The book “Japan: A Guide to Traditions, Customs, and Etiquette” reveals what makes the Japanese Japanese and what sets them apart. The revelation about the distinctiveness of Japanese culture literally threw me into a deep contemplation. I ventured on a deliberate interrogation of my teaching practices and my role as a home-room teacher of 16 Japanese kids.
These children have been enrolled in an immersion kindergarten by their parents who are eager to provide them with an opportunity to learn English. Being fluent in two languages comes with many advantages – allows us to talk to more people, aids in the cognitive and social development of an individual, nurtures cognitive flexibility, and creates additional job opportunities (in some cases, as we would see later in this post).
Naturally, then, the question arises as to whether the foreign language should be taught alongside the local or the foreign/Western cultural values and beliefs. Every foreign language teacher, American, Australian, Filipino, French, Bulgarian, Russian, and so forth, brings to the table not only their language skills and teaching abilities but also a whole set of cultural traits and beliefs. I wonder, how many of these parents want their children to learn and adopt the Western values and beliefs associated with the English-speaking world and how many would like to have their children learn the second language in isolation and be educated within their traditional local values.
When it comes to early-years English-language education, provided by a homeroom teacher from a different cultural background, additional set of factors play a role in the character-building of the children. While imparting children with knowledge and developing their curiosity, the teacher helps shape their unique character. The teacher contributes greatly towards moulding the students’ personality and behavior in a desired pattern (which might be culturally biased). Teachers are the most trustworthy people in parents’ lives. That is why, I would personally advise parents who are considering enrolling their children in an immersion kindergarten and having them educated by foreign teachers, weigh the pros and cons of their decision in the context of their aspirations for their children. Learning English from a Western teacher 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, 44 weeks a year has far broader implications for the development of children and goes far beyond the obvious act of acquiring a foreign language. It encompasses important aspects of the children’s upbringing from the way they express themselves in English to the way they carry themselves and treat others. Unless schools explicitly communicate with parents what values are being taught, parents should feel free to negotiate with teachers the boundaries of what values are being transmitted within the learning environment.
Depending on the reason why children are enrolled in an English language institution, in some cases, teachers who explicitly or implicitly encourage Western values might be doing them more harm than good. By teaching Japanese kids how to have strongly held opinions, compete relentlessly, meet conflicts head on, be egocentric, and strive to stand out within the Japanese context, we, their Western teachers might not be doing them a favor.
Unlike multinational firms, traditional Japanese organizations tend to weed out candidates who do not fit the national mold. Within any field (professional, personal, religious, political, or recreational), everything that is done reinforces group orientation, mutual dependence, and cooperative versus competitive spirit. “What is even more disturbing to American players on Japanese baseball teams is the degree of togetherness and team harmony that is required. The whole team is expected to behave as a single-cell unit. The individualism and idiosyncrasies for which American players are famous are strictly taboo.” Japanese people don’t strive to stand out nor be the center of attention which is evident from the way they speak about themselves by omitting the word for me (watashi).
Provided that they choose to remain in their native country, would the bilingual Japanese kids of today ironically end up left behind tomorrow or would they reach great success in their future? Are we raising a generation of broad-minded intellectuals or a generation of outsiders? I wonder…
The case is even worse for those who opt for living and gaining their undergrad/grad degree abroad. Their extended exposure to Western cultures makes it extremely hard for them to revert back to their original Japanese character. They are often extremely critical of Japanese working conditions and returning to the Japanese fold often proves impossible. Such is the case with some of my Japanese classmates with whom I studied at the University of Denver, Colorado.
As a teacher of ESL/EFL, I invite parents to ask themselves the question: to what extent does your child’s English language proficiency surpasses his or her cultural values? On the other hand, I remind fellow teachers to be mindful of the cultural differences in values and to reflect on their behavior in the classroom and on every English-language activity as even the minor act might be planting subtle seeds in children’s’ absorbent minds. In the meantime, we need to do our homework when it comes to teaching without imparting our personal values to the students. As the goal is to help the child become aware of the values imparted by their parents and to be able to behave and respond in ways that are congruent with these values.
To help parents and teachers take a stand and be on the same page regarding children’s values, I have designed a simple questionnaire which you can find and benefit from here.