Teach the Target Language! (TTTL) Not the one you already know.

This is a very specific aspect of language education in the Japanese public school system that I want to write about tonight. That is to say, teaching by translation.
Usual disclaimers: I haven’t studied education, I just have a CELTA and a few years’ experience teaching English in various guises, including in a multicultural language school, but mostly as an ALT in public schools in various parts of Japan.
I kind of wish I could write more about how it’s done in Australia, but I can’t remember that much, whereas my Japan experience is current as of now.

In my experience of second/foreign language education in Japan, it’s pretty translation-heavy. Of course this depends on the school and teacher and stuff, but the general approach for English lessons is teaching from Japanese: explaining things in Japanese and learning words by their Japanese equivalents, as in, learn a list of words by rote with the Japanese translations next to them. Copy them out many times to remember how to spell them.
In many ways it makes sense to do this: it saves time if you’ve already got the concept and all you need is the new set of sounds for it; you can sort out misunderstandings using words you know in your native language; and let’s not forget it’s easy, familiar and feels safe for teachers and students alike to be able to communicate in a language they all understand.

On the other hand, almost all genuine interaction that takes place in the language classroom is not in the target language. This means that students have little confidence using the words they’re supposedly learning – the more confident ones can understand them when reading or maybe even listening, but there’s no way they’re going to use them in speaking. They’ve never even tried to use them in an original sentence in writing, unless you call it original to plug everything into the formula you’re dictated. Heck, the only chance they’d have at using the words they supposedly learn is probably in the speaking tests they have about three times a year, and that’s only for words that become relevant – and remember they’ve had no practice using them in conversation so it’s pretty dangerous to use them in a test. Nah, these kids are much more comfortable doing what they’re used to, copying passages from one book to another and looking up the correct answer when they don’t know it. Or when they didn’t get around to doing their homework so they just copy the answers out of the back of the book. But I digress.
There are other limitations to teaching by translation. You know the phrase lost in translation, well, it really is a thing. It’s hard to convey the fear/angst/confusion that is felt by kids all over Japan on a daily or weekly basis when an ALT or foreigner greets them and they don’t know if it was OK to say ‘hello’ just now because it’s morning and surely you should say ‘good morning’ and what the flip is this ‘hi’ thing that the foreigner just said?
And how do you say いただきます [I humbly receive] in English? (You don’t.)

I don’t mean to claim that studying through translation all the time is purely a Japanese phenomenon: it definitely isn’t. I had a French teacher at school who very seldom spoke French, and never that I heard for more than a phrase or two at a time. We didn’t speak a lot of French in that class. Her lessons of translating entire articles into English never left me feeling like I’d learned a lot, which was a stark contrast to this one teacher I had in year 11 (bonjour Madame Wright, si vous lisez! Je ne le crois pas, tant pis). That year 11 class was my first experience of what it’s like to interact in a language where you don’t necessarily understand all the words and sounds your interlocutor is using. It was great, it was like we were expected to use our brains or something, in the biggest linguistic mental challenge I’d personally had since I first tried to string together a sentence of my own in French after all the ‘Comment t’appelles-tu?’ ‘J’ai treize ans’ and ‘J’habite à Melbourne.’

Sometimes it really gets in the way trying to teach by translation. If you never engage in the target language and you don’t know how people phrase things in that language, you end up writing weird stuff out of your dictionary or school textbook, like ‘You are a sweetheart’ to a middle-aged couple who visit your school. Or ‘let’s go to the toilet!’ to another kid who allegedly has a stomachache, or ‘let’s enjoy Miyajima’ to a stranger who has asked for directions, when you’re not intending to go to Miyajima.
Or you end up trying to explain in your limited English to the Nepalese lady in your Japanese language class and nobody understands what’s going on, when she would have understood your Japanese if you just said it clearly a couple more times.

Visual material, as in pictures, diagrams, body language and videos, is pretty underestimated in mainstream English education in Japan for conveying concepts. More use of the visual and interactive would really help change the environment in English classrooms in Japan, especially at secondary school levels, away from such heavy reliance on translation and more towards actually doing things in your target language – increasing both your competence and confidence in said language, one would think. The Ministry of Education knows this stuff. They’re just really slow to change, and many of the teachers relying on their translation system are reluctant, if not downright scared, to change the way they do things.

I guess my point is, go target language. It’s not impossible, despite what some people (you people are like climate sceptics and ‘marriage traditionalists’) say, but it does mean more mental effort on the parts of both teacher and student, and hey, while we’re at it, the textbook and curriculum, so it’s not likely to come about too quickly in public schools in Japan. I’ll just dream, be frustrated, and do what I can on a small scale while I’m here in this job.

Blergh. Next time, let’s write about something I like in Japan! It will probably have to be food or hospitality, in that case.
See you then 🙂


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