Assistant Language Teachers in Japan getting the raw end of the deal

Being an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) in Japan used to be a prestigious job. It was government funded with high infrastructure and support. But since the mid-2000s the government had started to source for teachers from the private sector.

During its heyday an ALT would earn a minimum 300,000 yen (USD2,639 as of writing) as the basic minimum wage. Somewhere along the way the government had discovered that it was cheaper to outsource and that people were willing to work even at this low salary.

But what happened then is that the quality of the teachers employed dropped dramatically, leaving schools to pick from a smaller and below average pool. ALTs were from the beginning not good anyway, as they were never qualified to be teachers in the first place. A bachelor’s degree is all you need. In this sense, then, the salary reflects this. I do not think some ALTs are worth the original pay minimum because they were not qualified to even be assistants. Their area of study was not that of English. What qualified them was that they were native speakers and nothing else. Most had zero training and even if they have an interest in the English language their competence is not that high.

Below is a video which explains just how much an ALT can have on a months salary at the current pay level. I feel for them on this one.

Mental processing speed has gene link

A recent study has found that the gene CADM2 affects people’s ability to process information in later age. In other words some people are naturally born to be quick thinkers. This idea potentially has implications on learning and why some people are slower at the task. 

In my opinion both nature and nurture are mechanisms necessary for survival and evolution and that what we start with (the nature) is important but it is not as important as what we try to do with it (nurture). 

Are dialects worth learning?

If you want to learn and to know a language and culture better, then yes. 

Dialects are really subcultures. So learning them means you understand a subgroup of people better. 

And contrast that with the main culture and you will understand the people and overall language a whole lot better. 

It is a win-win situation for your learning. 

Grammar: one word, two systems (morphology and syntax)

This is a post comes from an answer I gave to a question on Quora. It sums up my definition of grammar so well I felt it was worth reproducing it for you here. 

Question: Are there any explanations of grammar available that don’t use technical words?

Words are words, technical or not. 

Here is how I got through grammar. 
 
Firstly, there are two types of grammar in terms of what they aim to explain – Morphology and Syntax
 
Morphology is about how words change (morph). Syntax is about how words work in a sentence. 
 
Morphology revolves around terms like:
  • Noun
  • Verb
  • Adjective
  • Adverb
  • Pronoun
  • Preposition
  • Determiner
  • Conjunction
 
Syntax revolves around terms like:
  • Subject
  • Verb
  • Object
  • Complement
  • Adverbial
 
Note here that verb appears in both morphology and syntax terminology. Therefore there are two meanings to verb. In morphology a verb is how it changes to make, for example, tenses (past, present or future). In syntax it is how it describes what the subject is doing (and whether it is affecting an object or objects). 
 
Keep these two groups of grammar separate and you will master grammar, particularly when it comes to the meaning of verb when you hear or use it. 
 
:::.:::.:.::.
A further note, these minimum number of terms have been enough to get through understanding grammar. The biggest issue is to understand that grammar is a term for the two systems of morphology and syntax. 

The system of a language

When a Japanese says he can’t understand why English will differentiate between singular and plural but won’t differentiate between older and younger sister (like the Japanese language) then I could say the same thing about Japanese not differentiating between singular and plural. Circular argument.

A language must “decide” on what to emphasise due to language resource limits. It can’t do all work like some kind of Jack-of-all-trade. The interesting thing about language is which things in communication it decides to highlight. The singular is emphasised in English. Relative age is emphasised in Japanese. That reflects on the culture. So whether the culture or the language came first is as impossible to answer as the chicken or egg question.

20,000 English teachers for Japan by 2019

The Japanese government is planning to increase the number of Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) to 20,000 by 2019. Although the acronym stands for any language by and large English is the only language that is taught in schools in Japan. Outsourcing has been the trend of late but this may mark the return of government-based selection as was the norm until the early 2000s.

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Source: today’s national English paper.

My doubts about formal grammar

There is something very similar to the chicken-or-the-egg question about formal grammar in which meaning is ignored and only the formal properties of the string is discussed.

But would that string exist without production of meaning, without the communicative desire to impart something in an instance of existence?

This is also like asking what is the meaning of life as if life needs to have some universal meaning or purpose before life can arise. There is something a priori about this logic.

This is where Chomskyan linguistics, to me, fails to convince – that there can be an explanation of language without meaning. Whether it be a word, phrase, clause or sentence there will always be two sides to a sign (in the Saussurean sense). Phoneme and basic-unit phonology are different in that they are the building blocks of language and not invested with meaning.

By looking at language and variation in the system is a mathematical exercise that cannot explain the inherent meaning of utterances (which, sadly, it is not trying to explain at all in the first place). For me language is about meaning, and about the limitations a language’s form has on expressing meaning and not the other way around. Syntax should therefore take into account semantics or rather syntax should be studied through semantics.

Five or Seven Sentence Patterns?

While the seven sentence pattern description is the norm in English linguistics today there still persists the use of five sentence description in some non-English speaking countries like Japan which teach English as a foreign language.

Essentially the seven sentence pattern is a five sentence pattern with the extra two pattern as extensions of SVA and SVOA. The problem is that some common sentence patterns seemingly cannot be described by the five sentence pattern model. Take sentence (1.), for example:

  1. John sat up.

There is ‘John’ and he is performing the action of sitting up from perhaps a slouched position. In other words there is one actor doing one action. Therefore it is an SV pattern (John (S) / sat up (V)). Now consider (2.):

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Loanwords and the growth and change of a language

We have truly come to understand that language is usage in the last thirty years.

So when someone says that they disapprove of loanwords coming into their language they are really not understanding this point. They are coming from the Old School which thinks grammar (and vocabulary) is perscriptive, not descriptive.

English is itself a language built upon loanwords. The language has been borrowing words from the very beginning from Latin, Old Norse, French and Greek just for starters. And in this day and age it borrows from whatever language it comes into contact.

Why languages do so is because new ideas come in faster than words can be created. Also where the idea comes from also influences its adoptive form. So really when people are complaining about the loanwords they are complaining about influences that maybe seen as from outside the culture.

One should not be surprised that such insularity still exists in this day and age.

Living abroad for three years will still only get you half the native speaker vocabulary size

It seems the average non-native speaker of English only has a vocabulary size of about 4,500 words. And over half of these learners will have a vocabulary size of greater than 7,826 words. This is a somewhat depressing picture for language learners considering the worst of native speaker adults still will have a minimum size of 20,000 words with the high end at 35,000 words.

So what is the best way for non-native speakers to increase their vocabulary size? According to these statistics from testyourvocab.com the biggest factor is out-of-class activities. The more you do outside of the classroom the broader your vocabulary. Otherwise three years living abroad will do the trick. Even then the non-native speaker will only have 10,000 words (that is equal to the vocabulary size of an 8 year old native speaker). To reach 18,000 words over 10 years of living abroad is necessary.