Essays on English in Japan

The Japanese Undertow

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The Japanese Undertow

What often happens in my discussion classes is this: students start out enthusiastically with their brains in full English mode. They take the discussion topic and run with it. They assemble their opinions, order their ideas and find ways to converse and explain in English. At first, students always leap into discussions with enthusiasm, energy and an unspoken, “Ganbare!” attitude.
At the beginning of discussions, I’m always impressed. The classroom walls echo with the rhythms of English. Students sit up straight and look others in the eye. They speak strongly and clearly, and are visibly proud of what they are doing—discussing tough topics all in English.

I say to myself, “Wow, great!” and “Listen to that!” as I join the discussions with them.

But then, after a half hour or so, the gleeful roar of English slows and the class energy diminishes. After a quiet pause or two, the volume of student voices starts to drop. Students slouch in their chairs. They are embarrassed to return to Japanese, but do it anyway. Gradually, ever so steadily, the pull of the mother tongue exerts its overwhelming force. Before I know it, the discussion groups have returned to Japanese.

I call this “the Japanese undertow.” It is different from the undertow at a beach, though. The Japanese undertow pulls students back to their comfort zone, the Japanese mother tongue, not into dangerous territory farther away from shore.

The Japanese undertow is a powerful current that runs under everything that happens in English classrooms. Students are taught early on to translate English to Japanese and have accepted the belief that English lies on top of Japanese. It is a kind of mask that can be put on for brief periods of time, but is not their real face. Students seem to believe they can swim around on the surface of the English waves, but eventually must always return to the safety of Japanese.

When the Japanese undertow takes over, I rush around trying to rekindle the English flames. Students listen and speak to me in English, but as soon as I stand up and move over to the next group, I hear the rhythm of discussion change behind me, and the murmuring of soft Japanese.

I have tried many tricks over the years to keep discussions completely in English: fining students when they speak Japanese (100 yen each time), yelling "Speak English" in a loud voice, pointing my finger at offending students to embarrass them, and explaining over and over the importance of thinking in English.

None of these has ever worked very well. The undertow is too powerful for most students to resist. They must feel that they have only twenty minutes of English in them. They are sprinters, not marathoners, of the language.

Lack of stamina is only part of the reason. Students are almost always their own worst critics, and they want to speak perfectly, brilliantly, and wonderfully all the time. If it’s not perfect, they will just return to Japanese where they can say it perfectly. They would rather be perfect in Japanese, than to try in English. They do not have the idea that discussion is important practice to build up the “English muscle” in their brains. They believe everything is a final test and that every word will be graded.

Sometimes, of course, students return to Japanese because they are excited and enthused about the topic and want to say more and more. That is different. Students can be starved for a chance to express their ideas and feelings in any language and get carried away into the flow of communication.

In that case, though, the stream of Japanese runs parallel to English and students often search for ways to put their ideas back into English. The forward momentum of the discussion continues with only a brief sidestep into Japanese before returning to English. That, of course, is fine. What is not fine is to give up too quickly trying to express oneself in English and return to Japanese just because it is easier.

The pull back to Japanese is a powerful force. The power of the mother tongue in Japan is often too strong for students to resist. Teachers set the pattern by translating for students in beginning classes or in situations when someone does not quite grasp the question. Students affect each other, too. When one student returns to Japanese, they all do.

But, in order to really learn English, students have to learn to resist the Japanese undertow. Many students who grasp the importance of this exile themselves by studying abroad. There, they cannot fall back on Japanese and must engage only in English. Perhaps the main reason studying abroad helps students is they break their reliance on the translation habit and the cushiony backup of Japanese.

Students escape the “finish” mentality anywhere, though. They just have to work at it. Students want to stay in English, but powerful currents drag them far away before they know it. Only the strongest students ever learn to swim against the undertow all on their own and stay afloat in English. Learning to resist the undertow, to swim against that force, is one of the essential keys to learning English.

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.