E is for English

When I first started compiling a list of the topics for this blog, English was one of the very first ones I wrote down.  And that’s not just because of my circumstances or work: no doubt, English is a big deal in Japan.

English is compulsory learning for students aged 11 and up in Japan, and it is one of the most studied subjects, even more so than their own Japanese lessons.  For elementary students, it will become compulsory from April 2013 (the start of the new school year), and at the same time High School students will have English lessons in nothing but the language.

Beyond school, English is also big business.  A massive array of companies, big and small, and the government itself, subcontracts native JETs and ALTs (Japanese-English Teachers, or Assistant Language Teachers) to schools and business classes.  Personal tuition and group tuition is also available in a format known as Eikaiwa.  Elsewhere, there is simply no avoiding English: they adorn road signs, restaurant menus, music, movies and much more besides (though of course this is where you get the sub-genre of ‘Engrish’, where the language is oddly mangled to a bizarre and hilarious effect).  On trains, if you can look away from all of the banners urging the onlookers to learn English, you will spot many a student with their nose buried in a textbook – most likely of some highly advanced English, like, I dunno, ‘Osmosis’ or something.

With all of this, you would think that English would be the comfortable second language for Japan, similar to how, say, Scandinavian folk can slip from their own native tongue to English with ease and speak it just as well, if not better, than the born-and-bred English-speaker.

Well…no.  Not even close.  For despite all of the options, methods, ubiquity and good-intentions of English teaching in Japan, the country lags well behind their Asian cousins for proficiency and competence.

Why?  If I knew, it would make my job a lot easier.  But that hasn’t stopped me and everyone else from trying to figure out where Japan is failing, and there are just as many theories and opinions as there are teachers themselves.  And, opinions being opinions, they may be as wrong as they are valid, and perhaps controversial.  And they tend to fall into three categories.  Let’s look at them, shall we?

The Teachers: I will say right off the bat that the native teachers who fly over to Japan to be a a teacher of English in the form of a Native English Speaker (NES) have very little blame to take in this debacle: they are in the assistant role, and hold very little power in the classroom, usually reduced to being the human tape-recorder or game-machine.  But, when utilized correctly, the Native English Speaker can be a wonderful tool, a fountain of information and ideas and a tangible link to the outside world.

But, sadly, for the vast majority of those who come from English-speaking countries to Japan to teach English, Japan comes first and teaching comes second.  This is not to say that they aren’t good at their job – indeed, many grow to become excellent teachers in their own right – but their passion lies elsewhere,and that is Japan itself.   Some find real roots and reasons to stay, but others usually move on after 1 or 2 years, after the novelty wears off, and they make up a shockingly high amount of the NES population.  From the school’s point of view, the revolving door of NESs gives them a terrible impression of foreign workers in Japan as a whole, which makes the next NES’ experience even worse, creating a vicious cycle.

Not that the Japanese Teachers of English Teachers are angels themselves.  While some JTEs hold a genuine passion for English, some have mentally checked out, and go through the motions of the textbook, using little or no English themselves, their backs turned to the students as they write endless reams of detailed grammar breakdown on the blackboard, while the students don’t get a lick of practicing or self-expression.  The wayward NES looks on at this, glassy-eyed, his or her mind far away, planning the trip to Kyushu.

The Material: But none of this would matter much if the material itself that they had to work with was decent.  Now, the textbooks and their structure, on the whole, are not that bad (which I’ll get to later).  But on the whole, being ‘not bad’ simply isn’t good enough, thanks to some flaws too glaring to ignore.  The English used in the textbooks is horrifically stilted (“It is interesting for me to play the guitar”, or “Let’s enjoy Japanese comics together!” for example), and they are so over-stuffed with so much vocab that many lessons are reduced to rote-memorization instead of practice in a real context.

Moreover, the subject matter that often crops up is unsuitable at best, downright offensive at worst.  Unsuitable, because while introducing social and environmental matters like minority rights and recycling is noble, the subject matter is so dense that it smothers the target grammar that is being introduced.  And offensive when you have stories about zoos putting elephants to sleep (no, seriously), leaves on a tree contemplating death (I kid you not), and, most notorious of all, a dark story about the bombing of Hiroshima.  Should these things not be talked about?  Of course not.  But in the frame of learning a new language, when a story asks the NES to drill words like ‘dead’, ‘bodies’ and ‘bomb’ to 14-15-year-olds, you have to wonder if some other agenda isn’t at play here.

The style of learning: But the textbooks, overall, aren’t that bad.  With supplements and creativity, they can get a student to a decent level of English by the end of the course.

Ah, but there’s that word again.  Creativity.  As you descend the years of English education, the life in the classroom is slowly sucked out of the students.  I am not kidding: you will have a fresh-faced JHS 1st Grader who can answer basic questions to his liking, respong to your comments, and generally have  decent conversation.  Give him 3 years, and you can ask him the exact same questions and, at best, you will get sullen nods, and maybe even a “Yes” if you’re lucky.

What went wrong?  Hormones?  Nah.  The fact is, to put it simply, English is taught like Latin in Japan.  As a dead, crusty old language.  Instead of learning a new expression and spending a lesson or two mastering it, showing how to manipulate it into the way each student wants so they can express themselves for real, the student will instead look at the structure, learn one or two set varieties, one or two set answers, then write reams and reams of grammatical explanation.  In Japanese.  Then they will learn the new words in a set order.  In the next class, they will be given a blank version of the new words, all in the same order, so it is as easy to regurgitate as possible.  Rinse, repeat.  Do students speak English?  Rarely, and when they do, they are merely the stock responses they have been taught (for example, any student who says “My favorite food is sushi” is LYING).  They are not really using English as a tool for communication.  It is all hoop-jumping and box-ticking towards a test, and the problem gets worse down the years.

Because the difficulty keeps escalating, without a backward glance or taking breath to review and revise.  By the time they are in the back end of High School you will indeed be getting that student on the train who is cramming sentences that use the word ‘Osmosis’, but ask her “What is your favorite movie?” and she will likely stare at you in abject horror, before mumbling a “Yes”.

Of course, these are all opinions and theories.  And the are wonderful teachers out there who do wonderful things with their students, and students who respond brilliantly and have real competency in English because of it. But if Japan is serious about getting it’s nation truly proficient in English, then it’s going to call for a complete change in mindset from the ground up.  Or, to put it another way, “Let’s reforming.”

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