A Case Study of Learning in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Japan: High School Students' English Proficiency Levels and Fostering Positive Cross-Cultural Attitudes

By O'Neill, Shirley | International Journal of Pedagogies and Learning, December 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

A Case Study of Learning in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Japan: High School Students' English Proficiency Levels and Fostering Positive Cross-Cultural Attitudes


O'Neill, Shirley, International Journal of Pedagogies and Learning


Background

This research is a part of a much larger study of Japanese high school students' and their teachers' cross-cultural attitudes and opinions about language and culture, and language learning and teaching as reported in Ingram, Kono, O'Neill and Sasaki (2008)1. Such research is important because those working in the global field of English as a foreign or second language (EFL/ESL), together with the languages education policy and syllabus documents typically expect language learners will develop favourable attitudes towards the language and culture of the language being learned (the target language). The present paper2 explores the responses of two sub-samples of the main study to consider in more detail whether these Japanese high school students' crosscultural attitudes and opinions about language learning differed on the basis of their level of English language proficiency as categorised by their self-reported STEP Test results. The responses of students with higher English language proficiency levels were compared with those of students with lower English language proficiency levels.

Current issues in languages teaching

Methods and approaches to teaching languages have changed dramatically over the years with contemporary pedagogy advocating an eclectic approach that may draw upon the most effective aspects of past and recent teaching and learning strategies. Importantly, since the advent of the communicative approach (Canale & Swain, 1980) which recognised the necessity for languages learners to be involved in authentic, purposeful/meaningful communicative tasks and assessment, the additional need for intercultural literacy has been established (Kramsch, 2002; Nault, 2006).

O'Neill and Gish (2008, p. 226) state:

Language learning materials and resources should assist language learners to identify and understand their own culture and thinking as well as the culture and thinking of the target language. Intercultural literacy as a basis for effective cross-cultural communication demands an awareness of cultural and linguistic diversity, the ability to reflect on one's own language and culture and that of the target language.

This acknowledgment and emphasis on intercultural literacy for effective cross-cultural communication has provided a new impetus for all teachers who are involved in teaching students from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds to acquire the appropriate knowledge and pedagogical skills to be effective. Thus, in Australia, besides the typical short postgraduate programs being available for existing teachers to acquire qualifications to teach EFL/ESL some undergraduate, education degree programs are preparing teachers to teach mainstream ESL students (see example course ECE4012, www.usq.edu.au). Similarly, students' acquisition of language skills and cultural relevance for effective language learning is dependent on their teachers' ability to develop their own intercultural literacy. So programs for preparing EFL teachers need to consider how this will be taught and promoted. Heyward (2002, p. 10) defines "intercultural literacy as the understandings, competencies, attitudes, language proficiencies, participation and identities necessary for successful cross-cultural engagement . . . [where one] has the background required to effectively 'read' a second culture, to interpret it's symbols and negotiate its meanings in a practical day-to-day context." On this basis it would seem that both programs for teachers and learners need to be carefully planned and implemented to allow participants to engage with the relevant languages and cultures involved.

When one examines languages education policy documents (ACTET, 2002; DECS, 2005; EULF, 2007; MCEETYA, 2005; UNESCO, 2003) they tend to work on the premise that through the process of learning a new language learners will automatically develop positive attitudes towards the language and the culture. But as shown by Ingram and O'Neill (2000) and Ingram, Kono, O'Neill and Sasaki (2008) this may not be the case. …

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