The English-Learning and Languages Review Ć Homepage
Japanese Textbook Pollution:
A disastrous ELT affliction
In the world of
English language teaching (ELT) in
Around September and October, those who teach English as part of general education at Japanese universities are constantly assaulted by a barrage of new textbooks and textbook catalogues sent out by hundreds of ELT textbook publishers, both Japanese and foreign. note 1 The season for advertisements for new textbooks and for sending out samples of them, used in fact to be much later, but the tough competition among publishers obviously has shifted the whole business to a much earlier date. Thus, as they start the second semester at the end of September or early October, most English-teachers at university level are obliged to endure these assaults from the publishers, which annoy someone like myself to such a degree that it eventually compels him or her to write an essay such as this. The terrible thing about this situation is that there are no means by which we can protect ourselves. These publishers are always clever enough somehow to acquire lists of our names from somewhere; once our names are in their hands, we are doomed to be powerless victims of their persistent attacks.
phenomenon, in fact, has been getting worse in
As regards the ELT textbooks published nowadays in this country, I have, first and foremost, to point out the deterioration in terms of their quality. Every year each company publishes at least four or five new titles and most of them are so called "general teaching materials" (Sogo Kyozai in Japanese), which consist of from ten to a dozen chapters, each containing a short passage and exercises to go with it. What appals me most is the superficial treatment of the subject dealt with in each piece. The subject could be anything: environmental problems, global warming, women's issues, race problems and other types of discrimination, cross-cultural themes, etc. They are all issues much talked about throughout the world and indeed very interesting and appropriate as teaching materials, since they enable English-teachers at university level not only to teach the language itself, but also to raise students' consciousness in these matters, which in consequence prepares the students, in terms of developing their critical faculties or analytical abilities, for the more specialized studies following their general education. The writers of these essays note 3, however, either find it necessary to make them easy so as to meet the low standard of Japanese university students or are being forced to do so by the publishers to make their books popular and sell well. Making the content and the language of these essays superficial and easy in order to meet the general demand, however, in essence implies a lack of high motivation and aspiration in both teachers and publishers.
At any rate, the superficial and simplistic content and the elementary language is such that reading just one essay is enough to make me feel frustrated and put the book down, never to open it again, let alone use it in my classes. Dealing with current issues, such as those mentioned above, unavoidably involves some controversial points where even scientists and scholars have widely diverging opinions. One of the interesting aspects of dealing with these topics in ELT is found precisely here: through reading and discussing these materials, which show how complex these issues are and how contradictory experts' opinions can be, students can be trained, with the appropriate guidance of a teacher, in creative thinking, or at least in developing critical minds. In other words, teachers in such circumstances are given golden opportunities to explain how, in the final event, each of us has to think for ourselves on these matters rather than just believing what experts say because, after all, there are often no established answers to problems human beings encounter in their lives. Teachers who bring these subjects into ELT and yet just use the ready-made textbooks that deal so superficially with these important issues are in fact merely following fashion. There seems to be no genuine motivation on their side; if that is the case, how could one expect the students to be interested in them and learn something from them?
Until twenty or so years ago, just to give the reader a rough idea of the shift in the focus of subject matter dealt with in ELT materials, the main source was British and American literature, which was partly because most English-teachers at university level were those who did their further studies at graduate school in British and American literature with the exception of a small number from the linguistic or ELT fields. The situation, however, has drastically changed with the general decline in popularity of literature, and of the humanities in general. On top of this, there came the overwhelming tide of the so-called communicative approach in ELT: the majority of, if not all, native speaker English teachers have a TESL or EFL diploma, or an MA, in this trendy area, and claim that they are professionals armed with new teaching methods and curriculum plans. With this new wave, ELT materials started to focus on inter-cultural or international understanding, and the situation we now find ourselves in, as described above, is its continuation. Though ELT materials based on literature, I must admit, have their drawbacks, they have at least a remarkable advantage: most of those previous ELT textbooks were compiled from so-called classical works whose style and language were (and some still are) considered good. One can, of course, argue about the criterion for judging a style, and language is after all an extremely subjective matter, and also varies from generation to generation, and even from one social group to another. In this age of pluralism, therefore, one is tempted to say that there is no longer any one exemplary style, written or spoken, which English teachers can use as a yardstick. In spite of this, most English teachers try to teach their students 'good' English, whatever that adjective means. This type of anarchy destroys the whole idea of education; if there is anything teachers can do, apart from teaching basic grammar, sentence structures and phrases, it is to show 'good' examples of English by using appropriate materials; to show, in other words, the standard English, from which, if they wish, students can depart considerably later on.
Coming back to
the original line of discussion, whatever the topics ELT textbooks deal with,
the outcome is, in broad generalization, shallow analyses of the issues in
atrociously simple language which, from the very start, even discourage
students from working hard at the language. Such is the situation we are in
right now, which we certainly ought to regard as critical, though, sadly
enough, this present current is sweeping throughout
How on earth
have we come to this? This is a crucial question and in order to answer it one
probably has to touch upon numerous factors including a fundamental analysis of
Japanese society in the past thirty years or so, especially the system that
sustained the country's economic growth. This is certainly beyond my capacity
and neither is it my main intention in this essay; nevertheless, I would here
like to point out a few obvious factors and then later touch upon, to my
limited ability, bigger issues concerning Japanese society. The present ELT
ELT magazines published in
How does this cunning cosy relationship between ELT writers and textbook publishers work? The writers, both Japanese and native English-speakers, are producing trashy textbooks one after another, thus with luck making money, but if not, at least being able to add their books to their list of academic publications. I always wonder, however, how it is possible to regard such books as academic or educational achievements; the quality of these textbooks is so low, in terms of content, style and grammar, that it is scarcely possible to regard them even as ELT textbooks for university level. And yet they pass unashamedly as academic or educational research achievements.
Thus there is an obvious vicious circle already firmly established. It works like this: writers get used to producing elementary and low-quality textbooks; they get easier and easier for them to write; publishers encourage their authors to write more of them; they sometimes even ask the authors to write teachers' manuals to go with the students' books; students like these light, easy textbooks simply because they are easy to read, consequently requiring less or no work to do at home and normally nicely bound, containing a lot of colourful pictures; moreover, students like them because these textbooks, with their shallow content, don't demand much of their imagination or powers of thought; teachers, in their turn, like using these textbooks because students like them; teachers don't have to be creative in their teaching since the elementary content written in elementary language does not require much preparation; and thus everybody is happy precisely because they don't have to use their brains.
This may sound incredible
and exaggerated, but it is exactly what is happening in
To be sure, no
English-teacher wants to scare students by saying this, but on the other hand,
distorting reality and showing only the enjoyable side of learning English is
misleading. When one looks at the present state of ELT in Japan, one gets an
impression that the majority of teachers and textbook publishers are trying to
sell this commodity, the English language, by wrapping it up in nice colourful
paper, which is nothing but a cheap, childish trick to draw attention and
perhaps to raise motivation, if any, to learn English. The commodity thus
offered to the students is, in fact, such cheap stuff that they can learn
hardly anything but extremely superficial cultural differences between
casual attitude towards English language learning on the part of both teachers and
students in a way reflects the present situation in Japanese society. Over the
past thirty or forty years
This euphoria might have been the dream the hard-working Japanese aimed at. As is always the case in history, however, when the goal is finally reached, the initial high motivation or spiritual enthusiasm vanishes and something totally unanticipated appears instead. While we have been busy making our economy strong, irreparable damage has been done, in a creeping way, to our educational system and its content.
During the period of economic growth, Japanese companies conducted their business according to their own working methods, imposing a work ethic on their employees which clearly reflected traditional Japanese values, such as 'harmony' rather than individualistic attitudes, and 'absolute devotion' to the company they worked for as if the company were an extended family. Japanese enterprises which relied on such fundamental ethics, therefore, demanded workers whom companies could educate as if they were tabula rasa, rather than workers who had already acquired the knowledge, skills and mental attitudes necessary for the work, because the efficiency Japanese firms were once praised for was derived, in the first place, from the work ethic rather than practical skills and knowledge. That is why the less the new graduates recruited to the work force were educated, or shaped, at universities, the more welcome they were to the companies who employed them. Such was the law of supply and demand of the work force in Japan, which gradually produced a peculiar social phenomenon during the period of high economic growth: most Japanese universities, the number of which incidentally is far too high in a country of this size, became, as it were, pleasure lands where most students spent four years, not studying seriously, but taking it easy before starting their careers as 'economic warriors' or 'economic animals'.
A famous Japanese psychologist who analysed this peculiar phenomenon used the term 'moratorium man' note 4, meaning that university students spent a uniquely carefree four years having a good time and somehow graduating at the end with a minimum of study, careless of the fact that their parents were paying the notoriously high tuition fees. What is striking here is the fact that Japanese society and its educational system which spoilt university students in this way actually did so deliberately, only to make them work very hard after graduation. As a matter of fact, when they graduated and began working, they hardly did anything else but work, sacrificing nearly everything else for the sake of that work. One can almost say that the four years' 'moratorium' was a kind of reward prepaid before they headed for the economic battleground.
circumstances ruled by the law of supply and demand of the work force mentioned
above, it goes without saying, that neither students nor teachers were serious
about the quality of the education they received or gave at university level,
though the truth was, of course, neither admitted nor even talked about openly.
This is, to be sure, only a rough sketch of what happened to the educational
The ELT authors and publishing houses who enjoy such a cosy relationship, and the teachers who encourage them, are now, as already mentioned, exploiting students by feeding them their expensive, trashy textbooks. This relationship apparently works only because students don't care and even prefer this sugary stuff to proper solid material for learning English. If the authors are not to be trusted because of their connections with entrepreneurs, the students ought to start a revolution and demand better teaching; but evidently things do not work that way. Mine is, no doubt, a totally quixotic idea.
At the height
of its economic growth,
Note 1. I would here like to remind the reader that in this
essay I am primarily going to discuss ELT at the university level in
2. The AET (Assistant English Teacher), or more recently ALT (Assistant
Language Teacher), project which was launched by the Ministry of Education in
1987 started by employing 800 native speaker English-teachers (the number is
now nearly five times that of the initial year), who were assigned to each
prefecture to assist Japanese teachers of English at middle and high schools.
The project was designed to give opportunities to secondary school pupils and
teachers to have direct contact with native speakers of English and thereby,
the Ministry of Education hoped, to enhance the quality of English-teaching in
Note 3. The number of textbooks written by
native speaker teachers of English who have been teaching in
Note 4. The term
'moratorium', originally a legal term meaning 'ceasing an activity for an
agreed period of time' was, in fact, initially introduced as a psychological
term by E. H. Erikson, a socio-psychologist. Erikson defined youth as a period
when, though fully mature physically, intellectually and sexually, one is
exempted from full responsibilities and obligations as an adult, or a member of
society, owing to the fact that one is still in the process of acquiring
knowledge and skills required for a future career. Okonogi, citing Erikson,
analysed the peculiar phenomenon observed in
The Editor welcomes your comments or contributions to discussion of this article, either in English, or in Japanese with an English summary.
The English-Learning and Languages Review does not exist solely to attack the dictatorship of the global English-teaching establishment. It has many other purposes. It gives advice on passing language exams. It presents information on English grammar, and in the future, it is hoped, on the grammar of other languages, often approaching problems from a new angle. It debates linguistic theory, and discusses language-learning principles. It invites contributions on all those subjects, and from those who find their own particular delight in the infinite variety of the languages of the world.
The English-Learning and Languages Review and its individual contributors assert their Copyright on all the material published in it. Nevertheless, the Review gives permission for unlimited reproduction of the piece above, Japanese Textbook Pollution, or parts of it, on condition that:
The English-Learning and Languages Review Ć Homepage