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2006.06/03(Sat)

On English Education

 
1. The Basic Problem

For some years I have been intrigued by the problems concerning English education. Quite contrary to what has been widely held among English teachers, students are highly motivated to learn, knowing that English has become a must to do business, net-surfing, research and whatever. Nevertheless few acquire sufficient proficiency to make use of their English in the real world. There seem to be serious methodological problems in the whole process of English education. In what follows I will outline (1)the nature of the problem and (2)what I can do to convert the situation.

2. Students as a Fallible Computer

Although I do not know what exactly are the philosophical and psychological underpinnings of the present form of English education, they undoubtedly date back to the age of behaviorism where human beings were regarded as a machine defined in terms of stimulus and response. This can hardly be denied, however strange it may appear, if we take the time to analyse our teaching process closely. Take grammar for example. When we try to teach a grammatical point such as the present perfect, we start by 'explaining' a few dry-as-dust rules about it. After asking students to memorize them all, we proceed to have them do exercises in order to reinforce the desired responses and eliminate the undesired ones. That is what grammar is all about. We are just forcing on students rote or mechanical learning. Naturally students get bored very soon: nobody wants to have his intelligence devalued. This has led many people (including teachers) to claim that grammar is unnecessary and should be erased altogether from English education. They usually attach so much importance to 'English conversation' and simply advise students to memorize (again) a set of 'useful daily expressions (sentences)'. Dr. Skinner will be over the moon if he hears this, but language teaching without grammar is practically unimaginable if we accept grammar as the fundamental knowledge of language. Without knowledge of grammar students cannot create any new sentences appropriate to a given situation and we end up producing another Pavlov's dog.

3. Shift From External Facts to Internal Facts

The man-machine teaching method is deeply related to the nature of school grammar. If we teach an (endless) list of dry-as-dust rules, what else can we do other than encourage students to memorize them? Consequently it seems quite reasonable to suppose that changing school grammar is the first step toward a more fruitful and efficient English education. The biggest problem with school grammar lies not in its specific rules but in its very view of language. School grammar offers us a detailed list of rules, in other words, a list of external facts about English. School grammar seems to be built around the view that language can/must be described through externally observable facts. It presents, for example, 4 primary usages of the present perfect and 8 usages of the definite article the, etc. This is by no means true. It is impossible to imagine native speakers having learned such a list of rules, and yet they speak perfect English. There is a sharp discrepancy between what students learn (i.e., the list of rules) and what native speakers know consciously /unconsciously. A new system of grammar I have proposed elsewhere* can be characterized as a shift from external facts to internal facts. The key to this new system is the native speakers' state of mind when they produce/perceive a particular expression or construction, in other words, the actual way in which they sense/feel it. It offers explanations about what is the core meaning of a given construction from the view point of the native speaker, why various usages arise and how everything fits in the whole picture of grammar (native speakers' knowledge). In this grammar, for example, the 4 primary usages of the present perfect are synthesised into one single core meaning: present relevance. From this core, the 4 usages and other subtle, previously passed unnoticed nuances are explained. Likewise, from the core meaning of the past tense, various grammatical points follow concerning subjunctive mood, differences between the present perfect and the simple past, polite expressions, meanings of past auxiliary verbs and so forth. In the centre of the ontology of this grammar lie images carefully elaborated to reflect the native speaker's intuition and to maximize the student's understanding and retention. So, in practice, target constructions receive a core meaning (i.e., core image), and their grammatical characteristics/ usages are explained through dynamic properties of image (e.g., branching, linking, distortion, integration, expansion, and so on). This new method is not a mere desk theory as it has proven extremely effective in my own classes at Toyo Women's College and Tokyo Science University and, through publications and lectures, it is gaining popularity among teachers at high-school and university level. Grammar is not the only area to which this method is applicable. Rather it ranges over the whole gamut of English education. Vocabulary, for example, can be acquired a lot more efficiently when explained in terms of image than by trying to memorize Japanese translations mechanically. Using image, recalcitrant words like in, over, out, off, up, go, come, get, make, take etc. can be seen to have only one core image, and once students grasp the image, they can easily go on to master the diverse uses and expressive power of such words.

 
4. What I can Offer

Of course, to ferret out images suitable for a particular construction and expression demands a lot of time and effort, since those native speaker images are very often vague and only unconsciously grasped. But if this is what is required in order to provide a better education, then that is surely the path we must follow. It would give me great pleasure to lead learners along this path and to put my expertise and teaching experience, along with the fruits of my research, at their disposal.
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