Essays on English in Japan

What Uncertainty!

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I used to hate teaching low level English not because it was low, but because I would always have one student in the class who would pester me about grammar. That student, and nearly every class had one, would ask one hyper-logical question after the next. It would drive me crazy.

He (it was always a male student) would want to know the rule and why one rule conflicted with another. He would ask me to repeat the pronunciation over and over. He would search the dictionary and say, “But the dictionary says…” or search his memory and say, “My high school teacher said….” Then, I would have to explain the dictionary definition as well as the real meaning or try to save face for his high school teacher! The other students would sit quietly confused as I stumbled over differences between lay and lie or nuances of conditional verb tenses.

When a student asked those types of nitpicky questions, the entire class would slow to a crawl. Some students wanted certainty and precision, but most just wanted to keep moving. The demand for accurate, clear, exact explanations was infectious, so after one question like that, the other students would start demanding the same. Instead of studying interesting ideas and strong opinions, the class would collapse into a series of test questions. The demand for too much certainty would kill the class.

I could understand their fears and worries, but getting used to ambiguity and confusion is part of what learning a language is all about. After all, English is not so logical and exact as Japanese always hope it will be. No language is. Learning is almost always a tangled, ambiguous, haphazard and roundabout process. That’s not bad, it’s just human. Aiming for certainty in all aspects of language can never succeed.

I'd like to propose that Japanese study English in a more Japanese way. What I mean by study in a Japanese way is to be generally accepting of uncertainty and appreciative of vagueness. Japanese must be one of the most vague languages in the world. That's a compliment not a criticism! When communicating difficult sentiments, uncertainty is one of the beautiful achievements of Japanese language and culture, and valued very positively. Whenever I am conversing in Japanese, I can never quite figure out precisely what people really think. Opinions are expressed with so much nuance that, by American standards, it seems no opinion at all. Over the years, though, I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of that, and the humanness. Uncertainty can be quite helpful, too.

The remarkable indirectness of Japanese communication could be an asset when learning English, or any language. Accepting and working with uncertainty is part of learning. People learn not by following exact steps in precise order, but rather, they learn unconsciously with fuzzy logic and indirectly by following hard-to-predict directions. The famous psychologist William James said, "We learn to swim in winter and learn to ice skate in summer." What he meant was learning is unconscious, unpredictable and never happens at the time we think it will happen.

However, when it comes to English, many teachers, learners and researchers want certainty, and more of it! In Japan, English textbooks, tests, and lesson plans try to be one hundred percent clear, accurate and logical. This hyper-clarity is almost completely the opposite of the natural patterns of Japanese communication. As a result, Japanese do not take a very Japanese approach to English. Instead, they overcompensate by trying to be too clear and too exact in English. Maybe that comes from some stereotype about western communication or from some insecurity about Japanese communication, but either way, it gets in the way of learning!

Despite what most grammar books will tell you, the rules of grammar are not always followed so exactly in English. Just to say that frightens many teachers who want to organize their classes around exactness and correctness. Telling students that a word might have several context-dependent meanings only confuses students under pressure to find the right answer for tests. Saying English is not so exact all the time also probably angers structural linguists who search for inviolable rules of English. Of course, beginning English needs certainties while higher level English can allow more ambiguity, but a better balance is needed at every level. Ridding English classes of the testing mentality is needed, too.

Trying to be too certain about English has several bad effects: First, it sends students back to Japanese for what they imagine to be the exact meaning. Second, they never develop the skill of intuition or guessing. Third, they do not become comfortable with ambiguity. Fourth, it focuses language learning on those areas that are more certain, such as grammar correctness, vocabulary glosses, and simplistic translations. As a result, students get good at the certain activities, like multiple-choice tests, but are not so good at the uncertain activities, like carrying on a conversation or reading new material.

By becoming comfortable with uncertainty, though, people can communicate better in any language. By ‘better’ I mean more emotionally, more spontaneously, and more humanly. Conversations run on fuzzy logic, ambiguous thinking and intuition, not on certainty, precision and exactness. Many students learn to approach conversations like a true-false test. Conversations are not tests; they are important human interactions. When the demand for certainty drives learning, students fail to develop "English Intuition."

Intuition is one of the basic social skills in Japanese, but somehow, it gets left out of most English language classes. Japanese students usually have trouble using English to communicate in real situations because they have trouble with the ambiguity of real language. Instead of memorizing greetings or panicking when they don’t get the exact meaning in a conversation, they should rely on what is one of the greatest of Japanese cultural assets—intuition.

No matter what language we are talking, ultimately, we never truly know what other people really and accurately mean, but that is OK. We have to talk with them anyway. Under these ambiguous conditions for communication, the Japanese sense of uncertainty can be a real strength. Accepting the inherent uncertainty of language allows the impact of natural confusions and fuzzy complexities deepen the meaning and value, and the beauty, of language. Then, language can be appreciated for what it truly is, not swept under the rug of simple certainties, testing mentalities and quick answers to those grammar questions that one student always asks.


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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.