Friday, June 09, 2006

On Education

Job moans. If you have a job you undoubtedly have some. I have a few but not as many as I would have if I worked in the office of Babylon & Sons mired by bureacracy and trapped in meaningless and trivial relationships with mediocre middle-managers and grey, ill coworkers. I live in Japan for sweet Christ's sake! I am two hours away from Tokyo! If I wanted to I could be in one of the most electric hives of pure human energy in the world in under two hours, and drink, fornicate and cuss as much as I like. In the other direction, if I drove two hours in my beautiful car I would be at the tallest peak of the Japan Alps, soaring amongst the eagles and romping with bears. That's why whenever I have a moan I usually just count my blessings and set about amending whatever the situation may be with cruel & brutal efficiency - because I am a positive aggressive, and not a wimp.

Having said that, I am in the Business of Education and I find it pertinent to share with you some observations I have made since I have arrived here. Firstly the standard of English in Japan is wholly inferior to other countries I have visited. Although this can partly be chalked up to geography and the great difference between asian and romance languages, this hypothesis truly does not cut it. When one considers the Vietnamese and Cambodians whose standard of English is staggeringly high, even mostly without any formal English education, the example of Japan proves a paradox on a planet otherwise eager suckle at the teat of linguistic globalization. So why can't they speak English? English education in Japan traditionally begins at around elementary school level, sometimes even before. The answer partly lies in Japan's resistance to change and also the students reluctance to make mistakes. Japanese society, as is well known is based around the concept of "face" and keeping it. Because making a mistake would cause a student to lose face, most times a student would rather ignore the teacher asking them a question (ie me) than give a possibly wrong answer. This can be seen even in adult Japanese society, when frequently people will just pretend they haven't heard a question when they don't know the answer to it. Japanese students are also conditioned to think as part of a pack rather than an individual, and so when questioned will typically seek to confer with their confederates.

It seems that the Japanese Education Ministry has their work cut out for them. However individual schools, also obsessed with saving face schools buy textbooks so easy that they do not challenge the students at all and actually compound the problem by setting a consistent low standard for the students, all of whom of course pass with flying colours, but choke on their tongues the moment a foreigner speaks to them. The emphasis on rote learning and grammar translation methodology reduces something dynamic to something static. Language is like an equation, and Japanese schools teach you the algebra of it, but not how to add your own variables. Grammar is taught by endless repetition of esoteric expressions, which are unusable in the real world. The structures taught are not flexible enough to be used - what exists is essentially teaching by archetypes.

Of course, students can't learn natural conversational English from a textbook, which is where ALTs like me come in. Or so we are told. In reality, we're here because about twenty years ago some Japanese guy at the BOE caved to American pressure to internationalize their society, eager for a slice of the Japanese bubble economy. I think overall Japanese teachers would be glad if we weren't here, partly because they worry about losing face due to their English abilities, but mostly because the inadequacies of Japan's education system are painfully obvious from the outside, and although for the most part ALTs let them get on with it, sometimes a naive and pesky gaijin will try and shake up the bottle (I'm of course speaking in broadly general terms here, I'm very happy with my English department - they speak better English than me).

In short, Japan is in many ways an extremely atavistic nation struggling to hold on to its individuality and resisting the pressures of cultural imperialism and globalisation, but is also hampered in it's progression into the global world of the 21st Century by it's use of outdated teaching methods and it's unwillingness to treat students as individuals rather as a collective to be molded and sent out into a bog, unforgiving and scarier than expected world with a slap on the back and a hearty "ganbatte kudasai". So the self-defeating attitude of English being "too hard" prevails, while the Japanese economy declines and the Chinese one rises. All I have to say is muri ja nai - it's not unreasonable. If the Chinese and Vietnamese and Cambodians can do it then the Japanese can. However a word of warning - in the English world we have the same attitude to learning languages like French, however we speak English already right? So we don't need to. Well, we'll see. You have no spine, Great Britain.

So I do my part in my own small way, breaking down the barriers as best I can. In recent months I have received a new crop of minds to mold - in my trademark style of course. My opening address to my new first graders ran a little like this: "Ok, maggots listen up. I'm not your grandmother and I won't mollycoddle you like the others. This is going to be difficult but you'll be better off for it in the end. Step out of line and I'll fuck you up like an accident, fool. I know you are allowed to sleep in other classes but anyone is caught doing so in mine I will kick them in the throat and put them in the Boston Crab, just like any mobile phones will be confiscated, just as will any mirrors will be too, partly to help you pay attention, partly out of my own innate cruelty, but mostly because there's nothing less attractive than a girl who wears too much makeup. If you have any questions please address them to the ceiling while you're lying awake in bed tonight wondering what the fuck happened to your life." I am after all in the business of Education.

No comments: