Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Communication is More Than Language

Because, puppy.

This falls under the “yeah, obviously, and?” category a little but bare with me. I was reading through a TEFL text today and this (very obvious) observation jumped out at me:

“Competence is not the same as ability. In order to be able to communicate, people need psycho-physiological mechanisms, i.e. communicative skills (After Bachman, L. 1990. Fundamental Considerations in Language Testing. OUP. P. 84-85). 
Communication is the process of interpersonal interaction and requires the knowledge of social conventions i.e. the knowledge of rules about proper ways to communicate with people.
In accordance with the social conventions, participants in communication perform communicative functions (to socialize, to inform, to persuade, to elicit information, to manipulate behavior and opinions, to perform rituals etc), communicative roles (leader, informer, witness, participant, catalyst, entertainer etc) (Ellis, R. 1994. The Study of Second Language Acquisition. OUP. P. 160). In order to perform these functions a speaker needs more than just the knowledge of the language.
The process of communication is characterized with communicative strategies of achieving a goal through communication (Pollak A. Communicative strategies at work. NJ 1995).
Success of communication depends very much on the knowledge of successful strategies chosen by the speakers. E.g. the Prince (in “The Prince and the Pauper” by M.Twain) was unable “to ask” because he was only competent in how to “give orders”.”

This struck me particularly today because just last week some of the other ALTs and I were comparing notes on insensitive things our JTEs have said to us. They are examples of interactions in which there is not a language barrier as such, but a huge communicative barrier. In other words, even if you can say something, there are some things that native English speakers just don’t say. For example, “you’re really fat.” The grammar and pronunciation may be perfect, but when a teacher (or in this case the principal) walks up to an ALT and makes this statement they are not displaying communicative competency in English. Yes, they communicated their literal meaning. However, the impression left with the ALT is definitely not the impression the principal was hoping for. In another example, a JTE made a worksheet that asked students which animal was the most numerous in Singapore: Koalas, cats, or Singaporeans. Technically, if push came to shove, an English speaker would agree that humans are a kind of animal. But we would never, ever phrase a question in that way, particularly when talking about a specific nationality (and that’s before even touching on the implications for war-time memories and trauma). Technically the English is unproblematic, but communicatively this was a disaster. 

To give a Japanese language example, some teachers and I were heading to karaoke after an enkai and we invited another teacher to join us. She declined by saying “No thanks, I’ve got diarrhoea.” Now, we had just spent three hours in a restaurant eating and drinking. She didn’t have diarrhoea. She was making a “polite excuse”. After I picked my jaw up off the ground I checked the reactions of the other teachers: it seemed that this was an appropriate and at least vaguely normal way to decline a casual invitation. A great advantage of learning Japanese in Japan is that I get to observe and imitate natural interactions like this (well, I’m not sure I’ll ever use this particular expression, but you get the idea). I see how people react to one another’s utterances. My students can learn text book English without a native speaker in the classroom, but they cannot learn to communicate with a non-Japanese person unless they have a non-Japanese person to communicate with. Unfortunately although junior high schools have ALTs, they don’t have space in the curriculum for any meaningful communication. Like many other ALTs, I do most of my communication with my students between classes, not during them. The girl who flatly refuses to answer “WHAT IS YOOOUUUR NAAAMMEE?” in class will dash over to me the second the bell rings to ask if I think the boy she likes is a “mood maker”, and she will do her best to ask me in English. 

In class she is fearful of deviating from the script, of making a mistake in front of the teacher and of how her classmates will react to whatever she says. Communicating is not even on her list of concerns. When the bell goes, the same people are in the same room, but everything is different. It goes beyond verbal language. I have one elementary school boy who I used to dislike quite intensely. He would spend every lesson yelling, throwing things, punching other kids, and shouting insults at me. One day I met him walking home after school and we walked together for ten or fifteen minutes, having a lovely chat. He picked me flowers from the side of the road and told me about the time he woke up and his parents had gone on holiday without him (but don’t worry, they left cup noodles for him, so it was OK… apparently). Since then I’ve played with him at lunch time quite often and he is always lovely. He even lets me win occasionally so I don’t get too embarrassed about how rubbish I am at sports. He is an incredibly kind and endearing little kid. But in class he is still a monster, and he still yells abuse at me. It’s all about the situation and who is watching him. Until I spent time with him outside of that situation, I didn’t see past the monstrous façade. But back to language! 

The Education Ministry is trying to address the issues in communicative competency with the most recent guidelines for elementary school “foreign language activities”. The guidelines interestingly include several mentions of using these activities to improve students’ Japanese. The difficulty I have getting students to communicate even as far as “yes” or “no” in English are reflected in other subjects as well. Teachers of other subjects complain about the inability of their students to answer in sentences, instead grunting or giving one word answers to questions. I assume this is much the same with teenagers anywhere, but the teachers are adamant that they were never so uncooperative. My favourite part of the guidelines says that students should become comfortable using whatever English words they know, Japanese, gestures and tone of voice to try to communicate. We shouldn’t teach them grammar or have them memorise set phrases, we should encourage them to engage and connect. Predictably, these great objectives are lost in most classrooms, where instead of “use sports to engage students’ interest in English” many elementary teachers instead default to “spend forty minutes repeating ‘tennis’ after the ALT”. 

Several years ago I worked with a junior high school JTE who was temporarily restricted from teaching alone because of classroom management issues. She came to classes with another JTE as an assistant, a position that she resented violently (not least because she outscored him on written English tests). The other JTE is a teacher I have a lot of respect for because he really tries to get the students to think about English, not just parrot back set phrases. During a lesson on the difference between “made of” and “made from” he gave two examples then asked the students to think about the difference. After a bit of discussion he explained his impression of the difference. He then listed a number of objects on the board and asked students to think about whether “of” or “from” would be better. It was a challenging class for the students, but at the end of it they have the foundational understanding to determine which to use with any new noun they learned from then on. After the class I went to the bathroom. The ‘assistant’ JTE was on her hands and knees scrubbing the toilet floor with a stiff brush.
“What did you think of the class?” She asked.
“I thought it was great!” I answered enthusiastically. “How about you?”
“I thought it was terrible!” She ramped up her scrubbing until the wooden top of the brush was bashing loudly into the tiles. “It was too difficult for the students and it was a waste of time. He should have given them a list to memorise. A whole period for just that? Unbelievable!” 

The thing is, she isn’t wrong either. He wants them to think about English, understand English and enjoy using English. She wants them to pass their high school entrance examinations with the highest possible score. Of course, they both want both things for the students, but the emphasis is different. He is thinking about life-long learning, she is looking at short term goals. As an ALT I want to teach with JTEs like him, but if my own children were killing themselves to pass that all important test… would I prefer them to have a teacher like her? It’s a question that makes me think about my job in a different light. You don’t have to go far to find ALT blogs blithely listing all the flaws in Japan’s English education system. They are probably all accurate observations; I’m not saying that the system isn’t broken. However, the solutions many ALTs happily rattle off are based on their impressions of successful learning within their own education systems. You can’t just ignore the context of the examination system and Japan’s particular attitude to other cultures. What might seem like obvious solutions (ie, have speaking as a component of testing) don’t necessarily translate any better in the Japanese system then walking up to an ALT and saying telling her she is fat translates into a friendly gesture in English speaking cultures.
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