What has Zen got to do with English language teaching?

Everything.

“Revisiting” my master in Zen on YouTube the other day I was compelled to think about what it means to be a language student and how it relates to Zen.

It seems to me many of the students I teach unnecessarily limit themselves with a psychological barrier – they believe they will never achieve native-like fluency. By thinking so they have effectively placed a limit upon what they can achieve.

Language itself already places limits upon you. So for students to place another one upon themselves, the limits become twofold.

But I am not saying that they will achieve native-like fluency either, but rather they make it harder to even remotely make any headway into acquiring a second language. To truly achieve native-like fluency one must have the years of experience in and exposure to the target language and culture. Nothing can replace that.

But nothing can stop you from trying and that is the essence of believing in being able to acquire some resemblance of a second language which is like native-like.

So the next question is how can I possibly teach my students to not place limits upon what they can achieve. Again, for this I will need to think that it is not impossible.

Do Japanese really need compulsory English?

In today’s Daily Yomiuri there was an article about the results from a survey of 3,225 middle school students on their perception about English.

The survey conducted by the National Institute for educational Policy Research found only eleven percent of students want to find work which requires English. But seventy percent also said they believed knowledge of English will help them get work in the same survey.

How to interpret these results?

It seems while there are pressures to learn English from companies and society the reality is most people don’t feel they really need it for work. In all likelihood most students will go on to work for companies which will continue to look at their English abilities all the while not really requiring them to use that knowledge in the workplace for any great length of time.

Do we really need to teach English in schools? The short answer is ‘yes’. This is obvious but it is not clear how we should teach it. Of course it should be compulsory BUT it should not be tested, if the survey results are any indication.

Since the bulk of students do require English in their work English should be taught not for passing tests but for practical communicative skills. If English is taught has a non-tested subject then teachers will have more freedom to teach these practical skills rather than grammar and vocabulary far removed from actual usage.

But because teachers are obliged to get students pass tests they focus on the things which are peripheral to actual communication. I have rarely met an English teacher who is truly interested in some aspect of English culture and so few teachers who ask questions about the pragmatics of language. So how do we expect our students to gain this knowledge when teachers are not interested themselves?

Thinking about writing an etextbook

Thinking about writing a textbook? Then why not write an etextbook. Apple has released iBook Author to help people write their own books for the iBook and iPad. Haven’t tried it yet but will in the near future to give an update.

How many hours do Japanese students have to study in order to master English?

I was told by one of my teachers back in my undergraduate days about twenty years ago that for me to master Japanese it would take me 700 hours of class time.

The number now seems to be 2,200 hours.

Japanese is a language notoriously difficult to learn for native English speakers because of their linguistic differences.

To start with, Japanese has three writing scripts – hiragana, katakana and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are syllabic scripts with, in general, one unit representing one fixed sound where most units are consonant-vowel pairs. Kanji are logograms with each unit representing a word (meaning) but not its pronunciation. Most people know kanji as Chinese characters.

English, in contrast, is based on an alphabetic script where each unit is a representation of a sound be it consonant or vowel. Each letter may represent more than one sound (examples: ‘c’, ‘g’, ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘o’ and ‘u’) and sometimes conbinations represent a single sound (examples: ‘ch’, ‘sh’, and ‘th’). Continue reading