quote tells us that there is no silver bullet to learning…learning is inherently un-fun and hard and there is no easy path to knowledge.

I don’t agree with this. (I spoke to this point in my preso for the conference, and I hope to post it shortly…)

People can learn effectively and as a part of their engagement, be social and have fun. This is not an either/or proposition. But apparently in Japan (and in this country as well) having fun as a part of learning is increasingly seen as being frivolous. Despite the fact that when students are learning and having fun their teachers and their teacher have been impressed by their engagement (as reported in this article on Genki English from a few years back) Being social is time off task as opposed to time on. The result? Parents protest and administrators balk about time taken away from the important process of teaching to the all-important TEST.

* It’s not about the Test and oh wait it’s totally about the Test In Japan, there is the National Center Test for University Admission. It is administered once a year. There is an English proficiency test in the exam. There are cram schools set up to “prepare” students for this test and other tests. As much as the ESL teachers would like to have students learn language holistically, the angry glare of THE TEST is impossible to avoid.

The questions from the annual test are published in the Japan Times the day after each test. A friend of mine, an English speaker, tried to take the English entrance exam one year. She was horrified. First off, there were questions she simply could not understand regardless of her proficiency in the language. And the test was insanely long. There was no way should could have finished it in the time allotted.

We feel your pain, Japan.

5) Juxtapositions

On my last day in Japan, while travelling back to Tokyo from Kyoto (and then onward to the airport), I saw this: A Geisha. Waiting for a bullet train. Not only is it rare to see a Geisha in Japan, but to see one at 9 a.m. waiting for the shinkansen? Extraordinary. I left Japan grateful for the opportunity to see what I had seen, and realizing how much more there was to learn.

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

1 Comment

  1. Marcel VanAmelsvoort · August 19, 2010 Reply

    Nice posting, thanks. It was great getting the chance to meet and talk at LET 50. I’m still hoping to hear more about how you use World of Warcraft, though.

    We here in Japan often get frustrated by the slow pace of change regarding language learning and the acceptance (or willingness to take a chance with) new technologies and activities. Ideas such as letting learners have more autonomy and letting them have fun while learning will need a lot more time to reach any institutional acceptance. At present it seems that the only autonomy and fun learners are allowed to have is while learning this textbook unit or that list of vocabulary. As you rightly mentioned, teaching for the test and the role of the instructor are two of the bigger problems with the system. By system I don’t want to suggest a government-controlled program, though government directives are one part of it. Instead, the “system,” the way things are, is the result of a number of factors: teachers’ limited experience as language learners themselves, teachers’ perceived role as the providers of content and answers, teachers’ strong sense of responsibility regarding assigned textbooks and content, the washback effect of entrance exams at the sr. high and post-secondary levels, a general conservative approach to education, a strong cultural preference for making things available to everyone or to no one coupled with tight budgets for education, etc., etc. In our grass-is-always-greener view, we tend to think that things are much better in North America. Thanks for feeling our pain. It seems we all have our work cut out for us.

    Thanks again for the posting and for the presentation (I’m waiting for the slides because I had to duck out for 30 minutes and missed the last part). And I’m still hoping to have that discussion about WOW and other online games for language learning.

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