The Struggle of Teaching English in Rural Japan
Perhaps one of the most commonly used justifications for widespread English language education is "English is the global lingua franca." This statement seems to encapsulate the general sentiment towards the importance of English. With the recent advancements in technology, geographical and temporal barriers have greatly lessened and international relations are no longer restricted to certain fields such as politics and media. The average citizen can now commence personal and economic relationships with the world via the internet. And this, of course, highlights the need for a common language that will facilitate effective intercultural communication. In highly urbanized and globalized cities like Tokyo, this is apparent in the motley of languages used in signage, menus, advertisements, and educational materials. Although the Japanese language still largely dominates spoken and written communication, Tokyo has made great leaps in accommodating foreigners into its local sphere by normalizing English usage, and with the upcoming 2020 Olympics, this move seems to have paid off.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Jocelyn A. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
In general, the Japanese government has made crucial decisions that have positively affected English language instruction. One of the most notable ones is the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, more commonly known as JET, in which young people from selected countries are brought into the country as Assistant Language Teachers or ALTs to share their cultures through English instruction. There is no doubt that the program's cause is a noble one, but the reception of Japanese rural communities to this integrating strategy is a mixed bag because unlike Tokyo and Osaka, the nation's most popular tourist destinations, rural Japanese communities (called the intake) do not see direct benefits to what some of them might consider as linguistic intrusion. Hence, ALTs are constantly faced with the question, "What is English for?"
The fact of the matter is that in the inaka, there is no urgent need for English. Most are farmers who quietly grow crops in their backyards and sell within their neighborhoods. Those who have office jobs work in largely homogenous, Japanese-owned companies. There may only be a few employees whose jobs require them to interact with non-Japanese folk. And when it comes to the classroom, the students' exposure to English is limited to 45 to 50-minute English classes that are, for the most part, preoccupied with grammar. Although learning English is advertised as essential because it connects the young to the international community, the reality is that its main purpose is to pass examinations that will enable students to get a university education, education that is not even government-mandated. A good number of students do not even choose to go down this path, instead preferring to focus on more practical alternatives, such as concentrating on gardening, cooking, and hairstyling, none of which require fluency in anything but Nihonggo.
Of course, knowledge in English (or any other language) is a nice addendum to one's resume. But in rural Japan, it is an addendum that very rarely equates to noticeable financial benefit. This creates an undercurrent of dismissive behavior in the English classroom. Students can be motivated by games, and ALTs serve as linguistic models that these learners rarely get from Japanese media. However, more often than not, ALTs are seen as pseudo-entertainers rather than actual educators. On one hand, this is disheartening for those who have credentials and certification; it can be frustrating to be in a classroom where maintaining student interest consumes the greater part of planning because tracking or even expecting improvement is but a pipe dream.
On the other hand, however, this requires the ALT to think creatively and reflectively. When struggling with establishing purpose, one has to rethink the importance of this purpose. How necessary does English have to be for English teachers (ALTs in particular) to feel that their existence in the classroom is not simply decorative? Is fluency for international connections and/or economic profit the only acceptable justification for the teaching of English? The case of the Japanese inaka offers up a wholly different insight.
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In an environment where the practical trumps the ideal, English should be placed in a unique position; a position where it should be allowed to exist, unhurried and undemanding. It should be allowed to slowly make space for the reluctant Japanese who have dealt with hundreds of years of cultural and geographical isolation and decades more of post-war identity reconstruction and political reorientation. Sporadic and often comedic exchanges in the ALT classroom should not be repudiated as mundane and fruitless, but rather as opportunities where English is viewed as a viable expressive resource, available and accessible. Rather than solidifying its place in the educational system as a grading instrument that judges rather than rewards, it can be the ALT's goal to position English in a way that encourages willing participation. In sum, it might be more productive to cultivate a learner outlook where English is learned not because it is needed, but because it is wanted. Once this takes root, the struggle for purpose becomes less of a preoccupation, and the language teacher can enjoy the interaction that is more meaningful, engaged, and human.
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