Oral or Aural ?
During my first year in Japan I taught English two days a week at a senmogakko, or community college for 18-to-20-year-olds. Senmogako students are more difficult to teach than highschoolers. They are older and think of themselves as adults (although they are not yet actually adults under Japanese law). Most of them were in a community college to begin with because they failed entrance exams for universities. This might have soured their disposition against more schooling because they might have thought of themselves as the losers in the Japanese educational rat race, adding to the problem of their apathy in class.
This particular school specialized in preparing young people to work in the travel and hotel industries. We were using an old textbook published by Oxford University Press more than twenty years ago, American Streamline Departures. (A British English edition is also published.) This book is still available today, in an updated edition. But it is still essentially the same as it was when it was first published. Twenty years is a long time, but when you see it, it is easy to understand the staying power of this book. Every lesson follows a very simple formula and every lesson is so chock-a-block full of vocabulary, idioms and grammar that it would take some time to comprehensively cover each of the single-page units. In those days I used the same textbook for some adult classes. Adult students - businessmen and women, housewives, some university students - are more irregular in their class attendance because of their own busy schedules. But it was easy for them to return to class and jump right into the textbook - not taking up where they left off, but picking up on whatever page we were studying that day. And the book was easy enough for them to do this because it never deviated from its formula.
In April, before classes began at this community college, all the foreign English teachers attended a meeting with the school’s head (Japanese) English teacher. He told us all about the school and the students, the textbook and the design of the two-lessons-per-week English course. Speaking in English, Mr. Ohtake told us that one class per week was for“oral” English, and the other was for “oral” English. I didn’t understand. He kept saying “oral” and “oral” and I didn’t know what he meant. It was my first job and I wanted to work hard, do a good job and impress, so I was concerned about getting his meaning exactly right, and so kept questioning him on it. What do you mean? What do you mean? What do you mean? (Little did I know then the position of vagueness, or “aimai” in Japanese language and culture.) Eventually he dismissed further enquiry by telling me, “Don’t worry about it.” His words exactly.
So, I didn’t worry about it. Classes began and I taught all day Tuesdays and Thursdays. The same students each day, using the textbook and accompanying cassette tape each time, plus lots of supplementary materials to spice things up a bit. I gave end-of-term tests in July and again in December, each time submitting my marks and attendance record to the head English teacher. The end of the school year came in March. Once again I gave end-of-term tests and submitted my marks and attendance records to the head teacher. I did not enjoy teaching there, so I was happy that it was over. But after the end of classes the school called my company and I was called back for a meeting. There was some problem with the marks. Mr. Ohtake met me and showed me the marks and records that I submitted. Then he asked where my “other” marks were?
“What other marks?”
“Your oral English marks.”
“These are my oral English marks.”
“But where are the marks for your Thursday oral English class?”
“My oral English class?”
Then it struck me that at the teachers meeting in April Mr. Ohtake was not saying “oral” English and “oral” English. He was saying that one class, the Tuesday class, was for “oral” English - meaning spoken English - and the other class, on Thursdays, was for “aural” English - meaning listening. Because of his Japanese accent I could not tell that he was saying “oral” and “aural.” The two words sounded the same - “oral” - to my ears. Then I thought, “Why the hell didn’t he just say “speaking” and“listening” to begin with?” Maybe he was trying to show how smart, professional and competent he was by using more technical vocabulary, but in practice his choice of words had the opposite effect.
Suddenly, I had to invent out of thin air an entire duplicate set of marks for more than a hundred students, 95% of whom I could not remember and had no impression of. It was one of those gross fiascos that explain why so many foreign English teachers (and foreigners in general) have such bad reputations among Japanese. Although I blamed Mr. Ohtake for the mistake, he probably blamed me and considered me the dictionary definition of the idiot foreigner. I had already submitted end-of-term marks twice, in July and December, and there were no comments or corrections, questions or problems. Mr. Ohtake waited not just until the end of the school year, but until after classes had ended and I had left the school (for good, I thought) before calling me back to set the matter right. Even after more than a decade I am still angry about the situation and that awful man.
Inventing completely artificial marks was not as difficult as it sounds. Overcoming my moral objection was probably the greatest difficulty. First, the school used a bell curve for grading. Second, as I understand now, how the students actually performed in class is not as important as following the bell curve. I have written about this before, about how form is more important than function, or appearance more than content. Over the years, working at other schools, I slowly came to realize that the schools would sometimes arbitrarily change the marks I submitted as it suited them, without telling me about it. It shows how lightly they regard foreign English teachers’ work and rate our professionalism. What I mean is, we do not rate at all.