Promote Nichikaiwa (日会話)!

Adam Lebowitz

This year marks, more or less, a mid-point in my life: I have spent as many years in Nihon as I have in my birth country (the U.S.). Personal experience has come to the fore as my main guidance in the L2 classroom. This means that I not only reflect on my path as an L2 learner of nihongo, but also look to others in the education trade. PTA-related activities in the primary and junior high school level have given me tremendous insight into the gakusei brain. Therefore, whenever I face a challenge, I am now more inclined to imagine what a teacher at that level would do, as opposed to delving into the research literature for the secrets of our eminent gurus. This is the spirit of this issue’s column.

Promote Nichikaiwa (日会話)!

Thanks to observing my children’s primary school teachers observed during sankanbi, I have concluded our goal of communicative competence in L2 education is being undercut by a contradiction present in the rest of the undergraduate curriculum. 

I have observed that at least in my children’s schools, the teachers are especially skilled at focusing shônen energy into productive classwork. This is mainly through group-work techniques, and it is pedagogically inspiring. In the public schools, the emphasis on cooperation and interaction between classmates is the engine that drives the curriculum, and the pupils appear to enjoy it immensely. They are active, noisy, cooperative without being obsequious, ready to answer without being self-conscious, and accepting of criticism without being self-flagellating. Most of all, they lack the two primary curses of late adolescence: possessed by keitai, and obsessed by “cool”. Watching the students push their desks into 2x2 configurations is enough to make anyone curse the development of the fixed-desk CALL classroom.

Somewhere between leaving the sixth grade of primary school and entering the first year of university this wonderful base of communicative competence gets short shrift. There is probably not one specific reason: a systematic emphasis on individual achievement through high-stakes testing, a transition to lecture-based teaching, and emotional development all possibly play a role. And here is the contradiction: While undergraduate-level L2 teachers are being tasked with improving communication in L2, it continues to be overlooked in L1. This is especially the case in freshmen and sophomore classes, which again are lecture-focused.  In fact, for these students the only classroom discussion (or essay writing) they experience is in L2 classes. 

If the ability to develop and express ideas is not developed in their other compulsory curriculum, it should not be surprising they are facing difficulties trying to do it in a second language. Therefore, what our students need is not only eikaiwa but nichikaiwa in their undergraduate classes to rekindle that shôgakusei energy. If we were able, then class-based discussions would certainly become more interesting for the students and teachers.