Essays on English in Japan

Unconscious English

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I’m sitting on my back porch on a sunny Sunday afternoon talking with two of my students who went overseas after they graduated. I had not seen them since they graduated, so they were both anxious to tell me everything that happened to them over the last couple years. They spoke in much, much better English than when they were in my seminar. One of them had become a volunteer helping to build projects overseas with young people from all over the world. The other had quit his boring computer job after a year and taken off for Canada to study English.

Neither one of them had been such a great student, honestly, during their time at college, so amid the general surprise of their newly fluent English, one comment of theirs struck me in particular. The one student who went to Canada said,  “I finally started to dream in English.” The other student chimed in, “Me, too! One day, my roommate said I was talking in English in my sleep! I knew I was learning English finally when I dreamed in English!”

They dreamed in English because they had put themselves into situations, studying overseas and volunteering abroad, where they had to use English all day long. But, it was at night that their English formed itself into a complete part of themselves and worked its way into their dreams. Dreams, of course, work with the unconscious part of the mind, and it is there that true learning of any skill, subject or area takes its deepest roots. Most English teachers try to get students’ conscious minds working, but the unconscious mind is much more important for complete learning to last.

From time to time, I have dreamt in Japanese, or Chinese or French. Often, when I am using Japanese a lot during the day, some Japanese will end up in my dreams that evening. When traveling in another country, too, I quickly start to dream in that language, even if it’s only a few words. I always take that as a good sign that I’m adapting, even a little bit, and processing the environment and language around me. The dream shows that the language is becoming part of me.

The unconscious mind is a powerful tool, though education rarely gives it sufficient attention. Although the unconscious mind was described over a century ago, it has not been well understood and only rarely considered as important in the classroom, even though its creative potential is much greater than the conscious mind. In the past decade or so, though, many more psychologists have started to study the unconscious to understand its importance in human life. What they have found is that for learning anything, including language, the unconscious mind contributes greatly. It is a vast reserve of energy and creative power.

Numerous scientists, scholars, writers and artists all use their unconscious mind to understand and create. The most famous is the discovery of the double helix structure in a dream. Two scientists, Francis Crick and James Watson had worked on the problem of DNA structure for many long years. Finally, Watson dreamed of two intertwined snakes, a symbol that had been common in ancient cultures. Upon waking, he realized that DNA is made of two intertwined strands. His unconscious mind taught his conscious mind! Of course, that dream could only have occurred after lots of conscious work, but it was in the unconscious dreaming mind where the final connections were made.

For learning any subject, this is often the case. The final steps are brought into unity and clarity through a sudden insight, unexpected inspiration or daydream realization. Students can remember stories, visual images, and emotional phrases more easily than grammar patterns and dry explanations because they speak to the whole brain, not one limited part of the brain. An overly logical approach to language structures keeps English from soaking into the unconscious brain where it can be converted into a larger whole. All too often, students end up with pieces, but they don’t fit together.

Educational psychologists and neurological researchers now know that different brain functions occur on different sides of the brain. The left side of the brain is logical, sequential, rational, analytic, and objective. That is not a bad place to start for learning, but the other side is equally important because it is where another aspect of learning takes root. The right side of the brain is in charge of the larger whole, the big picture. It works in a more random and chaotic fashion, remaining intuitive, holistic, synthesizing and subjective. It is where the pieces are brought together into a whole.

Considering these two sides of the brain, it’s easy to see that the system for studying English in Japan is almost entirely left brain oriented. Students work on grammar for tests under pressure. Those are all left-brain concerns that emphasize logical thinking, analysis and accuracy. Most students in Japan do not dream in English because the right brain’s processes are not sufficiently enacted. That happens easily overseas, simply through constant use, as my students excitedly told me. Dreaming was a sign that a larger unity was being established in their mind. That rarely happens when cramming for a test, though students might dream about their test anxiety.

English classes in Japan almost never even begin to approach the right brain. The emphasis on testing, grammar and performance means that students end up with a very lopsided and imbalanced type of English. When the important right-brain activities that focus on beauty, feeling and creativity are left out, a larger whole, a kind of unconscious pool of English, can never develop. The right brain must be utilized in order to create a larger unifying framework. Students have the pieces of the puzzle, more or less, but they do not have the creative know-how to fit them together.

Teaching should aim at both sides of the brain. Knowing English logically and structurally is quite different from knowing English intuitively and creatively. The unconscious mind is the most tremendous asset students can develop. What was interesting about my two students is that they were not such great students from the school point of view. What they needed was a different approach from school. They needed an environment where English could soak into their unconscious and tap its creative energy. They needed their right brain to be activated in order to learn more completely. When that happened, they dreamed!

Like many students, they survived years of schoolroom emphasis on grammar and testing, but their preferences for learning led them towards a learning situation that was more whole, human and creative. They did not just want to dream about English, they wanted to dream in English, to have it be part of their inner mind. To do that, they had to take their right brain and unconscious mind away from the conscious, left-brain schooling of Japanese English classes. After they left that day, I wondered what dreams they had that night, and whether, after talking to me in English all Sunday afternoon, their dreams were again in English. I guess they probably were.



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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.