I believe that Japanese people can learn English.
Just look at the resources available:
- Free classes from elementary school through high school
- Native English speakers flown in from all over the world at every school
- Free textbooks, television and radio broadcasts
- Electronic dictionaries, i-Pods, and cell phones up to ying-yang
- The Internet, social media, Google translate, hundreds of free language learning websites
- Hundreds of billions of dollars worth of English movies, books, games, magazines — with new releases almost every day.
- and so on…
But everyone admits that many Japanese students are failing to learn to speak and use English. What’s lacking then? How to solve the speaking deficit in Japan, which has students graduate from a 6+ year education in English without the ability to speak?
I suppose they could throw more money at the problem…
But then I’m already reminded of the list of English learning assets I just wrote above. You see, we’ve built a luxurious, gold-plated sitting-on-the-King’s-thrown of a river bank, but students just aren’t drinking the English water.
Perhaps we can drill and do more grammar and take more tests…
On the other hand, this lever is like a broken axle: there comes a point where we’re just grinding metal. Students go into a “happy place” where their mouths are moving but they have emotionally disconnected from everything happening to them. Too much drilling and we get automatons.
So, why does the horse you lead not drink from the water? Well, when something’s compulsory (like English ed. in Japan) there is usually just one thing motivating action: fear. Fear of failing, fear of punishment, fear of mistakes, and so on. When’s the last conversation you started in any language where fear was your primary motivation?
I don’t think that fear is going to go away any time soon. But we ALTs can help students by doing two things.
1) Teaching them the “Why”
How much time have you ever devoted to telling your students why a person learns a foreign language? Not just the whole, “You’ll get a good job someday…” window dressing, but I mean telling them about the material benefits of learning a foreign language? Better memory recall, higher ability to learn new information faster, the ability to question ideas and rules, the chance to learn more about your native language, improving scores in other subjects, like math and science, and so on.
If we keep telling students that the “why” of English is because “it’s on the test,” we’re probably not going to change any lives or knock down any barriers for the foreseeable future.
2) Teaching them the “Passion to Know”
Passionate isn’t a word that describes most English lessons. But passion is something that describes a lot of conversation. Just look at even a simple conversation between two of your students during any passing period. They’re all acting out parts in a grand and majestic dance of words — and language is in the driver’s seat. (It just happens to be Japanese language in this case).
Passion is what gets us to ask questions and seek out more resources, more information, more stimulation, more ideas. Moreover, Passion is what drives people to master skills.
I think it’s possible to teach this to students by sharing experiences with them about our own language journeys. I think we can also design activities in and out of classes that generate curiosity and “passion to know” in students. We can do it because we have passion.
I admit that I haven’t done much of this myself because these ideas just occurred to me. But the fact is, students aren’t availing themselves of English in large numbers. Why? Because they don’t understand the “why” and they don’t have the “passion to know” — yet. ALTs can change the whole game if we find ways to teach them that in class and in our daily interactions with them.