Fifth- and sixth-grade teachers will have one new worry starting this month — teaching English. All elementary schools must introduce compulsory foreign language lessons. Despite the difficulties of implementing this national strategy for English education, it is high time Japan took its English level more seriously. Only North Korea scores lower than Japan on the TOEFL exam in the Asian region.
The biggest hurdle may be the teachers’ worries about teaching a new subject. Critics complain that few elementary teachers are specialists in English and that some have not even had training in the recommended curriculum. Yet, the same problem exists in other countries. Students from Taiwan, China, Turkey and Spain, among many other countries, have been learning English from younger ages for over a decade, and for more than the one hour per week now mandated in Japanese elementary schools.
By starting early, a better system for learning English can be gradually implemented over longer years of study. Age-appropriate activities can circumvent social feelings of embarrassment and the tendency toward perfectionism. Doing that in fifth and sixth grade will reduce Japan’s notorious English phobia before the panic of entrance exams sets in.
To better accomplish that, English classes should not focus on impeccably correct grammar. Instead, they should establish positive attitudes and helpful learning habits. Few people achieve a functional level of language only through gaman (patience, perseverance) or pressure; they get it through passion. Starting English early is one way to acquire that passion.
Rather than obsessing over flawless grammar, teachers need to keep in mind the physicians’ first principle, “At least do no harm.” Helping stimulate interest in other languages and other cultures should be a top priority. As experienced teachers know, confidence inspires confidence. Young students are quicker to pick up attitudes than vocabulary words. With the right attitude, students will always learn more in their future English classes.
The consequences will be a new way of thinking and new approaches to communication. Those teachers starting to teach English for the first time this year will have a heavy burden, but by introducing students to the world of English, they will be building a solid base for Japan’s future functioning in international society and commerce.
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