English education and English sheepdogs


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.


  • kyushuphil

    Let’s please not speak of English as either-or — either Japanese use it or don’t.

    Regardless of whether Japanese later on travel abroad, or entertain foreigners at home, in the classroom a few lines of a poem in English, or a paragraph or two of prose, may suffice for an experience memorable in itself.

    Natsume Sōseki referred to this in the first lines of “Kusamakura,” when he talked about “seken” 世間 and the role of the arts, and learning to write, in finding our way in the world. Some English may aid in that, as might some classical Greek or Latin — though schools and test-makers may well note it’s humans, many speaking English, who now form such a large part of all our“seken” 世間 .

  • This would not be an issue if not for a by-and-large public school monopoly that requires these kinds of nationally sweeping decisions.

    If parents could receive a tax refund for the amount determined to be the cost of educating their child, relative to their tax bracket, you would see schools popping up with a variety of specialties.

    Immediately this argument of “I’m not going to use English is gone.”. Not going to use English? Then there will be schools that don’t teach it. Want your child to focus on English, then there will be schools that do. Want them to learn Mandarin? People’s values will help shape the demands of the educational field, and not what small group of people at the top approve as a proper “curriculum”.

    In addition, under such refunds, the government’s choice of English testing standards would cease to matter (busting that monopoly too), and a new arrangement would be determined by the schools based on the demands of employers, students, parents and the real world.

    • kyushuphil

      If parents had the choice, many kids could get much better educations.

      Schools would divide into those on one had where parents and kids eagerly seek places in the real world — and where many of these same kids and parents already eagerly read books, see films, and listen to music from the larger world — and would divide, on the other hand, into those where all the “shimaguni konjo” 島国根性 could be together.

      Right now the latter group just floats by (to use a term from Hayashi Fumiko), with no direction at all (to use a term from Bob Dylan). And — good point, yours — the blockheads in the ministry of education, with all their meaningless tests, their vapid curricula, and humanly irrrelevant textbooks, would see how they’re not needed by any families at all connected to international realities.

    • Masa Chekov

      Market forces should never, ever apply to education for young people. Education for younger kids has nothing to do with employers or the real world, its all about educating the person.

      • So your argument is that it should be so because it should be so.


      • Masa Chekov

        No, that is not my argument at all. There’s many things young people should learn in school that do not affect their future marketability, but they are important nonetheless.

        Kids don’t know what they need to be learning, and by and large parents don’t know either. That’s why there are curricula designed on agreed-upon standards and not a la carte electives.

      • Those kinds of schools would exist too. Especially at the elementary and JHS level.

        But look at what you are saying: the system can’t produce people intelligent enough to choose their own schools for their kids. What kind of education is that? It’s self-refuting.

      • Masa Chekov

        It’s not at all self-refuting. I’m a smart guy, well educated, yet someone who has studied education design and theory surely knows a lot more about the best way to educate my children than I do.

        And no, the vast majority of people don’t know enough to make these sorts of decisions. It has nothing to do with intelligence. Are you your own doctor? Do you deign and build your house? Your car? Would you say schools have failed you because you can’t do these things for yourself? Of course not.

      • You’re missing the point. You’re responding as if I claimed that graduates can’t create their own schools and replicate the whole curriculum after graduation. What I said is that they should have some inkling as to what kinds of skills and knowledge it would take function in the real world, and what kind of mental exercises help in achieving that.

        As for your examples: While I am not my own doctor I ultimately have the responsibility to educate myself and make the right decision for my own life. It means knowing my own body, paying attention to symptoms and comparing them to what I have experienced in the past. Everyone does this already, it’s how they know whether they should actually choose to go see a doctor or not.

        I am not an architect, but do I need to master structural engineering to have some foresight about what I want in my home? About how many bedrooms I want? About the arrangement of rooms? About how much sun the home is likely to get? About how well it serves me relative to where I work? About how far it is to the nearest grocery store? About whether I even like it or not once I move in — and thus whether I should stay or leave?

        I can’t build a car from scratch, but do I need to know that in order to choose one that best suits my needs? Am I not able to know whether 2 or 4 doors is better for me? Does a test-drive not reveal to me how comfortable I am in driving the car? Am I unable to understand the notion of “mileage”? If so, where is the government to nationalize the auto industry in order to protect me from these corrupting “market forces”? If not, well what can I be expected to know, and not know? And how does that oblige anyone else to me?

        Similarly, I am not a professor of education, but do I need to have my doctorate in order to observe whether my kid can count? Whether he can add and subtract? Whether he can read and write? Whether he seems to make connections and integrations from the things he observes around him? Whether the school he is going to is imparting these skills effectively? Whether my child is engaged and happy to learn at a particular school or bored and unchallenged? And if everyone is so flawed and incapable that they can’t do these things, so that choice must be taken away from them, shouldn’t it also not be their choice whether or not they can have kids in the first place; since somehow contrary to every other species on this planet everyone(?) evidently can’t know what’s best for their own offspring?

        If a doctor makes a bad call, I can sue him or switch doctors. If my new house is flawed because of the builders’ mistakes, I can recoup the losses, as they didn’t live up to the contract we signed, and never deal with them again. If a car does not perform as advertised, I can return it and buy from another dealer and company. And if a public school fails to educate my child I can…complain? And then that complaint will be treated as evidence that more money should be thrown into an ever-expanding, monopolizing sinkhole.

      • Masa Chekov

        Wow you sure moved the goalposts here. You weren’t talking about under-performing schools before, you were talking about choosing the content of the curricula. That is a very different discussion indeed.

        Of course people should not need to put up with under-performing schools. I thought that would be obvious and not need several paragraphs to discuss.

        By and large no, people do not know what goes into a curriculum for a well-rounded education for their kids. This should also be obvious. Do you really want parents to be able to cripple their children’s future by saying for example, “I don’t see the need for Algebra, I don’t want my kid studying that nonsense. He/she doesn’t like it.” You think schools that don’t adhere to any sort of common curriculum is a good thing?

      • Where did I say parents would choose the contents of a curriculum? I never said that, you decided that on your own.

      • Masa Chekov

        “People’s values will help shape the demands of the educational field,
        and not what small group of people at the top approve as a proper

        It’s a whole few lines above where you just entered your comment.

      • “help shape the demands”, not “piecemeal construct the curriculum”.

  • Kichiguy

    I believe that the reason that many Japanese are hesitant to learn/use
    English is because of that element in Nihongo called keigo (i.e.,
    honorific language), which they may mistakenly believe, consciously or
    not, applies to (American) English as well.

  • fun_on_tv

    Basically, children need to engaged with whatever subject they are doing. Whenever I have a problem student, I always try and find a way to motivate them.
    The problem isn’t the lack of interest in English. On the contrary. I work for several English conversation schools and we struggling to accommodate the increase in demand. The largest class I have is 7 children.
    Some ALT’s have told me they are treated like tape recorders. This is bad for the ALT and students. I agree the writer, the approach has to change.

  • 思德

    I’m an ALT in Japan and have been for a couple of months. Before that, I taught in a cram school in Taiwan for a year. So, naturally, I’m an expert in everything, so here’s my expert opinion:

    Why are there even ALTs to begin with? Don’t get me wrong, like that I was able to get a job in Japan. Very grateful. But I’m from America. In America, a foreign language teacher had better be able to speak English, too. For that reason, I feel strongly about studying Japanese and try to learn more every day, because I sure know how I’d feel about a teacher in my kid’s class who doesn’t speak our tongue.

    I think the problem is that Japanese teachers of English seem to be poorly experienced. Granted- I am an ALT in a small town in Shizuoka. So maybe my perspective is skewed. But it seems like a lot of English teachers lack lengthy experience with the language. Some have never left Japan. It makes no sense to study English, never even go to an English speaking nation, and then teach it to kids. The reason why Japan needs ALTs is because they are so bad at making anything, especially anything outside of Japan, seem interesting. So they need to import someone with a foreign face and personality to come to school and clown around with dice and cards for an hour so foreign stuff is at least vaguely interesting.

    That will only work if the society itself backs that play. But it won’t. The society in general seems remarkably inward focused. When I was in Taiwan, the culture was very different. They were about engaging with the world openly, almost voraciously, still confident about who they were as Taiwanese people. And I didn’t hear any stupid nonsense about being afraid to visit America because of guns (I heard that within 2 months of being in Japan!).

    Japan needs to get with the program. You can be confident about your home culture and interact with the world. They want to protect their culture, but anything worth protecting will survive in the marketplace of ideas. Again- I haven’t been here long, so my opinion is limited by my experience, but it seems like Japan is a limb that has made itself gangrenous by cinching a belt around itself, and then insists the cure is to cinch the belt tighter. They need foreign interaction. You know another country that is about about “self reliance” and not needing foreign countries, cultures, people or input? North Korea.

    • toshi

      Yeah I agree with you , because a lot of Japanese people tend to be afraid of going abroad and seeing what’s going on out there.
      People studying abroad are getting decreasing year by year.
      I think Japanese people are the one of the worst English speakers in Asian countries. This is no doubt. I’m a university student here in Japan and I feel people are getting back to be very concervative these days, which makes me so sad.

      It is like to be back to SAKOKU again in Edo era and will be so isolated.