About 10 years ago while motorcycling in Fuji-Hakone National Park, I met a Japanese motorcyclist who had just returned from a two-year work/study program in Australia. He spoke English very fluently and had landed a job teaching his second language at a junior high school in Izu and was very excited about embarking on a career in language education.

I met with him about six months later and he told me that he had suffered a “nervous breakdown” because of the ostracism and psychological bullying he had encountered on a daily basis at his workplace. Neither his boss or fellow teachers cared much about his fluency and cultural understanding in English, or his idealistic desire to help his students achieve greater competence in communicative English.

Fluency in a foreign language is not rocket science. Daily conversation skills and basic high school level reading comprehension should not be too difficult for any student who is given proper instruction using modern English-as-a second-language (ESL) methodology — not translation/grammar.

First, teach only correct English from day one; otherwise, the student will have to unlearn their “bad” English and continually try to master the grammatically correct form. This is assuming the student plans to use English for international communication at the academic and/or professional level one day.

Next, get rid of those horrible education ministry English textbooks. What a joke they are! Introduce ESL textbooks for all public schools in Japan that were written by academically qualified English teachers. The education ministry acts as if it’s never heard of ESL publishers like Longman or Oxford Press. It shouldn’t waste the English student’s time with badly written textbooks.

Too often the Japanese English professor is an egotistical pedantic. I met an aging Japanese English teacher at Waseda University’s high school who pompously assured me that he read the entire American Heritage English Dictionary once a year (all 2,000 pages!). He certainly had a reading knowledge of the English language. But when it came to communication skills or cross-cultural social skills, for that matter, he was a linguistic bore.

He had his students memorizing passages of English prose from some text and then reciting it, much like Latin students in America are required to recite passages from Ovid or Horace. Once the recitation was over, the student quickly forgot the lines he had so painfully memorized. This old “sensei” was openly booed in class.

If a Japanese English teacher cannot pass an advanced university-level exam in listening and speaking skills, fire that teacher. Do not allow anyone to teach badly flawed pronunciation to a young student, or backward syntax.

robert mckinney
otaru, hokkaido

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

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