Imagine the fuss if Japan’s car industry was producing a million defective cars a year. But for some reason no one bothers much if Japan’s English-education industry produces roughly that number of defective English speakers each year.
For much of this year, an Education Ministry-appointed committee has been working to “improve” guidelines for the teaching of English in the schools. Most members (including me) realized the need for improvements, including much more emphasis on the spoken language.
But in the final draft report prepared by the bureaucrats, our demands were watered down to little more than mild urgings. Japan’s largely defective English teachers are urged to use more English in the classroom, for example. In the process, of course, they will ensure that at best yet another generation of students will learn stilted English with bad pronunciation.
At worst, a large majority of students will continue to decide that speaking English is a very unpleasant affair, to be avoided as much as possible.
The Education Ministry has decided that from now on, in the name of internationalization, high-school students will have to join middle-school students in receiving a compulsory three years of this flawed English education. Even the pretense of choice will be dropped.
My intervention to say that the state has no right to force impressionable minds to receive an education that guarantees they will spend the rest of their lives speaking bad English, or no English at all, was politely ignored.
Even minor reform urgings had to run the gauntlet of conservative flak. Proposals to teach simple English to primary-school students would impose intolerable burdens on young minds, we were told. And what would happen to the Japanese identity of young children being forced to sing Jack and Jill?
Besides, why bother with correct pronunciations anyway? What was wrong with “Japlish”? In any case, the conservatives said, students needed a firm grounding in Japan’s culture before they set out to talk with foreigners.
Too much emphasis on speaking and listening — communicative English — would cut into the far superior goal of developing reading and writing abilities, we were told. That listening ability is crucial not just to communication, but also to good writing and reading abilities, seems beyond the range of conservative understanding.
The bureaucrats produced detailed statistics on numbers of teachers or students visiting foreign countries for brief visits, or schools in Japan receiving visits from foreigners, as if this somehow proved total English fluency was just around the corner. They also talked a lot about using more assistant English teachers (AETs) and more spoken English in the classrooms.
But all this is meaningless so long as students have to prepare for absurdly difficult university entrance English exams. At the “shin gakko” — schools that pride themselves on getting students into elite universities — they point-blank refuse the services of the AETs. They want to concentrate entirely on the written English needed for those exams.
Our committee discovered a recent Waseda University entrance-exam text on global environment problems that included a sentence running 600 words without a full-stop. I had to read it twice to understand it. Students preparing for those kinds of exams are not likely to want to waste time practicing spoken English.
The bureaucrats said listening tests might be included in future government-organized entrance exams. But such tests are meaningless unless all students have equal chances to prepare for the tests by using standardized tape materials, an area where the Education Ministry adamantly declines any responsibility. And so on.
Japan needs to rethink just why and how it wants people to learn English. The society is not multilingual. Nor is it one where a foreign language is seen as a normal need for most careers. In this sense it resembles our Anglo-Saxon societies, which is why the average Japanese shares the average Anglo-Saxon disinclination to get involved with foreign languages.
Our own middle and high schools do little more than provide rudimentary, and often bad, education in “simple” languages such as French, German or Spanish. In general we take it for granted there is no point teaching difficult languages like Chinese, Japanese or even Russian.
For these difficult languages proper facilities and time are needed, and can best be provided by universities. The numbers of good Japanese and Chinese speakers now coming out of U.S. and Australian universities, many with little or no contact with the language before entering university, is positive proof on this point.
Besides, motivation is crucial for learning difficult languages, and that can only be found in mature students who really want to master the language for some purpose.
Japan should take a lesson from this. By all means make needed obeisance to English as an international language by having primary and middle school students learn simple conversational English and basic reading ability.
But the main thrust should be at university level, ideally in the framework of the double major or major-minor system used extensively in Western universities for language teaching. The recent report of the National Peoples’ Council on Education Reform includes just such a proposal (mine). The bureaucrats may get to read it. But whether they will act on it is more doubtful.
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