Why Taro can’t speak English

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It’s exam season in Japan, and once again the problem of English language education is being churned over. This time the debate threatens to turn serious, for three reasons.

One is the shocking discovery that Japan ranks worst in Asia after Laos and Cambodia in English-language ability despite the vast resources and time spent teaching the language. Another is the Education Ministry commitment to encourage English learning from primary-school level (it has also set up a committee to consider English language education reform, with this writer as a member).

And now we have a prime ministerial advisory committee report saying English should even be elevated to the status of second official language in Japan. But will all this be enough to break the nexus of poor teaching and national self-centeredness? I doubt it.

Teaching English in primary schools obviously will do no harm. But it won’t do much good either, so long as students are later subjected to six years with middle- and high-school teachers interested only in textbook English, grammar and preparation for university entrance exams.

Reformists are envious of the way Southeast Asians seem to absorb English naturally. But even if English was an official language here it is hard to imagine the Japanese nation emerging as a fluent English speaker.

If Japan wants a model it should look much more to the universities in the United States, Australia and Europe now producing numbers of good Chinese- and Japanese-language speakers. Many of these students do not begin serious study before university. But they have two things going for them: high motivation and daily access to correct techniques for language learning.

The myth that only very young children can absorb foreign languages is created mainly by slow-brained adults trying to justify their own failure to learn languages. (In Japan, the myth is now being countered by thick-brained nationalists who say young children forced to learn English will lose both national identity and ability to learn Japanese.)

In fact, anyone can learn any number of languages if they use the right techniques. If young children are good at languages, that is simply because they are receptive to what they hear. If women learn languages better than men it is often for the same reason.

The problem for most of the rest of us is that we subconsciously impose barriers to absorbing foreign sounds. English teaching in Japan seems designed deliberately to retain and strengthen those barriers.

Most Japanese teachers of English themselves cannot speak or understand English properly. They have a vested interest in keeping their students in the same condition. To preserve their tattered prestige they have no choice but to impose on hapless students their book-worn and often mistaken knowledge of obscure English grammar and vocabulary.

The main result is to create in most students a profound dislike of having anything to do with the English language for the rest of their lives.

Even the more enlightened seem to think that concentrating on “yomikaki” (reading and writing) English does no harm since it provides the foundation for learning the spoken language later. But if anything, it is the reverse: Once people set out on the yomikaki route, it becomes that much harder later on to switch to speaking.

In particular, Japanese have a real problem understanding spoken English. It is as if having wired their language “computer” for yomikaki they cannot adapt it for any other purpose.

Some now rely on cassette and video sets promising instant ability in English. But for the most part, students listen superficially, using the sound they hear simply to confirm the mistaken English they already have in their “computer.” Conversation practice has much the same result.

How to reform the system? By all means start at primary school, with simple songs, conversation and the identification of written words with sounds. Continue along the same lines at middle school, with increasing emphasis on writing and grammar.

But textbook study should always be combined with listening. Handing out tapes with a simple story relevant to the textbooks and which students are challenged to listen to and then write out, is a neat way to do this. Conversation practice based on tape content should follow.

The aim should be to have everyone by age 16 able to pass a simple national test in English that could also serve as the basis for university entrance. High schools would be then be free to ignore English and concentrate on other, far more important subjects needed for Japan’s future progress.

Further foreign-language teaching would be concentrated in the universities, ideally as part of a double specialization (economics and English, or law and Chinese, for example) and using the scientific techniques that are producing such good results in Western universities.

Motivation is crucial to language learning. Students at age 18 understand the need for language study far better than 12-year-olds. And at 18 the mind is still young enough to absorb language easily.

Learning a language is like memorizing a very long song with infinite variations. It takes time and a lot of concentrated effort, all of which ultimately has to come from the student. Teachers essentially are no more than technicians providing the technology and environment needed by students.

Japan’s teachers may kick and scream against this downgrading of their status. But someone has to drag them into the 21st century.