Essays on English in Japan

Rules, rules, rules, and creativity!

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Whenever I meet a Japanese person, the first thing they always say is: "My English grammar is terrible." Sometimes, people will chat pleasantly for a while in Japanese, pretending to ignore the topic of English, but eventually, the fateful confession springs forth, as they blush, wincing and wiggling, and confess: "My grammar is terrible." When I hear that, I feel as if the entire English language educational structure is not connecting me to people, but putting up a huge structure separating me from people. Grammar has ruined most of my conversations in Japan! What do they think? I am going to test them? Test their grammar? Right there in the izakaya?


And then when I mention that I am a teacher, nearly all the people I meet always tell me, in an apologetic, pained voice, that their grammar is just awful because they seem to approach every conversation as a grammar test. That always makes me feel like I am some walking English exam. How depressing to be treated in that way, and to be feared I will give them a grade, or judge them or correct some small grammar point.

Of course, no Japanese person would ever say, "Hey, you know, my grammar is excellent. I'm rather proud of how correctly I speak!" Instead they say: "I studied for ten years, but my grammar is terrible." "I always got low grades on grammar tests." "I studied on my own, so my grammar is not correct." I will say, "I was asking about your English, or something else, not your test scores." But they tend to return with disappointment and humility, back to the subject of grammar, as if it explains everything.

Then, of course, they will compliment me on my Japanese. I can never just order a beer without being complimented on how well I order a beer in Japanese. In fact, my Japanese grammar IS rather poor, but I like to talk anyway. It is not that I am so special, or unaware of how bad my grammar is, but rather that I just like the creative side of language more than the rules. I often feel that in Japan, language is thought of as a massive conglomeration of rules and not a creative, passionate undertaking. In Japan, most people are convinced language IS grammar.

This belief is entirely mistaken. Or, let's say, half mistaken. Language has two aspects that work together to generate communication. Grammar is one part of the equation, but the other part is creativity. Grammar is necessary as it constitutes the rules, patterns and connections that make coherence and meaning possible. However, creativity is equally necessary. Grammar without creative force is like a car without gasoline, or without an engine or oil or a driver!

Ironically, you never hear anyone say, "My creativity is just terrible!"
No English class ever starts with the teacher saying, "Today we are going to be as creative as possible." Instead, most classes start with something like this, "Today, we'll focus on the future tense." Rules come first and foremost. Most language classes get stuck on the rules and never advance to the fun part: using those rules creatively. Rules become the goal and main activity of English classes. Rules become the rule.

Rules are easier for linguists to research than creativity. Creativity is very hard to understand and even harder to teach. When linguists research sentences in English, they often select sentences that are related and then ask a native speaker (sometimes me!) about the correctness of the sentences. Here's an example:

How am I doing? vs. How am I not doing?
How was I doing? vs. How was I not doing?
How will I do? vs. How will I not do?

They take a list like this and ask which of these questions is correct or incorrect. They are trying to discover the hidden inner structure of the language. This is a noble pursuit, but not one that fits well with learning. I would not want to stop them discovering new knowledge, of course, especially since linguists are generally nice people, studious, intelligent and logical. When I suggest that correctness depends on the context, or ask for the expected answer, or try to consider the situation, they do not want to listen. They want a rule. For them, all to often, language is rules.

Language of course is a little about rules, but a lot more about creative activity. Most fans know the rules of basketball, but almost no one plays like Michael Jordan. Many people can read music and play an instrument, but not many people are as creative as Louis Armstrong or the Beatles. You have to learn to "think" basketball and to “feel” music, and that requires creativity. Most language classrooms never get past the rules and drills. So, they never get to creativity. They never get to the game.

Of course, we have to know basic structures, like the order of "subject-verb-object" in English, but we also have to create brand new sentences, like "I hate grammar!" If we look at "subject-verb-object" there is not much to discuss, unless you are an advanced linguist. But, if we look at the sentence "I hate grammar," then we think, "Yeah, well why?" or “What else do I hate?” Then, we can have a discussion, or create new sentences like “I hate going to bed early,” in infinite variations. Varying the rules infinitely is what creativity does. Creativity is essential to language, but it’s too often ignored.

Creativity is what makes language float up and take off like a hot-air balloon, while rules are what tether it down. We need both, but in Japan, the tethering rules seem to be the main focus, and done way too tightly, so the balloon never takes off and flies. Rules are clear, neat, ordered and tidy. Creativity makes the classroom noisy, sloppy and hard to test. Creativity is certainly harder to learn than grammar. I guess that’s why it’s ignored.

To increase creativity, it would be better to think of English classes like art. No art class would ever study the brush for two weeks, or study the easel for another two weeks, spend all the time with the rules of painting. Instead, you would jump in right away to work with the brush and the easel and paints, learning as you go. Learning while creating can lead to an understanding of rules later. Over-emphasizing the rules from the get-go stifles and damages the natural creative process. With enough creative energy, even a few rules can go a long way. The focus of language education needs a huge shift away from rules, rules and more rules to the appreciation and use of creative energy.

Creativity is tricky business because it does not fit neatly into lesson plans and into tests that computers can grade. Creativity is highly individual and very unpredictable. Creativity often breaks the rules. That is part of why we love language: it is beautiful and unpredictable. Except for linguists, most people do not love language because of its rules. We love language because it helps us create. Someday, I hope, I will meet someone who says, "My grammar is pretty good, but I am still working on my creativity!"

 

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About The Author

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.