Good example of English use

According to a recent announcement, high-ranking officials of the education ministry in charge of English education will begin conducting their meetings in English this month. The new policy of holding meetings in English may or may not improve the quality of English education in Japan, but at least it sets an example of how to use English in important ways.

To some observers of the poor level of English used in Japan, it might come as a surprise that the bureaucrats in charge of English education actually speak English at all. However, Tsuyoshi Enomoto, head of the ministry’s International Education Division, noted that English meetings are already common, since many foreign guests and officials from abroad regularly attend meetings or give presentations.

The decision to conduct English-only meetings by senior bureau officials who rank above division-chief level may be more than just lip service to the idea of using real-world English. If decisions and plans are being made in English, it just might produce a more progressive and internationalized mindset. Although that mindset will be no substitute for practical guidelines, language requirements and English study policies, it might help ensure change actually happens.

Unfortunately, though, those top decisions will likely have to be translated back into Japanese for the bureaucrats below the top level, not to mention for school principals and English teachers themselves, many of whom still lack sufficient training in the language. One of the major problems with English-language education in Japan is that it is largely carried out in Japanese. English textbooks have nearly all their vocabulary glosses and activity rubrics written in Japanese.

Even though a recent policy encourages teachers to teach in English, for the most part, suggested answers, explanations to students and preparation activities are conducted in Japanese.

English-language education in Japan remains mired in a grammar-translation paradigm that translates and tests, but does little to compel students to communicate and understand English more deeply and fully.

As a result, students are insufficiently pushed outside their own linguistic boundaries to engage in English. They study about English but do not sufficiently use it for more meaningful activities. It is no surprise that ever-larger numbers of students refuse to study abroad. Many have never spoken a word of English out loud during years of study.

The initiative by senior bureaucrats supervising the International Education Division may not break the past stranglehold, but it is a noble step in the right direction. Maybe by taking this initiative, their can-do attitude of using English to engage in decisions, set goals and enact better practices will trickle down to the classroom.

  • JoeyJapan

    I think it’s a good idea and I’m sure most of the high level officials want to do it. They studied English and want real use of that studying.

    The members on the lower part of the linguistic totem pole will complain but that’s the nature of the beast.

    So I embrace it’s use in government, corporations and university (which already use English at postgraduate levels in the science fields).

  • kyushuphil

    Fine — for those already highly motivated for careers at high levels.

    Most Japanese, as I think we all well know, live in a school culture that keeps individual, personal, and human motivations hidden, crippled, tamped down. Students in this culture feel the old pull of conformity to group fitting-in, no one standing out — in Japanese known as kyō-chō-sei ( 協 調 性.) The more roboticized, long-deadened themselves, ritualized of teachers exploit this modern day temerity culture, by the systematic bullying of piling on lots of humanly meaningless cramming (muri-ni-tsume-komu, 無理 に 詰め 込 む).

    To up English for most Japanese, change the Japanese school culture. Ask kids to write more. In-class essays, in Japanese, can do nicely, along topics such as “How I had a problem but learned eventually to solve it,” and “How I have changed recently and yet want to change.”

    Let kids read each other’s essays. Discuss them. Put more emphasis on human growth — and the skills to see it and value it in others.

    Better English will follow, once we get past the tatemae ( 建前 ) that so much yet suffocates, and instead work on the good riches of honne (本音) in all.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    English is so 20th century. Chinese or perhaps Hindi might be better. As for the assertion, “Most Japanese, as I think we all well know, live in a school culture
    that keeps individual, personal, and human motivations hidden, crippled,
    tamped down,” this sounds like ethnic stereotyping. I’ve got two kids in Japanese public schools. I haven’t seen this. I don’t find my Japanese associates any less lacking in diversity than my former British peers. Further, “teaching to the test” and “zero tolerance” to the point of absurdity are very much a part of contemporary American public school culture and the parochial schools that educated a large fraction of the children in the Chicago area where I grew up were not noted for their toleration of hetrodox thinking.

    • gokyo

      Good luck trying to do business with any American, British, Australian, or Russian company speaking Chinese or Hindi. I have not seen anything that identifies either of these languages as being the standard for conducting business on a global scale. I might also add that English is the standard language per the International Civil Aviation Organization. Mastering either of these languages won’t help you get a bonus working for Softbank either.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    Education is about the future, not the present, especially when you are talking about elementary school education. A child entering school today at age 6 is probably 30 years away from a mid-management position and 40-50 years away from a senior management position. Further, while English may be the language of international business negotiations today, only a tiny fraction of all kids who are forced to study English will ever use it for business negotiations. Even if you are trying to set up local operations in a Cantonese or Hindi speaking area, English will not get you that far. Rather than a shotgun approach to English, it would be far better to develop intensive immersion programs for high school or college students who actually have some idea of what they might want to be doing in the future and which, if any, foreign language they might need. Further, just studying English does not give you the cultural knowledge needed for serious negotiations. Just because your, for example, Saudi or Russian partners speak fluent English and you do too, that does not mean you will be communicating on the same wavelength.

    • Max Erimo

      Valid point maybe. But coming from a person whose mother tongue is obviously EnglIsh I wonder what third language you are having your children study.

      • Earl Kinmonth

        Given that my children are 10 and 13, the issue of a second language let alone a third is some years into the future. Since they are growing up Japanese, fluency in that language is primary.

  • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

    Does anyone find, “Good example of English use” to be an awkward misapplication of English
    headline styling? I know that traditionally articles are dropped, but
    there’s such a thing as attention to context.