Our Lives | JAPAN LITE

English education and English sheepdogs

by Amy Chavez

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to globalize Japan’s workforce and says that Japan must become more competitive in the English language. This has touched off a debate among native English teachers, Japanese who teach English, Japanese speakers who don’t speak English, and English sheepdogs owned by both Japanese and English speakers.

On one hand, you have people who ask why Japanese people should be required to study English at all since English is not used in Japan, the country where most students will spend the rest of their lives working for a Japanese company. On the other hand, people say that Japan needs to learn English to keep up with the rest of the world. The few strays not in either camp say, “Woof!”

Whereas internationalization was the big thing a decade or so ago, and droves of students were studying overseas to gain a broader understanding of language and the world, nowadays Japanese people are turning inward, seeking domestic solutions. They’re beginning to think, “Why should I go abroad, risk getting shot or car-jacked by someone in America, when I can just stay and study here in Japan?”

The question is, did all that previous domestic internationalization combined with study abroad make Japanese more competitive in the global workforce? If so, shouldn’t we still be reaping the benefits? Japan seems to have forgotten about this part of its recent history, the results of which could help shape their future in English language education.

In an attempt to get Japanese speaking better English, the Liberal Democratic Party is thinking of doubling the number of Assistant Language Teachers in the next three years. Is that like double mint or double fudge? Twice as much has got to be better? Keep in mind that the number of ALTs was just recently reduced when the Democratic Party of Japan targeted ALTs as “wasteful spending.” Why has no one done any assessments to gauge if the number of ALTs makes a difference in students’ English comprehension?

If the LDP regards native English speakers as vital to teaching the language, as they say they do, then you have to wonder why ALTs aren’t actually teaching any classes themselves. Why must they “team teach” together with a Japanese teacher in the classroom? Certainly in my country we wouldn’t consider having an American teacher in a Spanish language class being taught by a Spanish teacher.

Another proposed change by the LDP is to shift from the current Eiken test used to gauge English proficiency, to using the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) instead because the TOEFL concentrates more on verbal communication skills. Whenever we talk about testing, people invariably point out that tests aren’t very accurate at testing language communicability.

Others argue that the more test-oriented English is, the more students will hate studying English. Well, English is not a disease and no one has yet died from studying it. Lots of students hate broccoli, studying, getting out of bed in the morning and walking the dog. And someday they’ll have to do all of those things before leaving for work in the morning!

I realize that students already take enough exams. Furthermore, they have to pass tests to receive their yellow belt, green belt or black belts in martial arts. There are university entrance exams, driver’s tests and maybe someday, lie detector tests. After they get married, their spouses will test them on their spending habits while their children will forever test their patience. And we’re complaining about a TOEFL test? Even if they do not pass the TOEFL test with flying colors, it’s not the end of the world, so we should not act like it is.

Yes, it would be nice if there were no tests at all. There would be less stress for students and less work for teachers, who could then focus on teaching more communicative competency, the ultimate goal of English communication. But students would never study if there weren’t tests!

Maybe we should do more to get students interested in learning English. Bribery, for example? Money and chocolate always increase interest. Or maybe we could get Tom Cruise or Lady Gaga to teach English in Japan. That would give kids some incentive to communicate in English. You could even bring in teachers that merely resemble Tom Cruise and Lady Gaga and it would probably be enough.

With all the confusion, it’s no surprise that many Japanese people wonder why they should study English at all. But lots of schools around the world require students to study a foreign language, often one they will end up never using. But the language classroom is seldom a place where only language is taught. Language classrooms also teach another country’s cultures, customs, music, foods and politics. It is up to Japan to not limit English to language.

Most people blame the lack of English ability in Japan on the education system. Too many tests, not enough proficient English teachers, woeful methodology, etc. Therefore, after six years of studying English, students cannot communicate in it.

I don’t think it’s a fault in the education system as much as a fault in the culture and society. Japanese reading, writing and arithmetic (as well as nearly all the other subjects children learn in school) are reinforced outside the classroom. Students must use English in their daily lives if they are to become proficient in it.

The reason Japanese people cannot speak English is that they are denied the chance to use it. There is no immigration, no language immersion and little English or bilingual programming on TV. But above all, there is no expectation to speak English in society. English has always been a subject in school rather than a viable way of communication. Is it any wonder students in other countries speak better English than the Japanese?

Which gets us back to English sheepdogs owned by both Japanese and English speakers. English sheepdogs will learn simple commands in any language you choose to teach them, whether it be English or Japanese.

Furthermore, if you take your English sheepdog to obedience school, he will learn to sit, heel, roll over and beg. But if you never give your dog the chance to practice his tricks at home, he will only be able to produce them at obedience school, where he is expected to perform. After he graduates from obedience school, if he still hasn’t had the chance to practice his tricks, he’ll eventually forget them completely because he has never had to use what he learned. This is not rocket science.

If English in Japan is always just a subject in school, students will never learn to use English outside the classroom. Eventually, even after six years of study, it will have little impact at all. But rather than focusing on all the people who can’t speak English despite learning it in school, maybe we should focus on the Japanese who do speak it well. Find out how they managed to learn it, and use these results to create new opportunities and new expectations in language learning.


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