Decontexutalised Knowledge

or the problem of English grammar in Japanese schools

Working in English language education in Japan for the last 8 - 9 years, but not as an ALT, I have often wondered about what goes on in the English classrooms of Japanese high schools and why they are so obsessed with teaching grammar. It is fairly clear that whatever teachers are doing in Japanese schools there is little improvement in learning outcomes despite government pushes to improve English language education as well as extend it by starting it earlier. In some senses if the English language education in schools was adequate there would be little need for the once booming eikaiwa industry that has grown up since the 1970s. Eikaiwa schools are supposed to follow the communicative approach. The very name means conversation school, so the emphasis ought to be on communication, and by and large this is true, eikaiwa’s place more focus on communication, but it is still very much enslaved to a grammar based curriculum and limited by the confines of a usually irrelevant text book. The problem is that in both cases grammar is an easy option, but it highlights the dangers of decontextualised knowledge.

In Japanese schools (and education generally?) there exists a strange unacknowledged paradox. There is a difference between knowing about something and actually knowing something, which usually means how to do something. This difference can be immediately made clear by way of example, but it is surprising how often we replace real knowledge with just knowledge about something. So, a simple example - take a celebrity, say Katy Perry. If I am a super fan I could know a lot about her. I could know her family background, her age, her shoe size, her eating habits, her songs, even some of her likes and dislikes; but this is clearly not the same as knowing her in person, as being her friend. In fact I could quite easily be her friend without knowing some (most?) of those facts. It’s the same with grammar. Grammar rules are facts about English, but I don’t need to explicitly “know" all or even very many of the facts, in order to be able to speak and use English. In fact most native speakers know very little about “grammar” rules - I certainly didn’t and have only learnt a lot of them through having to teach them. In Japanese schools where the conversational ability is usually low, it is essentially the difference between knowledge and skills. And knowledge without skills is essentially worthless.

To highlight the point further, another example closer to language is music theory and music. In theory you could learn all about music theory, the notes, the structure of chords and scales, rhythmic values, key signatures and so on, but this is just knowledge. You don’t even have to have heard music to be able to understand it, let alone touch a music instrument. Yet this knowledge has no value, it’s purely abstract, and when stripped of the context of hearing or playing music, it is meaningless. Clearly knowledge of music theory isn’t the same as being able to play an instrument. However, this is what is often done in many language teaching contexts. We substitute the ability to communicate with knowledge of grammar, with theory.

It is easy to see why grammar is used as the basis for language teaching. Grammar is supposed to provide a clear set of rules to learn, which are also then easy to measure. It is safe. It is formulaic. It is easy to teach. It is also a cop-out - you don’t actually have to be able to speak English to teach it, at least not very well. You can teach it like math and put sentences together in much the same way as you would a mathematical formula, both giving a correct answer. In fact I’ve taught Japanese English teachers who come to eikaiwa schools to learn… English! To be fair, some of them have been of a high level, but a shocking amount are barely above beginner level and while waiting for their English lesson, they are busy marking their own students' English homework!?

In the eikaiwa industry a grammar based curriculum, albeit with more of a focus on production, is also safe, for a different, but similar reason. Again the need to codify a curriculum provides an easy way to measure student progress, but more than that it provides an easy framework for the rotating roster of foreign teachers. There are many professional teachers, but there are also a fair number of gap-year teachers who come to Asia for a year or two. The grammar centric curriculum makes it easy for anybody to step in and “teach” it, and for companies to have control over what is going on in the lessons. However in both the eikaiwa and the state school, the grammar is largely removed from it’s context and has little connection to meaningful communication and language use.

I’m not saying that learning grammar is bad per se, although some people say that studying all grammar is unnecessary (Paul Nation) and that in other cases it is shoe-horned into teachable chunks that are detached from real usage. The problem is one of decontextualized knowledge. The knowledge, the grammar, is taken out of context, in fact striped of it, and it becomes dry, uninspired, dead, and it is therefore no surprise that Japanese students find it boring and lack motivation, and even less surprising that they don’t develop any meaningful communication skills. The grammar should inform practical, realistic skills based communication, and more often than not, it doesn’t need to be explicitly taught. The caveat is, students do need to come across enough, repeated correct examples of English - one reason why extensive reading is essential.

This decontexutalisation also makes the language harder to learn. Partly due to the lack of motivation mentioned above, but also because it is much harder to memorize arbitrary rules than meaningful ones learnt through experience, and because it confuses declarative knowledge, things we know consciously, with automatic knowledge, things we can do without thinking. It also contributes to the TOEIC illusion where companies take a high TOEIC score to mean that an employee can “speak” English, when in fact a TOEIC score is not necessary or sufficient for English language ability. This is partly because a high score can be achieved through a rules based approach, essentially a hack, and test practice, without requiring any actual communication skills.

None of this is to say that grammar rules don’t serve a useful function. They can be used as shortcuts, a way to speed up the learning of language. In many domains the codification of knowledge is useful only in so far as it is used to drive meaningful skills based on practise and development, that shifts knowledge from declarative to automatic. Knowledge must be applied and skills, the ability to do something meaningful and well, always trump knowledge. The knowledge base, in areas such as music, helps us develop more quickly and informs what and how we practice, but knowledge on it’s own for most practical purposes is meaningless. We forget that the skills came first and afterwards we developed the systems to codify them, partly as a way to share what we know and teach it.

In order to learn language more effectively you have to put in a context. It has to be connected to the wider world, to the lives of the people trying to learn the language, and the language has to be used to carry meaningful communication. The rise of content based learning (CBL), task based learning (TBL) and particularly Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) is a great counter example to the grammar based curriculum. CLIL puts language in a context and gets learners to use language in their learning, they learn through the language. It is also more akin to how native speakers learn, building up knowledge and vocabulary of a language, often, implicitly while focused on other things. In fact that is what makes language such a great tool, it’s invisible ability to carry information. Moreover, what is interesting is that studies have shown this content and language integrated learning has a benefit on learning outcomes not just in the language being learned, but also in the subject being studied.

Grammar can be used to inform and support what is taught, but it rarely needs to be the primary focus, and even when it is, it shouldn’t be detached from context and meaningful usage. The eikaiwa industry and the English language education in Japanese schools would do well to shift their focus if the goal of improving English language ability in Japan is ever to be even modestly achieved.

This post was orginally intended to be published on the triplog at, but never was.

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