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Shall We “Chance”?

JONATHAN B. BRITTEN

Shall We “Chance”?

Nakamura Gakuen University

In the popular recent movie “Shall We Dansu ?” an inhibited Japanese salaryman finds personal freedom in the arms of his dance instructor. On the studio floor, he is utterly transformed by dancing. Good English language instructors are always trying to create similar, albeit less dramatic transformations in their inhibited learners. Like the dancing salaryman, most language learners want to be freed from deeply ingrained habits: reticence, embarrassment, and fear of failure.

The big problem in Japanese universities today, unfortunately, is the classroom. The “teacher” stands up front and the “students” sit clustered together in their little desks with years of grammar rules and vocabulary rules locked up in their heads. How unlike the dancing salaryman these students are! He has found freedom in dance. “Studying English” in their well-practiced role as “students,” most young men and women in university will never have such a chance.

The analogy is a good one, and holds up to close examination. By mastering the necessary dance steps — in this analogy, the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax of dance — the salaryman has become able to move in a new way that liberates his soul. Studying a new set of rules has led to freedom on the dance floor. Conversely, English language students in Japan have mastered all the steps, but have never had a chance to dance along to the music.

Thousands of college students I have met over the past seven years have been acutely aware of this. They know they have never had enough opportunities to practice speaking the living language, and sum this up in a phrase: “chansu ga nai.” With the current structure of language education in Japan, it is extremely difficult for any classroom instructor to give them that chance.

Colleges and university administrators seeking to improve their English language curricula must create new programs that offer chances to use the living language. In many cases, excellent facilities are available; all that is needed is the imagination to create new programs. The time is ripe for change.

Educators and thinkers throughout Japan recognize that society is changing rapidly, and that universities are not keeping up with the pace. In the field of English language education, the universities need to rethink their entire approach. The standard system — 90-minute classes conducted once-a-week and twelve times per semester — is almost hopeless if the goal is to encourage so-called “communicative English.”

The current system is an anachronism, the relic of an outmoded concept of industrial-era education. As we hear everyday, we are living in the Internet age. If universities do not move quickly to make better use of their facilities and upgrade their language education, they will be abandoned by a new generation of students far too savvy to stick with outmoded systems.

Opportunities for transformation abound. One simple, effective way to improve English language education in universities is to offer regular “immersion sessions” at university seminar facilities. Such programs, offered regularly as part of the overall curriculum, would be a crucial supplement to regular classroom study. Such classroom study currently exposes learners to English for less than one percent of their “waking week” — that is, the time they are awake. Obviously, such limited study by itself is of little use. In addition to mandatory, self-study time outside the classroom, regular, supervised immersion sessions could significantly raise the exposure time.

Moreover, such programs could complement — or even substitute for — expensive “study abroad” programs. These programs — especially summer vacation sessions featuring limited classroom time and lots of tourism and shopping — are not very useful for language learning. Moreover, such programs are not affordable to many students. In any case, educators can offer students wonderful chances to learn without leaving Japan.

Suppose, for example, that university English teachers work together to create a series of regular weekend workshops as well as even longer sessions during vacations. By making use of seminar facilities, students could check in on Friday evening for a “Shall We Chansu?” session, and immerse themselves in English until Sunday night. Offered at a very modest cost using regular faculty or part-time specialists, such a program would in many ways be superior to overseas travel.

Moreover, overseas “study programs” can actually be counterproductive. Such trips, usually to Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand or the United States, tend to reinforce a pervasive and counter-productive attitude among Japanese students: that English language skills are for use only in “native speaker” countries. This mentality consigns English to a role as a performance skill. English is to be dusted off on those occasions when one meets the “natives.” Afterwards, the language goes back into the closet upon with those dusty old textbooks and tapes.

This is a serious and very limiting misunderstanding. English has indisputably become the international second language — a fact that has frankly astonished me. Over the past fifteen years, I have traveled widely in Asia, and lived in Japan for about half that time. Here in Japan, I regularly meet men and women from all over the world, and almost all speak English without hesitation or evident discomfort.

I have thus learned — to my surprise — that English has become “Worldish” — a term I created to try to change the mind-set of language learners here in Japan. Again, then, there is really no reason for Japanese students to travel abroad, at considerable cost, in order to have a chansu. They can do quite well by studying in Japan, in generally underutilized university facilities, and at the same time, they can break away from the unhealthy “native speaker” model. One good idea is to invite at least a few of the many international residents of Japan to be guests as these chansu sessions. But in any event, it is sufficient that Japanese language learners get together and talk to each other.

Such language learners can also find a wonderful chansu if they are offered a special dormitory — or even a section of a dormitory — reserved for those who wish to practice the living language. Living in the “Worldish House” would be a special level of education reserved for serious learners.

Such language houses are not uncommon on American campuses — my undergraduate university, for example, had a popular ‘French House,” in which perhaps a few dozen students lived and took their meals, using only the French language. Sadly, such dormitories seem to be uncommon in Japan. This can change quickly. The facilities already exist, and the rules for residents are quite simple: once in the house, one speaks only the target language. (Talking to “outsiders” on the dormitory telephone should be the only exception.)

Residents of a “Worldish House” dormitory, of course, are likely to be a special breed, already highly motivated. What about less serious learners who nevertheless want to have an opportunity to use the living language? What kinds of activities can these learners do during chansu sessions? The choices are innumerable, but the main point is that learners need some structure, but also need to make their own choices as much as possible; the range of activities should be very wide.

Let’s return to our analogy of the repressed salaryman who finds freedom in dancing. Again, by mastering the dance steps– the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax of dance — he enters into a new world of self-expression. Language learners in Japan, on the other hand, are like someone who has mastered all the steps, but have never had a chance to dance to music. We must change this, but we still must have some ground rules for chansu sessions — a kind of choreography, if you will. Instructors — who are transformed into facilitators, whose purpose is to help rather than to “teach” — will carefully inform learners about the session rules well in advance. For their part, learners must understand their responsibilities clearly.

For example, learners must agree to strictly limit Japanese conversation, since speaking Worldish is their purpose in attending. Learners must arrive at the site equipped with any necessary materials — dictionaries, Walkman-style tape players, notebooks, and so on. Learners who won’t dance to the music and end up stepping on everyone’s toes will not be invited to return.

Once all the “oughts and musts” are out of the way — these may be introduced in writing, in the Japanese language — learners may at last be able to undergo a kind of transformation. The challenge for the facilitator is to create a sense of excitement and fun while managing simultaneously to promote learning. There are many ways a facilitator can help do this.

One effective ice-breaker is to give students packets of self-adhesive labels. Some would have English words written on them; others would be blank. The students would have to go about the facilities and affix printed labels to their corresponding objects.

Some of the printed labels could be quite challenging. For example, a learner might struggle to place the word “reflection, ” and finally settle upon a mirror in the bathroom. Still more challenging would
be hand-printing an allotment of blank labels, and identifying some objects on one’s own.
When meal times come around, learners could be given menus in the target language, and the opportunity to choose between two or more courses. During meals and at other times, English-language background music could be playing. Special presentations using English-language films linked to English-language closed captioned videos could introduce students to a wonderful and inexpensive technology many have never had a chansu to use.

Facilitators could also introduce other media, such as short-wave radio shows. The Voice of America’s “special English” series is one useful example. NHK offers several effective “Eikaiwa” courses on television and on radio. Facilitators could offer handouts listing the times of various television and radio language study programs. Learners need to be aware of the wonderfully wide range of language learning materials that are available.

By the end of a good chansu session, learners will have incorporated many new learning strategies. In other words, that will have learned how to learn more.

I can imagine them dancing all the way home.

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