Tuesday, March 07, 2017

TEFLology Podcast: BONUS Episode 55: A Duoethnography by Marek Kiczkowiak & Robert Lowe

(TEFLology Podcast)

This episode actually came out several weeks ago, but I'm behind in my blogging.

Anyway, you can listen to it online here.

This is a bonus episode, which consists of an audio paper written by Marek Kiczkowiak and Robert Lowe.
(Rob Lowe is one of the TEFLologists, and Marek Kiczkowiak I recognized from his previous guest spot on TEFLology).

This is perhaps the first ever audio academic paper--the writers read out a paper that they had published in an academic journal.
It's a really cool idea.  In fact, hopefully it will be the start of a trend.
(I imagine lots of people are like me--they struggle to find time to read the academic literature.  But if a lot of academic papers became "audio papers" I would be able to keep a lot better informed.)

This paper was talked about in the previous episode of TEFLology.
In both that previous episode, and in the introduction to this one, the TEFLologists go out of their way to acknowledge how incredibly subjective this type of study is, but claim that there is a place for this kind of subjective study in academia as a way to balance out the more cold impersonal quantitative studies.

But that being said...Wow, this whole thing was very subjective!
It was just a re-counting of personal experiences.  It felt like the kind of writing you would find in a personal blog and not in an academic paper.
But the TEFLologists claim that this conforms to the standards of the genre, and since I've not read any ethnographys or duoethnographys, I'm just going to have to take their word for it.

Once you accept that the whole thing is subjective, and take it as that, I think the conversation has some interesting insights.
And, for whatever it's worth, my own subjective experience as a native English speaker in Japan support everything Robert Lowe says.

I think Robert Lowe does a good job of putting things in the right perspective.  In some ways native-speaker teachers in Japan do face disadvantages, but the comparing advantages are so over-whelming that the disadvantages are hardly worth mentioning.

For comparisons sake, think about how difficult it is for even highly qualified specialists to get a working visa in the United States.  And yet we native speakers can come to Japan (and Cambodia, and Vietnam, and many other countries) without any qualifications, and get a working visa and a decent paying job.
With that incredible amount of privilege, you feel guilty complaining about anything.
And Robert Lowe does a good job of acknowledging this and putting this all in context.
And yet, that doesn't mean that there aren't some small ways in which native speakers are discriminated against in Japan, and since the purpose of this paper is to examine all the ins-and-outs of native-speakerism, Robert Lowe wouldn't be doing his job if he didn't get into some of that.

(The real problem is for the people who settle down in Japan--who get married, have kids, and become locked in. Then they have to face up to the fact that they have a family to support, but also almost no opportunities for career advancement beyond the entry-level English teacher job.  At this point, the incredible privilege that got them into the country in the first place now seems like a distant memory compared to the struggles to make a life in the country.)

Below are some other random observations I have on the podcast:

* As Robert Lowe says, native speaking teachers in Japan are often regarded not as real teachers, but as resources.
I certainly experienced this during my years in Japan (3 years as a JET, 2 years as a private ALT, and 3 years in English Conversation schools).
Life as a JET / ALT in particular is a bit funny, because it's perhaps the only job in the world where you succeed by doing as little as possible.
The JETs I know who ended up creating real conflict in their schools were the ones who tried to take too active a role in teaching.  This often really upset the Japanese teacher, who wanted the JET to be as passive as possible.
As I once wrote in a previous post:
 Ironically, the assistant English teachers in Japan who are the most motivated and hard working seem to crash and burn a lot.  Partly this is because being laid back is a key to surviving culture shock.  And partly because the Japanese school teachers don't always want an assistant teacher who will take over their curriculum.  Instead they prefer someone who is easy going, compliant, and who will do as much (or as little) as they are told to.  (Being inherently lazy and easy-going, this was one of the reasons I thrived as being an assistant language teacher in Japan for so many years.  Unfortunately, these same skill sets do not transfer well to other jobs, and this is one of the main reasons I regret having stayed too long in Japan.) 

* Robert Lowe mentions at one point that his Japanese students don't trust his grammar explanations, and would double check any grammar he taught them with a Japanese teacher of English.
I agree that there is a stereo-type that native-speakers don't know grammar.  But in my experience, students have to get to a certain level of  sophistication before they become aware of this stereo-type.
My own experience in Japan was primarily the opposite--the students were shocked when I couldn't explain grammar rules to them.
I actually had to spend a fair amount of time explaining to my students that I spoke English intuitively, and that I didn't actually have declarative knowledge of all of the grammar rules.
To be perfectly fair though, this happens both ways.  When I was first studying Japanese, I assumed that all of my Japanese friends and colleagues would be able to help me with any questions.  But it turns out that your average Japanese person can't explain the grammar rules behind even many of the simple grammar exercises in a beginner textbook like Minna no Nihongo.

*  Related to the above point: when I worked at an English conversation school in Japan, we were actually explicitly forbidden from getting into grammar explanations with the students--apparently there had been a problem in the past with native speakers giving wrong explanations to students, and then students complaining to the company.
And although this seems like a needlessly strict rule, to be perfectly fair to the company, I occasionally saw evidence for this with my own eyes.
It seemed to be a problem particularly with my Australian co-workers.  (In North American schools, we are still taught some declarative grammar rules, but I've been told that in British and Australian schools this has been eliminated on the theory that native speakers don't need to know declarative grammar.)
I once had an Australian co-worker who taught the students that there was no difference between "who's" and "whose", and that they were just alternative ways of writing the same thing.

* Another stereotype that Robert Lowe and Marek Kiczkowiak deconstruct is that non-native teachers are inherently more sympathetic to the students, because they understand what it's like to learn English as a second language.
Instead, Robert Lowe and Marek Kiczkowiak make the point that non-native teachers, by the very fact that they've achieved enough proficiency in the language to teach it, are usually good language learners.  And good language learners often have trouble understanding the struggles of students who are poor language learners.
In my anecdotal experience, this has totally been true.  Often the teachers who get frustrated with the students the most are non-native teachers.
In fact, when I was in Japan, it was usually the native English speakers who were the most tolerant of the Japanese people's inability to speak English.  Like the Japanese, most of us had come from school systems where we had studied the language for years, and were still not able to speak it.

I remember one time when a British colleague and I were talking to a group of Japanese adult learners, and they asked us why Japanese people couldn't learn English, and what they were doing wrong.  "Don't feel bad," we told them.  "It's the same in our countries.  We also study languages for years in school, and can't speak it."

What's more, since most native English speakers come from a mono-lingual culture, they often share the Japanese mentality that bilingualism is mysterious and almost super-human.

Contrast that with the attitude of many Europeans.
Something I recorded on this blog back in 2004 was a conversation with Dutch soccer players visiting Japan, who just could not believe that Japanese people could study English for 8 years, and end up not speaking a word of it.

* Robert Lowe mentions that some of his native-speaking colleagues made insensitive and ignorant comments about their Japanese co-workers, and the ability of Japanese people to teach English.
I don't know Robert Lowe's colleagues, but to me this sounds like textbook culture shock. Particularly  this sounds like it's the frustration stage.

To quote from one description of this stage:

During this stage, you start whinging about your new home. You dislike the culture, the language, the food. You reject it as inferior. You may even develop some prejudices towards the new culture. You’re angry, frustrated and even feel hostile to those around you.
Now, of course there's a fine line here, because you don't want to use the "culture shock" excuse as an all purpose get-out-of-jail free card for insensitive comments.
And yet, culture shock is a real thing.  It's something everyone must go through when they are living abroad.  And the comments that Robert Lowe is describing sound like textbook descriptions of people who are in the frustration stage of culture shock.

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