oda [at] lit [dot] tamagawa [dot] ac [dot] jp
Prof. Oda: I was born and raised in Japan as a native speaker of Japanese. My father was an artist specialized in oil painting. He had travelled around the world, specially in Europe and Middle East. Although I had never lived abroad until I began my post graduate study in the U.S., I had participated in various short summer programs abroad mainly in what Braj Kachru calls inner circle countries such as US, UK and Canada. My parents wanted me to gain experience by interacting with people from different backgrounds. However, I do not remember if they have ever asked me to study English beyond what we did at school.
I entered Tamagawa upper secondary school, and on to Tamagawa University (where I am teaching now) where I majored in English. I made the choice as I believed that English would be crucial for interaction with those from foreign countries. At the same time, I had encountered wonderful teachers at the upper secondary school. Therefore, I decided to become an English teacher.
I started off with an MA program in TESL/TEFL in St.Michael’s College in Vermont, then went on to a Ph.D. program in Georgetown, where I also taught Japanese for several years.
I returned to Japan in 1990 and began teaching EFL and train EFL teachers at Tamagawa University. Besides that, I have held various administrative positions including the Director of the International Programs since 2004. I have presented frequently at international conferences including TESOL, AILA, AsiaTEFL, and has served as editorial board members of various journals.
Ana Wu: Your article "English only or English plus? The language(s) of EFL Organizations" in George Braine's Non-native Educators in English Language Teaching (1999) raised many discussions, exposing the power relationship between NS and NNS in JALT (Japan Association for Language Teaching, the second largest TESOL affiliate as of 1999). You wrote:
"In the past ten years, nine representatives sent by JALT to the annual TESOL convention were NS, and some representatives had taught in Japan for only a few years. Most important, only a very few had enough command of Japanese to obtain through information about ELT in Japan to be disseminated at the convention" (119).
Since 1999, when your article was published, has the one-language policy in JALT changed? Have you witnessed more equality between NS and NNS in professional ELT organizations in Japan?
Prof. Oda: As I am not even a member of JALT at present, I may not be qualified to comment on what the organization is doing now. I am sure they are doing well with excellent leadership, though the organization seems to be less visible among the Japanese speaking English teachers than it was in early 1990s. This does not mean that JALT has not made effort to overcome various issues I had raised in my 1999 article. Yet, information about its activities, particularly at national level, is not disseminated as much as it is supposed to be.
Native English speaking teachers (NESTs) in Japan often complain that it is difficult for them to participate in ELT organizations as most of them are operated in Japanese. In contrast, JALT is the only major ELT organization in which English serves as the de-facto official language. This attracts many NES EFL teachers. At the same time, Non-Native English speaking teachers (NNESTs), most of whom are Japanese speaking local teachers, participate in local ELT organizations operated mainly in Japanese. In other words, there is still a demographic division between NES and NNES. It is crucial that ELT organizations in EFL countries like Japan operate bilingually (in English, the target language and the local language). The role of local language is very important as it is the language to connect the organizations with the community. I believe that national level Japanese ELT organizations should use English more. However, this does not mean that English should replace Japanese.
There is a prevailing discourse that ELT in Japan is not effective even though many students have learnt English at schools for more than 10 years and school teachers (most of whom are NNESs) as well as learners are often blamed for it. Language like Japanese may be difficult to acquire in a short time, especially for native speakers of Indo-European languages including English. However, I have seen so many NESTs in Japan who are not even motivated to acquire the local language after teaching in the community for more than 10 or even 20 years. I do not think it is fair for them to demand learners to learn a foreign language ‘more effectively’ than they do to themselves.
This is related to one of the issues I raised in my 1999 paper which was the role of JALT as TESOL’s sole national affiliate representing Japan.
TESOL recognizes JALT as the sole representative of Japan. I remember in early 90s, JACET, another major organization for college English teacher tried to become an affiliate of TESOL (actually, both organizations are branches of IATEFL). However, the application was not possible as TESOL, at that point, only accepted one affiliate per country. It does not matter which organization represents Japan; however, I want to see more visible cooperation among the organizations which would make it possible for whoever represents Japan to disseminate information about teaching EFL in Japan to the participants of TESOL convention in a timely manner.
Let me elaborate what you have quoted from my article above (1999). I do not think whether JALT representative to International TESOL is Japanese or non-Japanese (or whether NES or NNES) is important. However, in order to represent the only TESOL affiliate in the country, s/he should be familiar with various aspects of English language teaching in and out of classroom in Japan. Logically, it would be disadvantaged if his/her Japanese is limited and/or s/he has only been in Japan for a short time.
Ana Wu: You were the 2003-2004 Chair of the NNEST Caucus, and have given workshops about globalization in Asia. You have also written the insightful article "Globalization or the World in English: Is Japan Ready to Face the Waves?" (2007). How different is globalization in Japan? What could (or should) EFL teachers, NS and NNS, do to promote globalization in Japan?
Prof. Oda: First of all, I am very happy to see the continuous development of the Caucus, and the fact it has been transformed to an interest section. Yet, I still remember a decade ago, there was a big argument regarding the naming of the caucus. I am also pleased see that more NES members have joined the caucus in recent years. Although I was a former chair of the caucus, I personally did not completely agree with the naming of the caucus. For me, native vs. non-native distinction is TOTALLY USELESS in language teaching. I still feel the same way now.
Let me give you an anecdote. I was teaching Japanese at Georgetown University in late 80s. Although I was originally trained as an English teacher, my initial teaching career was in teaching Japanese as a Foreign Language. Being a native speaker of Japanese, I initially thought that I would do well in teaching Japanese. In my first year of teaching, I came across a grammatical item in Japanese which I was not able to explain. A student asked me how to distinguish two particles. In order to get out of the situation without being embarrassed, I said to the students “We native speakers only say ‘this’ but not ‘that’.” I confess that this is something that any language teacher should never do. In other words, I, as a novice teacher of my mother tongue, was abusing my privilege as a native speaker to overpower the students who had asked me an unwelcomed question. Having been in the language teaching profession for nearly two decades, I have encountered instances like this so many times, perhaps more often in ELT as far as I know from my experience as a student, a teacher and a parent.
Theoretically, there is no non-native English speaking teachers (NNEST) who is monolingual. A good command of English is a prerequisite to become an English language teacher. I believe this should also apply to NESTs who want to teach their native language, especially in an environment where very little English is used outside the classroom. Unfortunately, we still encounter so many ‘monolingual’ NESTs who constantly abuse the privilege of being a native speaker. The profession should be more critical about the issue. My radical proposal to the profession is to totally eliminate native vs. non-native distinction and prevailing discourses related to this dichotomy from the ELT (and any foreign language teaching) profession. It is especially true in case of English as it is a language used more by ‘so-called’ non-native speakers than native speakers.
There is no question that English is an important language. Yet, I strongly believe that the degree of its importance varies depending on contexts. As I wrote in my 2007 article, I am still not convinced by the prevailing discourses that “English is a must for everyone in Japan.” A major byproduct of such discourses is teaching English at public primary schools which would begin in a few years. Some hours for other subjects will be cut off in order to accommodate English.
The proponents of ELT at primary schools use key words such as, English as an International language, English as the global language, or English as a lingua franca to convince general public to agree with them. Using neuroscience findings loaded with jargons to pursuade general public to support teaching English for children is also common. Then, the general public who has not been fully informed of the backgrounds accept such discourses without criticism. Consequently you are already in “The world in English” (cf. Oda 2007, Pennycook 1995), that is, you are put in a situation in which you cannot avoid English regardress of whether you need it or not, and you may be forced to give up something which may be more meaningful to you.
Is this the way they really want?
Learning English (and any foreign language) should be strongly encouraged. Nevertheless, we always have to remember that we should never force to teach foreign languages unless the learners are clear about why they have to. Those who are interested in travelling overseas may easily find reasons why they are studying the language. The older the one gets, the more opportunities for using English or other foreign languages they encounter. However, it is hard to convince a primary school pupil in a rural area why s/he must study English in place of other subjects.
We EFL teachers, both NES and NNES (if we need to label them), always keep in our mind that learning must always benefit each learner, and make our best effort to maximizing the benefits in a given context. The learner must be convinced of why they are learning English. Superficial statements such as, “You must study English because it is the global language” or “It is important for your life” is not strong enough to convince them.
Ana Wu: As an Asian professor, as an NNEST educator and as a Japanese citizen, what inspire you to attend TESOL convention? What do you bring back to your teachings, your students, and peers?
Prof. Oda: When I was young, my motivation of attending international conventions was to attend sessions from which I bring back something ‘new’ to Japanese context. This was possible partly because I had been in the United States for 6 years and I knew that I would see my friends in the US again. Looking back to the general attitudes of the participants like myself who had been trained in the U.S. in 80s, my role seems to have been a Japanese import agent who brings TESOL products to Japan.
With more experience in teaching and teacher training in Japan, I have gradually shifted my focus to ‘export’ information concerning ELT in Japan, and as far as ‘imports’ were concerned, my priority became ‘adaptation’ of what I got in TESOL convention to the Japanese context.
This reflects my Japanese translation of Betty Azar’s Understanding and Using English Grammar, 2nd ed. (published in Japan in 1997) in which lots of examples have been altered with the author’s permission in order to adopt to the Japanese context.
Ana Wu: As a renowned international presenter and also one of the organizers of the 4th Asia TEFL International Conference, what advice would you give to international professors or graduate students who many times have to overcome hardships (getting visa, affording registration, etc) to attend TESOL convention?
Prof. Oda: As you may notice, the structure of TESOL is still ‘US’ oriented. TESOL conventions are usually held when US schools are off, in March or April, and in North America. Though I was the 2003-2004 chair of the NNEST caucus, I was not able to attend 2003 and 2004 conventions. This was a big frustration, and no matter how hard you are trying to do your best, there are severe limitations for those who are based outside the United States. I was able to complete my term as the chair only because I had excellent committee who supported me then. But, TESOL members should realize the fact that a large number of its members are based outside North America and thus it should constantly make an effort to serve their needs.
If TESOL continues to claim itself an international organization, its international convention should be held at various parts of the world. This is important because there are more non-native speakers learning English outside of the United States. Actually, ASIA TEFL conferences have been held in 6 different locations in five countries, whereas the last five AILA (International Association for Applied Linguistics) have been held in five different cities, in five different countries and three different continents. So why is it impossible for TESOL to do so? It is not fair that international participants (including both NES and NNES) have to spend much money.
I strongly believe that attending professional conferences like TESOL is beneficial for all of us. To make it even more beneficial for you, however, you should bring something to share. Presenting a paper is one way. However, information on your local teaching community will be appreciated for those who are planning to teach in the region. You may share your day-to-day classroom experience with someone who has a similar interest. If you are a NNES, you might have some hesitation when you submit a conference proposal for the first time. Each of you is a potential contributor to the field. Make connections using NNEST E-lists, and contact with colleagues who share similar interests for suggestions, or even collaboration before submitting your proposals. Comments from colleagues are always beneficial. I would also feel it important that more multilingual NES professionals especially those based in EFL contexts actively involved in local ELT communities. Sharing the resources and maximize their utilization among the ELT professionals is crucial, and the NNEST IS (and TESOL itself as well) should play a key role to facilitate it.
There is a long way to go, but all of us have witnessed the developments of the NNEST caucus over the past years, and thus it would be possible that we can do more for the next decade.
Ana Wu: It was a pleasure to interview you! Hope to see you next year!
Oda, Masaki (1999). "English only or English plus? The language(s) of EFL Organizations." In George Braine (ed.) Non-native Educators in English Language Teaching. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Oda, Masaki (2007). "Globalization or the World in English: Is Japan Ready to Face the Waves?" International Multilingual Research Journal, 1(2)119 - 126.