Essays on English in Japan

“Finish.”

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“Finish”

A few years ago, I was in my office at the end of the semester as students turned in their final take-home essay exam. One student, after handing me his final, sat down and asked me for recommendations for summer reading. I printed out a list I drew up several years ago and was about to explain the list and online sites when another student came in to hand in his exam.
He was nervous. I asked him how his final essay was, in English. He said, “Fine.” I asked him if he had any plans for the summer. He said, “No plans.” I asked him if he was doing anything special. He turned to the student sitting down for a translation, got one, and replied “Nothing.”

I blinked for a minute, thinking of an easier question, and then, after my pause, he looked at me, nervously, and said, “Finish?”

Every English teacher in Japan knows the moment when some students want to escape from English back to their own world. But they need the magic phrase that will release them from the pressure of English and transport them back to Japanese. That word is, “Finish.”

The simple word is, of course, a common and polite Japanese phrase, “Ijou desu.” It tells listeners that the speaker is finished with a formal pronouncement and not just pausing, but giving up the speaking turn to the next person. In English, too, people often will say, “That’s all,” or “That’s it for now,” or other polite phrases to signal completion.

But with Japanese students in the context of learning English, “Finish,” really means, “I give up,” “Please let me go,” “I have done what was required and will do no more,” and “I have no more to give.”

Students use this phrase in classroom group discussions, when they run out of things to say, or want to go back to Japanese. It’s like a ‘Get out of jail free’ card in the old Monopoly game, only it’s a ‘Get out of English,’ card.

All of that would be a simple case of mistranslation or cultural difference in conversational styles, but in fact, the phrase reflects disturbing elements in the English study mindset in Japan.

Saying, “Finish,” reflects a deep apprehension about speaking more. The cutting off of further exchange, the abrupt stopping of communicative flow, is not just about anxiety, embarrassment or politeness. It comes more from an overemphasis on correctness. Students worry that if they continue, they will make a mistake. So, it’s better to stop.

Every time I hear, “Finish,” it conjures a nightmare vision of a high school English classroom where students must stand up and deliver the answer correctly or be corrected by their teacher while the students all around them snicker at their failure. “Finish” is the magic word that releases them from that torment and allows them to sit back down, physically and psychologically, into their comfortable Japanese seat and withdraw from interaction.

Language, however, is endlessly generative. The emphasis on correctness in Japanese English classrooms is perhaps the most pernicious and harmful of misunderstandings.

Instead of allowing students to withdraw, they should be pressed to continue. I often think, “No, you’re not finished,” and ask a question, such as “Why do you think that?” or “That’s interesting, tell me more.” Many types of nudges can help students continue. Being able to continue, endlessly, is really the sign of competent language users, not correctness.

The misdirection in Japanese English language education towards the rule-based side of language means that correctness in short answers is more prized than fuzziness in long answers. That means half of the basic nature of language is left out of the English classroom. That other left-out half of language is creativity. Students learn only half of English, the rule half, but fail to ever learn the endlessly generative half. Students need to learn how to create just as much as they need to know how to be correct.

What I notice about the stronger students is their constant feeling they are not finished, and want to keep going. The best students feel comfortable to continue saying more, because they know they have internalized the rules of English grammar sufficiently to maintain a creative, productive flow of language. They never say, “Finish,” but rather just the opposite, they say, “Can I continue?” Sometimes, I have to cut them off in order to let the quick-to-finish students have time to talk.

Students who want to learn English well should reject the concept of “Finish.” Teachers need to learn how to construct activities that continue. There might be strict three-line answer blanks in textbooks and word limits on assignments, but in the real world, language rarely comes to an abrupt halt.

If students can learn, and teachers can teach, how to just keep going, students might make more mistakes during practice times, but they will break through the limits of “finish” and be able to continue to converse, write and use language more fluidly and comfortably. Before learning when to stop, students first need to learn how to keep going.

OK…this essay…Finish!

Now, doesn’t that sound ridiculous?

August 16, 2013

 

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Michael is currently teaching at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan, in the American Literature section of the English Department. More information in the About Me page.