Thursday, January 20, 2005

How not to learn English

Yesterday I wrote an enormously long blog entry about my students, which I then deleted because it was too cynical and nasty. I should not blame them for being demoralised and unmotivated. It is not their fault, and it is not mine, either. If they choose to watch TV all night and then fall asleep IN THE MIDDLE OF A TEST and then fail the test, that is because they don't think their education is worth anything. And it isn't, most of the time.

(Of course it is worth something in my class, but they don't know that.)

The students at that particular university are demoralised for good reason. When I have first year students there, I always notice how excited they are about entering university. They're ready to learn, and they're a delight.

Then, sometime around May or early June, they lose it, just like that. All the sparkle goes out of them. One week I have an enthusiastic and fun class, ready to try anything I ask them to do, greedy to learn, and the next week I walk in and greet them and they ignore me. This happens every year, and I used to think it was me. I would go into a panic, trying to remember what on earth I did last week to turn them against me like that. I would go over my notebook, trying to find clues, but I could never figure it out. Reading over my old teaching notebooks I find things like, lively, fun, exciting class, they're really into it, must reinforce with more activities using this language soon, they're getting it! one week and the next week it's, five students sleeping, seven absent, nobody wants to study, they're all talking loudly in Japanese and refusing to listen to me... WHAT AM I DOING WRONG?

Then I learned of the term Gogatsubyou, which translates literally as May illness. It refers to the fact that new things tend to start in April here (jobs, the academic year), and by May people are ... disillusioned. I think that's the best word.

I got an idea of why this happens one year early in my university teaching career, when I finished a class a few minutes early sometime in late May and a couple of students stayed behind to study for another class they had after lunch. I looked over their shoulders to see what they were studying, and found that they were poring over huge long photocopied lists of English words along with their phonetic transcriptions. I was surprised by this, as I didn't know they were familiar with the phonetic alphabet. I was also excited. I thought maybe I could use it in my classes occasionally, incorporated in the little mini-pronunciation lessons I throw in now and again.

For fun I started reading down the list, sounding out the phonetic transcriptions. I wanted to know what kind of accent their teacher had. Three or four words down I came to a word that had been transcribed wrongly. It was not the kind of mistake you get when you don't know how to pronounce a word, but the kind you get when you make a typo. It was nonsense. I pointed it out to the students, and started to correct it, but they got agitated and stopped me, panic written all over their faces.

"No no no no no!" they cried, and added, in Japanese, "We have to learn it exactly like that."

"But it's wrong," I told them. "This isn't how the word is pronounced. It isn't even close!"

They stared at me, flustered, but adamant that I shouldn't change it. Going through more of the list I found that there were a lot more of these kind of mistakes. It was ludicrous. I asked them to explain.

It took a little while to figure out what was going on, but eventually I learned from the students that:

(a) This word list was one they had to memorise for a test for their English pronunciation class. They had these tests every two or three weeks, with about fifty to a hundred words every time.
(b) The students didn't know what the phonetic symbols meant. Not only did they not know the sounds each symbol represented, they were only vaguely aware that they represented sounds at all. All they were sure of was that they had to memorise them for the test.
(c) The students didn't know what the words themselves meant. The words weren't in any kind of context, and the students weren't required to know the meanings.
(d) Their English pronunciation class was taught by a Japanese professor who taught the class entirely in Japanese. They weren't sure if he could speak English.
(e) The list was the professor's list. If I changed it and they wrote the right symbols, he would mark it wrong. They were sure of that, and certainly weren't about to challenge their professor just because a part-time foreign instructor said he was wrong. The idea horrified them. They were also worried about hurting my feelings, and I'd put them in a nasty spot by telling them about the mistakes. They didn't want to insult me, but he was more important. He was a tenured professor, a real academic, and I wasn't. Besides, I was just a foreigner. They liked me, but I was not to be taken seriously. (They did not say this, but I got it.)
(f) The students did not want me to teach them the pronunciation of the phonetic symbols. They felt it would just confuse them and make it harder for them to pass their tests. (They were probably right.)

After this encounter I went back to the teachers' room in a daze. I now understood several things. I understood why my students' pronunciation did not improve when they took pronunciation classes. I understood why they became demoralised by their 'study' of English, and why I found it so hard to keep them interested. They had several other English classes a week, and only one with me. I was teaching them the sorts of things their other professors were probably then telling them were wrong and would fail them for.

I understood that Gogatsubyou was not my fault.

At another, 'better' university last week, something similar happened when I finished the last class early. Several students instantly took out textbooks for their next class, to study for a test. Naturally I asked to see the books, and asked about their other class. The textbook was a reading text and looked pretty interesting to me.

I was surprised by how much of the textbook they'd gone through in one semester, though. It was a fat book, with a lot of native-level reading in it. But then I noticed that every chapter (about five closely printed pages) ended with a 'chapter summary' of one short paragraph, and that one paragraph was the only one covered with student notes - tiny translations of almost every word written between the lines. I asked the students what they did in their reading class.

They told me that in class the teacher read the chapter to them in Japanese, from his lecture notes, which were a translation of the English with his own annotations. For homework they had to translate the summary paragraph into Japanese as well.

I waited for more, but that was it. That was their 'reading' class. The test was for them to translate a couple of the summaries again. They weren't told which ones, so they were memorising them all. In Japanese, of course.

It's a miracle that my students do as well as they do in my classes, all things considered.


Kadhine said...

That's depressing.
Explains a lot though...