Essays on English in Japan

Dead or Alive

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I am always surprised when my students tell me in an excited voice that they have a part-time job where foreigners stop by so they can actually SPEAK English! It is as if they suddenly realize, while handing over a café latte to some foreign businessman, that English is actually a living language. They were talking in English! In real English!

I then remind them, "Hey, I am a real live human being, too. What do you think we've been speaking in class? Latin?" For some reason, they feel that teachers are not speaking real English, and maybe some of them are not. They believe that teachers' English exists only in the educational realm of English, not in the real world. They seem to feel that English in school is a dead language, like studying Latin or ancient Greek. At best, they'll admit it's like English in a zoo: alive but caged.

I have to concede in large part the students are right. To great extent, English is taught as a dead language in Japanese classrooms. Or rather not dead exactly, but usually frozen. Many textbooks have English as mere words on the page and a strict set of rules, not as a living, breathing means of communication. Even if a short reading or conversation is presented, that is followed by lots of cold de-contextualized language in practice sentences, exercises, and drills. English for most students is not a language that lives, flows and pumps with vitality, but a bland, unmoving, and ice-cold operation. Some textbooks are so cold you need to put on gloves to handle them!

The problem with presenting students with lifeless English is they have to either resuscitate the language on their own through individual hard work or just give up and treat it like a dead thing that can never recover. Most do the latter, sadly. Adding nutrients, water and fertilizer will never rejuvenate language that is already pretty much done for. That is ironic since throughout the world, English is like some linguistic kudzu: it just keeps growing and spreading all over the place, more alive throughout the world than any other language. Yet, English in most Japanese classrooms is less engaging to students than speaking to a customer ordering a coffee!

The focus on structures, tests, drills and grammar is the coldest part of language study. Many textbooks and teachers do present the language in a living, even warm way, but many do too little too late. Life and warmth should always come first, with the cold parts second. Language presented in the context of life is interesting in and of itself. After that hook is in, exercises or structures are easier to manage. When language is rooted in characters, situations, contexts and real exchanges between people, the cold side becomes easier to take. When my students speak with a 'real' person, it is as if suddenly, magically, English leaped off the page into real life.

Classrooms should be real life, too. The living nature of English is a hard thing to get into the classroom, of course. The nature of school is not to look at living entities, but perhaps always to perform a kind of dissection. Good teachers, though, are able to at least create the illusion of life, and the best ones deliver life as it is. Those teachers who do present the language in living forms have done half their work. Once English starts growing in the minds of the students, then, whatever happens afterwards will only help it grow more. Living English is strong enough to resist the dullness of grammar, the stressfulness of exams and the confusion of lost directions. It must be warmly alive, though, first and foremost.

I am sure that every student who reaches a high level has been in a classroom at some point with a teacher who made English come alive. They confess this to me, and often tell me about their favorite English teacher who made the language feel like it was an exciting and vital force that existed in the world. The vagueness about what that teacher actually did, though, makes me think that their favorite teacher's method was more arousing and impressionistic than logical and coherent. That makes sense, too, because the operating system of most young people runs on emotional language. Older students can handle logical structural practice fairly well, but young people need the heat of life to really connect to their studies.

Many good students, of course, know how to make English come alive on their own. They cannot always just wait until they luck into a good teacher. This self-created life comes easy in a technological country like Japan. Technology is one way of sustaining the life force of language. The Internet is an important way of giving English a context, even if it's at a distance. And though TV programs and DVDs encourage a somewhat passive experience of the language, what is seen and heard is at least alive in its own context. Good students start from the living situation and move back to the cold drills as a necessary if uninteresting part of learning.

Almost all good students I know have routines of regularly watching TV shows and DVDs and spending time on the Net. Many of them are obsessed by this, and yet know that just watching is never enough. The crucial part is that they make the language come alive inside their own head. So-called "returnees," have the advantage of being in a country or school where other languages really were alive, so they do not have to work so hard to convince themselves. But, good students who have never been overseas are able to enter into this English-as-alive understanding, too. They are able to create a warm, comfortable space inside their minds where English lives and breathes and sometimes even flourishes.

Living language exists in the world: it speaks truth; it creates ideas; it expresses what people really believe; and most importantly, living people use it in real situations. Living language is always meaningful and powerful. If and when Japanese English classes start to better present English as a living language, the aliveness of the language will take on its own motivational energy.


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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.