[EDLING:1673] Japan: Get students' minds into English

Francis M. Hult fmhult at DOLPHIN.UPENN.EDU
Fri Jun 23 02:14:37 UTC 2006

Daily Yomiuru Online


The Practical Linguist / Get students' minds into English

Marshall R. Childs Special to The Daily Yomiuri

One reader complained: "You call yourself practical but then you give 
generalities as advice. You say to teach language for communication rather 
than for memorization. Give us a 'for instance' now and again, would you? What 
can we do in the classroom other than explicit PPP (present, practice and 

Describing practical activities is a worthy purpose. Today and next month, I 
will write about some classroom activities that are useful for getting 
students up and running in a language. 

The most important activity for students is to communicate with real people in 
English. This is not an easy activity to bring about in Japan, but giving up 
on it is not the right reaction. A creative teacher can cause it to happen in 
several ways, beginning by speaking English casually with the students 
individually and in groups. 

Visitors to the classroom, including assistant language teachers (ALTs) should 
be encouraged to chat with students (not to make speeches). Chatting is an art 
not always easily learned by visitors. Japanese students must take care about 
the repercussions of their words on classmates, and the visitor must learn to 
stay in a safe range. With a little encouragement, students can lead 

It is particularly hard to get students to talk with classmates, especially if 
they remain in character as Japanese people, for then the Japanese language is 
naturally preferred. The remedy, of course, is to get students to assume the 
roles of imaginary characters. Then they are relatively free to allow their 
natural creativity and humor to come out. 

There is a lot of English in the world and rather little in the classroom, so 
the teacher's job is to break down the classroom walls. Invite guests into the 
classroom and have them interact with students. 

Make some use of short, comprehensible videos, to the extent that you can find 
them, but remember that comprehensibility is measured in terms of situations 
rather than simplicity of language. For our students, an English interview 
with a member of a popular group like Def Tech is likely to be highly 
memorable although not simple. 

Get students to reach beyond the classroom walls by communicating with English 
speakers in the world. Teachers can help set up messaging by e-mail as well as 
snail mail, perhaps by setting up a pen-pal relationship with a classroom in 
another country. Another activity, writing letters to celebrities and 
receiving responses and pictures, even from their secretaries, is highly 

Outside school, students need to be "high input generators," to find English 
and put themselves in situations where they will have to use it. Teachers can 
encourage students to understand what resources are available and what lies 
within their power. 

An English teacher told me about one of his second-year high school students 
whose English is unusually good although she has never been outside Japan. She 
explained to him that she likes to paint pictures. She goes to a certain park, 
sets up her easel and paints--and English-speaking people come to talk with 
her. The park is a regular stop for tourist groups, so a half-finished 
painting on an easel is a magnet for attracting English speakers from all over 
the world. They usually start by saying, "What a pretty picture," or something 
like that, and a conversation naturally follows. 

At home, students can take advantage of video and audio recordings. Listening 
to and watching these is, at first, a purely passive experience. But with 
repetition, they become meaningful personal experiences and enter the 
student's active repertoire. Students find themselves singing along with songs 
and saying the words along with movie actors. 

One of my students had very good English, so I asked her how it came about. 
She explained that she met an American whom she wanted to marry, so she needed 
to have good English in a hurry. She watched the movie Shrek about 30 times, 
and at the end she could say the words with the actors, striving for their 
delivery and feeling--and she had at her command all the English of the movie. 

Of course I would not recommend Shrek for everybody because of the difficulty 
of its many accents, ironies and in-jokes. The point is, however, to choose 
whatever turns you on, and that is different for every person. Anything goes, 
because a learner does not have to tell anybody where he or she got a high 
level of English. 

In an episode of the cartoon series Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson, 
Calvin shows his father his school report card. His father complains about the 
low scores for reading, saying that at home Calvin reads every book there is 
about dinosaurs. Why can't Calvin read that well in school? Calvin's answer 
is, "In school, we don't read about dinosaurs." 

Language is stored in the memory in accessible detail if it enters the mind in 
richly meaningful situations. For our students, dinosaurs will not do the 
trick, nor will most of the tame situations we find in textbooks. Instead, we 
must find our own ways of bringing immediacy to the classroom experience. 

What are our middle school and high school students interested in? To begin 
with, their interests include sports, popular music, and famous people who 
appear on TV. How many teachers could pass a test about the cultural icons 
important to their students? Not very many, I think. And yet, if we want our 
students to feel a sense of immediacy, we might make an effort to know what 
they are excited about. 

Puberty and adolescence are the key events in our students' lives during their 
secondary school years. They are preoccupied with their changed bodies and 
feelings, and with finding identities and friends in this new environment. You 
know, and they know, that not everyone grows up to be attractive, heterosexual 
and well-adjusted. 

Just as Calvin wants to learn about dinosaurs, so our teenagers want to learn 
about themselves in their new social environment. The general attitude in most 
schools is that these issues are too hot to handle, and so they are ignored. 
But we are teaching language, and language is the very best tool for dealing 
with complex ideas and emotions. We should present materials that help our 
students with their own problems. 

In the movie Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams, as the new literature teacher 
in a boys school, asks "What is the function of language?" 

One boy suggests tentatively, "Er, communication, sir?" "NO!" Williams 
roars, "The purpose of language is to seduce women!" In the boys' minds, that 
puts a whole new light on it. 

Content (the ideas focused upon) should be the way in to the language, 
necessitating and integrating all the several modes of reading, speaking and 
so on. For our adolescents, content with high immediacy is necessary. 

If there have been incidents in a school that are worth addressing, the 
incidents can be topics for discussions and papers. English is a good language 
for doing this content activity because it lends an air of objectivity and 
even permission to talk about things that might not be so easy in another 

If there have been no recent incidents, you can base discussions on ever-
present issues using such sources as the magazine Psychology Today and 
Internet sites. You can set up dramatic situations and ask students to write 
dialogues and act them out. I find that it helps to use names of real students 
when the situation is nonthreatening. Fake names are best when the subjects 
are sensitive or the issues too close to home. 

Our underlying goal is to help students take a personal interest in, and 
personal control of, their language learning. Next month I will give more 
examples of useful activities. 

* * * 

This column is intended to improve collaboration among those interested in 
language teaching in Japan. Send e-mail to childs at tuj.ac.jp. The column will 
return on July 21. 

Childs, Ed.D., teaches TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) 
at Temple University, Japan Campus. 

(Jun. 23, 2006)

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