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Lay off the linguistics to address English lag

Dear education minister Ryu Shionoya,

Many reasons have been proposed for the relative failure of Japanese to learn foreign languages well, despite their great effort. The Japanese obsession with native speakers is one problem. The traditional grammar translation method of teaching and the impractical nature of college entrance examinations in English are also problems. The fact that Japanese is unrelated to English and that it has a different sentence structure is another reason.

I would like to suggest another reason that I have not yet seen proposed. Japanese have a hard time distinguishing linguistics from language learning. This results in Japanese language teachers being trained in skills of language analysis rather than in skills relevant to language teaching. The result is not only the poor preparation of language teachers that is so evident in the Japanese school system, but also the dysfunctional methods of language teaching used in that same system.

Your ministry requires prospective language teachers to complete college courses in linguistics. The rationale behind this is that it will supposedly make them better language teachers. It seems to be based on confusion between language learning and linguistics. Because the Japanese word for linguistics (gengogaku) literally means “the study (or learning — Japanese are often confused about the difference between them) of languages,” many Japanese assume that linguists learn languages. In fact linguists analyze languages, but they often known no more than one language themselves.

The discipline of linguistics in Japan is divided between scholars who support the “generative grammar” theory of Noam Chomsky and those who oppose it. The entire debate is completely irrelevant to the learning of languages. Chomsky himself would be the first to tell anyone who wanted to know that his ideas have nothing to do with language learning, and in fact Chomsky himself is famously monolingual.

The study of linguistics is, of course, as important as the study of any other discipline, but the study of languages should never be confused with the learning of languages. Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened in Japan, where prospective English teachers are subjected to a great deal of linguistic theory, from either or both of these two competing schools. Such theory is irrelevant to the purposes of the vast majority of them who do not intend to become professional linguists. Training future teachers in either Chomskian or anti-Chomskian theory is at best irrelevant to language learning, but if those who undergo it are convinced that such training is preparation for them to teach languages, it is dangerous and counterproductive.

The branch of linguistics that is concerned with language learning, as distinct from the study of languages, is called applied linguistics. It is a practical field, but since it is entirely irrelevant to the academic debate between supporters and opponents of Chomskian theory, it is sadly neglected in Japan.

In order to improve the skills of language teachers, and therefore the efficacy of language learning in Japan, it is necessary to change the requirement that those who wish to become licensed English teachers take courses in linguistic theory with a requirement that they be trained in practical, applied linguistics. Japanese language teachers should be trained to become teachers of languages, not scholars of abstract linguistics.

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