Essays on English in Japan

Systems not skills

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Systems not skillsOne of the greatest failures of the English language industry in Japan is not addressing the complexity of language learning. Leaning too heavily on linguistic analysis, the ESL industry has offered gullible students and harried teachers quick, superficial fixes. What students need is a broader explanation of how to utilize the multiple skills, personal attitudes and ways of thinking that can really help them.

One conceptual framework that can make up for this lack is systems theory. Systems theory offers a new approach to learning English. Instead of just teaching one discrete skill after the next, pedagogy should help students construct a system where those skills function together by supplementing and supporting each other. If students have strong skills, but no system to organize those skills, they cannot do much. It is like a computer with no search function; what is needed can never be found, even if it’s in there somewhere.

The make-it-simple-for-students approach common in the ESL market means that students are never presented with a nuanced understanding of all the active processes necessary for language learning. Publishers promote textbooks that focus on one or two skills while excluding the larger connections that lead to the autonomy of functioning English. Learning a language requires bringing together multiple factors, not isolating single points. Systems theory helps explain how the best students learn.

When I observe my best students, they have good systems. They might have weak skills or sloppy abilities, but they have a strong overall system of learning and using English. The best students can manage many different parts of the learning process. They are great jugglers! The best students do not have one single trick to keep improving their English. Instead, like the old cartoon Felix the Cat, or like Doraemon in Japan, they have a mixed bag of tricks. Students who get stuck at a certain level tend to rely on one single method of learning.

Systems theory explains why these students do well. Systems theory examines multiple loops in multiple directions. In systems, like an ecosystem or the human body, there are always compensating mechanisms and multiple channels of communication. Languages work in the same way, and the language parts of the brain can be helpfully considered as systems. The best students have not just built up skills, but have engineered systems to acquire more skills and use the skills in real-life situations.

That is important because systems are needed to approach real-world situations; skills function only in the classroom. The best students can integrate the classroom skills into a system that functions in the real world. They can write different kinds of essays and speak in different kinds of situations or discuss different topics because their systems are able to function in many different kinds of environments. The flexibility and alternative pathways inside a system are more important than discrete skills in grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation.

Students in Japan tend to be narrowed and pushed towards simplistic and disconnected language skills. That works well for answering exam questions, but fails in the real world. Instead, they need a broader and more varied set of techniques. English education in Japan trains students for solo performances, sitting alone in an exam room, instead of for the noisy, bustling confusion of real-world language use. Systems theory suggests that learners need to position their skills into a larger, coherent mental system.

So, what do the best students have? Their skills are all over the map, and most of them are not within the confines of linguistics or applied linguistics. Here’s a short list of what I have observed from my best students over the years. These are the factors that make up their system of learning and using English.

  • The best students are good communicators. They make eye contact and find people interesting. Language is considered a tool for getting closer to other people.
  • They have a flexible, fuzzy approach to new language. They know that new words or difficult sentences might mean many things. Their system bends to new situations.
  • They have objectivity and a sense of humor. They have a basic interest in languages, all languages. They see language as a game and a puzzle, a pleasure but also a serious challenge.
  • The best students shift between skills. If one skill, vocabulary, say, is lacking, they use their grammar to find the meaning or communicate what they want to say. If their grammar is lacking, they step back and ask a question. If that is lacking, their system allows them to locate another skill.
  • They ask many questions. They ask follow-up questions. This is a way of building up answers inside their system that may be used later in other situations and may help make connections.
  • They are not concerned with being correct and do not feel ashamed when they are wrong. Their system remains open and fluid and does not shut down. They maintain a positive approach with long-term goals. These attitudes keep their system oiled and running smoothly.
  • The best students have lots of little tricks. They have study, and restudy, methods. They have books to look up language points. They have more than one dictionary. They have websites bookmarked. They know reference sources.
  • They go over things in their heads. They have a way of thinking and rethinking parts of the language and the content. This is almost an obsessive quality, a need to repeat the language. Most of them are very introspective, but not in a fearful or shy way.
  • The best students do not separate language and content. They connect it in new ways. They do not think there is one and only one right way to understand, but multiple ways.
  • They make the language personal and emotional. They take what is there and make it meaningful. They do not accept the meaning given by others or the teacher until it makes personal, emotional sense to them in their own way.
  • The best students know how complicated language is. They respect that complexity and do not shrink from it, but instead embrace it.

Traditional linguistic analysis, and its young cousin applied linguistics, has largely failed to provide language learners with ways of developing their own system. A system is a very personal thing. One of the best ways any student can raise the level of their English is by building a good system for learning and for using language. Systems analysis is one way of re-conceiving language learning to allow a more flexible and holistic approach that helps students.

(October 3, 2011)



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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.