How well does something need to mimic the authentic?
The Words We Teach
Recently, I’ve been trying to get as much input as possible from the elementary teachers about what phrases and activities are important in the English-language classroom. I have my feelings and opinions, but also my biases as well. As a native speaker, I want to focus on phrases that are meaningful and—controversially—actually said by native speakers. Not, as some of them would like, phrases that Japanese adults easily understand. “I like cat.” is somehow better than “I like cats.”, the latter being harder to understand. Thankfully, these teachers are in the minority.
When it comes to activities however, many of the teachers have really good ideas. Some have been teachers for a while, which means that while their ability to incorporate new ideas might be weaker, the sheer number of activities that some teachers have under their belt can be staggering.
As for the content, I’ve run into occasional disagreements. For instance, I felt as if the 1st graders and 2nd graders had had enough practice with numbers, but the teacher insisted we do more on it. My mind is set to: “How to we use numbers in a meaningful way?” This teacher was focused on making sure the kids could count in another language, as if it served a good purpose.
Truthfully, this is one of those areas where the information is useless from the get-go. These kids can already count in their own language. Their math will all be in Japanese, until perhaps the university level. And by then, they’ll have years of English education under their belt. But as someone looking to find the practical use of foreign-language numbers for a 7 year old, I have to find something to go on. Some interaction.
In class, we practice the numbers. In the field, we practice the phrases.
“Push me!” a girl shouts in almost-perfect English. She’s sitting on the swing, excited that she just saw me come out.
I start jogging over. “Okay,” I say. “How many times?”
I start to walk away, a little smirk on my face.
“Push me three times!”
“Okay!” I respond, and start pulling the swing back, getting ready for a big push. The girl is beaming.
A few minutes later and a first grader shouts, “Hey! Punch me!” It’s a little game we play. They shout “me” or someone else’s name and I punch that person. It sounds more violent than it is.
Another kid shouts, “Super punch me!” I start chasing him now, fist outstretched. One kid says, “You’re super punch me!” to which I ignore. He’s combining the “You’re angry. / You’re super angry.” And trying to combine it with the punching scenario. Not bad, kid, but you can do better. He hears another kid shout and copies, “Super punch me!” I start chasing this kid now.
Eventually, I get a little tired and decide on a new game. 算数鬼. “Okay,” I say. “What’s two plus two?” I have two fingers showing on each hand.
The first graders look a little puzzled. They’ve done this before, but not recently. “Four!” a second grader shouts. I’ve had a little time to rest, so now I’m rejuvenated to chase this kid. Everyone goes wild. When I need another breather, I ask another problem. Now the first graders are answering too. Some connection between neurons is building.
Classes at Different Levels
When we get back to class, the teacher wants to have everyone holding a card with a number on it and find someone else with the same number. I want them to say “What number?” He wants them to say “何を持っていますか？” We both agree the answer should be in English, otherwise nothing’s getting learned. I’m not opposed to his method. He’s focusing on the value of learning the numbers. The pronunciation. I want a phrase too, but I realize that having to memorize more than the numbers could be distracting. I let the activity go his way. It goes well, but I still think it could be better. The teacher doesn’t look satisfied. But then, he never looks satisfied.
At the higher levels, there’s a greater focus on phrases. This week, the 3rd graders’ phrase was “Where is~?” Such as: “Where is the eraser?” “Where is Momoe?” It’s a useful phrase, as I can use it in the school. “Where is Takumu?” is actually a question that’s worth asking, and knowing how to respond to.
For the 6th graders, the phrase was “Where do you want to go?” from the Hi, Friends textbook. It’s not a bad phrase, as I can ask them about vacations with it. Or dreams, and traveling to foreign countries, for those ambitious few. And when I say in class, “I want to go home,” they all let out a chuckle. The teacher silently objects to me teaching my natural pronunciation of “Where do ya wanna go?” directly, but I don’t let it change how I say it. And the kids learn to say it and answer to it easily enough.
I’m left with a little bit of trepidation however. What if the next ALT after me is from some place that says it in some completely different way? They’ll understand, right? I don’t want to confuse the kids too much, but I do want to give them “the authentic pronunciation”. I consider it, walking back to the staff room from class.
In the middle school, I have a different dynamic. Being in the assistant role, I’m there to help the teacher more than anything. When the teacher says something with a slightly weird pronunciation, I’ll sometimes mimic it if I know what he’s going for. I say “often” and he says “often.” I change my often to his. Offen. Offen. Consistency, after all. Once the students have the initial knowledge, they can build off of that. A stable base makes for a strong house. A muddy base makes for no house at all. Something like that.
It makes me think back to that authentic pronunciation. Is there value in it? Is there value in teaching phrases that native people actually say? Or should we be working from simpler phrases, ones that people don’t say, in order to build that solid foundation?
“I have a game. I have a ball. I have a… apple,” I say, standing in front of the 4th graders. I want people to get the base of “I have a” before I go pointing out that it should be “I have an”. After all, it’s better than their previous “I have apple” that they’ve been saying. Add too much complexity, and the students overheat. Baby steps, even if they’re through mud. At least we’re moving.
The Power of the Non-Truth
I think there’s a lot of power in the truth. That is, of course, some of the foundation of our civilization. That the objective truth is out there and worth knowing. It’s how we hold power over the material world.
But for the human mind, objective truth is often both complex and, honestly, boring. We might learn about all the ways elements interact on a molecular level, which is all—more-or-less—truth. Objective. No feeling. Boring. Useful to the right people in making things that improve our daily lives, sure. Controlling the inanimate matter that surrounds us. But, to most people, boring. Oftentimes people will forget the information unless they’re planning on using it. And don’t bother teaching chemistry and physics to a first-grader, truth or not. It’s too complex to be understood without a lot of background information, even though it is correct information.
But language? Language, which is so devoid of truth, is power over the mind. Everyone can use language. They can use it to represent some semblance of their thoughts. They can influence people by saying things that they know will affect others, true or not.
Books and movies and songs and games all use this non-truth called language to point to the truth. They influence your brain so that you might be more susceptible to the truth. So you care about the truth.
I wonder if this is applicable to teaching, as well. Even if the things you’re teaching aren’t 100% real, they’ll help someone get to reality someday.
We bemoan our teachers for telling us that there were different places on the tongue for tasting different flavors. And for saying that Christopher Columbus was a hero. That it was necessary to drop two bombs on a country that was actually going to give up because Russia was on its way. But didn’t these lies make finding out the reality more memorable? Would we have cared, if the first thing we heard was the truth? Maybe. Would we have remembered? That’s the question.
The fear—and a well-placed on at that—is that you’re just putting useless information in people’s heads. Or worse, that people will stop once they have some information. They’ll finish with the lie and never move on to the truth. They’ll only ever know the lie.
I don’t know. I don’t have any answers.
I have only my thoughts, made of all their powerful lies. With the hope that these lies will eventually lead me to some kind of truth.