Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Towards a more open-ended English education.

Towards a more open-ended English education.

Ken Mogi
Sony Computer Science Laboratories

It is a widely recognized fact that the Japanese people are not particularly good at expressing themselves in English. To some observers, this is a genuine puzzle, considering the many hours of study that the Japanese typically put towards the acquisition of English skills.
Here, based on the general view of the human brain being elucidated in the neurosciences, I put forward some ideas towards the improvement of English learning process of the Japanese. These concepts are not necessarily limited to the Japanese phenomenon per se, but could be applied elsewhere in the world.

(1) Open-endedness. Natural language is an essentially open-ended system of communication. Given the sheer number of possible word combinations, it is quite conceivable that an non-negligible part of phrases we use in our daily conversation are spoken and heard effectively once in a lifetime. A person with a mature linguistic ability will be able to comprehend what is being said on the first hearing. Even when an unknown word is included, the listener is often able to make a fairly good guess as to its meaning. Parents and other mature speakers rarely restrict their vocabulary when conversing among themselves in the presence of children. Thus, open-endedness seems to be an essential component of the linguistic ability and its learning process.
Considering the properties of the linguistic system above, it may appear that the current teaching guideline ("shido youryou") put forward by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, Science and Education might be too restrictive in its scope for vocabulary. It suggests that during the three years of English education at the junior high school, about 900 hundred essential English words should be acquired [1]. While it is a good idea to start from the easy pieces, too much restriction on the words to be used in the school texts would inevitably lead to an impoverishment of its contents and a suffocation of the intellect of the curious low-teens, who might be otherwise able to assimilate knowledge at a formidable speed.

(2) Context of language acquisition. The human brain is very sensitive to the context in which it executes and develops its functions. Cognitive processes supported by the neural circuits including the orbitofrontal cortex identify the context in which the agent interacts with other agents, and coupled with the brain's reward system, reinforces the relevant circuits of functionality [2].
From this perspective, it may appear that the present system of English education in Japan is putting too much emphasis on doing well in examinations, rather than encouraging the pupils to express their views in an open and free environment, where the grammatical correctness and scoring are not necessarily the primary concerns. A change in the context of English learning would be necessary to improve the situation.

(3) Power of volume. It is no hidden secret that the dexterity of language abilities increases monotonously as exposure increases. From this perspective, it may appear that the "volume" of English language materials which an average pupil is exposed to in Japan is simply too small, which, again, is related to the vocabulary restriction problem referred to above.
The brain's memory system extracts semantic significances from the multitudes of episodic memories stored in its circuits. The flexible way in which the various words are employed in the English language simply cannot be acquired by referring to a "lookup table" in the style of a dictionary. The appropriateness of the usage of a particular word in a given context could be judged in a robust manner based on a rich accumulation of episodic memories in the brain. From this perspective, the current English education policy in Japan might be simply lacking in volumes of material. The child's brain is naturally ready to absorb more. It is too patronizing for the educators to restrict the number of texts and spoken materials in the education process.

I will finish by citing two anecdotes. People sometimes have the notion that education at an early age is necessary for the efficient acquisition of English. The life history of Joseph Conrad, who was exposed to the English language only after he was over twenty years old, and yet went on to write masterpieces in English literature such as "Heart of Darkness" is a good counterexample to this notion. Hidekazu Yoshida, a famous and respected Japanese music critic, once told me that in the education system of "Kyusei Kouko" (senior high schools in the prewar Japanese education system), the foreign language education was rather "savage". Mr. Yoshida said that when they learned German, on the first day they were taught the ABC (in German pronunciations) and rudimentary grammar, and on the second day they were made to read an essay of Friedrich Nietzsche on the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer!
These two anecdotes, I hope, will remind those concerned with English education in Japan of the dynamic range in the learning potentials of the human brain. Findings from the current studies in the brain sciences would also suggest the validity of a more open-ended and dynamic English education system, away from the suffocation of too much standardization and an pre-occupation with scores.
There are lots of things that a proper usage of the emergent information technologies can help towards an more open-ended English education. The availability of Michael Sandel's lectures at Harvard [3] is a good example. It is not a far-fetched idea to expose the low-teens to such lectures at some rather early stages of their English learning, in view of the open-endedness of language acquisition.

[1] Teaching guidelines given on The Ministry of Culture, Sports, Science and Education webpage (in Japanese) at http://www.mext.go.jp/b_menu/shuppan/sonota/990301/03122602/010.htm
[2] Rolls, E.T. The orbitofrontal cortex and reward. Cerebral Cortex 10, 284-294 (2000)
[3] Harvard University's "Justice" with Michael Sandel, provided free of charge at http://www.justiceharvard.org.

(Abstract for a conference talk by Ken Mogi at LET 50 )


Takeshi said...

I'm an English teacher at a commercial school in Japan. I teach children and the hardest part is to motivate them to learn. The textbooks are, as you point out, too limited and unattractive to most of the students. As I don't have enough material for my 60-minute lessons, I often make up some games to play with my kids. Once, we were playing a game using alphabet tiles. A 10-year-old boy, who was usually uninterested in any activities, accidentally made the word "die" with his tiles. I taught him the meaning (the "pass away" one) in Japanese, and his face suddenly lightened up. Then he asked me how to pronounce the word, which he had never cared. That kind of word would never be in English textbooks for children, but some kids would love to learn some naughtier vocabulary.

Wendy said...

One of my acquaintances in Japan says that there is far too much emphasis on learning English grammar, which makes it more difficult to engage with the "flow" of the language. Instead, you become focused on the "rules".

His half-American half-Japanese children struggle more in English classes than they do in mathematics classes, because they have learned English organically. They speak English fairly well, but they have trouble remembering the grammatical rules and get lower grades as a result.

In comparison, when I began studying Japanese, I found sentence structure quite easy to pick up. So my challenges are more focused on learning the rules for how to categorise things when counting, and similar. Oh, and kanji too, of course.

Learning another language really is wonderful, though. It gives you a whole new set of tools through which to consider the world.

Greg said...

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." The "well" of learning has been poisoned for many learners through experiences in institutionalized education. Many approach learning as the onerous task of fulfilling a teacher's demands with as little effort and pain as possible. For them, the fun and adventure of learning has been drained away.

Affective responses to a language learning task influence the meta-cognitive strategies that select, tap, and organize the available cognitive, experiential, and emotional resources that are brought to bear in accomplishing the task (Bachman & Palmer, 1996). As Takeshi mentioned in a previous comment, motivation to learn and use a "naughty" word led to engagement and learning in the activity. Another example was shown on the 03.14.2006 episode of The Professionals by English teacher Hironobu Takeoka. The use of songs by the Beatles engaged a different learning style (e.g., music), promoted a good attitude toward the learning material, and made the task more interesting.

Another way of making the learning of a new language more relevant and interesting is to make it accessible to a learner's prior knowledge, especially the network of meaning encoded in the linguistic signs (Chandler, 2002) they have acquired and developed. If learners "see" how the signifiers (e.g., words and phrases) they are familiar with work at the surface level, then they may develop a sense of how English works at the structural and functional levels. For example, English teacher Goro Tajiri, on the 09.07.2006 episode, used Anpanman characters in introducing the interrogative pronoun "who" to his students. Most of his students probably figured out how "who" works in relation to those anime characters without the need for a prescriptive lecture. Today, if English learners read that Daisuke Matsui kicked a "curling cross" over the heads of Cameroonian defenders to Keisuke Honda who punched it in for a goal, then most of them would be able extract the intended meaning from the text. Some of them might develop some sense of how the other English words work to construct and convey that meaning. Once learners taste from the "well" and discover that it is not bitter and that it might even be fun to splash around in, then a teacher's "job" becomes easier as the learners' sense-making processes take over.

Teachers can create the most wonderful props, close-to-authentic situations, and rich learning opportunities, but it is ultimately up to the learner to learn.


Bachman, L. F., & Palmer, A. S. (1996). Language testing in practice. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Chandler, D. (2002). Semiotics: The basics (2nd ed.). London, England and New York, NY: Routledge.

Junko said...

It is a dynamic recommendation.
I heard that in the past,some fathers threw their children into the sea,or river before teaching how to swim.
Your entry would make children strongly survive in the wild.

Michi said...

I would like to go to Yokohama on 3th Aug.to hear this !!! Thanks.

yuzu said...

When I was in the 6th grade of elementary student, I was a member of the student council. One boy was mysterious in this group. He always talk about current affairs like adult. So I asked him "why do you know such vocabularies like adult?. He said "I don't know." But one day I understood when I met a his mother and talk. She does not care to use wards even I am 12 years old.It was shock.
Off course he was always popular and interested by everybody.
Other memory of me, I can't talk about minute stories with someone in English yet. But I always try to think of talking various people feelings.It comparatively fast to catch the people's feeling and can go to next stage with conversation.I think that is the same as teaching of languages. But it is not a good idea for examination in Japan.
I'm sorry such boring stories.

(ma)gog said...

Indeed, the problem is always how to motivate the pupils to learn. Intriguing learning materials, an attractive teacher who grabs the hearts of the learners, could be the keys for the solution. (Please excuse me for squeezing the important matter too simple.)

Thank you very much for the early enough information. I am very much looking forward to your lecture!

Anonymous said...

Very Interesting!
Thank You!