Don’t Be Too Good

I am a member of an Internet group for English school owners in Japan. Recently, some members of that group have been discussing some of the frustrations they have had with students writing perfectly acceptable English in school tests and being marked wrong by their teachers. This is not an unreasonable, ranty group of teachers hell-bent on showing the Japanese where they are going wrong, and they do acknowledge that there are dedicated teachers willing to allow some flexibility in students’ answers, but still, I’ll admit that reading some of their comments had me muttering unpleasantries.

The gist of the conversation was this: it does not matter that an English response is correct linguistically, it must be the answer expected by the teacher and taught in the classroom to merit a point. Thus it was that one teacher’s student had the word ‘siblings’ marked wrong as a translation of the word 兄弟, because that word had not yet been taught in class. Another complained that to translate 晴れて暑いです as ‘It’s hot and sunny,’ was marked wrong because it should be, ‘It’s sunny and hot.’ That, you see, is the way those adjectives appear in the Japanese sentence. Well, yes, but the direct translation of the verb appears at the end of the Japanese sentence and no marks are given for, ‘Sunny and hot it is,’ are they? Most native English speakers would say, ‘It’s hot and sunny,’ and to mark that as incorrect is ludicrous. Sometimes, you need to remind people that learning English does not mean learning to speak Japanese using English words. That’s not how it works.

One teacher, the owner of a well-respected school in Kobe, told of how one of her students had written, ‘I want to be an English teacher,’ as an answer to the question, ‘What is your dream?’ That was wrong, too. Why? Well, apparently, it should have been, ‘My dream is an English teacher.’

I can’t vouch for the veracity of these anecdotes, but I have no reason to doubt them. They were all made by people who come across as very level-headed and  not at all the sort of people who have a huge grudge against all things educational in Japan. Their stories also reminded me of the experience of one of my own students, an intelligent girl who was denied full marks in an English test because she wrote, ‘I am from Japan,’ as an answer to the question, ‘Where are you from?’ The testers were looking for, ‘I am from (city).’ Or perhaps it was the other way round. I can’t remember, probably because both are perfectly acceptable.

Now, as I said, not all teachers in Japan are so rigidly inflexible, but tales like these are still all too common. They are common enough that when I am teaching I sometimes find myself showing kids perfectly correct and common ways of saying things and then having to add, ‘But you might get marked wrong if you write that on the test.’

I used to wonder why, when adult students encountered two ways of saying the same thing, they would often ask, ‘But which is more common?’ ‘They’re both common. Either is fine,’ I would say. ‘But which is better?’ They would ask. And when you say that neither is better, they look a tad downhearted. Perhaps because once upon a time they discovered that a little flexibility, which should be key to successful language learning, was sometimes viewed as a dangerous thing.

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12 Responses to Don’t Be Too Good

  1. AstroNerdBoy says:

    Heh. Your article reminded me of this comedy skit from Ken Shimura.

  2. Shar M. says:

    I come across this sometimes. Just yesterday, we were reviewing the answers to a test. The textbook had taught a phrase, “What is the climate in Tokyo in this season?” which the teachers translated as どうですか? so of course, when students see どう? they think, “How?” and wrote, “How is the climate in Tokyo in this season?” Actually, it’s fine, but all the tests were marked wrong. Luckily I convinced the teachers to give back a point for this, because, well, it makes sense. But the small argument we had was that どうですか can’t always be translated as “What…?” , like in the sentence きぶんはどうですか? which is “How are you?” but can’t be translated as “What are you?” (though I said in this case, you’d just need to fully translate the sentence, which is “What are you feeling?”

    • There are loads of words that can be translated differently in different contexts! Glad you won your argument, but it is that kind of thing that can be so infuriating. The students are supposed to just memorise the exact phrase that was in the book, and any other plausible translations are marked wrong. With any languages that is not a good idea, but when those languages are as different as Japanese and English it is nonsensical.

  3. Kathryn says:

    When I was learning Japanese in Japan, similar thing. If I deviated from the answer in the book, I got marked wrong. It’s very difficult after a lifetime of “put things in your own words”.

  4. kamo says:

    If you’re able to correctly answer a question with something other than the intended response, then it’s just a poorly designed question. As time goes by I’m becoming less and less diplomatic in how I phrase that. What’s noticeable is that decent JTEs who are confident in their abilities are quite happy to take that on board; it’s the ones who are shit and know they’re shit who are most resistant. Refuge in rigidity.

    I realise this wasn’t you but “It’s sunny and hot.” is demonstrably less correct than “It’s hot and sunny.” The stress pattern’s all out – “it’s SUNny AND hot.” Why would you want to stress the ‘and’ but not the ‘hot’? I’m using this kind of reasoning more and more, because not only is it correct, but it’s very, very hard for non-native speakers to raise valid objections about rhythm and tempo. Sometimes I’ll start by talking about syllable timing and stress timing, just to really kill off any objections before they arise.

  5. Jeffrey says:

    I found years ago that it cuts both ways when doing some translation in a Japanese class in grad school. I committed the sin of translating mainichi as daily rather than everyday (or vice versa). When I pointed out to my instructor that they are interchangeable in English, she simply repeated that it had to be one way and not the other. This to me was an indicator that the Japanese may be temperamentally unsuited to teach languages all together.

  6. Would you mind if I translated this into Japanese for my blog? I work as an English teacher, and I’ve dealt with the same issues in the past. “No. I want students to answer ‘difficult’; ‘hard’ is not OK.”

  7. expatseek says:

    Rigidity doesn’t help language acquisition, especially in a culture like Japan’s.

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