October 26, 2007

When Teaching English Doesn't

After much legal and financial writhing about, NOVA, Japan's largest chain of private English conversation schools, finally filed for bankruptcy today. The news brings back memories of the year I spent teaching English in Osaka at a smaller but similarly ethically-challenged school.

Many of the teachers hadn't graduated from college. A few didn't even speak English as their first language (but looked Caucasian). They lied on their resumes and the school looked the other way, or issued fraudulent visas, or let them work on tourist visas. The school went bankrupt at the end of the 1990s. Good riddance.

The problem is, Japanese students get set up for bad English teaching in private schools thanks to all the bad English teaching going on in the public schools.

The panel above is from the manga Azumanga Daiou! Tanizaki Sensei, the high school English teacher, has been upstaged by a student who spent summer vacation with his family in America. "America!" she exclaims. "Jeez, even I haven't been there! We're studying English 'cause it's on the test, dammit!"

The mean, little fact about Japanese education is that despite years of study and strain, the typical hard-working Japanese student doesn't learn English. If you really want to learn English, especially speak English, so the conventional wisdom goes, you must attend an "English school" and be taught by a "native speaker."

Unfortunately, the equally mean, little irony is, students at these English schools don't learn English, either. Observes Mark McBennett, editor of English Language Teaching News, "[V]ery few students who attend the [five biggest English schools in Japan] have a realistic idea of what it takes to actually master a language."

As a result, says linguist Steven Sternfeld, "There is a strong tendency among [students] learning a second language to choose the more difficult and often counterproductive path of language learning." And in Japan, there is a strong tendency for students to pay through the nose for bogus curricula taught by uncredentialed "teachers."

To be fair, many--probably most--Japanese attend English schools with few intentions of learning English. I have no argument with students who attend English schools for the same reasons they might join a country club, except that they have picked an expensive way to entertain themselves.

But for those who wish to acquire communicative competence in the English language, I hope they would take a hard look at the misconceptions about language learning they have acquired, and that are being foisted on them. If nothing else, they should be aware of what they are paying for and at least should be getting their money's worth.

(The Daily Yomiuri is tracking the rest of the NOVA story here.)

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# posted by Blogger Stephen
10/28/2007 11:06 AM   
Well said.