What’s wrong with the way English is taught in Japan

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The good news is that Japan’s education bureaucrats realize that despite six years of middle and high school study many Japanese are still unable to speak English well. The bad news is that the bureaucrats plan to solve this problem by giving us more of what caused the problem.

True, there is nothing wrong with the move to have primary schools provide two or more years of basic English, mainly simple conversation, writing and songs. However, qualified teachers are few and the primary school curriculum is already crowded. But the main problem, teachers say, is that any benefits gained disappear rapidly once students move on to middle school. Children are bewildered by the sudden shift from living English to textbook English.

The bureaucrats focus on high school teaching. They say they want more English vocabulary to be taught, and will require Japan’s large army of middle and high school English-language teachers to speak more English in the classroom. But is making Japan’s children listen even more to the poor accents and pronunciations of their English-language teachers likely to improve things?

The bureaucrats plan to have these teachers take intensive spoken-English improvement courses. But if as an adult you speak a foreign language badly you tend to stay that way forever. In any case it will probably do little to cure teachers from their bias toward grammar and translation-based learning.

Japan seems not to want to realize the harm caused by having young students spend six years listening to bad English. Some say that if the world is happy with Indian or Singapore English then it should accept Japanese English. But these other varieties of English are standarized and fluent. Listening to them is no harder (sometimes easier even) than listening to the accents and dialects of British English.

Japanese English on the other hand (“Japlish” as some call it) is a hodgepodge of accents and pronunciations thrown together and spoken haltingly. It is hard on both the ear and the patience. More importantly, most Japlish speakers find it very hard to process English spoken at normal speed. Normal conversation is almost impossible.

Many blame problems on alleged differences between English and Japanese — grammar, word order, pronunciation, etc. But Korean is close to Japanese linguistically, and many educated Koreans can handle English well. Ironically, a major reason the bureaucrats are trying to improve English teaching in Japan is the sight of Koreans and other Asians, Chinese especially, able to handle the English of conferences and business negotiations far better than Japanese opposite numbers.

The bureaucrats think they can get the same results by meddling with the school curricula. But ask any foreign national teaching English in Japan and he/she will say the main problem is not curricula but the lack of student motivation. Unlike in South Korea, China and much of the rest of Asia, English ability is not as important for future careers. Motivation is bound to be weak.

Another reason could be the same island isolation and cultural self- satisfaction that makes the British notorious for their poor schoolboy French. For many Japanese, six years of forced English education simply produces the so-called English allergy — a determination to learn no more than is needed to pass exams, and an urge to forget everything once the exams are over. Even those who do try hard to learn can easily end up as damaged products.

Language learning is not like math or history — the mere accumulation of facts and data. With language the memory operates at two levels. One is what I call conscious memorization — mastering enough of the grammar, vocabulary, etc., to be able to translate and put sentences together. But at some stage the language has to be moved to the subconscious and that can only happen with strong motivation and good learning techniques — repetition, realistic conversation, good listening materials and so on. Only at this subconscious level can you retain vocabulary and speak the language naturally.

For most Japanese, however, the language remains at the conscious level, which guarantees permanent poor speaking ability, poor listening ability and poor memory retention. (As confirmation, some very interesting research by a Hamamatsu-based professor once showed that the part of the brain used by Japanese who had learned English naturally was quite different from that used by English speakers educated at Japanese schools.)

Japan should rethink the entire basis of its English education. Does every high school leaver really have to know English to university entrance exam level? A case can be made for having all middle school graduates (age 15) be able to read basic English and handle simple conversation. But at high school, English should be an elective, hopefully limited to only a motivated minority. Freed from the many hours now wasted on ineffectual English study, other students would be able to devote much more time to the many other subjects which teachers claim receive far too little attention — science, math and current history especially.

If Japan wants to match the best in the rest of Asia, English education should be concentrated at university level. Ideally university entrants should be given the chance to study English, or any other foreign language, intensively for four years as one leg of a double major or a major/minor combination. Those who do choose language study will by definition be motivated since they have done so either because they like the language or feel it will be important for future careers. Universities also have access to the best teachers and materials.

Many seem to think that languages have to be learned when one is young, well before university. But as someone who has spent most of his adult life learning foreign languages, three of them difficult languages, I disagree. Motivation and materials are the key. Concentrated study by motivated university students with access to good teachers and materials can give far better results than anything coming out of Japan’s middle and high schools.

Graduates from these kinds of combination courses — business and Japanese for example — are coming out of Australian and U.S. universities with surprising ability. They quickly improve even more once they live the language abroad. Many had not even begun the study until they were 18. If they begin earlier so much the better. But it is not crucial.

Needless to say, this scheme would allow Japan’s universities to provide combination courses using the other languages equally important for Japan’s future but now badly neglected, Chinese especially.

Note: On an Education Ministry committee set up in 2002 to discuss ways to improve English teaching in the schools, myself and some others argued as above — that the focus should be on university rather than high school teaching of English. The bureaucrats not only ignored our ideas; they turned round and made a foreign language, mainly English of course, compulsory at the high school level. When will they ever learn?

Gregory Clark is vice president of Akita International University, where all course study is done in English. A Japanese translation of this article will be at www.gregoryclark.net.