One of the things I like best about English class in Japan is how much Japanese I learn. Like the other day, I was in Nakamura Sensei’s class. He’s the English teacher in my middle school, and his English is arguably better than mine, since he actually knows stuff like what “a pronoun” is. I thought it was just a really excellent noun, like maybe when you take cat and turn it into meerkat, or popcorn into poop corn. Those are great improvements, so pronouns I figured, right? Well, apparently that was the wrong answer to give in front of forty students. Whatever. I still think they’re nice pronouns.
Anyway, after putting me on the spot regarding grammar, Nakamura Sensei went to the blackboard, picked up a stub of white chalk, and with a roomful of kids all looking up at him like Please no more English just let me die, wrote
Then he took a ruler, and carefully drew a red box around the phrase, and finally we all said it in Japanese. Then Nakamura Sensei distributed a stack of handouts, and drew the following diagram on the board.
At which point I felt obliged to mention to Nakamura Sensei that I, in fact, hadn’t brought a bag that day, a detail that seemed only to annoy him. He then launched into an excruciating Japanese explanation about how to construct the sentences, and everybody took notes in Japanese and dutifully filled in their handouts accordingly. This continued for some time, until the blackboard was full of Japanese. I briefly thought of mentioning to Nakamura Sensei that the students had already learned this simple point four years ago in elementary school, but somehow that didn’t seem the sort of info he’d appreciate, so I let it go.
Afterward, we did an exercise where the students rearranged their desks into groups and practiced saying the phrases to each other. Now, that may sound simple enough, but apparently Japanese students require extensive Japanese explanations with lots of diagrams and arrows showing how each person should query the other, so Nakamura Sensei spent ten minutes illustrating this on the chalkboard. Though to be fair, he confused himself halfway through his own explanation and had to start over, so that took some time too.
Finally, we did the exercise and the students got about a minute to speak some English, in between bouts of negotiating in Japanese who was supposed to be conversing with whom, but finally we got it done and then everybody rearranged their desks again and finally Nakamura Sensei did the daily recap in Japanese. I’d long ago tuned out, along with everybody else, and was calculating that we’d spent about 3 minutes of class time on English, which was awesome, because my Japanese was now 47 minutes better than ever.
The Thing about Being a Teacher
Now here’s the thing about being a teacher. You get to stand up in front of class, and everybody’s basically supposed to listen to you. And because you know words like “pronoun” and “the possessive form,” it’s real fun to explain that stuff. You can go on for hours, months, years really, and it feels like teaching. All that imparting wisdom to the ignorant masses. All that ‘splaining things. Then you can test people on all the stuff you said, and provide students the wonderful reinforcement that Nope, you’re still not doing it right.
The Thing about Learning a Language
But here’s the thing about learning a language. There’s a lot of freaking words. I mean, really, just a whole bunch. And lots of different ways of putting words together. Those are called “collocations.” Nakamura Sensei taught me that. For example, you can say, “I’m going to the store. Care for anything?” Or you might say, “I’m heading to the store. Pick ya up anything?” Or probably if you’re me, it would sound more like, “I’ma bust on down to 7-11. Lend me a fiver so I can grabba coupla malt liquors, why don’t ya.”
But in Japan, language learning is approached like you’d approach an equation. You fill in the blanks, add everything up, apply the Pythagorean theorem, and arrive at the right answer. The only problem is that, to put it simply, it focuses on quality, while completely ignoring all the quantity.
This creates the paradox of Japanese English, which is: How can students spend years memorizing vocabulary and practicing conjugation and at the end, still be unable to say one darn thing?
An interesting side note is that they learned at least something along the way—-a valuable lesson from their English teachers, which is:
There’s a right way to do English, and that thing you’re doing, buddy, that ain’t it.
You’re Still not Doing it Right
So really, all this focus on proper form has two impacts:
1. It’s slow and boring
2. It kills students’ confidence
If that sounds like a language class you took, then I think you’re not alone.
Now, I don’t mean to imply we shouldn’t teach proper English. I absolutely believe we should. But we can’t lose sight of the scope of the task. There’s just too much to be learned to get bogged down with every small point. The approach currently being taken in Japan is,
We teach you ten things.
You write those ten things a hundred times, until you can do them perfectly.
Then we teach you ten more things.
And at the end of six years of this, students have several hundred words that they can spell more or less perfectly, and a list of verbs that they can conjugate with close to 100% accuracy. They’ll take tests on their “English” ability, and be able to fill in the blanks correctly. But they’re miles from being able to understand or speak the thousands of words in the myriad of ways necessary to actually use the language, plus they’re petrified of making mistakes. After all, they’ve been taught for years that making mistakes is wrong. And the moment they graduate, the vast majority of them will forget what they were forced to learn, and gladly so.
A Different Approach to Teaching English
So what if we approached language learning differently? Let’s assume that, in order to be functional in a language, you need somewhere around three thousand words of vocabulary, and a few dozen grammatical constructs. I don’t really know what the magic numbers are, but they’re probably somewhere in that ballpark. Let’s also assume that, to communicate, you can be a pretty big brickhead and still get your point across. I thank God for that every day, really. Finally, let’s assume that, in order to really use the language, you need plenty of practice listening, speaking, and feeling the words.
If that’s the case, and I believe it is, then a better approach might be,
Gain exposure to a hundred things.
Play around with those hundred things a few different ways, and hopefully remember about twenty.
Gain exposure to another hundred things.
Because the truth is, if a language learner comes into contact with a hundred things, they’re going to remember some, be able to use some, while the remainder will be forgotten or slightly off. And that’s okay. Let it go. There are thousands and thousands of other things to learn, and you don’t know what will be remembered by any one person, and what won’t. But throw enough spaghetti at a wall and some of it’s bound to stick. So rather than beating people to death over doing a small subset perfectly, the goal should really be to gain exposure to a good 10,000 things, and out of that, be able to utilize any three thousand in some fashion.
The Problem with Practice Makes Perfect
Know how hard it is for a Japanese person to say “broccoli”? Freaking pretty hard. Don’t ask me why, since they seem to do just fine with “daikon.” I think it’s a chlorophyl thing, but I’m not really sure since I slept through Biology class. Anyway, what I see a lot of foreign instructors doing is hammering students on their pronunciation. “No, it’s not ‘blockali,’” they say, “it’s ‘broccoli.’” And they go on and on. Practice makes perfect. Just like the Japanese English teachers hammer students on grammar. And the message everyone’s taking away is,
There’s a proper way to do English.
You’re doing it wrong.
You need to practice the same thing more.
The other approach, and what I’d suggest is, practice a few times, and then let it go. Because there are bazillions of other things waiting to be learned. Move on. Even if you say “broccoli” wrong, well, who cares? Order something else from the menu. How about cauliflower? It’s like the same thing, only in white, plus it’s easier to say. And I mean, how many times in your life do you need to order fucking broccoli anyway? Seriously.
And moreover, people correct themselves naturally over time if they reach the point where they can use the language. Because once learners actually start to have real conversations in the language, understand some of the television, and read printed materials, then that’s the point at which true learning begins. Then through normal usage, they begin to self-correct, if you can get them to the point of being functional in the language.
So what we really should be doing, is helping people to overcome that horizon, where they have enough basic vocabulary and grammar to start communicating, at which point they’ll begin to learn through natural exposure.
Teaching English in Japan
After spending decades and piles of yen teaching its entire population of 127 million people “English,” Japan now boasts about five folks who can actually use the language. Congratulations. So really, it’s hard to imagine how a nation could do much worse. And they’re seriously trying, too; that’s the amazing thing.
But in fact, by focusing so much on proper spelling, sentence structure, and conjugation, the net impact is that many Japanese people are less likely to use English, rather than more, because they realize the chances of screwing up are sky high. To remedy this, what instructors should be doing is encouraging students to try, to make mistakes, and to stop correcting them so much. Just keep introducing them to large volumes of information, and stop focusing on minutia. Or is that minutiae? I really gotta look that up. Eh, anyway, small stuff.
English Class in One Simple Chart
And lastly, let’s circle back to Nakamura Sensei’s class, which could be easily, vastly improved, thusly:
In other words,
1. Make the class about the students, not the teacher. Much good comes from the teacher speaking less.
2. Use simple English in place of complicated Japanese.
3. Don’t explain activities. Model them, and then do them.
Sometimes, it all seems so simple, as if in a couple of short years, the entire nation of Japan could be speaking English. Not perfectly, but they’d be communicating. Just picture 127 million Japanese people, all speaking English. Terrifying, right? Well, you know, progress and the future and all that, so whatever, I guess bring it on. Ken Seeroi for Minister of Education, 2016. Now get out and rock that vote.