Farewell to Textbooks

A New Dimension to Language Acquisition

Janusz Buda

So you want to go abroad? Your present job is fine, but you want to widen your horizons. A business trip, perhaps. Or an overseas posting. You’re confident you can handle the work. You’re sure you can cope with the psychological strain of living outside Japan. But there’s one lingering doubt... somehow you’re not quite sure of your English ability. When it comes to the crunch, will your present English be up to the mark? Is there any good way to improve it?

The short answer to the first question is: probably not. And the equally short answer to the second is: yes, of course there is. So let’s see if I can’t give you a few words of advice about improving your English.

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First of all, let me start with the Good News. Whatever its shortcomings, whatever its misguided failings, all those years of English education, from junior high right through to university, have left you with a firm grounding in basic English grammar, and a vocabulary which is probably greater than the everyday working vocabulary of many native speakers. And you obviously want to improve your English. You wouldn’t be reading magazines like this if you weren’t. So you’re strongly motivated, and that’s half the battle won.

But now for the Bad News. If you really want to activate the English you already know, if you really want to be able to communicate easily with foreigners, then I’m afraid you’re going to have to completely re-think your whole approach to English study, and learn to start again from scratch.

Let me try and give you an example of what I mean. Just for a moment, consider a newly hatched pigeon chick. Ask yourself, how does it go about feeding itself? Well, it doesn’t. A baby pigeon leads an idyllic sort of life. All it has to do is tap its parent’s beak, make a few cooing noises, and out pops the next meal from the parent’s mouth. The parent birds do all the work. They fly around searching for food, choosing and selecting. They swallow the food and pre-digest it. And they deliver it on demand.

The way you have learned English in the past is just like the way that little baby pigeon has been getting its food. You’ve not really had to do all that much by yourself. Your teachers have done most of the work for you. They’ve sorted through the English language and picked out lots of interesting words, phrases, and constructions. Out of all that chaotic jumble of everyday colloquial English, with its idioms, its slang, its vulgarisms, and its dialects, they’ve carefully structured and organized neat easy-to-understand lessons, each a model of ‘one-point’ clarity. All you’ve had to do is to absorb those lessons passively; to make sure you understand, and then to memorize.

* * *

That may be all very well, but let’s go back again to the example of the baby pigeon. It can’t expect its parents to go on feeding it forever. Sooner or later the parent birds are going to stop bringing back tasty morsels. What happens then? Well, the poor little chick goes hungry for a few days. And then it begins to try and find food for itself, picking and pecking at anything that looks even remotely edible. As a result, it usually makes itself thoroughly sick a few times. But hunger is a pretty good motivator, and it keeps on and on, until eventually it learns what to eat, and what not to eat. And from that moment on, it’s independent. It doesn’t need its parents any more.

Just like that chick, you’re going to have to go it alone. You can’t expect to rely on textbooks, tape courses, and persevering teachers forever. You’re going to have to learn how to go out and look for information yourself; how to discriminate, how to use wisely. When you go abroad, say, to America or England, English is going to be all around you, wherever you go, and whatever you do. You have to learn how to tap that vast reservoir by yourself. Even here in Japan, English is all around you. Movies, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, books, and so on. To ignore it all, and to keep on relying on textbooks and teachers, just like you have always done, is just like a fully-grown pigeon sitting in the middle of a summer cornfield and waiting for its parents to bring it food.

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Let me try to illustrate what I mean with a concrete example. Perhaps it might seem to have little or no connection with studying English, but please bear with me, and I hope you’ll begin to see what I’m getting at. Let’s take a look, then, at body language. Non-verbal communication.

Every nation, every culture, has its own system of non-verbal signals. The trouble is, the nature and the significance of those non-verbal signals are different for each culture. A gesture which might mean one thing for, say, an Arab, might have no meaning at all, or perhaps a completely different meaning, for somebody from another part of the world. Although you’re probably not conscious of it, you have acquired the Japanese system of body language, and you are using it every day of your life. But try using those same signals when you go abroad, and just see what happens.

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One of the characteristics of Japanese society is its strong vertical organization. This vertical consciousness is reflected in nearly all social transactions, both verbal and nonverbal. Let’s take two extreme examples.

Next time you switch on the TV news, take a good look at the politicians waving to the cameras, or sitting in their reception rooms and posing for the press. You’ve probably never stopped to think about it twice, but have a good look at all those non-verbal signals they’re putting out. The way they sit, the way they smoke their cigarettes, the way they look around. Translate those signals into verbal terms, and what they are saying is, “I have power. I have position. If you want any consideration from me you had better show respect.” Now, take a look at the opposite end of the scale. For example, a new company entrant, fresh out of college, on his first day at work. How does he behave? Take a look at his non-verbal signals. His nervous glances, his deep respectful bows to almost everybody in sight, the hesitant intakes of breath, the perplexed scratching of the back of the head, the foolish grin whenever he makes a mistake. In verbal terms, what he is trying to say is, “I have no confidence. I really don’t know how I stand in relation to the people around me. Please forgive any blunders I make. Please don’t judge me too critically.”

Now let’s take it one step further. Next time a visiting foreign politician meets his Japanese counterpart for a handshake in front of the TV cameras, have a good look at the signals he is sending out. Perhaps they don’t seem so obvious to you, because you’re not familiar with them, but they’re still there, just as strong and clear as those the Japanese politician is transmitting. The foreign politician is really saying, “I’m sincere. You can trust me. I have your best interest at heart. I’ll listen to you.” And all the time he is flashing his affable, sincere grin for the benefit of the cameras, he is probably looking at his Japanese counterpart, taking note of the non-verbal signals, and no doubt thinking, “What a thoroughly cold, unpleasant, and arrogant man...

Meanwhile, the Japanese is reading the foreigner’s signals, and is thinking, “Who is this man? He doesn’t behave like someone in authority. Does he really represent his government? Is it worth talking to him seriously?” Or let’s go back to the company freshman. If visitors from America were to see him on his first day at work, how would they interpret his behaviour? Well, they might get the impression he was a deeply neurotic young man who seemed to take an almost malevolent delight in making mistakes.

Being almost entirely unconscious, we have little or no control over all those non-verbal signals we transmit. Little wonder then, that so many Japanese go abroad and feel they are being misunderstood. It’s just that whatever they are trying to say in English is being obliterated or negated by all those innocent and unconscious Japanese siganis they are sending out. To put it bluntly, no matter how perfect your English may be, if your non-verbal signals are misunderstood, you’re going to make a really bad impression. Or conversely, no matter how broken your English may be, if you can make the right signals, then you’re going to make friends and influence people.

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All very well, I hear you say, but how should I go about learning all these things? It’s tough, but the only way you’re going to learn is by yourself. Use your eyes. Use your ears. Above all, learn to use your discrimination. Observe. Take every opportunity to look at examples of foreigners’ body language. Go to the movies. Watch TV. Don’t just enjoy the story, take a good look at what the actors are doing, how they’re behaving. Use your initiative. If you live near a busy shopping centre, or airport, or large hotel, then take time out and observe foreign visitors. And all the while keep asking yourself these important questions: what kind of non-verbal signals are being made? who is making them? at whom are they directed? in what situation? and, most vital of all, what effect are the signals having? Don’t be content with one or two observations — they may have been atypical. Keep at it, and sooner or later it will all begin to fall into place, and you can begin to take the first steps towards incorporating the newly acquired information into your own communication situations.

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Perhaps now you can see why I’ve spent so much time talking about body language. In the end, transmitting non-verbal signals and speaking English are simply two facets of the same thing: communication. And all the points I’ve tried to make about body language also apply to learning English.

In the same way that no textbook can really show you what non-verbal signals mean, or how they are used, so no textbook can hope to teach you all the infinite subtlety of a language. Learning words is one thing; learning how to use them is another. A book can tell you what a word means, but it can’t tell you the effect the use of that word will have in a real eyeball-to-eyeball situation. Used wrongly, words can shock, they can embarrass, they can anger. Slang is a good example. Used sparingly and in the right situation to the right person, it can create a valuable mood of informality. Used too frequently, at the wrong time, and to the wrong person, it may cause confusion or even shock, and will certainly do almost irreparable damage to the impression you are trying so hard to create.

Imagine a foreign visitor to Japan who has picked up words and phrases here and there from Japanese TV—from quiz programmes, gangster movies, historical dramas, and so on. Imagine how you’d feel if in the middle of his halting Japanese conversation he suddenly began to use feminine language, or gutter slang, or perhaps words that haven’t been used in conversation for a century or two. You would have a lot of difficulty taking him seriously, wouldn’t you? Yet it’s just that kind of hodge-podge English that many Japanese are using every day, and then wondering why foreigners laugh at them, or look so puzzled and perplexed.

The only way you’ll ever learn how to use words is to put away the textbooks, and to start listening. Just the same way you have to learn non-verbal language.

Listen, but at all times keep asking yourself the very same questions: who is saying this? to whom are they talking? in what situation? how does the other person react? It’s a hard and tough way to acquire language, compared with sitting back and reading a textbook, but in the end it’s the only way you’ll ever become fluent, and learn to really communicate in English.

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I hope that by now you can see what I’m trying to get at. There’s a completely new dimension to language acquisition which is ignored in almost all English language education. There’s a world of difference between understanding principles and knowing applications. All those books you’ve read, all those tape courses you’ve studied, have been valuable, and they can still serve as good reference sources. But the English they’ve taught you is not going to be of much use in real active communication situations. What really matter in those situations are the things those books and tapes didn’t teach you. Things you’re going to have to learn for yourself. It’s going to be tough. Learning to walk is always tough, especially if you’ve been accustomed to hitching a lift all the time. But once you learn to take your first steps, it won’t be long before you’re beginning to run. No matter how interesting a textbook or lesson may be, it can’t compare to the thrill of discovering new words and phrases for yourself, or using them for the very first time.

Finally, if there’s something I’ve been trying to say to you in this article, it’s this; in the end, improving your English and learning to communicate effectively is up to you. Don’t waste time looking around for easy ways. There aren’t any. Just keep working at it. Don’t get discouraged. And.... Good Luck!

Source: Genba Eigo, Tokyo: Gloview, 1982