Sunday, May 21, 2006


I wasted a beautiful spring day yesterday by spending it inside, marking homework. It was depressing. One of my classes this year is of first year students, whom I expected to be low level. They are the lowest of eight classes in a department not known for the brilliance of its students. I have been going very, very slowly, and ignoring the syllabus. If I tried to follow the syllabus they would be lost, and would stop cooperating. But unlike most low level classes, their problem is not one of attitude. It is often true that low level students are low level because they do not know how to concentrate, or have given up, and so spend class time doing anything except paying attention.

But this class is not like that. They seem to have decided to trust me, and are respectful and attentive. They want to learn. They try very, very hard, and I reward them by being very, very patient and trying to show them that English is not impossible. I can be very patient. I know how hard it is to learn a language.

The problem, though, is that they lack even the most basic skills in English. They have the sort of knowledge about English that makes them worse than beginners. They have NEGATIVE ability in English. They have learned so much wrongly that the problem is not how to teach them, but how to UNteach them everything they have learned wrongly. I wish I could tell them to forget everything their other teachers have taught them, but that would be like telling them to disrespect their other teachers. I don't think that would work, particularly coming from a foreigner.

In the homework I was marking yesterday, most of the students demonstrated that they do not understand the present simple tense. I had given them something from the workbook (the one I copied twice by mistake) which I thought at the time might be insultingly easy for them, but I was wrong, and it has reminded me that I cannot go too slowly for this class. They are completely baffled by English. They appear to use what they have learned almost randomly, as if they do not expect English to be logical or to have meaning. One of the exercises in the workbook was one in which students were supposed to write short answers to questions. Here are some examples of answers students gave:

Q: Are you from Osaka?
A: No, I don't.

Q: Is she a teacher?
A: No, she are.

About 70% of the answers were like this.

In another exercise students were supposed to fill in blanks with words provided. One sentence went like this:

Nice to ______ you, Tania.

The words they had to choose from were:

over, think, meet, too, that, am, is

When students choose think as the answer, you start to wonder if they actually understand what the words mean. This is BASIC STUFF. All these students have had English lessons at junior high school and high school, and this is their seventh year of learning English. What on earth were their teachers doing in the last six years? The other thing I wonder, when I get answers like this, is whether they were given a lot of trick questions in English exams. Nice to meet you is a formulaic expression that turns up in just about every English textbook in existence. How could they not know it? They must be choosing answers at random, because when they've given the logical answer before they've been wrong, tricked by something obscure chosen for an exam.

I can only imagine that their previous teachers must have been following the syllabus, whether or not the students understood what they had (supposedly) learned before. This makes me angry, not at the students, but at their teachers and at the system the teachers are following. What did they think they were DOING? What possible good did they think they were achieving?

And why is it continuing, even at university? When a student whose English is at this level approaches you after class and wants to know (in Japanese, of course) if you can help with some homework from another English class, and then shows you a passage from Ulysses (unabridged), which he is supposed to translate into Japanese, it makes you want to go out and strangle the criminal who is destroying any chance of that student ever getting any pleasure from learning.

But the Japanese professors who teach English will not teach basic English, at least not at this university. They are ACADEMICS, and they teach their idea of what 'academic English' is. They look down on the foreign teachers, who teach communication. We are not real academics. We are not even allowed to teach grammar classes. Grammar is an academic subject, so the Japanese professors teach that. We get the communicative classes, which they refuse to teach because communication is not 'academic.' (And besides, most of the professors are incapable of communicating in English.)

I spend a lot of time trying to teach grammar in a way that does not look like I am teaching grammar, which could get me into trouble. But then there is an additional problem of interference from their 'real' grammar classes, where the students are learning obscure 'academic' grammar constructions they do not know the meaning of, do not know how to use, and which are not taught in context. Students sometimes insert these at random into things they write or say in my classes. I am happy that they are trying to use what they learn, but unfortunately the grammar they are taught in their other classes is often literary, or obsolete. I cannot tell them to forget these things, because they need them to pass exams. Mine is only one of the three or four English classes they have a week. I am fighting an uphill battle.

The system is mad. Here we have, at this university, 60 or 70 fully qualified language teachers, and we are not trusted to teach all aspects of English because we are foreign. We are only given the communicative classes because they are second-rate (like us) and 'not academic.' We are only good for being native models of the language. We are not trusted to actually know about the language we are teaching, only to provide an example of what native English speakers sound like. We are not allowed to teach English as a whole language. We are only supposed to teach 'how to have a conversation.'

This problem is not confined to English. Last year, in one of my second year classes, a question came up in the textbook about how many languages you could count to ten in. I told one group I could count to ten in French - I remembered from my one year of French at high school. In fact, I told them confidently, I could count to TWENTY - but then I discovered that I couldn't. I had forgotten the French word for eleven. I knew one of the students was also learning French, so I asked him to remind me.

He looked embarrassed.

"We haven't done numbers yet," he told me.

He was in his second year of French and HADN'T LEARNED NUMBERS YET.

I asked him what they were doing in class, and he said they were translating paragraphs from literary texts. I asked if his professor spoke French, and he didn't know. He had yet to hear a word of French spoken. His professor was too busy being 'academic' and teaching 'academic' French, I suppose. I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, his teacher was a PROFESSOR and professors teach ACADEMIC, INTELLECTUAL things, not something as low status as actual language IN A LANGUAGE CLASS. And there are no native French-speaking teachers at that university, so the poor kid is not likely to ever learn numbers.

I should not think about these things. It makes me too angry. The students are cheated, and their natural love of learning is deliberately sabotaged. Many of the students want to learn, and they are instead demoralized into believing that foreign languages are difficult for Japanese people. I was actually TOLD this by a Japanese professor, one of the two (out of about 30) Japanese English professors who actually speaks to us part-time foreign teachers.

And that is why you hear so much cynicism in the foreign teachers' room, and why I am frequently frustrated (we all are), and why I sometimes feel such massive scorn for the Japanese professors that I have a hard time smiling politely at them when I see them, rather than sneering. When I smile and greet them - in Japanese - most of them do not respond anyway, or respond with a curt nod. I suppose this is because I am not a real academic and not worth acknowledging. I smile and greet them cheerfully anyway, no matter what. I am doing my bit for international relations. (Also, I can see it makes them feel uncomfortable.)

In case you haven't noticed yet, I am still feeling frustrated and depressed by my absurd job. But I will not mark any more homework today. That was enough for one weekend. The weather is beautiful, the scent of honeysuckle is drifting in through the window, and The Man and I are going for a bicycle ride to do some shopping. The yellow sand problem has gone (for the year, I hope) and maybe some sunshine and fresh air will make me feel better.


Potentilla said...

The professors don't acknowledge you because they are scared shitless that you will show them up somehow. Some of them more consciously and some of them subconsciously. (I would be really interested to know whether The Man agrees with this analysis).

I bet that if you could find a way to ask one of them humbly for his advice or opinion on something professional (how to translate Ulysses into English from the original, perhaps), he would open up.

I bet Joyce would be monumentally pissed off if he could know how he is now a sort of icon of "the most difficult English" and therefore a windmill to tilt at for academics.

Cheryl said...


kenju said...

I can certainly understand your frustration. It reminded me of the French classes I took in college; my professor was German-born and spoke French with a decidedly Geerman accent. Needless to say, I remember no recognizable French.

Pkchukiss said...

I agree that sometimes it seems to be a really uphill battle you're trying to fight.

There's replications of the system everywhere, but only one of you.

Radioactive Jam said...

If you found sympathetic graduate students (or even journalists) willing to research "language education" at the university, could they possibly call attention to some of the more "counterproductive" and insane aspects of the current system?

Norma said...

You are absolutely correct--it's an absurd system which hurts the students.

Kay said...

It wasn't always this way--for some 30 halcyon years, between the foreign academic integrated in the Imperial University system and the one today you so graphically describe, the middle years were nourishing for everybody. "The Japan That Can Say 'No'" marked the turnaround....shooting oneself in the foot to preserve a mythical pride can be the whole reason for an educational system to exist. I had to leave when I was demoted from honored English teacher to doo-doo-on-the-sole-of-the-shoe communications teacher.....but I learned one thing before I said good-bye, one thing you know, Badaunt, the students need us desperately! They know it. So you go, girl!!!!

Badaunt said...

Potentilla: Yes, they are scared. OF COURSE. They have made a career out of being English 'experts' and can't speak the language, most of them. But spoken English is considered 'inferior,' academically, so that allows them to treat us as second-rate non-academic drones. Interchangeable, too, which makes it difficult to make waves, especially since they have tenure and most of us don't. They can always fire you and get in someone else, fresh off the boat.

I've tried asking for advice, and it doesn't work. For one thing you have to get them to stay still for a moment and not run away, and for another you have to find one who is not deaf or totally out of his (usually) tree. Any who are friendly are friendly anyway, and will agree that the state of things is ridiculous but confess to not having the power to change it. And there ARE friendly ones. On bad days I tend to forget that.

But we have the mighty power of Mombusho (Ministry of Ed) to fight, not just the universities themselves. Mombusho doesn't like us, and there are very few who will go up against them. They have too much power.

Ivan Hall has written extensively about this, in his books, and some of his articles are on the web as well. He mostly writes about national universities (which were recently privatized, sort of), so conditions vary at private universities. It's not so different, though.

Cheryl: Thank you. :-)

Kenju: I really don't think it matters all that much whether you have a native speaker teacher or not, if they speak the language well. But if they don't, you have a real problem! If the Japanese teachers of English actually spoke and understood English I wouldn't have so much trouble in my classes.

Pkchukiss: Exactly! I have to keep it personal, otherwise I'd give up. I'm in no position to fight the system. I just have to take what I can, help where I can, and be as quietly subversive as possible. My job can only work at an individual level. I can't do anything at an institutional level.

Radioactive Jam: It's been done, and is being done. Ivan Hall, Brian McVeigh, and others have written about it. They are labelled as 'racist' and 'imperialist' by many, including some foreigners (especially the ones who are comfortably tenured). THEY TELL THE TRUTH. I came up against the same sort of attitudes when I was doing my MA by distance learning from Australia. I was told that I could not say my students were unmotivated/had been taught badly/whatever, without statistics to back me up. I was told that I only needed to interest the students, and they would be totally cooperative and interested in learning. It was ALL MY FAULT. My advisor told me he had taught Japanese students and never had the problems I described. He didn't say it was my bad teaching, but he implied it.

It was only later I realized that when he said he had taught Japanese students he meant IN AUSTRALIA. Well, of COURSE they were motivated. That's why they were in Australia! They knew they couldn't learn English here! The best students I've had ALL wanted to study abroad, and many already had.

On campus at one of the places I work there is a coffee shop staffed by foreigners, called the English Speaking Plaza, or something like that. It is there especially for students who want to practice English. The coffee is very cheap, and there are always staff on hand who will sit with you and chat. The only rule is 'English only.' There are over 20,000 students on campus, and the foreigners in that coffee shop spend most of their time twiddling their thumbs. Last week I went to see them, to ask if I could send 100 or so students to interview them (over a 2 week period) as a homework assignment, and instead of being pissed off at me they were grateful. They are bored silly.

There's your 'motivation.' Ha. I wish I'd known about them when I was writing my dissertation. I could have asked them for some numbers to back up my 'no motivation' claim.

Norma and Kay: Thanks for reminding me I am there for the students. I cannot change the system, but I CAN do what I can for the students. They're who I work for. All I can do is to perhaps help them to believe that it is possible for them to learn, and show them the beginnings of a way to do it.

And Kay, I've only ever been doo-doo on the sole of the shoes. (Lovely expression, and exact.) I wish I'd been around for the good days! I keep hearing about teachers getting respect and students who didn't switch off the moment you spoke in English, and of the days when you could actually TEACH instead of being a babysitter... and it's only going to get worse. The levels are dropping so badly (lack of students/no standards/accept anybody who applies as long as they write their name legibly at the top of the entrance exam paper and pay the fees) that we're getting students I'm fairly sure are illiterate in Japanese, let alone English.

Oh, dear. I'm depressing myself again. Tuesday evening can't come too quickly for me this week!

Anonymous said...

I was sitting on a view level of a skyscraper a couple of years ago, looking down at a stretch of expressway I often drive - it's a chaotic piece of road, with many entrances, traffic going all over.

But from the 30th floor, all I could see was order, cars sticking in lanes, or laneshifting in a quiet, perfect fashion. Floor 30 or so is where sociology begins.

Most tertiary education everywhere is fairly silly; either from the perspective of what is taught, or from the point of view of the students' reasons for taking the particular course, or both. Engineering & medicine may be exceptions: we don't want people to die at the doctor's, and we don't want tall buildings to fall. But even in those facilties, things can verge on silly.

Japan is conformist. But then, so are all cultures, the sociologist insists. Britain is full of ecentrics, until you live there. France is the land of intellectuals, liberty the watchword - which reminds me of a friend crouching at a demo under the police helicopters in '68, who yelled at her French boyfriend "this is a police state"; to have him reply "didn't you know?"

BadAunt thinks she can only change things as an individual - but at that level noone changes anything. Pessimistic, but it's the implacable message history & sociology teaches us. The charismatic individuals who seem to have brought change have been members of large organisations, or have built them: think of Gandhi, Mandella; and then remember Congress One or the ANC.

Was part of one of those miserable conversations recently in which only complaints or recounts of 'circumstances beyond our control' dominated; and I remembered a subject at tertiary level I help teach named "Organistation & Change". I bit my tongue and didn't yell "Organise" at everyone: where I am, that's probably seditious right now; but it's still true, thank god... Roadblocks block traffic, traffic can be diverted, we can build change, but only if we organise... and persist.

BobCiz said...

I tend to sympathize with the students who find learning a foreign language to be an exercise in futility and frustration. Being a native born citizen of the US, I have the usual chauvinistic attitude about my English language, feeling that anyone who fails to understand what I am saying is somehow inferior and certainly deficiant intellectually. After all, English is the language of commerce because we said so. In the past I tried at different times to learn another language, only to give up the attempt because I figured that all those foreigners would have to learn to understand me if they wanted to get anything done. My feeble attempts to learn another language ( I have dabbled with French and German) were subverted by the inability of the teacher assigned to teach me. Perhaps if I had had a capable and enthusiastic teacher I wpould be writing this in French or German. It seems to me that all you can do for your students is what you are doing--being enthusiastic and capable. Teach them grammar by osmosis. As they learn the meaning of the various phrases the grammar will become self evident. But please, don't stop trying to reach them and teach them. A great teacher is worth more than a lifetime of riches. My greatest regret is that I never did master another language. I am diminished because of that lack. I wish I had been fortunate enough to have had you for a teacher.

Carrie said...

I think I would be going out of my mind if I had to work in that situation. I guess the only thing you can do to keep yourself sane is focus on the very little time you spend with your students and do the best you can with them. What an utter mess.