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MORE POLITICS

THE GREAT AMERICAN JOKE

I was talking to a guy at work who seems to be at least semi-conscious politically and I found out that in spite of his early progressive political views and avoidance of military service during the Viet Nam war (“the war was wrong,”), he is now reading a book by a right wing activist glorifying the sting operation that brought down Acorn.  He spoke of this set-up and “sting” of an independent non-profit social service agency designed to help under-served Americans like it was a major victory for conservatives and that Acorn really posed some kind of real threat to the "American Way of Life."
(For Acorn info see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Association_of_Community_Organizations_for_Reform_Now”)

Evidently, he, along with other marginally informed people, think that the Left has some kind of power in the United States.  But historically, “we the people” have never had much power and surely do not today.  For example, how long did the abolitionists struggle to end slavery?  How long did women have to fight  to get the basic right to vote?  How long did civil rights leaders labor to bring about some basic human rights’ changes for African-Americans?  Maybe there were minor positive surges in guaranteeing basic human rights during FDR’s terms and the Kennedy/Johnson era, although those were brought about more by time-critical events, but it is certainly not happening today.

Take a look. In recent times, the leaders, activists and figureheads who actually fought for or promoted the rights of ALL people have inevitably met with real or metaphoric assassination or been labeled crazy terrorists. The desperate actions of a few leftist groups in the 60s and 70s, like the Weathermen and the Black Panthers as they attempted to wrest away a little power, showed people the violence our government can perpetrate to suppress extreme acts.  The 1968 Chicago Democratic convention and the resulting Chicago 8 trial showed this as well.  All our anti-war, anti-establishment protesting, marching, writing, singing, getting arrested, going to jail, etc. accomplished very little, except to accelerate time-specific social changes that were going to happen anyway (civil rights, women's rights, relaxed social and cultural norms, etc.)

However, the Right continues to hammer away at anyone who opposes them, often covertly (the Patriot Act is very handy for this), but also openly, strictly for the media attention so that the public will continue to believe that what progressives and liberals want is to destroy the American Way of Life.  The Right continues to instill fear because that is the primary tactic they use to keep people believing that they care about the common people of this country.  Their real and disgustingly cynical goal is to make people complacent so that they accept the status quo, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer while believing all along that they too can attain great wealth.  They believe in the American Dream, but it’s really the American Joke!!!!

I don't know why (I should have learned by now), but I am flabbergasted by the number of non-native speakers throughout the world who are learning high-level English.  I studied TESL and taught college-level courses to international students in the U.S. and saw how many new arrivals from different language backgrounds learn it well when they are "immersed" in the language and also have a real need to learn it, for work or school.  But many people who are not immersed are writing in L J with more fluency than most Americans! 

 

In TESL courses in the U.S. we learn that fluent writing is the last language skill to develop, after listening, speaking and reading, and yet that skill has been mastered by many people who have never left their country or studied with a "native speaker." (Is this idea even relevant anymore?). I often ask people I meet on L J's " a day in my life" how they learned English, and I have noticed two surprising commonalities:

1) Many of them also speak/write several other languages.  
2) Most of them have been watching American/British TV and reading English since they were kids.

I posit (backed with no scientific research) that the more languages one learns, the more one can learn.  Anyone agree/disagree?  It think is has to do with neural pathways established when learning one and then two languages, which pathways then provide heightened access to linguistic learning and mastery of other languages.  I marvel especially at people who use other symbols in their language, how they can take in so much new information and process it.  Like people from Asia, or those who use Arabic or Cyrillic symbols.  It boggles the mind and somehow gives me hope for humankind, too.

I think it is regrettable that exported American TV has influenced so many people, in the same way I regret the influence of McDonalds and Starbucks and Kentucky Fried and Subway.  But . . . if this global economy can bring people together and help them communicate in meaningful ways, that may be a worthwhile positive result in the long run (in the meantime, it is only making other countries FAT!).

The most ironic aspect of our “successfully exporting” American English can be seen in our literacy statistics.  A startling 1993 U.S. Department of Education study showed that 21% to 23% of adult Americans were not "able to locate information in text", could not "make low-level inferences using printed materials", and were unable to "integrate easily identifiable pieces of information." 

 

Here's some other interesting information about U.S. literacy, footnoted in the same Wikipedia article Literacy in the United States:

 

Robyn Jackson, Some startling statistics, University of Dayton, Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop, http://www.humorwriters.org/startlingstats.html, retrieved 2008-02-05 

  1. 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
  2. 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
  3. 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
  4. 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
  5. 57 percent of new books are not read to completion


Some of the countries where I have encountered people online (or elsewhere) whose English is  excellent and whose writing ability far outshines most young people in the U.S.:

Japan
China
Korea
Thailand
Germany
New Russia
Croatia
Norway
Finland
Sweden
Spain
France
Holland
Brazil
Singapore and Hong Kong (of course)
Philippines
Nigeria
Ivory Coast
Senegal
Mexico

 


RE: President Obama
TO: The Democratic National Committee

To Whom It May Concern:

I know that it is not president Obama’s fault that we are saddled with a corrupt and anachronistic economic and political system, but I must say I am disappointed about how fast he has been sucked into it.  His genuine concern for average (mostly unemployed) Americans like me was the reason I so strongly supported his candidacy, but it is obvious now that he has capitulated to the forces that rule this country.  He probably has no option, but his inability to even begin to combat the corruption in Washington reinforces my long-standing feelings about the state of our nation.  I continue to be embarrassed by our aggressive, destructive foreign policy, our inability to learn from more advanced democracies, our corporate, economic and individual greed and the utter lack of morality symbolized by our
abusive military and intelligence community and their actions.   

I am not one of the "indoctrinated" Americans who believe our form of government (so-called democracy) and our capitalism are beneficial for other countries, when in fact it is obviously not even good for us.  I am very wary of the U.S. and its actions both at home and abroad and have been a protester against our military since the 1960s.  Our corrupt, sometimes secret, sometimes overtly belligerent way of dealing with the world (as well as the people here in the U.S.) is ignored by many, but obvious to a (sadly) small percentage of people who care about justice and equality.

 
Since WWII our "military industrial complex" has been the most powerful influence behind our government, and "we the people" have never been consulted about its continuous bullying at home or abroad.  I am painfully aware of the fact that there is a always a hidden agenda and most of what the corporations, government and military preach is lies.  It is clear that those in power are cynical and calculating and only want to become richer and more powerful.  They routinely use anachronistic nationalist propaganda, fear, secrecy, distraction and misinformation to get what they want.  Most U.S. citizens believe what they are told, and think that as long as we are militarily and economically powerful and have the most and best weapons, it is our right to behave however we want.  This is a fatalistic, old-world, cold war attitude (us against them), where might makes right and the United States inevitably spawns numerous enemies and consequently must fight many wars. 

There are many who believe war is good for the economy and accordingly we continue to fund excessive military spending, sheer hypocrisy for any nation interested in peace.
 The “terrorists,” home-grown and otherwise, are just following a script that our government and other colonial powers have written by abusing power at home and abroad for years.  Simple cause and effect. 

Also note that our government still operates as if it were a colonial power, with the “god given” right to influence (secretly or overtly) and even replace (i.e., overthrow) the governments of other nations.  This has been going on since the establishment of the U.S. as an independent country.
 The U.S. was founded by European invaders on genocide, slavery and oppression, resulting in a powerful negative hangover for the American psyche.  Our country is still ruled by a small upper class comprised of corporate oligarchs who fund our military, our intelligence agencies and our politicians.  And most of our average people still feel a nameless oppression in spite of living in a consumer’s paradise.  

In the U.S., justice and democracy are subverted to allow some people (usually with the “right connections”) and their corporations to become wealthy on an unbelievable global scale.  Meanwhile, in the “richest nation,” government services (i.e., health care, education, housing, security) are available to a modest segment of the population to prove that the government “cares,” while really the government serves the corporations and the wealthy.  The military,the  intelligence services and the police are powerful, well-funded and paranoid; afraid, perhaps, of “the people" finding out what is really going on.  And of course the media is stifled or restricted when it comes to exposing the true actions and real motivation of the government.  Their purpose is to distract and entertain!  Are we fooled?  I think not!

I am hereby removing myself from the two party system and notifying you that I think this country is lost.  You and the other dupes in Washington have lost my support.    

Sincerely,

Patrick A. Nolan

TESL Philosophy

 

ESL Teaching Philosophy

 

In English for Specific Purposes, edited by Thomas Orr, the author’s introduction makes clear the distinction between English for General Purposes and English for Specific Purposes.  He states that EGP is the “common core of English that is shared by most of its speakers.” [and is presented] “as a linguistic system to a wide range of learners for application in the most general of potential circumstances, whereas ESP is taught as a tailor-made language package to specific communities of learners with highly specialized language needs” (p. 2).  The professional ESP teacher’s job is to define the language package needed and to provide access in a way that helps learners use it effectively.

 

All effective ESL teaching incorporates the basic principles of ESP.  In any given situation, through a complete needs analysis, teachers identify specific language needs and expectations of their students (and all invested parties) and are able to present this target language in an accessible manner.  They consult everyone involved and include their recommendations in the production (and/or purchase) and presentation of appropriate curriculum materials.  Effective use of various media resources along with collaboration with management and/or professionals in the field creates an effective and exciting curriculum.

 

In terms of basic approaches, effective English language teaching and learning depends on student involvement and developing positive attitudes.  A teacher’s number one job is to provide a safe place in which to learn, a student-centered classroom in which the students’ “affective filter” is successfully lowered.  In other words, a comfortable learning environment advances learning while an environment that insinuates criticism or fear of expression curtails learning.  By developing open, professional relationships with students and by showing appreciation for their interests and goals, a teacher establishes a secure foundation of trust that enhances effective learning and encourages positive student involvement. 

 

Another important teaching approach is the encouragement of ongoing independent student learning.  This relates directly to the point above because a comfortable classroom promotes an individualized curriculum and student participation.  Students soon recognize that as their personal investment grows they experience increasing success inside and outside the classroom.  The responsive teacher shows belief in their abilities and supports their independent learning.

 

ESL classroom teaching methods and techniques should emphasize using English for real communication, whether for general, academic or business/career purposes.  In order to do this effectively, teachers must pay close attention to students’ abilities, skill levels, and learning styles.  Teaching effective speaking and listening skills and other skills relevant to their pursuits must be based on individual needs assessments and the dynamics of the class.  Here again, an effective teacher focuses on the real needs, goals, and interests of the specific students and strives to facilitate student involvement and participation through effective classroom management and by adopting a fitting teaching role.  Student expertise should be drawn upon and the classroom should be a model of collaboration whenever possible.  The use of a task-based curriculum based on authentic materials naturally enhances the genuine nature of classroom activities.

 

A key teaching method in an ESP-centered course is integrating all the elements of the curriculum as well as the four basic skills.  No topic or task should be taught in isolation and if possible every task should include the development of listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills.  The teacher should make students aware of these interrelated topics and language skills.

 

This Philosophy Statement outlines some of the approaches and methods I have adopted over the years as I’ve studied and observed what most effectively serves the populations in which I have worked.  I believe they are the core elements of any quality ESL/ESP program.

TEACHING ENGLISH IN JAPAN

 

This is a rather academic essay I wrote after much thought, some experience in Japan and some research.  It was published in a German magazine, Lebende Sprachen and in the Indiana TESOL publication in 2002.

Introduction

Japanese society is complex, sophisticated, enigmatic and contradictory.  Similarities to western culture abound, yet striking differences exist.  Generalities are futile and fruitless especially because Japan undergoes radical changes with each generation.  Nevertheless, certain issues and underlying cultural values can be identified and explored and conclusions can be drawn from observations and research.  Of special interest is the Japanese method of education and the federally regulated school system, especially as they concern the teaching and study of English.

Seventeen months spent living and working in Japan hardly represents a thorough cultural study, yet a teacher of English has unique opportunities to observe and participate in Japanese society and to mingle with a representative cross-section of people.  Typically, a “native speaker” interacts with students of all ages and backgrounds and also mixes socially with many people, sometimes in their homes.  Invitations to parties and other events are commonplace and the Japanese are warm, welcoming and eager to offer friendship to foreigners.

It is inevitable however, that a foreign teacher often feels somewhat detached from, and puzzled by, Japanese culture.  However, it is possible to mitigate that feeling, especially if one aggressively pursues learning the language.  This is an arduous task, given that Japanese is possibly the most complex language on earth, but if a foreigner wishes to stay in Japan for any length of time, it is essential for improved cultural awareness and successful integration.  One further obstacle to learning Japanese, above and beyond its inherent difficulty, is the constant pressure to speak English with serious students seeking conversation.

English Obsession

One of Japan’s more enigmatic features is the contradiction between what is seemingly an obsession with learning English and the relative inability of most of the population to use it effectively for communication.  Given Japan’s history of isolation from the West and its rapid rise to international power both before and after WW II, there are significant reasons today for the Japanese to aggressively pursue learning English.  Recently, the Japanese government declared English the official second language, and since 2002, for the first time, English is being taught at the elementary level.  In addition to this, there has long been a concerted effort to bring native speakers to Japan to teach.  In fact, private conversation schools require only a bachelor’s degree to earn a government-regulated average salary of $25,000, and many other lucrative language-teaching opportunities are available.  A beginning foreign teacher also receives inexpensive, comprehensive health care and subsidized housing.

In spite of these dynamic efforts, evidence of the Japanese people’s inability to effectively use English persists.  Recent government studies indicate that only 50% of Japanese teachers of English can actually speak English, and most of them do not use it in their classrooms.  TOEFL test scores (a comprehensive test used for admission to many American universities) for all Asian countries show Japanese students at the bottom of the list, last excepting the North Koreans. 

By the time Japanese students reach university level they have studied English for at least five years in school.  Countless English students tell the story of their initial attraction to English (or the English speaking world), their stultifying experience with English in Japanese schools, and their eventual decision to cease studying because English is “so difficult.”  Some of these students’ interest in the language revives through travel, business needs, or participation in “conversation schools,” currently the most popular medium for English study, but there is unanimous agreement that English teaching methods used in government-regulated schools are fundamentally defective.

So what happens in the Japanese school system to defeat students’ natural interest in English and why?  What steps can be taken to remedy this situation so that English can be taught and learned effectively in Japan?  To understand this situation, an exploration of the Japanese education system and its cultural underpinnings is essential. 

Japanese Society

At the outset it must be made clear again that for every generalization about Japan there is a contradiction.  As stated before, it is a society in a constant state of flux, and to the foreign visitor it is often unclear whether the changes observed are superficial or deep and indeed whether what appears to be change is change at all.  Understanding Japanese culture takes many years, so observations made over seventeen months are severely limited in scope. 

Nevertheless, it is apparent that Japanese society differs from American society in a number of ways, the most basic being an emphasis on group rather than individual concerns.  In Japan it has long been considered bad form to draw attention to oneself in any way.  Basically, the goal of each individual participating in any group is to contribute to the welfare of that group, rather than to seek individual achievement.  This lasting traditional value is one of the foundations of society.  Other enduring common values of Japanese culture are respect for people, honesty, patience, hard work, adherence to rules and principles and reverence for family and ancestors.

While it is clear there are important changes occurring in Japan, especially among young people, it is also clear that many cultural values remain deeply internalized.  This is evident in the Japanese model of education and the system prescribed by the federal government, especially when contrasted to the U.S. education system.

American and Japanese Education Systems

In America

In America the Federal Department of Education acts as a research and advisory agency but has little influence on actual educational policy in the myriad states and school districts.  The American education system vacillates between centralization and decentralization from generation to generation.  The current decentralized school movement, which promotes local school self-determination regarding curriculum and philosophy intends to offer many kinds of educational experiences to children.  Moreover, educational research in America continues to search for the best ways to help children maximize their learning potential.  Researchers have identified many learning styles and types of intelligence that can be utilized to foster and reinforce learning in schools.

In addition, there is a growing “progressive” trend in American education, encouraged in part by the alternative education movement of the 60s and 70s, which includes ideas such as classroom curricula based on individual interests and needs, identifying and using diverse student learning styles and intelligences as teaching guides, more relaxed learning environments where children are free to circulate in class, theme-based curricula, non-graded elementary schools and multi-age learning environments.  Overall, even in public schools, there is increased student input in the development of curricula, and in many classrooms, students are encouraged to express themselves in ways previously discouraged.

Furthermore, in America it is possible for almost any person to attend an institution of higher learning.  State universities, technical schools, business schools and community colleges are just a few examples of institutions open to nearly everyone.  Many scholarships and loans are available to students of lesser means.

In Japan

In Japan, the federal government dictates all curriculum matters for public and private schools and contributes financial support to both.  Rigorous standardized testing begins in late elementary school to determine which students will enter the highest-level “national” schools (recognized as the best in Japan.)  This regimen includes Step Tests for students and TOEIC tests for adults, systematic English tests used to measure grammar, translation skills, vocabulary and comprehension.  Most of the English classes taught in Japanese schools prepare students for these tests and generally feature the translation and memorization of English idioms, words and phrases.  Under this system, there is little time for students to listen to, read or enjoy English, and certainly little effort is made to use English for communication. 

Students in Japanese schools typically participate in a formal manner, as recipients of knowledge.  All classrooms (except for early childhood classes) are arranged with seats in rows facing the teacher, and students are expected to absorb knowledge from lectures and textbooks and to show achievement when quizzed and tested.  There is little discussion in the classroom even at the college level and little room for students’ ideas, needs or opinions. The curriculum is prescribed uniformly throughout the country and teachers are required to cover the material.

Respect is intrinsic in the Japanese system, both for students and teachers, but this is demonstrated in social terms rather than in terms of school curricula.  Japanese education appears to be humane and benign on the personal level, although reports of high stress, peer pressure, bullying and drop out rates continue to increase.  Curiously, many schools in Japan also double as community centers for after school and weekend “club” activities, and many students seem to enjoy and seek out these activities.

Many Japanese teachers, parents and students feel that their education system is anachronistic, yet they feel powerless to change it.  Students commonly profess boredom with their curriculum and apprehension about testing, but without direct access to the federal administration their complaints go unheeded and change comes slowly.

Educational Values in Japan

To form a clear picture of the Japanese education system it is necessary to further explore the social values deeply ingrained in Japanese students.  Group consciousness as perceived by foreigners is more apparent to the Japanese, although perhaps on an unconscious level.  In a school environment, where many people are working together in classrooms averaging forty students, the demands of the group far outweigh those of the individual.  There is intense pressure to conform, to fit in, and to not be remarkable in any way. 

In the classroom, the conventional and respected way to behave is simply to be innocuous.  Any deviation from the norm brands a student as odd and can invite negative reactions and even ridicule.  Furthermore, because students are always aware of how others perceive them, it is not appropriate to show any special proficiency or skill in the classroom.  Teachers and students accept that students will only show their mastery of a subject on tests.  Furthermore, to be vocal in class risks embarrassment for yourself, your classmates and your teacher, and must be avoided.  Students only respond to questions when asked directly, and many teachers are hesitant to call on students because they understand the risk of embarrassment. 

Classroom behavior and the preeminence of testing throughout Japanese society correlate to specific cultural values that underlie all interaction in schools.  Because people expect academic achievement to be a private matter and “showing off” one's knowledge is discouraged, testing is a way for students to aggressively achieve success without attracting attention.  In a culture where traditionally the group has subsumed the individual, this makes perfect sense, although it causes many problems for foreign teachers of English.

Teaching English in Japan

Given the passive nature of students in this non-participatory education system, it is a wonder that anyone sustains an interest in learning communicative English.  In fact, to effectively use English for communication, Japanese students must struggle to overcome the mindset they have developed in school.  Research shows that in order to be able to effectively produce spoken or written language (language output), students must have access to listening and reading in that language (language input).  Just as importantly, students must be able to use the language freely, without fear of correction or embarrassment. 

Of course these notions do not conform to the Japanese education system, in which English input is limited to grammar study, memorization and translation and making mistakes in front of the group is shameful and risks embarrassment.  As a result, Japanese students usually develop classic prototypes of what language acquisition author and researcher Stephen Krashen calls “over-monitoring,” i.e., a self-conscious focus on grammar rules that severely limits their ability to produce English.  They become too concerned about being correct and avoiding mistakes to risk communication.  These students must be “deprogrammed” to some extent to be successful language learners.

However, the presence of native speakers in many schools combats negative attitudes about learning conversation and provides opportunities for students to learn more about people from other cultures.  They can converse with foreigner teachers outside of class (avoiding the group), which promotes the use of English for communication.  Often, students find the inspiration they need in these contacts.  Coincidently, and perhaps due to the significant socio-cultural differences inherent in the two languages, some students experience and enjoy a newfound sense of individuality through their pursuit of English.

Some Recommendations for Change

In Japan, conversation schools offer students relief from the traditional classroom environment and can be of great value for developing communication skills.  The presence of native speakers in these schools motivates authentic, meaningful conversation and often inspires further study and/or travel abroad.  Of course visiting an English speaking country and experiencing full language immersion provides the best language learning opportunity.  Home stays and study abroad opportunities are increasing and many students from junior high through college are taking advantage.  Interestingly, Japanese women now outnumber men going abroad to live and study, reflecting an overall trend towards independence in Japanese society.

However, in addition to offering these language-learning experiences, the Japanese education system must radically alter its approach to teaching English in order to achieve any real measure of success.  First of all, English should be offered daily during the elementary years, not as a discipline to be tested like science or history, but as another form of real communication.  “Teacher talk” is the most effective method of providing input for beginning students, so native speakers and Japanese teachers should use English in their classrooms, with translation used sparingly.  Comprehensive bi-lingual education would certainly improve English acquisition.  Then as soon as students learn the English alphabet and sound system, enjoyable English reading can be included in the curriculum. 

Secondly, after elementary school, English study might be made optional for students.  Then only those students with a real interest in English would take small, intensive communicative classes using English exclusively.  The rigid English requirements and testing for junior high, high school and college entrance could be eliminated, except when students elect to major in that subject.

Thirdly, the incessant testing of English levels throughout society should be relaxed or dispensed with altogether, to enable students to enjoy learning English without undue stress.  Tests should only be used to determine a student’s level for proper job placement or to determine strengths and weaknesses, and they should accurately measure a student’s communicative skill.

Conclusion

The suggestions above focus on the teaching of English in Japan but also reflect the opinion of many who see the need for a complete revamping of the Japanese education system.  Overall changes will take years because the Japanese model remains deeply rooted in the culture, and change produces resistance.  However, in order to successfully take part in international affairs, Japanese students must develop their creative and analytical thinking skills and be exposed to the vast array of modern educational tools.

Most Japanese students cultivate excellent attitudes towards hard work, discipline and learning and these attitudes can be further enhanced by a more creative, proactive approach to education, including language acquisition.  Students need to participate in the planning of their futures, and schools need to promote students’ individual involvement, self-expression, self-confidence and development of communicative abilities. 

Because Japan is a key player in the world community, it is clear that internal change is inevitable.  Isolation of any kind only inhibits growth and prosperity in today’s world.  As Japan moves forward into the future as one of the world’s premier advanced cultures, a flexible education system responsive to society’s needs is of paramount importance.