Success closer to home: Utilizing near peer role models to empower English conversation school students

By Daniel Hooper

Introduction:

Within a range of learning theories from situated learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991) to the zone of proximal development (ZPD) and scaffolding (Vygotsky, 1978), social situatedness and self identity within a particular setting have been claimed to have a profound effect on students’ cognitive development. Furthermore, identity and self-conceptualization have been posited to lie behind the maintenance of student motivation (Dörnyei, 2005), potentially supplying the affective robustness required to endure the marathon of language learning. Bandura (1977) claims that vicarious modelling, or showing through the actions of others that something can be achieved, increases the chances that people will envision their own success and stay the course in whatever challenges they face. The notion of near peer role models (NPRMs) (Murphey, 1998) can be viewed as a by-product of these theories. NPRMs are figures who, through being similar in some manner to the learner, act as successful figures that provide encouragement, advice, and proof that success is possible. In an ELT context, NPRMs provide students with examples of successful L2 users sharing similar backgrounds to themselves, separate from the unattainable, and often daunting, native speaker construct (Cook, 1999). In Japan, native speaker English still rules (Honna & Takeshita, 1998), and nowhere more so than in the private conversation school (eikaiwa) industry (Kubota, 2011).

This study aims to investigate how eikaiwa teachers can, through presenting students with examples of Japanese NPRMs, provide attainable goals that empower learners rather than setting them up for failure.

Review of Literature:

The utilization of NPRMs in the ELT classroom is grounded in a number of theoretical standpoints. The work of Bandura on self-efficacy and efficacy expectations greatly informs the approach as it rests on the idea of vicarious modelling affecting people’s beliefs and the notion that seeing others succeed in a task encourages us to persevere even in the face of hardship (Bandura, 1977). Showing gains made by others through “effortful coping behavior” (Bandura , 1977) demonstrates that downturns and stress are just temporary and that through perseverance people can eventually succeed in their goals. Vygotskian theory is also tied into the concept of NPRMs in that students are given models that are closer in level linguistically than the native speaker (NS) teacher to their zone of proximal development (ZPD) (Murphey & Murakami, 1998; Vygotsky, 1978). Furthermore, an ethnically or linguistically similar role model can arguably improve scaffolding within learning as barriers created by the daunting and distant figure of the native speaker fall away, allowing students to “step into each other’s shoes” (Murphey & Murakami, 1998). Lave and Wenger’s (1991) community of practice (COP) model is also relevant in as far as NPRMs are successful and established members of a COP, i.e. Japanese English language learners that guide peripheral participants towards greater competence and inclusion in the group. A final important perspective is Dörnyei’s (2005) concept of the ‘L2 motivational self system’ and the notion of the ‘ideal self’ or ‘ought-to self’ being a powerful motivator for continued language study. This concept is tied into NPRMs as they provide real-life examples of how L2 proficiency could feature in their ‘ideal’ or ‘ought to’ selves. NPRMs are at the same time proving that these identities are realistic and achievable in contrast to an unattainable native speaker standard.

Cook (1998) claims that a reliance on the NS model sets students up to fail as even highly advanced bilinguals fell short when their grammaticality judgement was measured against a monolingual NS model (Coppieters, 1987). He also argues that variations in pronunciation or grammar should be viewed as “differences, not deficits” (Cook, 1998, p. 194). ELT in Japan is arguably dominated by the native speaker construct. Honna and Takeshita (1998) claim that NS English is held up as the linguistic model by which English is judged in almost every Japanese teaching context, with non-native speaker (NNS) varieties being seen as substandard and flawed. According to Honna and Takeshita, students are led to believe that producing anything less than native level English represents failure and shame, and that communication in English is directed towards an extremely limited group of American or British speakers who ‘own’ the language. In their study, however, it was also found that sessions highlighting L2 users from NNS contexts and the communicative role of Japanese English produced encouraging reactions from Japanese student teachers such an increasing awareness of, and respect for, non-native varieties of English.

Arguably more than in any other educational setting in Japan, the image of the native speaker is idolized in the eikaiwa (English conversation school) industry. Kubota (2011) analyses the motivation behind students entering eikaiwa schools and claimed that much of the business model and motivation behind attending classes was based on a kind of ‘akogare’ or longing for the escapism provided by an exotic, i.e. mostly Caucasian NS teacher rather than any real concern for language acquisition. Based on this study, in order to provide a more educational focus to those who are actually interested in learning a language, eikaiwa teachers may need to work on changing the beliefs and values within the institutions that they work in.

The use of NPRMs can also be linked to practices in therapy and counselling for drug addiction recovery, where a counsellor will call in someone of a similar age to the client and a history of similar problems as an ‘expert consultant’. This approach has been found to be successful because the similarities between the two convince the client that success is possible (Murphey & Murakami, 1998). By presenting students with a role model of the same ethnic background successfully communicating in English, students feel that if it is possible for the NPRM, then it is possible for them also. Murphey (1998a) also refers to a project involving NPRMs where students produced a video presenting ideas such as “Making mistakes in English is OK.” and “Japanese can become good speakers of English.” (Kushida, 1995). Student questionnaires distributed by the researcher show that the video was successful in changing ingrained student beliefs. A further study by Murphey and Arao (2001) showed the student produced video to 115 Japanese university students. In a qualitative section of the study, where participants were asked to give their impressions of the video, 95% of comments received were positive. It was also found that the participants’ statements of surprise or envy at the NPRMs performances often “went from ‘they’ descriptions of the video speakers abilities and beliefs to ‘I’ statements of desire to be like them or behave like them” (Murphey & Arao, 2001, p7).

Methods:

Context and Participants
This study was conducted in a small private conversation school located in Gunma Prefecture, north-west of Tokyo. The participants in this study numbered 10 Japanese adult students attending one of three separate evening conversation classes that meet for one hour-long lesson per week. Participants ranged in age from early twenties to late fifties, 6 females and 4 males. The students had studied at the school from a period of six months to three years. Their estimated proficiency levels ranged from beginner to intermediate. This estimate is based on the set textbook being used in each case and the level of graded reader the participants felt comfortable with during their extensive reading homework. However, it should be noted that, due to the lack of formal assessment and the school’s internal policy of placing students in mixed level classes, this estimation was largely based on the researcher’s subjective impressions.

There were six NPRMs whose interviews were filmed for participants to watch. Four videos were made featuring both students and NNS (Japanese) English teachers from the school. They agreed to film the videos on the understanding that they would not be uploaded to any online video sites and that they would be only shown to students and used for this study anonymously (pseudonyms were used for this study). Two more NPRM videos were kindly provided by Harumi Ogawa from Iwate University.

NPRM videos
Mari and Kimiko –  Japanese English conversation school teachers
Tetsuo and Haru – Japanese English conversation school students
Rie – a Japanese EFL student at Iwate University
Liz – a Canadian student studying Japanese and Law at Iwate University (talked in Japanese about her own Japanese study)
Total: 5 Japanese learners of English, 1 Canadian learner of Japanese

Data Collection:

The video participants were asked to relate their experiences or opinions on different areas of their own language study. Their responses were recorded using the researcher’s smart phone and then saved onto a laptop for ease of display in class.

Over a three-week period, students were shown two short videos per class as a listening and then discussion activity. After viewing the final two videos, students were given a questionnaire to complete focusing on their impressions of the video participants. The questionnaire was written and completed anonymously in Japanese and later collected and submitted for professional translation into English. The rationale for this decision was that use of Japanese was likely to provide richer and more authentic responses from the respondents than having them complete the questionnaire in English. The questionnaire included the following questions as well as a section for unsolicited student responses to the videos:

1. What were your impressions of the videos we watched?

2. What from the videos could you apply to your own learning?

3. What did you learn about making mistakes in English?

4. What do you think about Japanese people’s ability to use English?

5. Which person was most impressive to you, and why?

Findings:

Question 1. What were your impressions of the videos we watched?

The responses to this more general question were divided into two main themes. The majority of students expressed admiration towards both the NPRMs’ linguistic proficiency and their confidence when using English.

“They all look so amazing just because they can speak English.”

“I was jealous that everyone enjoyed talking.”

“I was impressed that Japanese people looked very confident when they talked and they had no preconception that they couldn’t speak English. They were good role models.”

The second theme observable from several students’ responses was a questioning of the idea that English needs to be spoken perfectly or to an NS standard in order to be a communicative tool.

“No one speaks fluently when they start learning a new language. But I’ve realized that if you use it every day, you get better.”

“It doesn’t really matter if the sentence is perfectly correct or not. People understand you. I think it is the same thing as foreigners speaking Japanese.”

Question 2. What from the videos could you apply to your own learning?

In terms of practical ideas for learning English, several responses displayed an interest in engaging in diary writing in the future, an idea provided by Mari in her video when she stated how much it had helped her improve in the past.

“I want to write a diary like Mari said. And I want to express what I want to say only with the words that I use.”

“I listen to music and watch movies almost every day, but I want to try to write a diary in English next.”

Many respondents also claimed that they intended to alter the way they thought about language learning in the future. This included adjusting their attitude towards mistakes and perfection, the need for perseverance or daily study, or trying to enjoy their language learning more.

“I want to try to focus on having people understand me rather than trying to use perfect grammar to talk. And also it’s important that we talk, listen and read in English on a daily basis.”

“Regardless of age or experience, I think it’s important to enjoy learning and continue doing it. Taking the initiative is the key.”

Question 3. What did you learn about making mistakes in English?

The majority of respondents stated that they learned that mistakes are not something to be afraid of, that other people don’t really care about second language speakers making mistakes, or that mistakes could be used as learning opportunities.

“I learned that the important things are to learn from mistakes and that I should not worry so much.”

“We don’t have to worry about making mistakes so much. We should not be too afraid when we talk. We are not a native speaker; it is normal that we make mistakes.”

“Making mistakes makes me strong. No one really cares when you make mistakes, just like I don’t.”

“Most people said that ’you should not be afraid to make mistakes’ and ‘there is no problem when you make mistakes.’ I want to use it as a chance to learn more when I make a mistake next time.”

However, one student displayed some hesitation regarding the idea, exhibited in most of the NPRM videos, that we should stop caring about making mistakes when we speak. The student stated that this would be a difficult thing for them to do.

“They tell me ‘Don’t be afraid to make mistakes!’, but it is not easy.”

Question 4. What do you think about Japanese people’s ability to use English?

A key theme that emerged from the responses to this question was a reexamination of the belief that those studying EFL need to have perfect grammar or resemble an NS in order to be effective English users. An over-emphasis on grammar by Japanese students was also highlighted in Rie’s NPRM video and by one of the respondents.

“Everyone seems to be stuck with the idea that they have to speak English with perfect grammar, and lots of people think that they can’t speak English because of it. People in the video were great.”

“It is almost impossible to sound like a native speaker, but I can get close to that.”

“Like Rie said, they care about the details of grammar rules too much and that’s why they can’t speak fluently.”

Some respondents also emphasized the need for actual practice using the target language in order to improve and questioned the commonly held belief that Japanese people cannot become fluent English speakers.

“Lots of Japanese people think that they can’t speak English and they don’t want to try, but I think there is a potential that they can become fluent if they study hard.”

Question 5. Which person was the most impressive to you and why?

The NPRMs that were found to have been selected most by students were Liz (4 respondents), Kimiko (3 respondents) and Tetsuo (2 respondents) with one respondent stating that they found every NPRM to be impressive.  Liz offered students a counter-perspective in regards to learning a foreign language as they were able to see that, although her Japanese contained grammatical errors, she was able to communicate effectively.

“Her Japanese wasn’t perfect but I understood what she wanted to say. It makes me feel like my English is fine too.”

“It was Liz. It was a good opportunity in that I could see myself learning English from the opposite point of view.”

Kimiko was chosen by students because of her excellent pronunciation and the outgoing and positive attitude she exhibited towards studying and using English.

“It was Kimiko, because her pronunciation was great and easy to listen to.”

“Kimiko seemed to have fun in the video. Her facial expressions were like those of foreign people. If everyone thinks ‘I don’t care at all’, we can be more positive about speaking English.”

“I was impressed that Kimiko was quite adventurous as she started learning English because she wanted to talk to foreigners.” 

Finally, Tetsuo was highlighted as an impressive NPRM by respondents due to his persistence in working on his weak points in English and his personal drive and interest in learning the language.

“Tetsuo kept doing a listening lesson repeatedly because he was not good at it. It’s great that he knows his weakness and continues practicing.”

“He was very driven. He taught me that it was very important to take the initiative and take action to learn English.”    

Conclusion:

In examining the student responses to NPRM videos, the findings strongly support the potential value of peers, over a native speaker model, being utilized to inspire and advise students on their language learning. NPRMs served to facilitate a questioning of the validity and practicality of NS competence as a learning goal whilst also offering a more viable, achievable alternative for students to work towards. In relation to Lave and Wenger’s (1991) COP model, the speakers in the videos acted as ‘old timers’ that offered advice and encouragement to students acting as legitimate peripheral participants in a wider group of successful Japanese English speakers.

Liz, as a Japanese as a Foreign Language learner, was found to have had a significant impact on many of the respondents in the study by opening their eyes to an alternate perspective on the role of communication and mistakes when learning a language. They were able to see themselves in Liz and, in a position of power as native Japanese speakers, were able to experience first-hand how, even without perfect grammar, effective communication is achievable in an L2. Furthermore, hearing their Japanese peers, already proficient in English, reassuring them that mistakes were not something to be feared seemed to resonate with students as they heard the same message repeatedly from NPRMs of different ages and backgrounds.

Additionally, several of the respondents were able to take not only inspiration or motivational support, but also practical suggestions on how they could improve their English. Watching movies, using English on a daily basis, and diary writing were some of the NPRMs’ suggestions that respondents stated an intention to adopt in the future. There is arguably great value to students in these types of practical suggestions as they are able to see clear proof of success through the NPRMs’ English proficiency.

The major limitation of this study was the extremely limited number of participants. However, this was mainly due to the nature of eikaiwa classrooms being highly regulated, and it is perhaps unlikely that a much larger-scale study is possible due to institutional concerns such as requirements related to the minimum amount of textbook usage in class. Also, the participants were students taught regularly by the researcher and, to a certain extent, may have been indirectly swayed into stating what they thought the researcher wanted to hear despite the surveys being anonymous. Finally, this study provides only short-term reactions to NPRM videos and fails to investigate whether the positive effects found in the survey data would be present months or years later. Addressing these concerns in future studies would go some way to giving a fuller picture of the value NPRMs have, not only in university and eikaiwa classes, but in other areas as well.

References:

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change. Psychological Review, 84(2), pp. 191-215.

Cook, V. (1999). Going Beyond the Native Speaker in Language Teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 33(2), pp. 185-209.

Coppieters, R. (1987). Competence differences between native and near-native speakers. Language, 63, 545-573.

Dörnyei, Z. (2005). The Psychology of the Language Learner. Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Honna, N. & Takeshita, Y. (1998). On Japan’s Propensity for Native Speaker English: A Change in Sight. Asian Englishes, 1(1), pp. 117-134.

Kubota, R. (2011). Learning a foreign language as leisure and consumption: enjoyment, desire, and the business of eikaiwa. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 14(4), pp. 473-488.

Kushida, Y. (1995). Near peer role models. Unpublished senior thesis, Nanzan University.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Murphey, T. (1998a). Motivating with Near Peer Role Models. In B. Visgatis (Ed.), On JALT’97: Trends and Transitions (pp. 205-209). Tokyo: JALT.

Murphey, T. M. & Murakami, K. (1998). Teacher Facilitated Near Peer Role Modeling for Awareness Raising within the Zone of Proximal Development. Academia. Literature and language, 65, pp. 1-29.

Murphey, T. & Arao, H. (2001). Reported Belief Changes through Near Peer Role Modeling. TESL-EJ, 5(3), pp. 1-15.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Appendix 1. Student questionnaire (Japanese version)

性別:男 女

年齢:20歳以下 20~30歳 30~40歳 40~50歳 50~60歳 60歳以上

  1. 私たちが見たビデオの感想は?
  2. ビデオを見て自分の学習のためにどういかしたいですか?
  3. 英会話で失敗をするということについて何を学びましたか?
  4. 日本人の英会話力についてどう思いますか?
  5. どの人が一番印象的でしたか?なぜそう思いましたか?

他に何かビデオについてお気づきの点がございましたらこちらへ記入してください。

Daniel Hooper has taught in Japan for 10 years and at the time of publication was studying at the Kanda MA TESOL program. His research interests are vocabulary, learner autonomy, teacher cognition, and critical pedagogy.