Harold Palmer in Japan. Presentation Review.

Harold Palmer in Japan: A Lesson from History.

Review of the presentation by Motoko  Teraoka.

Date and Time: Sunday, 17th October 2010, 3:00-5:00 p.m.

Venue: Yumekaze Hiroba

Presenters: Leigh McDowell & Yoko Yaku

Reviewer: Motoko Teraoka

This was a thought-provoking presentation.  Leigh McDowell started off with a question, “Have you ever been frustrated with English language teaching in Japan?”  He then gave us a bit of time to reflect on our teaching experience.

Firstly, Leigh introduced Harold E. Palmer (1877-1949), a reformist educator who has influenced English language education in Japan since the Meiji period.  We learnt about his early life, family and educational background.

Then, Leigh discussed Palmer’s methodology which was initially inspired the Direct Method known as the Berlitz Method, but with a more scientific approach to language teaching.  One of the central concepts in Palmer’s methodology was the binary distinction between language as speech and as a code.  “Speech” is an expression of communication, whereas “code” is contained in the grammar, spelling rules and phonology.  These two were separated entities and “speech” preceded “code”.  In other words, accustoming learners themselves to the English language itself was given priority over analysing it.    

Another feature different from the Berlitz Method was that learners’ L1 was used in the Palmer Method, if necessary, to confirm the meaning of particular vocabulary after the success of attempts to communicate meaning in the L2 remained uncertain.  This was a new perspective, perhaps derived from someone who had studied several languages: German, Spanish, Polish and Esperanto.  

Yoko Yaku later took over the presentation, focusing on how Palmer’s arrival in Japan came about and what he did in Japan and why his methodology did not take root in Japan. 

We leant that in 1923 Palmer established the Institute for Research in English Teaching (IRET), where he put into practice; “imperative drill”-a  method currently known as TPR; “action chains”-action and speech with grammar structure involved; and “reader system”-utilization of knowledge gained from speech in easy English.  Through these teaching activities along with other attempts, Palmer had following reading comprehension, extensive reading and writing.   

Yoko then explained four reasons for the failure of the prevalence of Palmer’s methodology: 1) Lack of financial support, 2) World WarⅡ, 3) Universalisation of English language education in Japan and 4) No imminent need of practical English.  The last two reasons also apply to the current English education in Japan, but the last one, I believe, appears to be something we would have to give serious thought in taking “teaching methodology” into account.    

At the end of the presentation Leigh and Yoko took questions from the floor. One of the participants pointed out Palmer’s methodology overlapping behaviourist models of learning.  Another participant asked the reaction from the students who had studied in IRET.  The audience seems to have concluded that Palmer’s students must have had a hard time learning the foreign language, as well as dealing with various social expectations of a modernising Japan.  And regarding “phonetic transcription”, oral English practice based on this logical approach to learning the English sound system has been brushed aside in the current English education curriculum in Japan.  What a pity!

Let’s go back to the question asked by Leigh, “Have you ever been frustrated with English language teaching in Japan?”  Yes.  We all nodded in affirmation.  What is important for language professionals is to look back on the history of language teaching and learn from it, and search for appropriate methodologies in our own teaching contexts. 

There is no doubt at all that Leigh and Yoko knocked at our door and made us rethink of the current practice carried out in English classes in Japan and what direction should be taken in the language classroom in the future.

Once again, this was a well-researched and insightful presentation.  Leigh and Yoko certainly deserve a big round of applause!

Further reading (authors): Anthony Philip Reid Howatt, Hans Heinrich Stern, Makhan Lal Tickoo and Ferdinand de Saussur

4 thoughts on “Harold Palmer in Japan. Presentation Review.”

  1. Motoko,
    Thanks for your astute comments on our presentation. I really appreciate your interest and effort, and I look forward to seeing more from you at our chapter meetings and here on this blog.
    Dooooomo arigato gozaimasu.

  2. Thank you, Leigh.
    It was a great pleasure reviewing Yoko and your presentation.
    I learnt a lot! See you soon.
    Douitashimashite. Kochirakoso arigato desu.

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