Japanese students study English; they don’t learn it

Last Sunday, I attended a presentation in which the speaker pointed out, Japanese students study English, but don’t learn it.

I listed the bad habits I could remember:

1) Take no responsibility for their own learning

2) Don’t use TL for communication

3) Use Japanese for all “real” communication.

4) Don’t ask questions, you’ll look like a fool or a show-off

5) Study English as knowledge for exam.

I asked a class recently to list all the “ingredients” they think they need in order to learn English. “Study” was one, and I was able to get on my hobby-horse about that! “Teacher” was another and it got quite interesting when I asked WHY you need a teacher? “To teach”. “What is ‘to teach’?” “Oshieru”. “And what does that mean?” “To teach”. After going around that merry-go-round for a while, I eventually suggested what I thought he (they) meant: to teach means to explain. The student who had proposed “teacher” seemed to agree that that’s what it meant.

Of course, this makes sense: if English is always a difficult subject then the teacher will always be needed to “explain”: like the priest who must act as (self-appointed) intermediary between God and human beings. My son, now first-year of senior high school, showed me his English textbook: full of complex sentences that even HE has trouble with, like this one: “Will it cause a big change in our understanding of human history, or will it be nothing but “smoke”?” which they must translate into Japanese. There are teachers who choose deliberately difficult texts at university (for instance) because they want to challenge the students intellectually (they say); another reason might simply be this habit of teaching/learning; a further (more cynical) reason might be to justify their position as “sensei”. University entrance exams are another example, I think, of this mentality: the entrance exams usually include texts which are far too difficult for the students. No matter. While no-one has ever given me a clear answer as to why, I sense that part of it is the validity, the “look” of the exam: it has to look hard, difficult. If it were easy (i.e. using texts of a level of difficulty commensurate with the language ability of the students taking it) people would look badly on the school: “is that the level of the English professors at that school? Don’t think much of that!”

What I’m working on now is challenging and changing this habit of study which is “hard” and which necessitates an intermediary expert. At the same time I want to stop them handing over responsibility for their learning to me. Simply pointing out the study/learn disctinction will help, but they’ll still be left with their 6-year-long habit of handing over all responsibility for their learning to the expert. What I’m doing now is exposing students to English using different texts and media of a level of difficult that is well below the entrance exams and more like what they can handle with little or no help, then giving them different activities to do with these materials, followed by a “self-reflection” report in which they include “what did I learn?” I don’t explain things (unless asked) nor do I set comprehension questions. Another thing I do is ask students what they want to do, but most of them are unable to answer this question yet, for a number of reasons. Eventually, I would like to be simply the provider of (or pointer to) sources of English (EFL or authentic), and let students get on with interacting with it.

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