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Japanese Textbook Pollution:

A disastrous ELT affliction

 

Yasuko Murata

 

 

Contents

 

ELT textbook pollution in Japan

English-teachers at universities flooded with textbooks in the autumn

Japan a huge ELT market

Poor quality of textbooks published in Japan

Superficial content and elementary language

The move from literary material to cultural themes and the communicative approach - lack of a sound literary model

Shallow analyses and over-simple language that discourage serious study

Factors in Japanese society

Profitability of ELT books for publishers and academics

The cosy relationship between writers and publishers - the low quality of their products

The easy vicious circle, offering no challenge to students

The delusion of sham language-learning

Wrapping English in fancy paper

Euphoria induced by over-affluent Japanese society

Strong economy, insidious damage to education

The traditional Japanese work ethic, and the Japanese university pleasure lands

'Moratorium Man'

Un-serious nature of university education during the Japanese growth period - devastating results

Exploitation of students by selling them expensive trashy ELT books

Educational pollution in Japan contrasts with relatively environmentally friendly manufacturing

 

 

ELT textbook pollution in Japan

In the world of English language teaching (ELT) in Japan today we are witnessing a peculiar phenomenon, what I can only call "textbook pollution", and it is to my shock and dismay rapidly undermining the whole basis and quality of ELT in Japan. Those who are involved in English-teaching there must know exactly what I am going to say in this essay, but for those who are not familiar with that world, it might appear rather extraordinary. I shall try in this short tentative essay to draw attention to what seems to me one of the most alarming diseases to be observed in ELT in contemporary Japan.

 

English-teachers at universities flooded with textbooks in the autumn

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.

 

Japan a huge ELT market

This phenomenon, in fact, has been getting worse in Japan every year for the past ten years or so. It was apparently caused by the fact that the country has become one of the biggest markets for the ELT business in the world; hence the abundance of native speaker English-teachers and ELT textbook publishers, including major ones from abroad. The whole situation, I suspect, was first triggered by a silly programme note 2 introduced by the Ministry of Education in Japan, and later it simply accelerated in proportion to the rapid increase in the number of native speaker English-teachers. I would here like to make a few comments on "textbook pollution" and the overall deplorable ELT situation in Japan.

 

Poor quality of ELT textbooks published in Japan

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.

 

Superficial content and elementary language

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?

 

The move from literary material to cultural themes and the communicative approach – lack of a sound literary model

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.

 

Shallow analyses and over-simple language that discourages serious study

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 Japan with overwhelming effects on both teachers and students, and meeting hardly any resistance from either side.

 

Factors in Japanese society

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 situation in Japan no doubt cannot be separated from the overall situation of education in Japan and furthermore of Japanese society in general.

 

Profitability of ELT books for publishers and academics

Leafing through ELT magazines published in Japan, most notably Eigo Kyoiku by Kenkyusha and The Language Teacher, a magazine published by JALT (the Japan Association for Language Teaching), one sees a lot of advertisements for ELT textbooks by both local and foreign publishers. It doesn't take long for anyone to guess that the sheer abundance of ELT textbooks published in Japan is purely artificial phenomenon, from which both publishers and the academics who write them benefit. Publishers are business enterprises, which by definition aim at making a profit. One cannot deny this even when the field that publishers specialise in is education. Education, if one maintains an idealistic viewpoint, cannot go with entrepreneurship; this, however, is just an ideal. In practice, education is big business in many countries and Japan is one of the outstanding examples of the link between the two. Private schools and universities all carry this fundamental contradiction, which very often creates complex problems both financial and educational. Therefore, the present ELT situation in Japan where ELT textbooks publishers try their best to make as much money as possible is nothing new or unusual. Having said this, I still cannot help feeling nowadays that "Enough is enough!"

 

The cosy relationship between writers and publishers – the low quality of their products

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.

 

The easy vicious circle, offering no challenge to students

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.

 

The delusion of sham language-learning

This may sound incredible and exaggerated, but it is exactly what is happening in Japan; hence my expression 'textbook pollution.' Everybody seems to be happy learning (or unlearning) English this way; everybody, in other words, seems to suffer the profound illusion that they are going to reach a level where they can make fairly lively conversation with native speakers. What a delusion it is! This is all sham. The whole ELT scene in Japan, in my view, seems to be in a state of fatal euphoria, suffering from an epidemic which is caused by the vicious circle of this cunningly established close relationship between English-teachers and the textbook publishers . Anybody who has experience of learning foreign languages in a serious way knows that learning a foreign language is a hard task, unless you are raised in a bilingual or trilingual environment. It most certainly demands considerable effort from a learner and determination as well. No matter how easy or enjoyable it is made to look, it is in essence not an easy thing to achieve. Nobody can deny this fact.

 

Wrapping English in fancy paper

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 Japan and English-speaking countries, or negligible knowledge about the issues dealt with in the textbooks.

 

Euphoria induced by over-affluent Japanese society

This shallow, 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 Japan has gone through a period of unprecedented economic growth when a state of 'workaholicism' was the norm for most Japanese. The aim was to catch up with the powerful developed nations, which after many years' hard work we obviously have achieved. Although the Japanese economy is now a little shaky, the effect of high economic growth, a state of euphoria induced among the Japanese by an over-affluent society, still lingers on.

 

Strong economy, insidious damage to education

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.

 

The traditional Japanese work ethic, and the Japanese university pleasure lands

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'.

 

‘Moratorium Man’

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.

 

Un-serious nature of university education during the Japanese growth period – devastating results

Under such 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 system in Japan during the so-called economic growth period. Despite the broad generalization, however, my description, I believe, is not very far from what actually happened. The result, as we can see now, has proved indeed to be devastating. Several decades of such a situation no doubt bring about a crucial change in people's mentality concerning education, particularly the mentality of those who are directly involved in teaching. What we are experiencing right now in ELT is part of the consequence of this overall change, or degeneration, in the basic attitude towards education in Japan.

 

Exploitation of students by selling them expensive trashy ELT textbooks

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.

 

Educational pollution in Japan contrasts with relatively environmentally friendly manufacturing

At the height of its economic growth, Japan was notorious for all kinds of pollution. With its money and advanced technology, Japan managed, after many years of trial and error, to convert its whole manufacturing system to one relatively friendly to the environment. But as regards education, unfortunately, the situation is lagging far behind: we are now producing enormous pollution every day. Ours is a terribly contaminated educational system and, alas, ELT is a prime example.

 

 

Notes

 

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 Japan, though there are a few places in which I venture to touch upon English-teaching at middle and high schools. As an English-teacher at a university, I cannot regard myself as being fully competent to discuss ELT at those levels.

 

 

Note 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 Japan. At about the same time, the Ministry introduced new ELT guidelines, which encouraged the communicative approach, namely a strong emphasis on speaking and listening abilities rather than comprehension and grammar which had been almost the only areas covered by Japanese ELT up to that point. Hence the mass recruiting of university graduates from English-speaking countries who are distributed all over Japan. The thought was that pupils and teachers could be given a chance of meeting native speakers of English, which otherwise they would never have. There is, in fact, nothing wrong with the idea. After all, when we learn a foreign language we are supposed to learn how to read it, how to write it and how to speak it. The problem with the introduction of this project in 1987 was, as far as I can see, that it was introduced at roughly the same time as the overall reform of the whole school curriculum. The number of hours allocated to English lessons in middle and high schools was drastically reduced. Encouraging the communicative approach in ELT within the reduced hours for English inevitably resulted in an appalling drop in whatever standard of English achieved by pupils, simply because those native speaker teachers of English were able to teach pupils for no more than one hour per week. How, one wonders, can we expect pupils to acquire communicative ability in English with so little time for English lessons? This is yet another example of meaningless guidelines drawn up by those who do not have the slightest idea about actual teaching in a given time and place. Consequently, when those pupils enter colleges or universities, they find themselves not only insufficiently equipped in terms of grammar and comprehension, but also largely lacking in speaking and listening skills. They have acquired neither a solid grammatical basis, nor the ability to communicate in English, quite contrary to what the Ministry of Education had envisaged. The reason I call this project 'silly' is that with the budget allocated to this project, the government could easily give Japanese English-teachers at middle and high schools sabbatical leave and send them to English-speaking countries so as to give them opportunities to develop their command of English. This would, in my opinion, be infinitely more beneficial to English-teaching here in the long run.

 

 

Note 3. The number of textbooks written by native speaker teachers of English who have been teaching in Japan for many years has increased considerably in recent years. These textbooks are, normally, written by a couple of teachers, or a group of three or four, with a native speaker writing the title essay in each chapter and a Japanese teacher adding notes to the essay and/or writing exercises according to the content of the essay. This pattern is the most common. Textbooks used in middle schools and high schools are a different matter altogether, because they have to be approved officially by the Ministry of Education. This, however, does not, unfortunately, guarantee a higher standard. One gets the impression that these textbooks for middle and high schools follow, in principle, the example of those for university level.

 

 

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 Japan from the 1960s onward. The phase defined by Erikson as 'youth', Okonogi says, tended to drag on in Japan, so much so that, in extreme cases, people in their 30s, 40s and even 50s still remain youths in the sense that they are not prepared to assume their responsibilities as adults. According to Okonogi, Japanese society produced an abnormal type of adult whose primary problem was their failure to establish their own identities. I will not here go into more detailed explanation of this subject. (Cf. Moratoriamu Ningen no Jidai by Keigo Okonogi, published by Chuoh-koron in 1978) In this present essay I am extending the meaning of 'moratorium man' to cover university students who neglect even the things they are supposed to be doing during this period.

 

 

 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.

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