Conference report: The NEAR Language Education Conference in Niigata

Howard Brown and David Coulson


Niigata Prefecture is a region only 2 hours north of Tokyo, but it also faces the eastern edge of Asia. As such, language education is on the move here, with established centers of excellence such as International University Japan (IUJ) and University of Niigata Prefecture (UNP). In cooperation with IUJ and the Niigata JALT chapter, the first annual North East Asian Region (NEAR) Language Education Conference was held on 30 May on the UNP campus in Niigata City. Over 100 educators in NEAR languages (Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean and Russian) came together under the conference theme of “Different Backgrounds, Shared Experiences.” English is still the most commonly taught language in Japan, but the languages of our NEAR neighbors are becoming more and more important. So the conference planners sought to bring together educators who have, as the conference theme suggests, different backgrounds but common experiences as language teachers. The conference organizers hope that the presence of this new conference in Niigata Prefecture will add new vitality to language education in this area, and also provide links with the different pedagogic traditions that exist in the teaching of different languages.

This year’s conference featured 40 presentations on a wide range of themes, with concerns ranging from grade school to university. Speakers came from across Japan. Highlights included a comparison of motivation in Korean and English learners, the importance of vocabulary size in effective English reading, the use of drama in the classroom to improve students’ oral skills, standards for testing in Russian classes, the effectiveness of MEXT’s program of sending teachers overseas for pedagogic training, and metaphors of black and white in Chinese. Clearly, the choice of topics was very broad and all presentations were well attended.

The two featured speakers were also a big hit. Tim Murphey from Kanda University of International Studies gave a very inspiring talk about Role Modeling. In his talk he discussed the importance of Role Models and pointed out that we more emulate people who are close to us in some way. He described how these Near Peer Role Models can be a key in students’ language development. He also looked at some ways that NPRMing can apply to institutional and even international settings. One particularly striking aspect of Murphey’s presentation was his recounting of his lesson plan in which students had to phone each other to speak in English. At first, this activity achieved only a 25% approval rate. But Murphey persisted with this approach and gradually students came to see greater value in it, perhaps because they inspired each other with their motivation and success. As fellow teachers, we were reminded of the importance of having the courage of our teaching convictions.

The second plenary, by Kensaku Yoshida of Sophia University, looked at implications of MEXT’s new guidelines for English education in primary and secondary schools in Japan. He argued very strongly for the importance of content-based instruction. He made suggestions about content by referring to the results of high school debating contests held at the national level and the international level. One very striking feature of Yoshida’s analysis concerned the comparison between the relative weights given to other subjects, such as science, in elementary school. When pupils enter junior high, they already have the necessary background in biology, for example, to be able to appreciate lessons focusing on the growth of plants. In contrast, most students have very little background in English and yet are plunged into the minutiae of English grammar. Yoshida then showed startling figures which indicated many more students don’t understand English classes than other subjects. Later, Yoshida linked this unfavorable start to the lack of high-level skills in debate contests at even the most elite high schools in Japan, where the debate topics are still very elementary. The audience very clearly understood that content instruction can have an important role in language education at an early stage, and Yoshida told us that MEXT has concrete plans to try and address these issues.

For more information about the NEAR conference, check the conference website at <>. JALT members are warmly invited to attend the second annual conference to be held in Niigata in May, 2010. We are planning the details now, and we will work hard to ensure another stimulating and friendly conference.

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