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Complexity versus Control

What should be the role of complexity (v.s. “control” of grammar and vocabulary) in English Language Teaching?

In his lecture at JACET 2007 professor Toshiaki Ozasa described Japan’s secondary school English education as “totally tied up in rules.” After studying textbooks from the Meiji Era through the present to examine the degree of control of grammar and vocabulary, Ozasa concluded that educators in Japan have taken control over grammar and word lists to make their textbooks easier to use, but such efforts have produced unnatural and difficult textbooks. His observation implies that strict control of grammar and target vocabulary makes the English Language Teaching (ELT) rather ineffective. Before the World WarⅡ, the difficulty or complexity of texts did not matter much largely because only a limited number of students could go to secondary schools. Today, as Ozasa claims, almost every student goes to high school, which makes it inevitable for authorities to intensify the control over what is learned and make textbooks understandable to everyone. In other words, complexity of grammar and vocabulary has been intentionally marginalized or ignored.

Akaishi (2006) points out that I. Nitobe and K. Uchimura acquired a good command of English by reading arcane and “complicated” materials aloud over and over. Even though they must have been among the very few of talented people at that time, it still is possible to assume that simplification is not the best route to success in language learning. Rather, richness of detail may be most conducive to learning. Akaishi’s analysis suggests that complexity is not inherently bad if the learner is highly motivated and if texts are read repeatedly, preferably aloud, for memorization. Complexity gives the richness of the target language, and learners gradually develop an understanding of what the “jungle” of richness and complexity is like.

Edelman and Sylwester use the jungle metaphor in their literature. Edelman proposes a model to explain our brain’s development and operation as rich and layered ecology of a jungle environment. Sylwester states that a jungle-like brain might thrive best in a jungle-like classroom, the environment that best stimulates the neural networks. Their argument supports the complexity of grammar and vocabulary to be included in materials for exposure to learners. Language learning and teaching can never be under control by simplification, so in this regard alone, it is likely that complication is better than simplification.


References:
Akaishi (2006). The reading strategy of I. Nitobe and K. Uchimura.
Edelman, G.M. (1992). Bright air, brilliant fire: On the matter of mind.
Sylwester, R. (1995). A celebration of neurons: An educator's guide to the human brain.

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