Would you hire a typewriter repairman as a systems analyst? That’s sort of what the Japanese Ministry of Education is doing. It set up a committee to study English-education reform that is about as up to date in what’s needed to improve English teaching in this country as the poor repairman who thinks RAM means the use of force (“ram it in there”)
The usual suspects of this particular committee, like all such committees in Japan, are mostly high-profile, pseudo-celebrity mouthpieces who have a lot of opinions based on nothing more than, well, their own opinions. Take Gregory Clark, for example. His expert opinion in the article “Why Taro can’t speak English” (The Japan Times, Jan. 30), in which he states that the early study of reading and writing will interfere with the development of speaking, is a case in point. Is this based on some well-known, recent, large-scale studies in TESOL, or is it just Clark’s personal point of view?
Clark’s colleagues on this government committee — one of whom is a food company president, if I’m not mistaken — hold different, but equally banal views. At this point, the committee seems to be divided into two camps. One claims that the only way to get the Japanese people to learn English is to start them off in elementary school, while the other claims that we must teach listening above all else. Both these brilliant, novel assertions will, no doubt, start popping up nativelike speakers faster than a pachinko machine spewing out metal balls.
As an old-timer with some 16 years of English-teaching experience in this country under my belt, I have a few pointers for the Ministry of Education bureaucrats. Unfortunately, it includes bitter medicine for almost everybody on the English-education food chain.
First, dump the present committee for reforming English-language education and replace it with TESOL professionals and experts, who can give up-to-date advice based on extensive experience in the field (sorry, being the president of a language school doesn’t count) and on research into methodology, curricula, teacher training and program design and administration. TESOL is not like dentistry or car repairs. There isn’t a single solution for all learners at all ages and all levels of proficiency. It is an area of human knowledge that is still being debated by the researchers themselves. Nevertheless, it is certain that, as confused as the field is, knowledgeable experts are significantly less confused than others who offer advice based solely on the claim of “See, it worked for me!”
Second, encourage universities (read: give them lots of free money) to set up faculties of education with TESOL departments devoted to actual training. The academic path for those intending to be English teachers would be via the faculty of education, not the fossilized department of English literature, as is the case now. Prospective language teachers would, thus, graduate with a B.Ed. and not a B.A. They would be required to take intensive language training, with a set level of proficiency as a criterion for graduation. Everybody complains that high-school teachers do not have adequate teaching or English-language skills, but why would they when, except for a course or two in the history of methodology, another one in educational psychology and a couple of EFL classes, getting a teacher’s license in this country takes less training than getting a driver’s license? Japanese TESOL-trained English teachers would also contribute to ridding the school system of the long-standing and counterproductive system of dividing the English language into separate and often completely disconnected studies of grammar, writing, reading, listening and speaking.
My next suggestion is a real no-brainer. In fact, I am rather surprised that the committee for reforming English education didn’t think of it. Take all the English classes in the country, from elementary school right through university, and divide every single class in half. Period. All else being equal, you’ll get double the results. And if you want to get radically creative, double the instruction time. In the case of university-level classes, we are talking about increasing the weekly 90-minute classes, or 36 hours of classroom instruction annually, to some 72 hours of instruction — still, not a lot over the course of a year but certainly better than nothing, and 36 hours a year of classroom instruction is, for all practical purposes, nothing.
As far as university-level English education is concerned, implementing these two simple changes would do more toward improving English proficiency than almost anything else.
I have one final word of advice for department heads, especially as regards university EFL instruction by so-called native speakers. Check instructors’ performance through regular observation and required student feedback, because there are quite a few fakes out there who haven’t a clue what a teaching method is, let alone that there is more than one available. And, for the students’ sake, please stop hiring ex-diplomats or the spouses of diplomats and, especially, Ivy League grads with great degrees in everything but TESOL. In addition, there is also a fairly strong contingent of what I would call the cultural-missionary type, whose main goal seems to be to make the Japanese into better human beings. They claim to teach “issues” but, in fact, they teach nothing, least of all English, while using the classroom to hone their oratorical skills for the next Greenpeace or women’s-rights conferences.
Last, get rid of teachers who don’t correct their students’ mistakes. Error correction, contrary to what all of those colorful English textbooks will tell you, is a fundamental tenet of instruction, any instruction. As for that big deal everybody seems to make about “motivation” or lack thereof, I have a pointer that’s guaranteed to be unpopular: Focus on effective language training in an efficient no-nonsense manner, and students will naturally become interested. College students still want to learn, but they are pretty savvy these days, and it’s getting harder and harder to fake them out with “you need English” sermons and low-fat activities that keep them busy without imparting an ounce of knowledge.
Having done all this, there is one more educationally unrelated but highly effective course of action that would enormously improve the spoken English in this country. It is this: Round up a few of the current teenage “tarento” and train them to say “and” instead of “ando,” as well as “but” instead of “buto.” Then have them say it correctly on TV. Japanese-English will disappear, first among the high-school girls, then the college kids and, finally, the housewives and salarymen. Like most fads here, it shouldn’t take any more than a couple months to completely sweep the nation.
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