Literacy — My year with a Japanese Backpacker

I was able to restore this file on Sunday 17 April 2005 thanks to Google’s cache facility, despite having deleted it from Angelfire, where I originally published it, AND from my home computer! It was written originally as a Language Acquisition assignment for UTS in 1998. The lecturer at the time said it was one of the best assignments of its kind he had ever read.


Sendai Castle. “Hiro” came from the countryside near Sendai.

Some of the terms used in the study of TESOL and language acquisition are conveniently listed and defined here.


19 August, 1998

I first met ‘Hiro’ a month ago at the Flinders Hotel. He had just finished an eight week English course and had to move out of his home-stay accommodation the following Saturday, or so I gathered after a very tortuous conversation. A few days later he rang to let me know he had found a place in an Eastern suburb near the Harbour. I did not hear from him again until the night before last when he rang to arrange a meeting. After sorting out that Neil was my name and not the name of the hotel, we managed to make an appointment for Tuesday at 6 at the Flinders Hotel. Our communication obviously succeeded as he turned up at the appointed time.

His English pronunciation is clear. The text of his talk is heavily reliant on content words (in the right order) but very weak on inflections and grammatical words. His strategic competence is highly developed. Conversation required intense concentration on both sides with (at stages) frequent recourse to body language, paraphrase, repetition and a Japanese-English dictionary. The month spent living with an English speaker, looking for work, and generally going about town has led to some advance in his spoken English.

He had mentioned at our earlier meeting that he would like to practise his English with me. Since he is a very handsome young man, and since I had met him in a gay bar after all, there were dimensions to this situation. I determined to explore the situation tactfully, but I have not seen any analysis of the appropriate registers and genres for dealing with such a cross-cultural situation with someone of very limited English.

His family grows flowers, he told me, and he himself wanted work in photography, art or floristry. In the context of Australian culture one might by now have been drawing probably false conclusions about his being in a gay bar. (It proved to be a false deduction: he was unaware he was in a gay bar. The delicate matter of sexuality was successfully negotiated at our second meeting.)

From the age of six he had wanted to go overseas; an uncle had been living in America at that time, and it was to America he first wanted to go, but the pictures in an Australian travel brochure persuaded him to come here. He was drawn by Australia’s natural beauty and the surfing. So he sold his car (a Subaru) and came last May.

He said he wanted to experience all things. He wanted to meet Australian men. He wanted to learn English. Most interestingly, he wanted ‘a big heart’; eventually I worked out he meant an open mind–he found Japan too narrow.

Our conversation turned to religion. Having heard a sermon at a funeral he began practising Zen meditation. Asked what he got from it, he said ‘Nothing. Nothing is good.’ In the context this made perfect sense. We looked up dharma and Tao in his dictionary and discussed them wordlessly, as is appropriate.

At the end of the evening he proposed we meet again in a month or so, hesitant to be too demanding as I had been telling him how busy I was. In parting, we thanked each other for a very pleasant evening, and the best English lesson he could have had.

What can behaviourism offer in explanation for the amount of meaning we were able to negotiate together last night? Very little, I would suggest. Significant elements may be explicable in terms of a functional language model, but the drive for shared meaning on both sides seems to me more than that.

It was such an urge to communicate that drove some of my adult Chinese students in 1990 to tell me about Tiananmen movingly and with detail, even when their English language resources were barely developed. On the other hand, in my own experience pronunciation drills on contrastive pairs, for example, do work. Hiro’s clear pronunciation is undoubtedly largely a matter of imitation and practice.

I suppose too that last night’s conversation was partly a matter of positive reinforcement sustaining the talk, but it does seem reductive to see achievement of understanding, sharing some of one’s deepest concerns with considerable delicacy on both sides, merely in terms of ‘reinforcement’.

22 August, 1998

On Chomsky

While it is likely that aspects of Hiro’s performance in English last Tuesday night (his pronunciation, for example) may be accounted for in terms of behaviourism, or may be the result of behaviourist teaching techniques, other aspects may be explored from a Chomskyan perspective.

But not all. Chomsky’s critique of behaviourism may be summarised in his own words:

In support of his belief that science will demonstrate that behaviour is entirely a function of antecedent events, Skinner notes that physics advanced only when it ‘stopped personifying things’ and attributing to them ‘wills, impulses, feelings, purposes,’ and so on. Therefore, he concludes, the science of behaviour will progress only when it stops personifying people and avoids reference to ‘internal states’. No doubt physics advanced by rejecting the view that a rock’s wish to fall is a factor in its ‘behaviour’ because in fact a rock has no such wish… For Skinner’s argument to have any force, he must show that people have will, impulses, feelings, purposes, and the like no more than rocks do. If people differ from rocks in this respect, then a science of human behaviour will have to take account of this fact.” (Chomsky [1970] in Cogswell 1996:66-67.)

To Chomsky’s list of non-rocklike attributes one might add ‘living within a cultural context and operating to achieve personal and social purposes in contexts of situation’, but that is another story.

One element of Chomsky’s position is that we are natural/instinctive meaning-makers, whether this be expressed through the metaphor of a ‘language acquisition device’ or ‘simultaneous neural interconnections’ operating in ‘parallel distributed processing’ (Brown 1994b:27-28). One educational implication of this to encourage students ‘to create their own sentences, to somehow talk about what they want to talk about and not just what the book would have them say’ (Underwood 1984:7). Clearly this was part of what was happening between Hiro and myself.

A second aspect concerns the way we view error. In Chomsky’s view of first-language learning, the child’s language is a ‘legitimate system in its own right’ and error is part of the systematic hypothesising process by which the child’s language develops (Brown 1994:26).

In her story ‘The Angry Kettle’, Ding Xiaoqi describes the inhibiting effect error correction can have when a second-language learner is trying to negotiate meaning:

Michael was very eager to correct my English mistakes. I was delighted at first, but it soon became unbearable, because he always interrupted me the minute I opened my mouth. If it was not pronunciation it was grammar, and if it was not either of those, then it was to praise my command of the language. Five interruptions for every ten words would make anyone forget what they were saying. After a while I tried speaking like a machine-gun to stop him from interrupting me, but it was no good; no matter how fast I was, he was faster…

His behaviour only made my English worse and worse when I was with him. I was nervous before I even opened my mouth, not because I was afraid of making mistakes, but because I was afraid he would interrupt.” (Whitfield 1995:8.)

This is not to say that errors should never be corrected, but there is a certain discretion needed about when and how it is done. Had I focused on Hiro’s errors I would have learned less from him and he would have soon given up trying to tell me.

While it is highly questionable to draw an analogy between how a native speaker learns his first language and how either the same native speaker learns to read and write (Cambourne 1988) or how a second-language learner might best learn, those who have done so (Dulay, Burt and Krashen 1982) have certainly influenced my own practice as an English teacher and an ESL teacher.

It seems true that not all rules can be made explicit; it is equally true that some rules need to be. This paradox is a critical one for language teachers. Moving as I did in 1990 from ‘mainstream’ English teaching in secondary school to ELICOS sharpened my awareness and made me question both some ESL/EFL methodology and my own former practice.

It is certainly true that real communicative purposes enhance language learning: learning in language, through language, and about language. While he was concerned neither with teaching nor with the actual use of language in social context, we can partly thank Chomsky for this insight.

23 September, 1998: SECOND THOUGHTS:

In her excellent book Text, Role and Context, Ann Johns (1997:4) poses the issues with reference to L1 and L2 literacy teaching thus; mutatis mutandis one might apply this to second language acquisition:

A related theoretical element is the nature of the learner and the role the learner plays in literacy acquisition. Is the learner a passive recipient of data as adults model the language? Must the learner drill and practice the correct forms in order for literacy to be acquired? Traditional theorists tended to view the learner in this way. Or is the learner an active participant in the process, the prime motivator and meaning-maker, as many Learner-Centered practitioners tend to believe? Is the learner caught between his or her own motivations and purposes and the constraints of the context and culture, assumptions made by some Socioliterate practitioners? Theories about the roles of learners in literacy acquisition are basic to our pedagogic choices.

In an epigraph to her first chapter Johns (1997:1) very appositely cites Bazerman (1994):

It is within the students, of course, that the learning occurs, but it is within the teacher, who sits at the juncture of the forces above, below and sideways that the learning situations are framed.”

30 August, 1998

On Krashen

A possible clue to the rather successful language transactions between Hiro and myself may be taken from Krashen (1981:32-33):

The Alcohol study (Guiora, Ben-Hallahmi, Brannon, Dull, and Scovel, 1972) is perhaps most suggestive… It found that pronunciation of Thai sentences was best after 1 to 1.5 ounces of alcohol (but not on an empty stomach). More or less alcohol did not produce the same results. The experimenters suggest that alcohol induced ‘a flexible psychological state’…, with temporarily lowered inhibitions and presumably heightened empathy.

Rather more seriously, the episode with Hiro could be taken to illustrate Krashen’s five hypotheses. First, how far was he depending on ‘acquisition’ and how far on ‘learning’? It seems to me extremely difficult to know, a point made by Lightbown and Spada (1993:27).

Second, was he monitoring or not? Again, this seems difficult to establish. If we take the experience of Ding Xiaoqi’s character in ‘The Angry Kettle’ (p.4 above) to indicate the negative impact of too much external monitoring, can such an
effect occur internally?

According to Krashen, such over-monitoring can occur. Again, it is difficult to establish just what this hypothesis has to offer, except that intuition (and my own experience wondering how the ancient Romans ever managed to have a conversation) suggests that too much attention to form would inhibit fluency.

Third, the natural order hypothesis: there is little I can say about Hiro in this respect as in paying attention to what he said I was not really analysing the grammatical resources he was drawing on. Reading more detail on error analysis in Dulay, Burt and Krashen (1982) has, however, challenged my own practice to an extent. I had assumed a connection between L1 grammar/syntax and L2 performance.

Chinese, for example, does not mark tense in the same way as English; therefore Chinese background learners have trouble with tense in English. Dulay, Burt and Krashen on the other hand assert that the order in which grammar is acquired is similar no matter what the background of the speakers (1982:4).

My observation seems to lend support to the view that many students of Chinese or Vietnamese background continue to have the same problems with the morphemes that mark some tenses in English for a very long time. One extreme is a Vietnamese I knew who graduated with honours in medicine at the University of Sydney and wrote poetry in French, Vietnamese and English, but continued to make a few characteristic tense errors despite his obviously advanced skills in English. However, together with the fact that he had a Vietnamese accent, these errors may have been signs of stabilization , at least in some areas of his language.

Fourth, the concept of comprehensible input being a necessary but not sufficient condition for language acquisition does seem common sense, but on reflection is not as transparent as might at first seem. How do we know something is or will be comprehensible? There are all sorts of questions here relating to age, experience, background and social purpose. Sometimes too the comprehensibility may not inhere in the text itself but in the transaction between speakers. Such I suspect was the case with Hiro, who claimed to understand about 70% of what I said in contrast to 50-60% in other situations.

Finally, there is the role of the affective filter (Dulay, Burt and Krashen 1982: 92-3). Perhaps the beer WAS a tool for lowering the filter in Hiro’s case! To establish just what affective conditions might motivate all learners (or serve as disincentives) is not so easy. Surely again such factors as cultural background, extrinsic or pragmatic purposes (such as getting a job), and learning/teaching styles would need to be taken into account.

20 September 1998

Mainly on errors

Hiro reappeared the Sunday before last. He has enrolled in a photography course. What he likes about Australia is that there are not only Japanese to talk to. In his town in Northern Honshu he rarely saw foreigners. The ethnic mix in Australia pleased him.

When I asked if he had had any bad experiences so far in Australia he showed the danger of learning formulaic speech (otherwise quite useful in early stages) when he said “I don’t give a fuck about bad experiences”, an expression someone in Japan had taught him as useful. We proceeded to improve his sociolinguistic awareness, in the context of which he also seemed to be saying that someone in Japan had told him “Never say can’t.” I leave that to the reader’s imagination, but we did work it out and he was rather amused.

What caused this problem? Turning to Swan and Smith (1987) I find that Japanese has half as many vowel sounds as English. Discrimination between the greater number of vowel phonemes must therefore be difficult for Japanese learners, as for Chinese learners. My Chinese flatmate once said something very embarrassing about wanting to pull a cork.

Another quite persistent problem for Chinese learners is final syllables. In Mandarin they are rarely significant and are lightly stressed. I find that even quite advanced students of Chinese background are likely to hear “oil tanker” as “oil tank” for example.

In beginning and elementary stages of language learning contrastive drills of the “ship” or “sheep” kind are justifiably used. Teaching adults we commonly used the International Phonetic Alphabet (with which many students were already familiar) and articulatory phonetic diagrams and awareness of tongue, teeth and lip positions. “Where do I put my tongue?” was a question often heard.

All this is also evidence that natural approaches alone are insufficient, despite Krashen. This is not to adopt wholesale a behaviourist perspective. As Norrish (1983: 2-4) points out, “even elementary students with a very limited stock of structures and vocabulary can take part in activities which encourage use of the language that has been learnt”, and during such communicative, fluency-oriented activities the teacher would draw attention to error only where it is preventing or seriously impeding communication. However the teacher would be noting errors, particularly global ones, which sometimes may be addressed separately in the form of drills or exercises, or (if the problem is more at textual or contextual levels) by providing sufficient demonstrations, models and other scaffolding.

Norrish also distinguishes “errors” from “mistakes”. Errors he regards as “systematic deviations”. Where the deviation occurs sometimes while the correct form also frequently occurs we might call it a “mistake”. “Lapses” are the sort of deviation that can occur in anyone through inattention, fatigue or shortness of memory. Years ago newsreader John Chance reported “A woman was bitten on the funnel by a finger-webbed spider”. (The Sydney Funnel Web is one of the world s most deadly spiders.) That is a lapse.

The teacher will most often be interested in systematic deviations. To correct every “mistake” may be counterproductive, as “The Angry Kettle” (above) illustrates.

23 September, 1998

I had made a mental note to write Hiro out of this for fear he was becoming boring to the reader, but constantly in the two course readings from Ellis (1985 and 1988) I found myself saying, ‘So that is what was going on!’.

He rang last night to tell me he had found a job in a flower shop, and I could not but be impressed with how far his English (‘measured’ by ability to communicate effectively by telephone) has advanced in the past month. Essentially he has been learning by immersion, in a natural, not a classroom, setting. He has studiously avoided other Japanese speakers both in his living arrangements and his job-seeking. He did borrow from me two weeks ago a self-study grammar book suitable for Intermediate learners (I ended up giving it to him), and he has been regularly reading the Positions Vacant ads in newspapers, as well as reading what he can of the rest of the paper.

It has been fascinating observing his language acquisition while studying this subject. First (unlike my students) he is an adult learner, and second he began at a much lower level than my students, all of whom have been speaking English for two or three years at least.

The third thing about him is how unlike the “textbook” Japanese he has proved to be in many ways, compared both with my earlier encounters with Japanese learners male and female, and with the cultural notes one finds in books like Swan and Smith (1987), DeVrye (1994) and Lexus (1990).

Mind you, I always find it wise to learn as much as possible about the cultural context of learners, if only to avoid embarrassing situations or causing offense. Cultural awareness is a vital part of the ESL teacher’s armoury, and an important element in ESL informed mainstream teaching, the most appropriate strategy at my school. (See also Dresser 1996, Gudykunst and Kim 1992, 2ed, and Robinson 1985.)

My ‘aha!’ experience in reading Ellis particularly concerned Ellis’s description of ‘foreigner talk’. (See also Snow 1976 on ‘motherese’.) However, in the section immediately before the point was made that ‘listening and being able to relate one sensory modality (the aural) to another (the visual) is of central importance’ to mother-child language (Ellis 1985:132). This undoubtedly happened in many areas of my interaction with Hiro, so far as often we were talking about the environment we were in, or what was happening around us.

Even more frequently we were not, as ‘adult conversations are more likely to be rooted in displaced activity’ (Ellis 1985: 141, citing Hatch 1978). There was much more pressure on us when we were negotiating these displaced topics. In observing Science classrooms in Year 7 recently I felt NESB students could be more engaged when finding language to support/explain a procedure they were physically performing, but that most of their lessons were unsupported teacher talk, often without even key terms being written up.

In Ellis’s account of “foreigner talk”, I could match what I had been doing with Hiro very much with the view that foreigner talk is dynamic rather than static (1985:133). Such simplifications as I used were nearly all category 2, that is “foreigner talk consisting of interactional and grammatical input adjustments”, without ungrammatical simplifications (1985: 134).

Certainly, my talk only occasionally had a pedagogic purpose (1985: 137). There were frequent regressions, but a great deal of negotiation, supporting the views of Hatch cited by Ellis (1985:138). Repair strategies (1985:141) were extremely frequent. The strategies and tactics described under the heading “The negotiation of meaning” (1985: 141-142) also featured in our conversations. A good description of Hiro’s side of the interaction may be found in Ellis(1985:142).

The learner also needs to contribute to the negotiation of meaning, however, as it is a joint enterprise. He can do so by giving clear signals when he has understood or not understood and, most important, by refusing to give up.

In short, the Ellis articles time and again ring true. When he states that ‘teacher talk is unlikely to be as finely tuned as foreigner talk. This may have implications for its [teacher talk’s] effects in promoting SLA’ (Ellis 1985:146), this also rings true. His expansion on the conditions needed in an interactive classroom (Ellis 1988:127-132) tie in very closely with the Vygotsky article (Richard-Amato 1988), and indeed with the UTS course Curriculum and Methodology (Autumn Semester 1998). We need to explore ways to make the classroom a more interactive environment, more like the situation that occurs ‘naturally’ in a one-to-one environment such as that I found with Hiro.

We need also to approach ESL or mainstream classrooms with pedagogies informed by both learner-centred nativism (which has more than an element of truth) and the kind of sociolinguistic awareness promoted by the functional model of language. No one approach can answer the complex demands of language teaching.

I only wish my observations of Hiro had been more systematic; that may, of course, have obscured some of the natural developments I was observing. With those comments I farewell Hiro, from this assignment at least!

Sequel: 23 March 2000

“Hiro” returned to Japan at the end of May 1999. In the last six months of our friendship we met monthly to go to a jazz bar near my home. My Shanghainese flatmate was a bit dubious about “Hiro” at first, but towards the end, as he was planning his own 12 months overseas “pilgrimage”, he and “Hiro” found they had a lot in common! The other nice thing about “Hiro” was that, while straight, he did not have a homophobic bone in his body! Makes you feel hopeful about the world


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