Q. HOW WOULD DESCRIBE HEALTHTALK?
Healthtalk is a content-based conversation textbook intended to increase the health awareness of Japanese students and give them practice in English conversation. Like many other conversation texts, it is communicative, student-centered, and written for young Japanese at the intermediate level. The difference is the subject matter, the content. The text covers twelve important health themes: Longevity; Cancer Prevention; Smoking; Environment & Health; Exercise; Nutrition; Alcohol; Stress; Obesity; Dental Care; AIDS, and Depression.
Q. WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO WRITE THIS BOOK?
The idea came from a feeling of disgust at watching some of my university students lighting up cigarettes—harming their health—the minute they left my classroom. This was about 20 years ago before smoke-free campuses when more students smoked. Breathing second-hand smoke was one of the things I found most irritating about living in Japan in those days, so I decided to try and do something about it.
Therefore, I began giving a one-time anti-smoking lecture every semester. Through subsequent discussions and questionnaires, I learned how little they knew about health and physical fitness in general. It’s not an important subject to kids whose student lives are concentrated on passing university exams–or chatting on their cell phones. I started writing lessons with health as a theme, and those lessons—all tried out on my students—culminated in the textbook.
Q. WHAT IS THE RATIONALE FOR CONTENT-BASED TEACHING?
Content-based language instruction assumes that language can be effectively taught through the medium of the subject matter. It further assumes that information the learner considers relevant increases motivation, and that language can be taught through contextualized use rather than simply through examples of correct usage. I have found these assumptions to be true. The point here is “relevant.” Everyone is interested in living a long, healthy life, but not all know how to go about it. Students seem to have enough interest in their own wellbeing to take the material seriously, so they have been getting the health message. The hope is that they act on it.
Q. WHAT PROBLEMS DID YOU EXPERIENCE IN WRITING THIS KIND OF TEXTBOOK?
Preparing the content itself—the facts, figures, and basic health advice—took a long time to research and organize. The most difficult part, though, was devising conversation practice activities for the specific subject matter. Imagine, if you will, making up pair practice activities, dialogues, etc. on the subject of AIDS. It was a real challenge to get students talking about the information in a natural way. I constantly had to worry about vocabulary level and information overload: You can’t talk about cancer’s seven warning signals without using words like sore, heal, lump, wart, and hoarseness. Because such uncommon words were essential, I put an English-Japanese glossary in the back of the book.
Also, the presentation had to be authoritative, but not “preachy;” light-hearted, but not frivolous; repetitive, but not boring. Illustrations had to be relevant and informative, yet comical for interest. Integration of content and conversation activities was a struggle. A resource book that provided help in this regard was D.M. Brinton’s 1989 Content-Based Second Language Instruction (Newbury House)
Q. WHAT KIND OF COURSES/STUDENTS WOULD YOU RECOMMEND THIS BOOK FOR?
As the teacher’s guide says, Healthtalk is ideally suited to university students because their health habits are still being formed, and they are at an age that they must make independent choices about their lifestyle. It is ideal as a second course or adjunct to your everyday conversation textbook. Actually, it can also be used productively with just about any type of conversation class of intermediate level and above. I think the material is of special interest to students at medical/nursing schools, physical education universities, and the like.
Q. WHAT IS BETTER ABOUT THE THIRD EDITION?
Through the years that I used Healthtalk I kept a notebook on what worked and what didn’t, what was too difficult or too easy and other such aspects. I ended up with about ten pages of notes. That, along with feedback from teachers and students themselves, provided the basis for the improved Third Edition. Fortunately, Healthtalk has been a steady seller, which provided the economic justification for its revision.
Another point is the up-to-date data and information. A text of this type needs some hard-hitting figures to get students to sit up and take note; however, figures are subject to change. For example, you can say smoking kills a lot of people, but it doesn’t have as much impact as saying that one person in the world dies every ten seconds as a result of tobacco smoking. In the lesson on stress, I cited a suicide figure of 25,000 per year in the first edition. It went up to 30,000 at the time of the second edition, and now it is down to about 20,000. Other such information had become dated, which was a major reason for the revision. In addition, the publisher and I thought two new topics were worthy of inclusion in the Third Edition: Depression and the effects of Environment on Health.
As mentioned, young Japanese don’t think a lot about health, and most of them don’t realize how much health awareness they lack. For that reason, the new edition includes two identical health-awareness check sheets at the beginning, for which students grade themselves. Each is a simple set of twelve questions, one from each unit in the text. The before-the-course check sheet is intended to show them how little they know, while the same check sheet taken at the end of the course will, hopefully, show them how much their health awareness has improved as a result of having studied the book.
I am confident that Healthtalk will continue to meets its goal of teaching Japanese students good health habits through English conversation. It is the ultimate “kill two birds with one stone” text. Students won’t learn how to introduce themselves, but they will learn how to live a long, healthy life—and get plenty of speaking practice in the bargain.
Oita, November 2013