Where to begin?
Let’s start with the story of Mr. Sato. He’s an English teacher in his early thirties. But he wasn’t always in his thirties.
Rewind to middle school, where he first encountered English study. He loved it. Being able to focus on conversation, hanging out with the foreign assistant language teachers (ALTs) that came to class, and playing games in English paved the way for his continual development and proficiency in English. Classes had some grammar components, but they were mainly centered around activities.
During those three years, he developed a strong bond with English. Sure, he enjoyed acing tests, but the main reason he kept studying was to be able to hang out with and talk to foreigners. The bond was so strong that when high school reared its ugly English-grammar-intensive head, he stuck with the subject in spite of hating it in school. That impression stayed with him: he vowed never to teach at a high school. Middle school, where he found success and his love for English, was his goal as an aspiring teacher.
During university, he met his future wife in an English class. She became a housewife with a few part time jobs while his trajectory brought him towards his long-held goal: becoming an English teacher. He studied and failed the professional teacher’s exam a number of times before finally passing. Grammar was never his strong suit.
Finally, after years of studying and working as a “lecturer” (講師), he passed the exam. As a teacher (教諭), he’d finally reached his goal, and everyone remarked at how good of a teacher he was. ALTs were impressed by his ability to speak English, a surprisingly uncommon ability in the Japanese English Teaching profession. Not his verbal ability, it was his grammar that held him back from passing the exam for five years.
Mr. Sato’s English is amazing when compared to his peers. He can explain grammar rules effortlessly now, but his strong suit is his confidence and ability to freely use English. His pronunciation is, while not perfect, worthy of mimicry.
This Level of Fluency
It’s downright uncommon in Japan. To some degree, maybe that’s alright. Does an elementary math teacher need to be well-versed in advanced mathematical theory? Perhaps not, when the highest level of math they have to teach is basic algebra.
Personally, I began teaching Japanese before I was anything close to fluent. At that point, I was scared to speak and aware of my many weaknesses. That being said, as someone who was currently studying the language, I knew both the myriad problems beginners were faced with and the ways to overcome them. I wasn’t so far removed to forget the positions of my students. In that, I had something that no Japan-born Japanese teacher could ever have.
On the other hand, my weaknesses were apparent. Without the confidence to speak the language, much of my classroom language was English when it should have been Japanese. I made sure to keep the input high with lots of videos and songs, but the class was largely conducted in English. In addition, while I would say that x or y was a good way to say something, I didn’t know the nuances. Words like 「よろしくお願いします」had little meaning to me in spite of their relative importance in Japanese life. If I’d known then that I’d be saying that phrase upwards of twenty or thirty times a day at minimum, I’d certainly have made it a more prevalent part of the curriculum.
In regards to teaching languages, fluency is important. Being able to deliver on-the-fly examples of common language is important. Navigating primary sources of language is one of the best ways to give students important resources. Moreover, one of the biggest advantages that a fluent foreign language teacher has is psychological: “If they can do it, perhaps I can too.” That’s one thing I’ll never have when compared to my Japanese English teaching coworkers, and I’m okay with that. What I’m not okay with is the teachers who fear English. They also send a message to the students: “Even though this person has studied English for ten or more years of their life, they still can’t do it. What does that mean for me?” When a teacher is fluent, they prove that the task before their students can be done. After all, unlike math, people learning a language usually seek to become masters of the language (fluency) from day one.
That was Mr. Sato’s goal. That was the goal he inspired in some of his students. (Incidentally, as the only English teacher many of his students experienced in their middle school education, the students he inspired tended to be male. I assume this was a similar psychological effect as above. That is, male students saw this as something they could strive towards. Female students had no role model, and their self-confidence in a similar goal was weakened. That’s not to say that there were no strong female students, but that the strong male students outnumbered them as a whole.)
If You Can’t Do It…
I guess it seemed ludicrous to me. Like, why teach English when you can’t do it? When you fear it?
Why teach the things that made you fear a subject?
Why subject others to that?
Maybe they think this is the best case scenario. Their teaching methods aren’t wrong, they think—English is actually just impossible. For most Japanese people anyways. The small number who did it are the crazy few. The exception. For everyone else, the solution is what they’re doing: lots of study.
After all, in spite of their fears, they did pass the test. Their English is, according to the tests, at an appropriate level. Yes, they’re doing just fine. Like my new teacher who passed the test to become a teacher: his grammar is fine even if every practical aspect of the language is a weakness.
The Goals of English Teachers
What I’ve had to come to terms with is the idea that…maybe…the goal isn’t fluency.
Maybe the goal is simply to pass the test.
With English as a required subject in school, getting good marks on the English components of high school entrance exams as well the college entrance exam is of paramount importance in Japan, even if one has no desire to attain anything resembling English fluency. The Eiken isn’t just a test to measure your English ability—it also looks good when applying for schools and jobs. If you can pass the test, who cares about your fluency? And when the tests are multiple-choice based, all speaking components go out the window. So drilling grammar and a small set of phrases logically might seem like the best option when trying to help kids pass tests.
To the ALTs who come here, their goals tend to be improving English fluency in Japan. It’s a noble goal. Myself included, many ALTs studied Japanese and perhaps other languages in the pursuit of mastery, and coming to Japan to teach English meant helping others down that road of mastery, in the other direction. “Of course,” we think, coming with our perceptions of language learning as being one towards mastery, “we’ll help them master English.”
So our goals are towards mastery. I do believe this is an achievable goal. Build enough familiarity in middle school to encourage a lifelong passion for English as well as showing them the tools and methods to make their passion into a reality. It can be done. It worked for Mr. Sato.
Other English teachers have another goal in mind: passing the test. Maybe the students don’t want to learn English, but because it’s required, they must. As a result, if these kids want to go on to good schools and therefore get good jobs, they need to pass this class. It’s a little basic—as if the decision to include English in the curriculum is arbitrary and pointless, but necessary regardless—and yet it makes a lot of sense. Teach what’s on the test. Leave the rest out as it’ll only crowd and clutter the important information.
So our goals, on the whole, differ. Whereas I see it as possible to aim for fluency in two or three years of middle school education, they see that as impossible and instead aim for passing the tests.
I wish my powers of persuasion were better. I hope my level of Japanese is helping to change their minds.
“But learning Japanese is easy. It’s English that’s the tough one.”
I believe that if students get the input they need, focus less on grammar that they don’t want (maybe have a grammar class once in a while where students can ask what they want?), then they will be able to achieve fluency. Not native-levels without a lot of self-study, but good and proper levels of English in two or three years. That “natural English” will help them find the correct answers on tests much faster than the traditional approach of grammar study. Breaking down sentences takes too long anyways—there’s a reason those large passages are the hardest part of the tests. If only they were worth more.
But this approach alongside the grammar study is a little…中途半端. Not enough on either side. I don’t want to distract kids from their grammar, if that’s the goal. As a teacher, if students aren’t getting the results you’re expecting, you look to the reasons. If they see my teaching as conflicting with their ideas, they might see that as where the blame lies in their students not achieving full success. If I’m working with the teacher’s ideas and things aren’t going according to plan, maybe they’ll look at their own techniques. One can hope.
Should I make all my games around error correction and sentence writing (I have some good games, mind you)? Or should I help my teachers to get over their fears and improve their English in a short time, and then use that to get them teaching the students what techniques worked for them in their recent acquisition of English?
My goal is always to help the students, so matter what. That’s the reason I teach. But it’s only dawned on me recently that helping other teachers could have the greatest impact on the students.
I’m an assistant language teacher. Assistant. I will do my best to help my English teachers accomplish their goals. And maybe, if I’m clever enough, I can help change those goals.
Tldr; the problem with English language teachers in Japan is that they teach the same things that resulted in their own lack of proficiency in English.
P.S.: I don’t mean to come across as condescending to Japanese English teachers either. In many ways, I have a lot to learn from them too.
I’ve since written an addendum to this post here.