December 1986 - Tokyo Business Today

Those who follow the press here will have noticed yet another round of breast-beating symposia on the teaching of English in Japan. For some reason your columnist gets invited to these talkfests - mainly, he suspects, because he once wrote a book here called The Japanese Tribe and is therefore supposed to have special insights to the Japanese soul, a fiction he is very happy to abet.

In any case one does not need great insight to realize there is something very wrong with the state of English education here. Nor does one need to spend too much time with the reasons the educators like to put forward - that the Japanese are a shy people; that the Japanese tongue and even the Japanese brain are not designed to cope with foreign languages. The blame sheets home directly to those educators. With their over-emphasis on textbook English and grammar, then absurdly difficult written English language exams for university entrance, and their own inability to speak English properly, they create generations of young Japanese who cannot speak English, who for the most part will never be able to speak English and who in many cases don't want to have anything to do with English ever again. A great return for the billions of yen and millions of student hours spent on the acquisition of the English language!

Something Is Wrong

To be fair, some now realize something is badly wrong. They want to see more use of language laboratories, gaijin sensei in the schools, free conversation classes and potted conversation tape courses. Expose the students to real life English and they will come back as fluent linguists is the hope. But for the most part it doesn't work. Most come back bored, or just as terrified and tongue-tied as ever.

What to do? Many now see teaching from infancy as the only answer. Small kids learn their own language perfectly. So why can't they do the same with English. A friend of mine runs an alleged English language school for under-twelve year olds. He is making a small fortune bleeding the savings of over-anxious mothers. It will be quite a few more years before the mothers discover they have been wasting their money - that small children need constant exposure to a language before they will remember it.

My advice to the symposia, totally ignored I might add, was to forget about the kids and concentrate on the adults, or rather the young adults. I had to learn Chinese and Russian in my twenties. I taught myself Japanese when I was thirty. What I lost in childlike receptivity I more than made up for in motivation and the chance to avoid incompetent teachers. I think I learned all three languages much better than the French I was forced to learn as a schoolkid.

Intensive Training Is Necessary

In short, cut back Japan's secondary school program to an hour or two a week of basic English, and require most university entrants to do a year or so of intensive language training under specialist teachers. By 18 most students are well motivated; they realiz the need for foreign languages in their future careers. They could also choose languages other than English- a large plus for Japan's so-called internationalisation.

If they had any sense they would also learn their languages they way I learned Japanese - listening repeatedly to tape recordings of useful texts that one wants to read anyway. That way they would find themselves wanting naturally to grapple with the language via the ear, to decipher it and make it their own- a key part of the language learning process and one not found in the language laboratories, etc. Theywould be able to cut down on the time they have to spend with their teachers. They would also reduce the trade deficit, by helping to keep some of Japan's tape recorders at home.

But as I said, my advice was rejected. Too revolutionary for one thing. But the main problem, I was told in all seriousness at a Yomiuri Shimbun symposium in November, lay elsewhere: What would Japan do with the armies of unemployable English teachers now working in the secondary schools ? I tried to suggest one answer. But it is not printable here.


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