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Sunday, Sept. 26, 2004

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Who knows if it is teaching or torture?


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
I WOULDN'T WANT ANYBODY TO KNOW: Native English Teaching in Japan, edited by Eva P. Bueno & Terry Caesar. JPGS Press, 2004, 252 pp., 2,500 yen, $25.00 (paper).

Tall stories are clearly better than short ones, at least in the world of publishing. A whole industry has grown out of the perceived, often exaggerated disparities between things Japanese and things non-Japanese. Without cultural antithesis it seems, there would be little material for the countless books and articles churned out every year; the gravy train of publishing would soon come to a halt.

I opened the pages of "I Wouldn't Want Anybody to Know: Native English teaching in Japan" with a well-grounded feeling of dread, subjects like this tending to be as dull as dishwater. Contrary to expectations, I found myself enjoying this book, alternately nodding in agreement, taking strong exception to other views and snorting with laughter.

The thirst for English in Japan does not presuppose good, or even willing students, many of whom are disadvantaged from the outset. Having studied English for years in the school system, one that is generally counter-intuitive to the communicative nature of language, foreign instructors, some with little teaching experience themselves, are required to get results. In many instances, universities and private language schools become detoxification centers tasked with the job of reversing the damage done by the education system. This can be an awesome undertaking, as one of the contributors to this collection, the very astute Reza Fiyouzat, points out. Exposing the underpinnings of this wobbly educational construct, he rightly comments that in this system form takes priority over meaningful communication, causing "another essential mechanism" of language learning to be subverted, "that mechanism being the negotiation of meaning."

If the accounts in this book are to be believed, it is the instructors who are often the real victims of this system. Things can get very bad out there, leading to mind-distorting levels of despair. In one instance, one of the writers' colleagues describes a dream in which "she was yelling at a student, 'Blink if you understand me!'

"We all knew where she was. It was not a pretty place. We all lived there."

Not all teachers will meet classes of "dead and expressionless" faces, but some may sympathize with the view that university students have the right "to remain blissfully monolingual." Most Japanese will have few occasions for meaningful use of a second language. English as a tool is often akin to the box of dry biscuits, mineral water and flashlight that are kept in the event of an earthquake: a minimal resource you should have, though you never expect, or hope, to use it. Most students are simply not prepared to have the mooring blocks of their own language kicked from under them, to enter that state of willing insecurity that is a prelude to language acquisition.

Turning away from universities and state schools, contributor Michael Narron finds contentment tending his own little patch of the private sector, rather than trying to change the system. Eva P. Bueno in "A Leading Language School," discloses the methods of a major chain she chooses to call "Blitz." Subjected to the Blitz method, a finely tooled pedagogical machine manual designed to galvanize students into rehearsed responses using questions from work sheets that act as electric prods, the writer discovers that within such a system, nobody is indispensable. Bueno's dry wit and sobering humor save her from being worn down by the withering regime she describes.

If the mood of the Japanese classroom, as the editors claim, is a silence that is "deep, stricken, unyielding," there are plenty of exceptions, particularly in the private sector where students are paying fees where reticence simply doesn't make sense. Many of the best students are the privately motivated kind, those about to face a job posting abroad, those who have formed relationships with foreigners, or older people who view study as part of an ongoing maturation process.

The chapters in this astringently edited book are written by instructors who have clearly thought long and hard about the nature of their work and their place within the system. Whether you agree with all of their views or not, it is good to know that such dedicated educators are out there.

"I Wouldn't Want Anybody to Know" turns out in fact, to be just what you do need to know as an untested, working, or prospective teacher in Japan, or indeed as any kind of newcomer expecting to function within an English-language milieu here.



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