Improving English education

Regarding recent articles and letters relating to English education in Japan: Having taught English in high schools and universities here for the past 13 years, it’s encouraging to see the education ministry taking a few modest steps toward improving English-language education such as by starting lessons early in elementary school. There’s no shortage of students trying hard, but considering all the hurdles they face, one should not expect too much from them or get swept away with optimism.

Starting language education early is critical, so hats off to the schools and teachers for trying, but you have to know something before you can teach it, and few elementary teachers can speak English well. As for high school students who show little interest in learning English despite their teachers’ best efforts to help them, how about making it an elective and devoting more attention to the ones who want to take it?

For those truly motivated to learn, there is plenty of fat that could be cut from the general curriculum and dedicated to English instead. For example, if given the choice between an additional course in English conversation or, say, Old Japanese, which I am told has no more resemblance to Modern Japanese than Old English has to Modern English (Shakespeare wrote in Middle English), I am sure many kids would wisely choose more English.

If the education ministry is truly serious about raising English-language competence, it should also greatly expand programs for studying abroad. Japanese students who spend at least a year or two abroad almost invariably make incredible progress in their English. Far more support from schools and parents for students interested in international student exchange is needed.

gary henscheid
yokohama

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

  • Roan Suda

    Several points:

    1. The second sentence of this letter begins with a dangling modifier.

    2. The writer denigrates the value of learning Old Japanese while clearly knowing nothing about it, even after thirteen years in Japan. Whatever he has been “told,” the classical language is not nearly as different from Modern Japanese as Old English is from Modern English. Besides, the entire question is pedagogically irrelevant.

    3. Shakespeare’s English is Early Modern English, not Middle English. Chaucer, who died in 1400 wrote in the latter; Shakespeare, who died in 1616, wrote in the former.

    Gary Hensheid is a high-school and university English teacher?? Lord save us!

    • Gary

      Mr. Suda, I’ve polled a large number of students over the years about Old Japanese and their opinions of the subject, and the vast majority of them have told me that they understood very little of it. One Japanese English teacher recently told me that it wasn’t “Greek” to the Japanese, but then Old English isn’t Greek to English students. Nonetheless, Old English is often studied as a foreign language by English doctoral students, and it sounds as though Old Japanese is studied in much the same way by Japanese students today. I’ve hardly denigrated Old Japanese; rather, I’ve merely suggested that students be given the choice of learning more English instead.

      Regarding that terrible dangling modifier, the editor didn’t seem to think anything was just dangling out there like a leaf on a tree. We’re allowed only 300 words and can’t always fret about the finer points of grammar, but there’s nothing in my letter that should be highly ambiguous to the ordinary and reasonable reader, and I only mentioned my teaching experience to show that I’m committed to this discipline and have an interest in it, not to pose as a know-it-all.

      Regarding the question of when Shakespeare wrote, I’ve verified that, as you said, he did indeed write in Early Modern English and not in Middle English. According to Wikipedia, the latter period ran “roughly during the three centuries between the late 12th and the 15th century,” and Shakespeare lived from 1564 until 1616 – so thanks for the correction.

      • Roan Suda

        Instead of polling students, hardly a reliable scientific measure, or making vague statements such as “sounds like…,” how about learning a bit of the language(s) yourself? (I happen to know both Old Japanese and Old English and so can speak with somewhat more authority.) Did you really have to look up a Wikipedia article to learn when Middle English was spoken and when Shakespeare lived? Amazing, simply amazing! The notion that Japanese students will become citizens of the world by chit-chatting with their friendly foreign English teachers about peace and freedom and saving the whales is an enduring illusion from which much profit is drawn.

      • Gary

        I suppose rather than polling people to find out about their opinions or likes and dislikes, it would be more scientific if you just spoke for everyone, since you seem to think you know everything. And where, exactly, do you get off assuming that I know nothing about Japanese anyway? Like 99% of other foreigners here, I know nothing of Old Japanese except that even the Japanese understand very little of it, but so what?

        About incorrectly stating that Shakespeare wrote in Middle English rather than in Early Modern English, I’ll get over the embarrassment rather easily, believe me. According to Wikipedia, the Old, Middle and Modern English Periods are only roughly defined chronologically, and the differences between the Late Middle and Early Modern Periods must be rather minor anyway.

        “Chit-chatting with their friendly foreign English teachers about peace and freedom and saving the whales” is a lot more interesting and useful to the overwhelming majority of students in this country than studying Old Japanese, so you obviously don’t get out much. Where, pray tell, do you go to find someone to speak Old English or Old Japanese with?

      • Roan Suda

        Attempting to “speak for everyone” has nothing to do with it. It is an objective question of (a) how different Old Japanese is from the modern language and thus (b) how accessible it is. By your own admission, you have no way of answering the question directly yourself…Shakespeare’s English is markedly different from Middle English, phonologically, grammatically, and even lexically. A university-level English teacher really ought to know that! Chit-chatting about trendy topics may very well be “interesting,” but is it truly “useful”? Well, yes, I suppose, if you are here in Japan on a teacher-entertainer visa.

      • Gary

        Roan,
        I and others teaching EFL are not here on “teacher-entertainer
        visas”; I happen to be a permanent resident, and your fuss about
        the difference between Late Middle and Early Modern English is really
        “much ado about nothing”. I try to meet my students where
        they are in terms of language development, and very few of them are
        even remotely near being ready to study Shakespeare. There are any
        number of reasons for that, but don’t blame me or the
        several-thousand other foreigners that are here attempting to make
        lessons more interesting to students, because you are totally in the
        wrong for doing so.

        I
        know that you’re a Japanese citizen, so you might want to try acting
        more like one. For starters, try emulating one of the more admirable
        traits associated with the Japanese character for a change – namely,
        modesty. You have apparently dedicated your life to language study,
        so my suggestions that studying Old Japanese and Modern English be
        made voluntary would naturally rub you wrong; moreover, they might
        smack of immodesty to you as well, but maybe you should rethink
        that.

        There
        is great value and importance in studying both Old Japanese and Old
        English, so long live scholars dedicated to your disciplines. But
        anyone with any experience at all teaching here knows that a lot of
        students lack motivation for language study, and I truly believe the
        best way to deal with that problem would be to give them more freedom
        of choice in the curriculum. The truth sometimes hurts, but unless we
        deal with motivational factors we are only spinning our wheels as
        educators.

      • Roan Suda

        Peace, Mr. Henscheid. I am–for good reason–as modest as they come, but might I suggest that you show a bit of that spirit yourself before talking about matters of which you are obviously ill-informed? …Not every English teacher has to be a philologist, and I too shake my head over the snooty Chaucer professor who can’t carry on even a simple conversation in Modern English. But the notion that eikaiwa will save the day, as taught by “native speakers” who don’t know an adjective from an apricot, has been around for many a decade, well before you came to Japan, and that has turned out to be a grotesque illusion…Wikipedia is not a scholarly source, as anyone can contribute to it. The article on Middle English is marked as flawed. Even so, no one with even casual expertise would ever claim that Shakespeare spoke Middle English…It’s hardly a quibble…Last week I asked some students at a prestigious university whether they enjoyed learning Classical Japanese. Most of them sheepishly shook their heads. But when I asked them whether they’d like to see the subject abolished in favor of more English, the overwhelming majority again said no, the argument being that Japanese should cherish their literary and cultural traditions. Perhaps before firing off letters to the Japan Times, you might first take some time to look at your own linguistic and literary heritage. But again, peace…

      • Gary

        Roan, do you mean to say that polling students is unscientific unless it’s you doing the polling? I’ve slipped dozens of letters past editors at The Japan Times, The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times, so I assure you that I “know an apricot from an adjective”, and almost anyone with any experience teaching EFL in Japan would surely agree that British Literature has little or no value in teaching the vast majority of English students here.

        You are no doubt right that Shakespeare wrote in Early Modern English and not in Late Middle, but here is what Wikipedia says about the transition from the latter to the former: “Towards the end of the 15th century a more modern English was starting to emerge. Printing began in England in the 1470s, which tended to stabilise the language. With a standardised, printed English Bible and Prayer Book being read to church congregations from the 1540s onward, a wider public became familiar with a standard language, and the era of Modern English was under way.”

        That means Shakespeare was born and wrote in the very early stages of the Early Modern English Period. Wikipedia is a work in progress and is subject to review, but the same is true of all other sources, and unless you can sight better sources of your own or give me some reason to doubt Wikipedia and its contributors on the quotation above, I’ll accept it as accurate.

        You are right that I am not a deeply modest person either, but your comment that you “too” shake your head “over the snooty Chaucer professor who can’t carry on even a simple conversation in Modern English” indicates that you look down on even your academic peers with disdain. I do not shake my head over second language speakers who chose to study British Literature, but I certainly would not use it to teach English in Japan myself. As you said, I know little about it, but I know enough to see that you are making a mountain out of a molehill, or at least it’s a molehill to anyone other than scholars of British Literature.

        It’s been fun, but unless you have something new to say, I’m done with this.

      • Bernadette Otieno

        I must say that the comments were more interesting than the actual article itself. I am not a native English speaker, but I can write and communicate in English effectively. In fact, at the moment I write articles about teaching English as a foreign language for several sites and came to this site for a little insight on how to improve the quality of English education in Japan. I find that Gary addresses some of the major steps that can be made to this effect. However, Roan I appreciate you calling out an error which I would have also overlooked regarding ‘Shakesperean English.’. To that effect, it is important to do a little bit of research when it comes to facts before posting an article online which other people like me will come across and in turn use as a point of reference. On the other hand, Roan after making your pointy you should have ended there instead of spiraling it into something else. Gary I do appreciate the article and would like to let you know that I derived some useful information from it.

      • Gary

        I just realized that in my last response to you, Roan, I wrote “unless you can sight better sources of your own…” rather than “unless you can cite better sources…..”. I hope I caught that before you or I’ll likely never hear the end of it. Ha. It’s been fun, but I’m really going to move on, I think, unless you’ve got something new to say.

      • Gary

        Roan, I and others teaching EFL are not here on “teacher-entertainer visas”; I happen to be a permanent resident, and your fuss about the difference between Late Middle and Early Modern English is really
        “much ado about nothing”. I try to meet my students where they are in terms of language development, and very few of them are even remotely near being ready to study Shakespeare. There are any number of reasons for that, but don’t blame me or the several-thousand other foreigners that are here attempting to make
        lessons more interesting to students, because you are totally in the wrong for doing so.

        You’re a Japanese citizen, and you might want to try acting more like one. For starters, try emulating one of the more admirable traits associated with the Japanese character for a change – namely,modesty. You have apparently dedicated your life to language study,
        so my suggestions that studying Old Japanese and Modern English be made voluntary would naturally rub you wrong; they might smack of immodesty to you as well, but maybe you should rethink
        that.

        There is great value and importance in studying both Old Japanese and Old English, so long live scholars dedicated to your disciplines. But anyone with any experience at all teaching here knows that a lot of
        students lack motivation for language study, and I truly believe the best way to deal with that problem would be to give them more freedom of choice in the curriculum. The truth sometimes hurts, but unless we deal with motivational factors we are only spinning our wheels as
        educators.
        To the editor: Sorry for posting this several times, but there were lots of line errors when I copy and pasted from a document. Roan and I obviously have differences here, but I never really intended to vote down his last comment – I only accidentally clicked on the down arrow, so please correct that by removing the vote if it isn’t too much trouble.

      • Gary

        As I’ve already explained, I teach EFL and not British Literature, but there’s one more point I want to make in reply to your lame attempt to discredit me as an educator over that rather minor error of stating that Shakespeare wrote in Middle English rather than in Early Modern. As I wrote in my first response to you Roan, according to Wikipedia, the Middle English Period ran “roughly during the three centuries between the late 12th and the 15th century.” If even the experts who wrote the Wikipedia article on Middle English can only agree roughly on when the Middle Period ended and the Modern began, there must be significant similarities and overlap between the successive periods.

        Or, perhaps Shakespeare really was so radically different from any writer before him that his work set the standards and helped marked the beginning of the Modern Period, but don’t expect everyone else to take the issue as seriously as you. Again, try emulating Japanese modesty for a change rather than lecturing me about academic trivia that I and probably most others really couldn’t possibly care any less about.

  • Gary

    Bernadette, I appreciate your nice remarks, but who could blame Roan for moving on to other things? I was beginning to feel rather juvenile for carrying on that dispute for so long; in fact, it left me feeling duped that he he let me have the last word on it. All kidding aside, you and Roan can both bet that I’ll be fact checking a little more in the future before posting anything. Thanks again for your feedback and have a nice day.