The debate over whether Japanese children should be taught English at primary school deserves better consideration than it is getting.

Currently Japanese school children begin to learn English at age 12 in middle school. The teaching continues in high school for another three years, with often a year or two at university to follow. But the results, as the world knows, are not very good. Some note the superior English-speaking abilities of other Asian peoples, most of whom begin to learn English in primary school. They want to see the same in Japan.

But the conservatives in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and elsewhere claim primary-school English will damage the minds of young Japanese still trying to master their own language — a claim that leaves unexplained the lack of any apparent damage to the many bilingual or trilingual children around the world, and in Japan.

True in Japan’s case there are valid arguments against primary-school English. One is lack of time since children also have to master enough Chinese ideographs for reading by age 12 (though the Chinese seem to get round this problem easily enough). Another is the lack of good teachers; holding the attention of young children for the few hours a week allowed for primary-school English is not easy. But the main argument, surely, should be the greater need for greater efforts to improve English teaching after the age of 12.

A constant complaint among English teachers here is lack of student motivation. But in a large, monolingual society where careers usually do not depend on foreign-language ability, students are bound to be unmotivated. They will ask why they need to spend six years to learn a difficult language like English to the very high level needed for difficult, mainly written, university entrance exams.

In the West it is taken for granted that the serious teaching of difficult foreign languages — Chinese, Japanese and Russian for example — should be done at the tertiary level. Here motivation is guaranteed, since students choose to learn these languages, either out of interest or for their future careers. They are not forced to do so. At that level they can usually be supplied with good teachers and facilities, unlike in most middle and high schools. And unlike in the Japanese high school, they also have the time and the extra motivation needed to master the spoken language as well.

We see the results with the young Americans, Australians and Europeans coming to Japan. After three to four years of concentrated study at university, usually as part of a double major or major/minor university course, they are often speaking much better Japanese than most Japanese are speaking English after six years of school study. The conclusion should be obvious — get serious language study out of the schools and into the universities.

A related problem is the recent discovery that many high schools deliberately avoid teaching compulsory subjects, such as world or Japanese history, to allow students to concentrate on other subjects crucial for university entrance — especially English, which absorbs seven or more hours a week in the classroom plus any amount of time in prep schools.

Without the need to focus on English, students would have much more time to study not just the compulsory subjects being avoided, but also other subjects like math and science, which would do much more good both for the students and Japan than the three years of bad juken (entrance exam) English education they are currently being forced to undertake.

Japan needs to revamp its entire system of English-language teaching. It needs to accept that there is no need for the entire high-school population to be made to learn English to the standard needed for university entrance. Three years of basic English at middle school, supplemented perhaps by some primary-school English, should be enough for most as an introduction to the language.

At high school, only those genuinely interested in learning more English should continue. In other words English should be an elective subject, just as it should be in university entrance exams. Then having entered university the students should be allowed to do the language of their choice as a major or minor in a double specialization program.

Currently students are supposed to spend their first two university years in general studies, including a language. But the year or two of language study is generally very superficial. Greater use of the double specialization concept would not only provide a basis for more serious language study, but for those who choose not to do a language — who choose to do, say, business and law — it would, as in the West, give students a broader education and more time to choose their specialization. For those who do want to do a language, it would provide a much wider range of choice.

True, most would choose to do English. But a significant minority would opt for other important languages, Chinese especially, which some universities would no doubt choose to offer.

Currently those who want to study foreign languages seriously have to do so either abroad or in four-year specialist courses that leave them with little job-seeking qualifications. The double major or major/minor approach used in the West gets around this problem since the four years of intensive language study is usually combined with four years studying a job-relevant discipline.

Someone studying say Japanese and business, for example, or Chinese and law, would have every reason to want to study the language seriously, knowing that he or she could well end up using the language of their choice employed in the area of their choice in the country of their choice. As I know from personal experience, that can be a very powerful incentive.

Gregory Clark is vice president of Akita International University. He has fluency qualifications in Chinese, Russian and Japanese. See www.gregoryclark.net and www.gregoryclark.net/nakadaki.

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