Blending AJATT with English Teaching

Eric Toaplan (not his real name) has been teaching English at an eikaiwa (English Conversation School) in Japan for about three years, and studying Japanese for about five. His current intertron blog-dwelling is Attack! Language. Today, he’s awesomely agreed to write a little something about how teaching English to Japanese students has influenced his own acquisition of Japanese.  (If you’re in another country, just replace all Japan references with those of your adoptive homeland and everything’ll be hunky dory.)

Despite what pretty much the whole Internet will tell you, the English teaching lifestyle actually has a lot of great points about it. There are also a number of perhaps over-documented bad points. But instead of rehash what can be easily googled, I’d like to take a different route and discuss a few ways in which teaching and observing EFL students informs the way I go about studying Japanese, and vice-versa.

Dueling Immersion Environments

For the benefit of the students, a lot of English schools outright forbid the teachers from speaking to students (especially children) in any language other than English. It’s a heavy-handed approach, but I can see the reasoning behind it: it’s a stab at providing immersion.

Despite this, though, many students will still spend every moment they can in their native tongue. Chatting in the few minutes before class, asking other students a question in the midst of class, scheduling their next lesson after class is finished… everything is done in Japanese, rather than English.

I remember my early days as a student of Japanese, and I had the same habit, so I don’t blame them. As teachers, obviously no one wants to be a pain in the neck,  constantly on their students’ case about how they should practice. But having seen the damage that the “40 minutes a week” study plan can bring to one’s language pursuits, I think it’s worthwhile to occasionally nudge my students to stay in English, at the very least while they’re in the school building.

A quick aside on this for those teachers who are trying to study another language outside of work: as speaking English is your job, your study time can take a pretty heavy hit during work hours. There are a couple of ways around this, though. One is actually by using the textbooks that you teach from, in between or even in the middle of lessons. Since most of the books are bilingual, they’re loaded with tons of vocabulary words in your target language. Are your students doing some bland fill-in-the-blank exercises? Time for you to learn a bunch of L2 words!

A lot of students, too, will be happy to teach you a lot about their native tongue, almost involuntarily. Because there are so many words exclusive to certain cultures (things like food, holidays, traditional clothing, etc) that lack English translations, you’ll be able to pick up a lot of words that you will almost never find in a language textbook. At the same time, because there is no good translation for a lot of these things, your students get good practice explaining their way around a word they don’t know how to translate.

Smiting Grammar

I saw James Heisig speak in Tokyo about five months back, and he discussed the current state of English education in Japan, which he described as “bordering on criminal”. When asked to elaborate, he explained it thus (I’m paraphrasing): How do you make language study uninteresting? You take a living thing (language), and you kill it. Then you dissect it, and study the pieces. Based on some of the high school English textbooks I’ve seen, this is a pretty accurate description of how a lot of Japanese students are exposed to English grammar.

Grammar is really not much fun to teach or learn for any of us, of course, and we all have different ways of dealing with grammar in our L2s. From a teaching perspective, I’ve forgone the “grammar diagram + explanation” approach in favour of an “example overload” approach, trying to take Dr. Heisig’s perspective to heart.

Rather than stand in front of a whiteboard spewing terms like “present perfect continuous”, I give a minimal explanation and then bombard my students with (hopefully) entertaining example sentences. I actually discourage them from focusing on learning grammar terminology, as well. Not that those terms aren’t useful; they certainly can be. But I think it’s more important to learn how to use certain things first, and then learn the meta bits second.

I decided to go about things this way because it’s how I learn grammar and idioms, and the students usually look a little less suicidal when I teach things this way, so it keeps both parties happy.

It’s also amazingly helpful if you’re studying your students’ native tongue, because you can draw grammatical parallels of which you would otherwise be unaware. Even though your explanation is entirely in English, if you approach it as a Japanese person would approach it, oftentimes you’ll get more glimmers of recognition than you would by simply using a generic EFL textbook explanation. I did this once for the English expression “I ended up {doing something},” by stealthily comparing it to the Japanese “してしまう” form, and it was one of my shortest explanations ever.

Your Girlfriend Sucks. So Does Your Textbook.

The longer you spend with the same students, the more you run into dreaded intermediacy, the diabolical plateau that every language learner eventually reaches, and many die upon. I once had a lovely residence there, myself. Then I found AJATT and similar blogs and overcame that sort of rank stagnation.

I’ve noticed that the students who have overcome this plateau are the ones who discover, usually on their own, that they (for example) enjoy watching the news in English, or that if they put on some podcasts in the morning they pick up vocabulary a lot more quickly. For me, this also helps reinforce that I need to continue with my own attempts at immersion, because I can see evidence of it working all around me.

The tendency as a teacher is to try to introduce AJATT-style methods to your students to get them over the hump, as it were. But recommending study methods is, in a lot of ways, like giving relationship advice. Try telling your friend to ditch their obviously unhealthy significant other, and see what happens: “I’ve invested so much time in the relationship!”, “He’s/She’s not all bad.”, “I think it’s mostly my fault…”. For your students, those textbooks and dull eikaiwa CDs have brought them pretty far! All the way to an intermediate level! Telling them to leave all that behind for some flashy new uncertainty won’t always go over so well, and sometimes they have to come to the realization on their own.

But to facilitate this process of self-discovery, I try a strategy of gentle suggestion. Since we share an interest in learning languages, my students are naturally curious about how I go about studying Japanese, so I try to tell them. “I watched a movie,” or “I played Dragon Quest for like six hours,” or “I Skyped some dude in Tokyo and we talked for a while.” Occasionally, in class, I’ll just throw on an episode of the Daily Show, or some YouTube music videos[1]. I don’t necessarily try to endorse one method or another; I just want to point out to my students that there are options other than textbooks.

Finally, in your pursuit of an L2, be likewise wary of adopting abusive methods. Your attitude towards language acquisition is an important part of teaching, and you’re not helping yourself or your students if you’re studying with textbooks that make you miserable.

If you have any questions about the post, I’m more than happy to answer, and I shall now selfishly volunteer Eldon’s comments section for that purpose.

[1] If your students are into English music, YouTube is a gold mine for eating up class time, and saving your backside if your lesson plan comes up short.

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3 thoughts on “Blending AJATT with English Teaching

  1. Pingback: Guest post on Thousand Mile Journey | Attack! Language

  2. Superb article, I must say. As a teacher I found your advice very useful, let me explain why.

    Before reading this article all I was thinking about was confincing my students they had to immerse themselves. I teach Spanish, and while Spanish isn’t extremely different from Dutch (their native language), they still don’t know a word of Spanish when they come in class for the first time.

    However, promoting the immersion method, and seeing my efforts fail completely, only made me angry. I didn’t want to teach anymore using traditional methods, but my superiors forced me.

    Now I understand that I can bend the rules a bit and “explain” grammar in a relaxing way and not use certain words like pretérito or condicional or subjuntivo or whatever. Also, I already tried to tell them how I learned Spanish, and reading your article only convinced me that it actually works.

    So thank you for the article and if you ever want to write an article for my blog, I’ll be happy to publish it.

    • Howdy Ramses,

      Glad you enjoyed it! I’ve found your blog to be a great read, so I’m stoked that you got a kick out of something I wrote.

      I definitely understand your frustration; of course, there’s the occasional student who buys into the whole immersion thing right away (Pass the Kool-Aid, sensei!), but for the most part, I’ve had difficulty presenting it as a viable option. I’ve also done in-class Anki demos, but with similar mixed results.

      Since study habits are so personalized, I think throwing a lot of small ideas at my students lets them build up their own methods of study… which is, after all, what we’re all trying to do with own own L2s. Take what we enjoy, and leave the rest.

      Anyway, many thanks for the kind offer of blog space! I’ll drop you a line one of these days.

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