Challenging task-based learning in the UK and Japan

Laura Wintersgill


Laura Wintersgill is a confident, outspoken university student, yet when she was studying Japanese at the University of Central Lancashire, she sometimes felt shy and was hesitant to speak in class. At the International University of Kagoshima, she was surprised by the rigid reliance on learning grammar from textbooks during classroom contact time. In this article for Outreach she compares the way she studies Japanese and Japanology courses in Japan and in the UK, raising issues of her learner identity, reliance on herL1, institutional and classroom challenges, and task-based learning. Interested readers can learn more about these and other issues related to task-based learning from May 19-20, 2012 when members of JALT’s Task-Based Learning SIG team up with language educators from theUniversity of Central Lancashire and Osaka Shoin Women’s University to host an international conference on task-based language teaching relevant to teachers in Asia.


Challenging task-based learning in the UK and Japan

I first came to Japan in 2007. Not one to shy away from opportunities to experience the unfamiliar, I had agreed with my high school teacher in the UK to take part in a cultural exchange program with a high school in Tokyo. Although this first experience lasted only three weeks, I was able to acquire a few basic words and phrases of a language that I’d never dreamed I’d be able to speak. I found the Japanese lifestyle both intriguing and exhilarating. At this point I decided I’d like to study Japanese in the UK and revisit Japan.


The study of Japan at UClan

I enrolled at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) located in Preston, Lancashire along with 32,000 other students from over 100 countries. The university is the fifth largest in the UK in terms of student numbers. I chose to major in the Asia Pacific Studies program. In addition to learning the Japanese language, I studied Japanology, a term used in Europe to describe the academic field of historical and cultural study of Japan. I enrolled in various social, political, economic, and cultural aspects of the Asia Pacific region for two years. During my third year, because UCLan has an international exchange agreement with the International University of Kagoshima (IUK), I traveled to Japan with two classmates to study Japanese as international students for one year.


Learning Japanese in the UK

Japanese language classes at UCLan employ a fairly task-based teaching style, in which we are presented with a scenario and allowed the linguistic freedom to explore it and experiment with various ways of using the language to complete the task. Students use language learning textbooks, however, they are usually required to have read through the grammatical explanations and have completed relevant exercises prior to attending classes. Our classes are a blend of both the English and the Japanese languages, and include a thorough explanation of new and unfamiliar grammar in English. During class time we are usually encouraged to use recently acquired grammar, but often we are provided with scenarios in which it would not be appropriate, forcing us to recall and put to use previously learned language. This is consistent with Swain’s reasoning that, “[I]t is while attempting to produce the target language (vocally or sub-vocally) that learners may notice that they do not know how to say (or write) precisely the meaning they wish to convey” (1998, p. 67).

Confident and outspoken in my first language, I’d always assumed that my identity would be mirrored in my second language. However my time studying Japanese at UCLan showed me that this was not the case; I felt shy and hesitant to speak, convinced that should I attempt to converse I would make too many mistakes to be considered even remotely coherent. So often, if given the choice, I opted not to speak at all. I came to realize that I am heavily dependent on English as my first language, and the moment that I am faced with a particularly challenging linguistic scenario in my second language, I tend to revert back to my L1 or fail to speak at all. At UCLan, students are carefully monitored by the department, and progression occurs only when the teachers feel that the majority of the class has comfortably mastered the provided material. We were tested on a regular, often weekly basis, in order for the teachers to track our progress and recognize any weaknesses with our ability to communicate. Upon completion of two years of study in the UK, with some trepidation, I was looking forward to seeing how well I would fare in Japan.


Learning Japanese in Japan

My new life as an exchange student in Kagoshima was not an immediate magical solution to my shyness to speak a second language. Initially I found my study abroad period to be quite overwhelming. Everything felt fresh and exciting and I was desperate to experience all of it. Suddenly everyday tasks such as withdrawing cash from an ATM or checking a timetable became linguistic and social challenges. 150 students from China, Taiwan, Korea, the US, Canada, and the UK study at The International University of Kagoshima, but I am one of only four international exchange students at the university to have come from outside of Asia. Therefore information and assistance is rarely available in English. This gave me little choice but to try out my Japanese language skills in order to facilitate my daily life.

The Japanese language modules at IUK differ considerably from those I took at UCLan where I relied on my first language and hesitated to fully adopt a second-language identity. In Japan we are taught entirely in Japanese, although some of the textbooks do offer marginal sections of English grammatical explanation and vocabulary lists are provided. I was therefore more than a little nervous about the prospect of starting Japanese language classes in an environment where English is never used. What I did not expect was how quickly I would adapt to this new academic environment; I found that my comprehension skills improved rapidly, with both the spoken and written language becoming increasingly clear and easy to understand. Because the primary purpose of my study abroad period is to increase fluency, I signed up for Japanese language modules 3 hours each morning, 5 days a week. The number of contact hours at IUK is much higher than at UCLan, which I think has been of integral importance to my increase in understanding and proof of the effectiveness of language immersion.

Japanese teachers at IUK use different methods than what Japanese teachers used at UCLan. What I found most surprising in Japan is the rigid reliance on textbooks during classroom contact time. The classes in Japan are based almost entirely on completing textbook exercises. Sometimes task-based exercises are employed and we are encouraged to discuss various topics introduced by the textbooks or to practice scenarios that we might face in day-to-day life in Japan. However, often the lessons are focused entirely on the grammar and vocabulary of a specific chapter, and due to the speed in which we move through the books, I find it highly challenging to retain such a large amount of language on a day-to-day basis. Also I have found that such reliance on textbooks during class contact time often results in us simply reading the correct grammatical formula and switching in appropriate vocabulary rather than effectively learning the new forms and experimenting with it in natural conversation.

One aspect in comparing the Japanese language courses that I am most certain of is that the pressure to improve on language in my classes at IUK is great. There is an amazing intensity in our studies at IUK that I had not previously witnessed within the UK. At IUK the general feeling among students is “keep up or you risk being left behind.” Although this can be intimidating, I believe that it provides the pressure necessary for me to boost my language skills and to finally break through my hesitance to speak and begin to converse confidently in my second language.


Japanology classes offered in English in Japan

Wanting to experience more than just Japanese language classes, I enrolled in courses about Japan that are taught in English, including an international haiku course. Japanology is the study of language, history,art, music, literature, and haiku. Its roots canbe traced back to the training programs offered by the Dutch at Dejima, Nagasaki in the Edo period.The experience of studying about Japanese culture in English with Japanese and non-Japanese students has been deeply beneficial and rewarding for me. Due to the vast number of international students in attendance at UCLan, it was by no means the first time that I had sat in class with non-native English speakers. It was, however, the first time that I, by being a native speaker of English, had been a part of the minority. The haiku class consists largely of Chinese students and also a number of Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese students.

The international haiku class is task-based. Each week we are provided with a theme or topic on which to focus our submissions. We engage in goal-oriented activities with a clear purpose. The teacher explores a topic such as death haiku. We learned that these are poems written at one’s death bed. At first we are assigned readings in haiku books. We review haiku that have been written by students in previous years. In a small group we are given the task of writing a poem as if it were our last day on earth. We share our poems then read them to the class. A follow-up language focus examines new vocabulary, season words, phrases, syllable counts, and poetics. At first many of the students seemed quite shy and reluctant to share their compositions, perhaps doubting their English language ability and afraid of ridicule in front of native English speakers. But gradually, as the weeks progressed, the confidence of my classmates grew. I found myself being increasingly approached both during class time and outside of it and being asked, in English, for advice, assistance, or simply for my opinion on the meaning of a particular haiku.

Often language classes focus largely on accurate grammar, which can be both daunting and challenging for students especially when it comes to presenting their work publicly. Haikuin English is not so rigid, it does not demand complex grammatical forms, and students do not have to concern themselves with the likeliness of providing a wrong answer. Instead the simple rules, which include sticking to a less than seventeen syllable format, preferably 3-5-3 or 5-7-5, and the inclusion of a season word to capture the essence of the moment that they are trying to portray, allow them to experiment with the language that they do know, and encourage them to build on their vocabulary. In designing tasks, the teacher’s goal is to assist students to create haiku in English that are recognizable forms without being overtly structure trapping, that is, without specifying a particular language form in advance (Skehan, 1998). At times the teacher of haiku in English asks students to shift from thinking about the meaning of a written poem to focus on form (FonF) when there are problems with comprehension or production. In class, students are asked to focus on the meaning of the haiku, sometimes sketching a picture of the images they can perceive. Willis and Willis (2001) have criticized meta-communicative tasks, tasks focusing explicitly on a particular form, as not being tasks in their own right as meaning is secondary. I think this shows what a valuable tooltask-based learning is when it is used to teach the art of haiku in an English language classroom.


Future tasks

Upon completion of the Japanology and Japanese language modules this semester I hope to enroll in classes intended for native Japanese speakers in order to keep challenging myself and improving. I trust that such a move will be as daunting and exciting as all my previous experiences.



Skehan, P. (1998). A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swain, M. (1998). Focus on form through conscious reflection. In C. Doughty & J. Williams (Eds.), Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition (pp. 64-81). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Willis, D., & Willis, J. (2001). Task-based language learning. In R. Carter & D. Nunan (Eds.), The Cambridge guide to teaching English to speakers of other languages (pp. 173-179). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.