Letters and online responses to the Jan. 6, 13 and 20 Learning Curve columns by Teru Clavel on English education. Letters and comments may have been edited for length or clarity.

Labor issues

The article “English fluency hopes rest on an education overhaul” pretty much hits the nail on the head. There are so many problems with English education in the Japanese school system.

At the heart of the problem is Japanese labor laws being prioritized over the education. There is a Catch-22 problem between the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program and dispatch companies created by labour laws. The JET assistant language teachers (ALTs) work for the ministry of education not the board of education (BOE), which means labour laws make it hard to fire a lousy ALT without going through a minefield of red tape.

So many BOEs have switched to dispatch companies to deal with this issue, but [according to] labour law, dispatch employees cannot interact with the BOE-employed teacher to plan lessons as they are an outside contractor. So team teaching is out of the question even though there is a secondary Catch-22 labour law in which a member of staff from the school must be present in the class with the ALT at all times in case any damage or harm is caused (by the student or ALT). So if there is a teacher there anyway why not get them involved to show that English communication isn’t something to be afraid of? Labour law Catch-22 is why!

I think I might just get my class to read “Catch-22”.


EPIK issues

Of note here in South Korea, and with regards to the English Program in Korea (EPIK), they are phasing out all native English teachers (NETs) in middle schools and high schools. While I cannot speak to the future, and with a similar path taken by elementary schools, my particular province (read: state) is drastically cutting back on “foreign” teachers in the classroom, essentially cutting it by two-thirds.

Whether this is related to the scrapping of the $3 million-a-year NEAT (National English Ability Test) exam, which was to replace the CSAT (College Scholastic Ability Test), or simple politics and economics, it will be interesting to see how, in 10 years time, this effects English attainment here on the peninsula. For a country which “is considering a plan to impose restrictions on private schools,” I sense a discrepancy in educational planning, as the only available means of learning from a native speaker will be in those same private academies. That, or fly West like the “wild geese” and learn comprehensively, including the often overlooked skill of actual communication: speaking!


Classroom politics

It is time for us to realize that how to teach English in Japan has never been an issue purely of education, but one of politics. We are simply brainwashed into believing that we have no other choice than to become “global,” and that means becoming fluent in (what is believed to be American) English.

Professor Charles Browne has a point: Let us drop English entirely as a required subject at school and in university entrance exams, go back to square one and ponder why we have to learn and become fluent in English. We don’t need English to adopt Coca-Cola-McDonald’s junk culture, but we need it as a tool with which to peacefully deal with our neighbor countries — China, Korea and Russia, and the E.U. as well as the U.S. For this purpose, the Japanese language and washoku (Japanese cuisine) are totally useless.

I have learned through my past experience that English is an indispensable tool of communication when you are in those parts of the world where it is not a local language. Japanese kids will never learn to speak English as long as they are brainwashed into thinking they need English to communicate with sacred “native speakers.” They need to become convinced that English is a global language because it has more non-native speakers than native speakers and that they are among them.


Ugly American

Teru Clavel relies a bit much on this Singapore guy, Guangwei Hu.

This reliance hurts the reporting, because whenever Hu opens his mouth, such polysyllabics ensue as to occasion wonderment at English abstractedness.

At one point, Hu vexes at “(E)ndeavors to transplant Western language teaching methodologies without giving due attention to the local pedagogical ecology.”

We don’t need to translate from English to English to get Hu’s point, because all quotes from him make the same point — that English rides in as “ugly American” to all local cultures.

Even if Hu’s right (sadly, I must admit he is), why not turn around this defensiveness? Why not feature more from local cultures as key parts of English learning?

Right now, the main tone in learning English, in too many parts of Asia, is either a superbly blithe childishness, or a humanly dead and trivialized impersonality.

Instead of this, why not feature the cultural places local students with some vitality inhabit? This may be old-culture poems, novels and essays some students love — and it may be more contemporary pop music groups, clothing styles, transport fashion, food popularity, techno, movies and styles of buildings and landscapes that are the reality for many.

Yes, English is invading Hu’s “local pedagogic ecology.” Can’t we enjoy that — or well fight over that — in English that’s a bit more human, vital and local?


Chinese standards

I am a Chinese student studying abroad in a U.S. college. Reading about the differences and similarities with regard to learning English in South Korea, Japan and China is quite intriguing. Like the author mentioned, every college student who wants to graduate from colleges needs to take the CET (College English Test) exam.

For people who want more than just to graduate (say a job at a Fortune 500 company), they go much further than just acing the CET exams. I have met more and more students transferring from a Chinese university to an American university, and the age of studying abroad has become younger and younger. In China, just being able to speak English is not enough; often, whether you have a “funny” accent when speaking English is a symbol of social status.

In my view, though, at the end of the day, English, like any other language, is just a tool for communication. The school systems shouldn’t value it above subjects like maths and Chinese and training students’ critical thinking and creativity. Those skills equally valuable for students in the future. Also, making English a very important subject that also makes students forget their own culture, language and the countless works of literature associated with their culture. Schools need to pay more attention to that!


Fix the entrance exams

I disagree with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new English-education program. I think Mr. Abe should improve the university entrance exam before starting a new English education system. The Japanese university entrance exam causes young people to lose their personalities. Why are Japanese high school students only evaluated by their paper tests? Certainly, it is important for Japanese to speak English. But Japanese people can’t [compete globally] just by speaking English. So, I think Japanese people must attain other skills before speaking English.


Call from above

I’ve worked at multinational companies in Beijing and Tokyo, and clearly the English focus in China, at a young age and more broadly in society, dramatically outstrips that in Japan.

Part of this has to do with a one-party governmental system where there’s a clear directive from above . . . and also, people are just so hungry to gain tools to look outside of China and improve themselves. In Japan, the status quo is so comfortable.

Anyway, I agree with many of this article’s points and actually, I’m optimistic about Japan’s desires here. Of course, how Japan improves — this is going to be a big challenge even as the government talks about internationalization/openness ahead of the Olympics.


Different strokes

The comparison of English-language teaching and learning in three East Asian countries, where the speaking environment is rarely accessible outside the classroom, can be intriguing. Each learns from the lessons experienced by its neighbors. And of course, each also should take its own social and educational characteristics into account.

With regard to English education inequality, Hu’s perspective makes sense. The privileged and the rich get more resources and benefits from the ongoing process. China in the past decades has witnessed a widening development gap between its municipalities and remote inland provinces. English-medium or bilingual lectures can be more easily found in coastal regions than in the western parts, and many elites naturally tend to stay in developed regions.

However, the Chinese government has been implementing various policies to reduce the gap. A notable one encourages undergrads to return to their less-developed hometowns after graduation. The undergrads needn’t pay tuition or lodging to the stipulated seven Chinese prestigious normal universities, which additionally provide each student with a monthly subsidy of 600 Chinese renminbi (approximately $100 or ¥10,300). However, the trade-off comes immediately after graduation, when they are supposed to serve in a teaching post at a remote rural school for at least two years.


Elite access

I would like to point out a few things about the article. Firstly, I think Japan is not really willing to improve its English education.

As a Japanese citizen who grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, I have to say that Japan needs people who can really speak and use English as a weapon for doing business overseas and also for diplomacy.

Japan’s education was wonderful before World War II. Even though there are problems in every system, what’s most important is that there always needs to be the elite that can lead this country to a better and stronger future.

In order to achieve that, I think that Japan should just limit English education to the elite and teach them very intensively so that Japan can be No. 1 again.


Get the balance right

I agree with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new English plan. It is important to learn a foreign language from elementary school. But the government should prepare teachers to be fluent and capable of teaching English — or hire native English teachers.

In addition, teachers should teach English conversation, not only grammar. When I went to America, many Japanese could understand written English, but they couldn’t understand conversation. Therfore, a balance is important.


Danish example

A lot of this stuff about taking the kids out of the country or starting them learning English at age 3, etc., is nonsense. One only has to look to Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Holland or Israel to see the amazing levels of English that those countries have.

I have spent a lot of time in Denmark and a child of 12 can easily hold an English conversation with me. It is impressive.

Everything on TV in English in Sweden, Norway and Denmark is subtitled, not dubbed like in Japan. This makes a massive difference.

Danish children have no formal schooling until age 7; until that age they just play. Most can’t read and write that well by age 7. However, by going to school at a later age, they learn much better. When I lived in Denmark I was picking up Danish words simply by reading the Danish subtitles to the English-language content that I was watching [on TV]. Japan should stop dubbing its English content.


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