Commentary / Japan

A better way to teach kids foreign languages

by Robert D. Eldridge.

The Japan Times recently reported that third-year junior high school students were struggling with aspects of English in a nationwide achievement test conducted this year by the education ministry (“Nationwide test results highlight Japanese students’ poor English speaking and writing skills,” Aug. 1).

Most readers who have been involved with English-language education in Japan would probably not be surprised with the findings. But the results were still disappointing nevertheless. It was not so much the students that failed, but rather the system failing them.

I recently had dinner with a semi-retired Japanese English teacher, who was the impetus for a local board of education in Hyogo Prefecture to hire me 29 years ago in the early days of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme. Sachiyo-sensei is very good at English because she enjoys speaking it and, more importantly, she understands that language is a tool for communication and not simply a subject to grammatically dissect for tests.

As a truly respected senior teacher, she currently trains new and younger teachers but laments the fact that textbooks have not fundamentally changed in the 50 years since she was a student. Mastering English, unfortunately, has become a drill to be run rather than a dream to be pursued.

While the aforementioned article focused on junior high school students, whose curriculum is scheduled to change in 2021 with more emphasis on speaking and writing, I would like to discuss a proposal for high school language education that I have introduced to a number of politicians, educators and prefectures, as well as the education ministry, over the past year in the hopes that it will really shake up the admittedly failed system.

Linguists, of which I am not, particularly endorse it, as do those local leaders and teachers with an international outlook.

The assumptions behind the suggestion are that language learning should be fun, eye-opening and meaningful, that language is inherently linked to the culture of the country, that languages and culture interact with one another, usually for mutual benefit, and that students should have more choice in the language(s) they study as the world is very diverse.

The proposal is for prefectures, which are in charge of noncompulsory high school education, to establish a nine-language course in each prefecture, with nine different high schools participating. Foreign-language teachers would rotate between the schools (in part to reduce the financial burden of each school having to hire nine different language teachers).

Each school would have language/culture coordinator to run the program for the school, plus at least one non-English foreign-language teacher. Different schools could specialize in different languages, with multiple exchange programs domestically (in each prefecture with other schools teaching the same language), and with the embassies/consulates of the related language) and globally (through sister schools and sister cities).

The comparative course would be conducted in the first year of high school, so perhaps the program could be introduced a year after (i.e., 2022) the change in the junior high school English curriculum.

Beginning in April, and continuing each month, a different foreign language would be taught for four weeks. The language/culture coordinator would explain at the beginning of the course the intent, discussing linguistics and the development of language and culture, and provide an overview of the languages to be studied.

The languages taught would reflect a combination of regional desires and national priorities. Student opinions would be incorporated, too. For example, students in Hokkaido may be more interested in learning Russian than those in another prefecture, and thus regional diversity should be respected.

The contents of the instruction of each language would be similar. Indeed, a general template could be made, describing the script or alphabet used, grammatical structure, unique aspects of the language and pronunciation, similarities and differences between that language and Japanese, or that language and the one learned the month before or the month after, etc. Key phrases, particularly when traveling, or hosting, or doing some form of business, would be taught and memorized, with proper pronunciation emphasized.

The students would, of course, not become fluent in four weeks. The goal is instead to light a spark in the students for them to be interested in or motivated to pursue that language further. Or, that spark might light an interest in another language in the course.

This would be repeated every four weeks over the course of the academic year. Holidays, testing and school events would of course have to be accommodated, hence the maximum of nine languages studied.

At the end of each language section, a test would be taken. At the end of the nine sections, all the grades would be averaged for the final course grade. In this way, if a student were strong in Korean but did not do well in Spanish, or good in Portuguese but weak in Arabic, his or her grades would not be negatively impacted by a poor mark in one or two sections.

The students who successfully complete the course would be allowed to choose a language of their choice to study in their second and third year of high school, including English (which does not have to be one of the nine languages offered initially).

If the school does not offer that language, he or she could use the University of the Air system to study online or through correspondence. By using this system, he or she will gain university credits that could be applied to graduate in college if he or she chose to attend in the future.

I believe students will do better in their studies and have more interest in the language if it is the one they chose, rather than being forced to simply study English.

Language and culture are inherently linked, and I think most readers would agree that you have to like and respect the culture (country) of the language you are studying (or at least be interested in) to really excel in those efforts.

This proposal, now in circulation, links the interest of the student with the language he or she can hopefully study if they go on to high school. Not only will they have studied Japanese and English by this time, but now they can explore a third language and perhaps more in the future.

Robert D. Eldridge is North Asia director of the Honolulu-based Global Risk Mitigation Foundation.

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