Sunday, November 5, 2000

Reflections on the 2000 JALT Conference

I have moved pretty much out of the language classroom in recent years, and work now either with seminar students in ethics and communication or with graduate students in acquiring the conventions of academic English, a field which focuses directly on the structure of ideas and only indirectly on the English language. I feel like a fish out of water at language teaching conventions, and have for some years. I go more to visit with old friends than to keep abreast of the field of applied linguistics. And I tend to look for, and thus find, trends and fads rather than insight, although I am usually pleased to find that teachers who love their profession always have things worth passing on to others. I also continue to define myself as a teacher, and enjoy the company of teachers.

That may explain why I felt the conference this year was well worth the effort it took to get there, although few of the presentations I attended were responsible for that bright outlook by themselves. Instead, what impressed me was the degree to which the field had evolved a political agenda. The issue of whether to include culture in the classroom, while still debated in a few of the presentations, was effectively overshadowed by the presence of a broad variety of clearly articulated political orientations of both plenary speakers and those who gave small-group presentations. I attended advocacy presentations by David Shea in the rights of minority language groups in Japan to maintain their mother tongue, and by John McLaughlin in the history of unionization of eikaiwa institutions. Plenary speaker Jane Sunderland made a case for critical pedagogies from the starting point of gender. She was sponsored by both GALE (Gender Awareness in Language Education) and WELL (Women in Education and Language Learning), two JALT Special Interest Groups that have been growing steadily. I attended a GALE dinner on Friday night with about 35 others. A third SIG is the one on Global Issues in Education.

A train delay kept me from Gabrielle Kasper's plenary in Pragmatics, which, while I am tempted to say might have helped me see politics balanced off with language pragmatics, actually also indicates that we have long since arrived at the view that language form is less consequential than linguistic action, and that we are in the field of communication and represent world views and use language to influence and be influenced by others.

There was a time when JALT seemed to be almost exclusively populated by non-Japanese teachers of English. This conference was well represented by Japanese, including speakers at many presentations, and one plenary speaker. It would be unfair to generalize from the two presentations by Japanese I heard in large meetings, but if this report is to have any validity, I have to tell you what I heard and saw. One of the speakers, talking on the topic of the Ministry of Education, clearly expressed his dissatisfaction at the level of English he found in students. "How many of you find your students' English level is better now than it was ten years ago?" he asked the audience. He confirmed the negative response with his own findings that at his university, where they have been using the same entrance examination for the past fifteen years (!), the English scores have dropped from 54.06 in 1991 to 42.96 in 2000 in engineering applicants and from 67.99 to 47.18 in International Affairs, a fact which he attributed largely to the switch from grammar-based instruction to an emphasis on oral English! (He did acknowledge other reasons, which I will refer to in a minute.)

More disturbing was the presentation by plenary speaker Torikai Kumiko of Rikkyo University, head of the English Department there as well as advisor to the Ministry of Education. She too cited the dismal level of English ("Some students don't even know you have to put an -s on 3rd person singular!") Discussing her work with the NHK English language program, she revealed her reservations about allowing a program to air which had people speaking English with Romanian, Hispanic and other "non-native" accents. I suppose I should focus on the good news, the fact that the program did air, but I was stung by her comment, "I was not too sure if listeners would want to hear non-native English!" The fact that this view is still prevalent at the Mombusho level indicates how out-of-touch Japan is with the actual use of English in the world and the attitudes of its many "non-native" speakers. Again, I should not fail to tell you her discussion included the awareness that when it comes to modeling English we have every manner of regional variation even among monolingual English speakers. Still, is it accidental that this woman represents both government (the Mombusho) and commercial television? (Never mind that it's NHK; the decisions about what to air clearly indicated they wanted broad-based appeal at all costs.)

The time she spent on the issue must have sounded like the invention of the wheel to most in her audience who have lived their lives with English as an international language, and not the unique possession of a limited number of white folk monolinguals from the US and Britain. I bring this up to illustrate the discrepancy in the political orientation of the speakers at the conference. Ms. Torikai's lecture was completely lacking in analysis. She spoke from the vantage point of a spokesperson of the established order, selecting facts from a standardized history and a government seeking to manage knowledge rather than encourage its creation. And why she took half her time relating the story of William Adams, Ronald MacDonald and other early foreign contact persons in Japanese history, when the crucial question on people's minds had to be what happens now, is beyond me. Her talk was a model of a by-the-numbers presentation of facts, as opposed to a critical analytical contribution to a professional conference.

That said, I must admit that the expectation of critical analysis over presentation of factual information is a preference, and not an objective evaluation. In the facts of Ms. Torikai's plenary lecture was some alarming information. Top of the list is the information that the Obuchi Commission on the state of English in Japan (conflated with a report of the Kokugo Shingikai (Council on National Language Policy)) has agreed they must tackle two important questions: one, the purpose of English language teaching in Japan, and two, the problem of lack of continuity between elementary, junior and senior high school, and college English. The first question comes like a slap in the face. One wonders what the thinking can be (Can you imagine any other nation in the world debating the obvious advantage of foreign languages?) until you realize the battle is between two sides, both of which see language as they see other knowledge, as concrete amounts of information that can be distributed or withheld.

One side, the egalitarian side, wants all students to continue to "receive instruction" as they do now. This, they suggest, will maintain Japan as an egalitarian nation, without winners or losers. The other side, the elite education/specialization side (the choice of words is obviously political here), feels the system is broken and cannot be fixed, and wants to divide English language learners into two groups. One plan for this is the Crossroad Project by ELEC (the English Language Education Council) which would put 90% of Japan's students into "basic level" English, where they would "get basic vocabulary and grammar" in school, while others with ambitions in business and government would study it more seriously in college.

What is disturbing in the presentation of these plans by the ministry of education and by private institutions is the on-going perception that language learning problems can be resolved by the correct manipulation of classroom contact hours, levels of instruction, texts, and teacher qualification. To this day, the larger social context is left virtually untouched, either because people feel they can do nothing about it, or because it is a political minefield, or because (my vote!) they cannot see the woods for the trees.

Not once, for example, did Ms. Torikai mention the effect of the entrance examination system on the attitude toward language as a finite number of facts that can be mastered with students who have the proper attitude toward study. Or the near total absence of non-Japanese people on school faculties and the poor integration of the few there are (a topic of another "political" presentation I attended). No mention of the enormous underutilization of high-proficiency returnee children. No mention of their difficulty of landing jobs, of the handicapping of women in the workforce. No mention of the workforce with years of experience and acquired language proficiency abroad. Instead, we get passing mention of curriculum innovation at the University of Tokyo ("by far the most prestigious campus in Japan") and Keio SFC - again, without analysis or convincing evidence of their effectiveness.

All of this ignores the rich resources of English language knowledge generated by compensatory institutions (juku and yobiko, foreign travel, AFT and other student exchange programs, in-house training programs in the workplace) and informal organizations in Japan which have made English the de facto language of wider communication, with little or no help from government. The rhetoric of the Ministry continues to focus on the management of knowledge by increasingly ineffective and irrelevant governmental agencies.

In another talk about the switch from the grammar-translation approach to the communicative approach, the information was presented that teachers are subverting the effort by supplementing Oral English A and B with Oral English G, with G standing for grammar, the implication being teachers feel correct grammatical usage must be taught by explicit focus. The irony, of course, is that the presenters giving this exposé then themselves reveal they share the notions of the teachers doing the subverting. One presenter gave a list of mistakes made by students and bewailed the drop in standards; and then there was Ms. Torikai's remark "They don't even know to put -s on 3rd person singular!" And they understand that high school teacher-subverters are not villains, but conscientious teachers determined to help their students pass the entrance exam.

The struggle to turn this battleship in the water goes on, in other words. The enemy - the view that teachers dispense knowledge into empty containers - still has the upper hand, all the way from the local level to the Ministry of Education. If you want more proof, there is the second goal of the Obuchi Council Plan - to create more consistency among primary, secondary and tertiary education levels. "You have all these diversified students (sic)," says Ms. Torikai. "…no continuity between levels…so much stuff is repeated." It reminds me of a program director who once showed me a notebook in which all his teachers kept track of all the new words they introduced to their students. "You should do the same," he informed me, ignoring the obvious fact that 100% of my students had had six years of public school English, many more, and included some native speakers of English." Or of the language programs (Rikkyo's, for example,) in which curricula are highly regimented, and language is defined by form, not communicative practice. The view that we can and should continue to control student knowledge with such finely-tuned precision is another enemy that lurks behind the deliberations of governmental boards of education, and people who think not in terms of creativity, expansion, innovation and individual excellence, but in terms of control.

The battle waged between Diet member Hiraizumi, who wanted to switch the focus from memorization of grammatical rules to a focus on practical communication and Watanabe Shoichi who "courageously" (Ms. Torikai's words) defended English as intellectual training, was presented as historical moment. Ms. Torikai's evaluation of the debate was indirect: "Many teachers were taken aback (by Hiraizumi's proposal)." This may explain her failure to mention the entrance examination once in a survey of the entire history and current state of English teaching in Japan. The current discourse on the state and status of English in Japan will no doubt be overshadowed by the dramatic drop in students at the university level.
In his report on Mombusho control of education, Shiozawa Tadashi of Chubu University in Nagoya spoke of "the year 2009 problem." By 2009 it is predicted that the 2.05 million students in university in 1992 will drop to 1.2 million. This leaves universities with only two options evident at present: to go bankrupt and turn the professors out into the workforce at large, or to lower admissions standards. Raising tuition will only help to a degree. Clearly, they are choosing the latter course, as evidenced by professors visiting student homes (Kyoto University) for recruitment purposes to offering travel allowances to high school teachers to outright gifts to student applicants. Schools are lowering, even eliminating, requirements so that medical students are entering college without having taken a biology course in high school, engineering students with no calculus or physics, and some are declaring themselves English majors with no previous English language training.

At the same time, English requirements are being reduced to three hours a week for high school freshmen. While top level students appear to be continuing to study at previous levels, average and below average students (it is not clear how this distinction is being made), according to Shiozawa, studied only 1.8 hours (a day?) in 1995 as opposed to 2.6 hours in 1980, and 33.7% of high school students in a 1998 survey taken in Tokyo say they never study at home at all.

These latter figures indicate that the efforts on the part of the traditional proponents of egalitarian education are going to lose their battle. The Japanese population is diversifying at an increasingly rapid rate. One can only speculate that Japan will move from a more unified egalitarian state with a high minimum standard to become more like the United States, where those at the top have almost unlimited opportunity, while those at the bottom fall through the cracks. Watching the talks at JALT this year, I can't help marvelling at the remarkable ability of many in the profession with tunnel-visioned focus on methods and management to continue to miss the woods for the trees.

November 5, 2000