In this issue’s Teaching Assistance, Takuya Mitsushige questions the assumptions of taking a monolingual approach to pedagogy. He asks, “Is it better to use the target language only to teach the language?” Teaching at a language school where students are not allowed to use their mother tongue in class, he frames the issue as a monolingual fallacy. He counters neoliberal ideology that includes thinking of English as an international language, believing in the necessity of English competence for economic success, encouraging the early learning of EFL, and the monolingual approach. He makes this informed judgment by constantly questioning assumptions, understanding contextual meanings, and reflecting on his own biases.
Try Cram School
I’m an English teacher in a cram school and at an English conversation school. These two schools are very different from each other. Many of my students enter my conversation school at the end of the day after they have finished their regular classes at junior and senior high school. Others come to my cram school because they have refused to go to a regular public or private school. It is my pleasure to provide ideas from my point of view on issues that I thought were solvable problems years ago—pronunciation, school English, and translation. These still remain key problems facing Japanese learners of EFL at my cram school and language school.
Pronunciation: In Japan teachers do not teach students how to make certain sounds that are difficult to produce. Without learning pronunciation how can students be understood when they speak English outside of Japan?
School English: Many students think that what they learn in school is the English they can use in the real world. In a test, there is always one perfect answer to a question. Yet, there are usually many possible answers. A typical example is the question: “How are you?” For many students the only reply is: “I’m fine thank you, and you?” Even though they have a headache, cough, or broken heart.
Translation: I believe that no one can translate one language perfectly into another. Even very simple English can be difficult to translate. The real problem is that during face-to-face or online communication, it takes too long to translate. If a listener cannot follow a conversation in real time the communication will be disrupted. For example, usually native speakers say, “I had a dream last night,” but that gets lost in translation when a Japanese English speaker says, “I saw a dream last night.” Some English words have the same Japanese translation such as “had better” and “should.” To a native speaker, “should” is more like a piece of advice such as, “You should go now otherwise you could be late for your appointment.” The phrase “had better” is more of a warning that if you do not do this you will be in trouble. An example of this is, “You had better eat this.”
To critique the pronunciation issue, let’s consider, “What is English for?”
People all over the world know that Japan is an advanced country that sells its products to the world. Japan is also a relatively big market for foreign companies to sell to. The Korean economy is not as strong as Japan’s, and this might be why they seem to try harder. If you want to sell something to someone, it is easier if you speak that person’s language. To sell their products to a world market, Koreans believe they have to study English and also test themselves according to OPIc, a test used to measure oral proficiency.
According to studies by Grin, Sfreddo, & Vaillancourt (2010) in Quebec and Switzerland, individuals’ language proficiency generally correlated with higher earnings, even when the level of education and experience was statistically controlled. In contrast, Kubota (2011) critiques these claims by asking is it English proficiency that promises economic success, or is it economic success (parents’ education, father’s job) that promises English competence?
Students in the countryside where I teach do not feel an immediate need to have the ability to speak English. When I was a high school student, I thought it might be cool to speak English. When I was twenty years old, I started enjoying English and my life took a turn for the better. I can tell now that English can change who you are and allow you to enjoy life fully. Usually, English teachers do love the English language, its history, and its culture. It is not hard to study English constantly and study vocabulary everyday when we love what we do.
To address the school issue, consider, “What is the best way to study English?”
The range in book titles clearly shows that there is no one perfect way to study English that fits everyone. Bookstores in Japan continue to sell many English learning materials with titles that claim, “If you do this, you can be fluent in a few weeks.” But many of my students have difficulty producing a full sentence in English. Some book titles suggest that, “we can speak like native speakers.” If this were true, the English learning market would not have become this big.
To debate the translation issue, ask, “Should Japanese be used in the EFL classroom?”
At the language school where I teach, teachers are strictly prohibited from speaking in the Japanese language. When I abide by this rule, I have observed that some students in my class genuinely look puzzled or sometimes just nod along. I surmise my students are thinking, “Am I the only one who is not understanding the teacher?” I’d like them to admit it and say aloud, “I don’t understand.” Sometimes that does happen, and I write down an explanation on the board in Japanese. And my students say something like, “Aha!”
My hypothesis is that teachers in Japan should efficiently use Japanese in their English language classrooms. Not too much, but not too little. Japanese explanations should be limited as much as possible. There’s no reason for learners to think too deeply or too much about grammar translation.
I believe that high school students study too much and spend too much time doing club activities. When they are in the 3rd year of high school, they take many different kinds of tests and pass unified exams for college. Yet, after the tests, they seem to forget what they had crammed for. In Japan, students are not required to critique what they study. If it is true that students quickly forget what they learn, then cramming for an English exam is not going to help them acquire an English speaking ability. In my school’s curriculum the ability to speak is emphasized, but it seems that my students cannot answer my questions in Japanese, so how on earth can they answer me in English?
In conclusion, I propose a way to maintain motivation and improve our English ability. Taking a test is one way to measure our achievement. Some of my students have achieved a good command of English, but they are not confident enough to use it. On our path to improved English communication abilities, two of the most important questions to answer are: (a) “What have we achieved to this point?” and (b) “What is the next goal?”
Although globalization has been quickening the pace of change in the way I teach English, I believe that 2020 will be a guidepost for English education in Japan to make a revolutionary change and address the key issues that I have raised in this essay.
Grin, F., Sfreddo, C., & Vaillancourt, F. (2010). The economics of the multilingual workplace. New York, NY: Routledge.
Kubota, R. (2011). Learning a foreign language as leisure and consumption: Enjoyment, desire, and the business of eikaiwa. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 14(4), 473-488.