Friday 5 October 2012

In Defence of The ALT V

Book Five – Larry Cotter and The Mercifully Truncated Dénouement

Right, what do we have left to cover? Unconvincing teenage angst? No, don’t need that. Vital plot elements that have somehow remained unmentioned for the previous five years? Nope. Idiotic controversy sparked by throwaway extratextual comment regarding secondary character’s sexual orientation? No way, hose.

The Harry Potter connection was always pretty tenuous anyway. Probably better to drop it now before I mention the physical impossibility of a seventeen-year-old boy spending weeks traipsing around the woods with only a similarly aged girl for company without sneaking off for at least one covert hand-shandy behind a bush. I can suspend my disbelief for the broomsticks and wizards and talking snakes, but a heterosexual teenage boy who’s never tugged himself off to the thought of his closet female acquaintance? You can push the unbelievability thing only so far.

There’s a fairly well accepted theory that describes culture shock as a U-curve (or W-curve if you want to throw in reverse culture shock as well), with four distinct stages. That’s how I was originally going to start this post. Then I remembered the ‘5 Stages of Grief’ and that’s perhaps an even better – if somewhat tasteless – fit for the stages of accommodation you go through as an ALT.

On your first mid-year conference you’re convinced that the whole system is fucked up (it is), that you have great ideas to fix it (you do), that you are the first person to have reached these conclusions (you’re not), and that if people would only see sense and listen to you then everything would be fixed lickety-split (they won’t and it wouldn’t). You express this with a degree of vehemence that hovers somewhere between enthusiasm and anger, which is good because it means that you still actually care.

The second year rolls around and you still have the same ideas, but you also notice that while the first year ALTs are saying the exact same things you did, in the manner you did so, the third years are remaining resolutely silent. You start to wonder why this should be so.

And by the time you reach your third year yourself you realize that some of your cohort are remaining silent because they’re jaded beyond hope and just don’t care anymore, and the others simply realize the futility of pissing into the wind and would rather not spend the rest of their time here with unpleasantly wet and smelly feet.

Because splashback's annoying even at the best of times.

As has been said before, the English language Japanese media is shit, and is generally best avoided. But sometimes, like picking a scab, you just can’t help yourself and end up taking a look. Recently (sorta) there’s been a flare up of the old argument regarding the value and utility of ALTs. It’s the gonorrhea of expat controversies; if you’re lucky it will remain asymptomatic for long periods, but once you’ve contracted it, it never really goes away.

And because I’d rather avoid having a swab shoved up my conceptual urethra, I try to avoid these arguments. Once, of course, I’ve taken the small but tolerable risk (it doesn’t count if you do it standing up, remember) necessary to ascertain that the arguments and counter-arguments are exactly – exactly – the same as the ones we were having when I was on JET a decade ago. Be gentle with me please, nurse.

You're going to put that where now?

I used to think that if Japan was serious about raising its standard of English* then it would scrap the JET programme and instead spend the money on training Japanese English teachers to actually speak the language properly. It’s possible, in fact it’s usual, to major in English at a Japanese university without ever leaving the country, which is like learning to swim without ever getting wet. Even in the UK, with our rightly mocked inaptitude for foreign languages, in order to get a degree in French you actually have to spend a year in France.

I’ve had people explain this away to me as study abroad being too expensive, a line of argument that falls down on two counts -
1.    It’s not expensive. Japan has one of the highest costs of living in the world, and unless you go to London, pretty much anywhere in the English speaking world is going to be cheaper, even once you’ve factored in the flights.
2.    So fucking what? That’s what you need to do to learn a language properly. You don’t let surgeons practice solely on inflatable sex dolls because cadavers are a touch icky. That’s just the cost of doing business.

But of course it’s not the teacher training that’s the main problem, really. Many Japanese English teachers are far from fluent, but subject knowledge and teaching ability are two different skill sets. You only need to know slightly more than your students in order to teach them, and some of the most ineffective and uninspiring lecturers I had at uni were world renowned experts in their field (I’m also coming round to the idea the native level tuition in any foreign language is basically unnecessary below the tertiary level, but that’s another discussion).

Better training is always, well, better. But even if JTEs had access to the most state-of-the-art ELT training, we’d still come to a wet, pulpy crash upon the real reason things here are fucked:

The Japanese Educational System attaches no actual value to spoken English.

Not ‘a little.’ Not ‘barely any’. None. That kind of undermines things, wouldn’t you say?

I know it’s possible to point to many Ministry and Board of Education directives extolling the values of English conversation and various related targets for classroom hours and achievements. And to the billions of yen spunked on ALTs annually. However, if an aptitude is considered important by an institution, it will assess its members on it. Economists have to demonstrate their maths ability. Firefighters have to demonstrate their physical fitness. If spoken English was valued, it would be tested and assessed.

It’s not. It’s theoretically possible to ace all your exams, to be the perfect student, without ever speaking a single word of English.

It’s like the football manager who claims to want to play a beautiful, flowing, tiki taka short-passing game, and then goes out and buys a team full of cloggers and scrappers capable only of hoofing both the ball and the opposition out of the park. The methods do not match the stated goals. Often said manager will bow to boardroom or fan pressure and buy a single creative ballplayer. A player who’ll quickly become resented by his teammates for the indulgence shown to him while they do all the hard work, and who himself will rapidly become disillusioned with being underappreciated and underutilized and end up demanding a move in the January transfer window.

Look at all these shits I don't give any more.

So why, then, do I think that all these thousands of words amount to a defence of the ALT, if I also think that ALTs occupy such an impossible position?

Damage limitation, bluntly. As I said, the flaws in The System have been apparent for decades, and nothing’s changed. This is a country so mired in stasis, so sorely wanting of any kind of national inertia, that any thing or person or programme which holds out the prospect of shaking up the status quo and provoking more than reactionary navel-gazing is a good thing, or person (or programme).

ALTs are the least worst option. If the JET Programme and assorted dispatch companies were scrapped there’s not a chance in hell that money would get ploughed back into improving Japanese English education or global awareness. Are there more effective ways of spending the money to achieve those goals? Of course there are. Is there a more effective way of spending that money that actually stands a chance of being implemented? Like fuck there is.

Change will not happen at the institutional level, but it can and does happen at the individual level, and it is at that level ALTs have their biggest and most lasting impact. If it goes wrong, as it so often does, then all it does is confirm everyone’s existing prejudices so in practical terms you’re no worse off than before. But when it goes right it can be truly transformative. A life-affirming, life-enhancing, life-changing experience for everyone involved, and if it’s a choice between that or more of the same I know which I would take.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off down the gym.

*Yeah, I know.


  1. Aw, no more pork-pie chronicles. You have disappointed me. Give me some trash to get me though this Friday while afternoon. The weather looks so nice outside.

    You are right, it has basically been the way of doing things since Meiji, translate this into English and translate that into Japanese and then memorise these 8000 words and their Japanese equivalent and regurgitate them. The ALT is for the fun lessons where no one gives a shit, poke the monkey and get on with it. I do think it is better than nothing though and with the right attitude can be a good experience, but that comes down to circumstance and personality.

    This same system I believe is also at fault for these people who have never lived overseas, yet they think they are amazing at English/Japanese is uber-hard yet English is a piece of piss. The factors you outlined above simply don't occur to them, because they just aren't taught things like that. They are gauging their ability on incorrect terms. It is also the cause of people coming up to you like you mentioned in another post and asking for a translation without any context whatsoever.

    Have fun at the gym and enjoy the weather.

    1. Sorry to disappoint, but you know what they say about always leaving the public wanting more ;)

      Yep, English education is still very much mired in the tradition of 'learning from the rest of the world' and the focus is on transmission in one direction only. Which is a shame, really, because if Japan was better able to articulate itself to the world we wouldn't have to deal with so many of those tedious 'crazy Japan' memes.

  2. This last one, Book V, I want to cut, paste, copy and print it out so that I have a handy scroll to read any time I need to remind myself of what happened.

    You didn't really mention anything about the CIRs though. They tended to be the catty bunch who stood at the back of the room during the conferences, rolling their eyes and huffing at how few kanji the ALTs knew.

    Again, good read. I soooo want to save this. For now, I'll go through and read it again, this time clicking on all of the hyperlinks you embedded.


    1. Like it so much you had to comment twice, eh? Glad you did. C+P away my friend.

      Fortunately I got on really well with the nearest CIR during my time on JET. While I'm defending people, I think a lot of them were 'misinformed' about their roles even more badly than ALTs. Apart from the lucky one or two, most just ended up as glorified elementary school ALTs, which really isn't what they signed up for. I could understand the huffing in that case.

  3. This last one, Book V, I want to cut, paste, copy and print it out so that I have a handy scroll to read any time I need to remind myself of what happened.

    You didn't really mention anything about the CIRs though. They tended to be the catty bunch who stood at the back of the room during the conferences, rolling their eyes and huffing at how few kanji the ALTs knew.

    Again, good read. I soooo want to save this. For now, I'll go through and read it again, this time clicking on all of the hyperlinks you embedded.


  4. Just throwing this into the discussion as I know little about ALT-ing - do you think that, just like having English teachers who've never lived in an English-speaking country is a problem, it's also an issue that most ALTs have never learnt a second language? I don't mean they should all be fluent in Japanese to teach in Japan but even having learnt say Spanish or French means that they understand the process of language learning. Like teaching someone to drive when you don't have a licence yourself.

    By the way, I've heard that every time J.K. Rowling used an ellipsis in HP, it means they are having a wank. Probably just an urban myth but if you read it with that in mind it holds weight.

    1. Yeah, the 'Native Premium'. I could have extended that football metaphor, because there's a fairly consistent trend that the greatest players make pretty shit coaches because they've it's always just come naturally to them and so they don't know how to explain it to others.

      My favourite HP theory is that Hogwarts and Moldevort and everything is really all in Harry's head, as he constructs an alternate fantasy world to cope with the abuse being meted out to him by his aunt and uncle, who lock him in a cupboard most of the time.

  5. I feel I'm going to get pelted with tomatoes and such for saying this, but once I became fairly fluent in Japanese, I realized people here have serious fucking problems communicating in their own language. Yeah, that might be true for most countries, but shockingly so here...

    (takes a tomato to the face expertly thrown by a Japanophile)

    1. No Billy, you are spot on. The trick is to find people not like that before you go crazy.

    2. Tomato free zone here. I'm not even 'fairly' fluent, but the better I get the more of that sense I get as well. I was fortunate enough to find decent people before it became too much of an issue, at least.