John Pereira's EFL Japan
"a world of difference"
Today we talk with John Pereira, a longtime resident of Japan who has invented a new literary form - the poessay.
Q . How did you get the idea for poessays?
Frankly, I don't know. It is all so mysterious. All I can say is that it has something to do with my living and teaching English at the university level in Japan for 25 years. And it probably has something to do with India where I come from. India, I think, is the bridge between the West and the East. In this regard, it might be easier for Westerners to understand this country if they come to Japan via India.
Q. Could you expand on that?
Well, there is a link between Japan and the Hindu way of life - not, mind you, Hinduism which is a Western concept and which unfortunately some opportunistic political parties in India are using towards ends which are traditionally anti-Hindu. Now, despite the great diversity in India, there is much in common between Hindu and Buddhist ways of thinking. Most statements made by Buddhists are easily acceptable to and digestible for Hindus. Here is a simple example: you can be an atheist or theist or agnostic and still be a Hindu. That is why I say Hinduism does not exist, that it is not an ideology. All the same, please don't try this with any of the major religions of the world whose origin is in the Middle East. The big difference between India and Japan is in the world of everyday art which has flowered tremendously in every nook and cranny. Buddhist art in India was destroyed by peoples who invaded the country in succession. It is now time to take this art back to India!
Q. How does English in India compare
with English in Japan?
Historically, ours has been a totally different experience. In addition, India has thousands of dialects and more than 20 officially recognized languages, which means these languages also have a substantial body of literature. What Japanese need to keep their eye on is the fact that Indians wrote vicariously, with the bogeyman known as "The Native Speaker" looming above their shoulders. Now this has been a disaster for Indian literature in English as Indian sensibilities have all fallen by the roadside. It has only been in the last 25 years or so that the language has matured and come of age. Indians have finally come out of the shadows, and English today is viewed as simply another Indian language. Strangely enough, the American experience has not been much different on one point. Mark Twain had trouble being accepted in Britain and was accused of using bad grammar.
Q. Do you think Japanese children should
start learning English at an early age?
I don't think it is a good idea, although lots of linguists will probably disagree and ambitious parents will see it as a shortcut to worldly success. I say this because the first language of any normal human being on this planet is the same and not really a part of linguistic enquiry as it is a language of images, immobile and mobile. The infant's brain processes reality for months and months, trying to make sense of the world, and gradually starts to label these objects as "mother," "okaa-san," and so on. And, since a language is much more than labeling reality, the child's way of thinking is shaped in terms of the language used by the people around him. Japanese parents who would like their children to start studying English before they have fully acquired their mother tongue may be in danger of bringing up a Westerner in disguise or a child who could have an identity crisis at 15. If a child picks up a language naturally, as is the case in multi-lingual societies where there is much in common among the languages in use and way of thinking, then it is of course a very different story.
Q. Should adults be taught differently
Adults - aside from the obvious question of age - are different in two very important ways.
As they have lived longer, their life experiences are more extensive than most children's. Now, if an adult is also well educated, intelligent, and creatively involved in using his or her mother tongue - in any profession - then you can expect a big problem. Chomsky is a delightful example. He once said that learning a language is something he can never imagine doing, as it is so boring! He didn't mention any language in particular, but simply learning a language. Now, this appears surprising and even a bit shocking as he is arguably the pre-eminent linguist of the twentieth century.
For an intelligent and creative adult, boredom is hell as s/he is already using the mother tongue in a dynamic and satisfying way in her or his work and day-to-day life. Now, to have to go through hours and hours of studying rules, etcetera, is asking too much. So these people often make a pretense of an effort or announce to the world that they are too stupid to learn a language, rather gleefully indeed. Strangely enough, an adult in possession of creative intelligence is at a disadvantage. And worse, having to learn a language in an EFL setting - no matter how innovative the methodology - without a consuming passion to make money or gain recognition or advancement in one's job, inevitably means a slow progress.
Q. How important are Japanese teachers
Very. Unfortunately, some proponents of Japanese English in their enthusiasm to promote an indigenous variety of the language, also promote broken English without the redeeming quality of creativity. Mark Twain has observed that the difference between the light bulb and lightning is tremendous. We need to be careful, for the cure might prove to be worse than the disease.
What I think Japanese teachers can do best, and which people from other cultures simply cannot duplicate, is to draw on the traditional Japanese mind-set and authentically communicate Japanese sensibilities. In the past, Okakura Tenshin and others, have been able to do so successfully, without a loss of Japanese-ness in the texts. The challenge, therefore, is for Japanese speakers and writers to become fluent without becoming imitative!
Q. Can you tell us what a poessay is?
While the essay form demands that the writer have an analytical, critical outlook, the poem has more to do with synthesis, creativity. The poessay, a combination of the poem and essay forms, demands both. So, unless a writer has both qualities, it is not possible to write a successful poessay.
Poessays are also minimalistic. This aspect gives the native speaker of Japanese a great advantage as "small is beautiful" or "less is more" is a traditional way of thinking. Having said that, I should add that the majority of university students take to this form as a fish to water, which is in stark contrast to native speakers of English. Why this should be so is begging to be researched although I suspect it is unlikely that a native speaker will undertake this kind of project.
Q. How do poessays go over in the classroom?
I need to make a distinction between feeling comfortable with this form and being able to write a poessay. In my experience, whenever I ask students to write a poessay, about 3% at most do so successfully. But, I can say with confidence that more than 90% enjoy reading and talking about poessays - which are also topics of conversation. Naturally, being able to write a poessay is never a requirement to pass a conversational English course.
Now, I'm after these 2% or 3% of students who are obviously brilliant and are in need of a real challenge. As I see it, the way university curricula are designed at present, these students may well not exist. This is worse than murder, and something needs to be done about it if universities in Japan are going to become something more than Skills and Regurgitation Centers. As you know, university courses have become more and more practical in this post-Bubble age since companies have less time and money to train new employees. But, let's not throw out the baby genius along with the bath water.
Q. What is your definition of a university?
A good question, at last, and one which everybody involved in higher education should be made to answer. As for me, I think a university is a place where intelligence should be allowed to grow. But, this looks like a utopian ideal, as most universities which are not in the hands of vested interests, such as big business and the government, are in the clutches of religious organizations. The innocents, of course, see the role of the university as a pipeline leading to a factory or desk job.
Q. The universities cannot be all that
bad as our students have to write a dissertation if they are to
Yes, they do, and this so-called dissertation is often nothing more than the importance scholars give to the academic format, with all its references, footnotes, and so on. It is to a great extent a victory of form over content, which is no surprise at all, as most of our students are allergic to thinking, let alone serious reflection on a given topic. What we get, then, in the name of a dissertation is generally something that their friends could have told them anyway! And, this pretension is not limited to the amateur league of undergraduates but extends to the postgraduates, too. Now, if you're in search of a criterion to judge a dissertation or thesis, you'll find this one is as good as any other.
Q. Are computers useful in teaching poessays?
While the use of computers can enhance language learning, we should be wary of exaggerating their importance. In the teaching of pronunciation, for example, they are most effective as learners can practice with these machines indefinitely until they get it right! In the case of poessays, there is zero advantage. All you need to write a good poessay is a sheet of paper, a stub of a pencil, and a head full of ideas. Students who don't have interesting perspectives, even if their English is good, cannot write a successful poessay, and the contrary is also true: even though the language level is low - and the English used in poessays is simple - students with less knowledge of English are able to succeed. Unfortunately, this does create a problem in the classroom as learners who have received high grades or even high scores on such tests as TOEFL and TOEIC often do poorly. Fluent speakers also fail to come up with good poessays. As a result, advanced learners sometimes feel depressed and low-level students are in heaven. But this is the reality.
Q. Is there anything else along this
Yes. Another surprise is that after the poessays have been translated correctly into Japanese, too many of our students are unable to get the keypoint. No doubt, the keypoint is often implicit, so the dictionary is not very helpful, as when we say a glass of beer is half full and imply that it is also half empty. However, when not a single student in your class is able to provide you with a reasonable explanation of the keypoint after translating the poessay into their own language, it is a bit scary. Now, no Japanese teacher of English would be interested in doing research on this problem, as it would fall outside his or her area of expertise.
Q. Is it difficult to teach this form?
Poessays are easy to teach. Use one, two, or three words per line, seldom four. Punctuation is mostly limited to the question mark and, occasionally, the exclamation mark. Line breaks are flexible and indicate rhythm and emphasis. A keypoint is a must, as poessays are opinions expressed in a poetic way. Finally, don't forget to center your poessay.
Well, that's it.
the girl next door)