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Warm Words about Crossing Linguistic Lines

Let me first say to the people responsible for ALTTO / Agora: what you have put together is impressive and bodes well for EFL instruction in schools.  Many thanks.  For ALTs who have been in Japan for a relatively short time, what follows may not exactly be what you want to hear.  That’s understandable, but please hear me out.

On November 8th, I spent an hour listening to and watching an online presentation by Nami Sakamoto, associate professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto.  The presentation provoked considerable reflection regarding interactions between Japanese educators and their foreign-born colleagues.

Professor Sakamoto accommodated the audience by speaking in English.  That was fundamental to the setting and context — a setting in which discourse regarding English language education in Japan has occurred innumerable times in the past and continues to take place widely and perhaps frequently.  The online version of the setting is somewhat like a physical space in that people can congregate to hear presentations and engage in discussion.  And the medium of communication is necessarily English.  When “native” English speakers predominate, it is a given that JTEs or other Japanese people taking part in discussions will accommodate the English speakers in the conference space.  The fact that ALTs and classroom teachers do not now have to be in the same physical space but can gather online and easily share information, materials, and learning activities strikes me as a rather dreamy step forward.  (Yes, I am a bit over age 40 . . .).  

The ostensible purpose of presentations like Professor Sakamoto’s is the ongoing improvement of EFL education in Japan’s primary and secondary schools.  Native English speakers who serve as ALTs in Japanese schools presumably have an interest in improving the EFL curriculum and students’ learning experiences.  I will leave it to others to comment on whether or not Professor Sakamoto’s presentation did provide practical utility for the ALTs in the audience.

There is a similar setting, a similar space in which EFL teachers gather to share information, present research findings, and find energy and fresh inspiration for the work they do daily.  In that space and setting, the medium of communication isn’t English, however.  The medium is Japanese and for ALTs from English-speaking countries, that is one tough nut to crack.  But when I look back on the years I have served as an ALT, being curious about the community of Japanese English teachers (and there are many, right?) and being willing to just sit, watch, and listen was meaningful — even when I didn’t understand everything or even very much of what was said.  But being there also sent a message to those local teachers and researchers.  It said, “You folks are not alone in this endeavor.  We are here, too, and we are open to learning more about and being part of the professional world you inhabit.”

Now, a few more words about the medium of communication: Native English speakers who teach their mother tongue in Japan are subject to an illusion, I think, when they interact with Japanese educators in settings where the medium of communication is English.  The illusion is that Japanese participants receive and digest meanings in the way that their English-speaking counterparts intend.  Native English speakers would like to think that their Japanese counterparts will take what is said to heart in the way that other English speakers would.  But what happens in actuality?  How do Japanese educators categorize, assess, or appraise information gleaned from discussions with native English speakers or from English written by native speakers?  Japanese educators will certainly give English speakers opportunities to express their views, but how is the information received and assessed?  To what extent is it valued?  To what extent is it given consideration?

The concept of linguistic “turf” is perhaps helpful here.  When the medium of communication is English by necessity, Japanese speakers interact on native English speakers’ linguistic turf.  And Japanese production and reception of meaning will be what it is.  As non-native speakers, their reception and production of meaning gets filtered through their accumulated linguistic knowledge and their experience interacting with other English speakers, both native and non-native.  The meanings a non-native speaker receives and produces may or may not be accurate and may well be limited by or tinged with innumerable variables — the context, their perception of the person they are interacting with, their subjective ability to concentrate in the given moment, their mood or physical condition.

But what about the turf that is the Japanese language?  To reach and touch Japanese hearts and minds means interacting and engaging on their turf, on their terms.  And that seems particularly true when Japanese people are literally on their home ground.  I’m not saying that nothing can be accomplished via the medium of English.  However native English speakers working here should be mindful of the fact that negotiation and substantive decision-making regarding educational practices and policies are ultimately going to take place on the turf of the Japanese language.  Could we expect that to be otherwise?

Of course, it is tempting to extol the virtues or benefits of learning another language, of opening oneself to alternative ways of receiving and making meaning.  But for those who are curious and willing, exploring the turf that is the Japanese language sends a message.  It says that a foreign-born teacher wishes to be more familiar with and communicate more directly to the hearts and minds of local people through their mother tongue.  Even when the communication is inaccurate and imperfect, the medium itself is a useful message.

Once again, let me say that ALTTO /  Agora is indeed impressive.  Please continue to explore the context in which you are working.  Please consider and look for opportunities to attend JTE professional development conferences and presentations.  It will enlarge the picture you see of English language education.

William Matheny has lived and worked in Aichi Prefecture since 1990.  He began serving as an ALT in 1997 and completed a TESOL master’s degree program with a focus on curriculum innovation.  For several years he served as Coordinator for the JALT junior and senior high school special interest group.  One of his theories is that language is the sixth sense.

Banner image – Michelle Leman