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Best to dig deep and study language from its roots

by Roger Pulvers

W hen I was growing up in Los Angeles during the 1950s, the L.A. County Board of Education decided that the children of the city should learn Spanish. While the language was not made compulsory, it was taught to us regularly with the usual visual aids, such as pictures of elephants, giraffes, mountains and apples. I learned how to count from 1-10 and sing “How Much is that Doggy in the Window?” in Spanish.

I still know the numbers, but, alas, the Spanish words to the song have faded from memory. Luckily we lived in a neighborhood full of Mexicans. I was introduced to the delights of tortillas, burritos and refried beans, as well as to a slew of potent Spanish swear words, at a tender age. It was only at university that I came to appreciate the immense depth of Mexican culture, thanks to contact with its music and its wonderful modern painters.

This may sound like a strange introduction to an article about foreign language education at primary school, but I believe that it is relevant. There is a definite movement in Japan today to introduce compulsory English classes in primary schools. The aim is to give Japanese children a grounding in English vocabulary and pronunciation, and presumably familiarize them with aspects of life in English-speaking countries. I cannot help but think that compulsory English-language education at the primary level is a frightful waste of time and resources.

In addition, it gives children the very wrong impression that English is the only foreign language worth learning, only reinforcing Japan’s cultural dependence on, primarily, the United States and the bias here in Japan about “major” and “minor” languages.

The Monkasho (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) has made it clear that compulsory English-language training will begin in earnest in the nation’s primary schools from April 2007. They have, in the past months, been dispatching native-speakers to primary schools to introduce methodologies. Already there are a number of places where English is taught at primary level. Nara Prefecture has set up English departments, and five schools in Izumo City in Shimane Prefecture now provide English courses for their sixth graders.

In fact, nearly 90 percent of primary school pupils in Japan do English-language activities of one sort or another. In some cases these last for as little as seven hours a year; in other cases, English training takes up more than 25 contact hours a year.

Of course, Japan is not the only country to move toward compulsory foreign language education in primary school. In the 1990s a number of countries began to introduce these courses, including Germany, Spain, Portugal and Thailand. The language taught is overwhelmingly English, although in some countries, like Austria, parents have voiced preference for languages spoken closer to home, such as Czech, Hungarian, Italian or French. The question is: How effective will compulsory English be in Japanese primary schools?

It is fine to dispatch a few native speakers to schools. They can play games with the children and teach them how to say elephant, giraffe, mountain and apple in English. The kids will no doubt enjoy it; and their parents might be happy that they can get away without sending their little ones to Nova Kids and having to pay for the privilege. But where is the Monkasho going to get thousands of qualified English teachers who do not have a thick Japanese accent? The likely result of compulsory education is that the children will pick up the accented English that their teachers speak.

In addition, language is much more than memorizing a list of words. Without an appreciation of the cultural, social, historical and religious context these words are used in, the children will be at a loss as to know when, where and why to express them.

Having brought up four children (in the Japanese educational system), I came to realize something that I suppose all parents do: that it is hard enough for children to learn their own language and feel comfortable in their small circle of friends in their school and neighborhood. Making them feel secure in their own culture comes first. I do not believe that the ability to acquire fluency in English in later life will be enhanced by contact with the language in primary school.

It also sends children the wrong kind of message. Just because English is the most universally used language, it does not make it superior to any other. That kind of hierarchical bias will not help Japan become a good neighbor in Asia or a truly cosmopolitan nation on the world scene. It would make far better sense to spend extra precious class hours teaching aspects of Korean culture to Japanese primary school kids than to teach them to say “Taro is a boy” or “Can I see your iPod?” in English.

But, the handwriting is already on the blackboard, and the Monkasho seems determined to begin introducing compulsory English from grade three next year. I suppose that this experiment will last about a decade, until educationists realize that children would be better off dedicating more hours to the study of Japanese and the cultures closer to home.

Children are as clever and perspicacious as adults. But they lack the experience necessary to put many of the things that they learn into a meaningful context. The ability to repeat a few key phrases in a foreign language has nothing to do with true language acquisition.

Give children confidence in their own language. Introduce them to ideas, concepts, the beauty of their own culture and cultures different from their own. Make them articulate in expressing their own opinion. And help them to understand their own country’s place in a big wide world. It would have been better if my teachers long ago had played Mexican music to us than teach us to sing “How Much is that Doggy in the Window?” in Spanish.

I wish that I had been exposed, as a child, to the works of Orozco, Siqueros, Kahlo and Rivera and taught why the country next door was producing such geniuses. Leave the fun and games to Nova Kids, and let children in school profit from the real substance of knowledge and imagination.