Mindset that bedevils English

Regarding the Dec. 14 front-page article “English education set to get serious“: What is all this nonsense? Haven’t we heard this all before? Japan’s education ministry spends far more money per pupil on English lessons than any other nation in Asia, yet Japanese students continue to lag far behind their South Korean or Chinese rivals in the race to become fluent in the devil’s tongue.

Sending Japanese English-language teachers overseas to an English-speaking country might prove somewhat helpful in improving classroom language instruction and cross-cultural understanding, but at the end of the day, it’s still about attitude. Sakoku (isolationist)-minded students — and their parents — aren’t terribly keen on speaking any foreign language fluently for fear of being the proverbial “nail that sticks up.”

Ask any young returnee (kikokushijo) who speaks English or another foreign language fluently how his peers view him. Playground bullies in Japan’s public schools have a special animosity for the linguistically gifted, and even more so for the bilingual hafu. No one likes the gaijin-tainted.

Where in God’s name do Japanese students develop such an aversion to English? Uh, ask their parents or relatives, the ones who still have an almost Edo Period aversion to all things foreign, including the English language (the voice of the postwar American Occupation and the 19th-century gunboat devil Commodore Perry). Then there’s the underlying “racialism” of apartheid-minded communities as in “we don’t rent to gaijin” or “no gaijin allowed.”

Sending Japanese foreign-language educators overseas for a few months to become immersed in language study will let some stressed-out teachers enjoy an all-expense-paid working holiday, but nothing will greatly improve in English-language classrooms.

It was only after moving to Otaru that I actually heard of parents telling their children that English was a waste of time and, worse, a threat to the child’s cultural and nationalistic identity. Having taught ESL English in Japan’s classrooms for nearly 30 years, I believe that my cynicism is well founded.

robert mckinney
otaru, hokkaido

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.

  • Gary

    Actually, I think Mr. Mckinney has hit the nail on the head with each one of his points and I believe most English teachers would concur with his observations and sentiments wholeheartedly. And knowing that he’s been teaching here for 30 years speaks volumes and lends far more credibility to his assertions than if they’d been made by someone who’d just landed at Narita as well.

    In short, your essay is full of truth and is well-written, Robert. Poor attitudes among both students and/or their parents towards learning English are the biggest reason that so many learn so little in six or more years of “study”, and that’s why I would support giving high school students and their parents more freedom in choosing whether or how much of it to take. If students took English because they made the choice to study it rather than because they were compelled by school policy to do so, they might be more serious about learning it.

    I understand that teenagers must have some choices made for them, otherwise, they probably would never read anything other than manga or sports magazines. But, nobody but nobody wants to be forced to do anything, and English study is a complete waste of time for many Japanese students. It’s a question of attitude, and anyone who wants to learn, regardless of intelligence or aptitude for learning language, should have the opportunity. In the end though, nobody should be forced to learn English or anything else; in fact, they can’t be.