English education reform in Japan
Hidden somewhere deep in Japanese government education policy is a burning desire for Japanese children to leave school being able to competently use English as a second language.
But it’s hidden so deep and behind so many obstacles, you’d be forgiven for missing it.
Occasionally someone in the Department of Education notices that something’s awry in English education in Japanese schools. And then a Minister will pipe up that this or that should be done, it becomes the hot topic du jour, and then it’s quickly forgotten.
A recent plan, which sent school teachers around Japan into cold sweats was for English lessons to be taught entirely in English. The fact that they are not currently taught entirely in English is far from being the problem. In fact, there are so many issues, it would require a fundamental reform from kindergarten to university in order to have any effect.
Forgive me, I’m going to start small, and work my way up.
- 1. Don’t start by teaching the bloody ABC song
Ah yes, rote learning. That tried and tested system. Every child I’ve ever taught comes armed with a knowledge of the ABC song, their mother’s pride. And yet show them a single letter out of sequence, and they’ll often stare silently at it like it’s advanced algebra.
Teaching children who use English as a low-exposure (maybe one or two hours a week) second language to recognise individual letters is greatly hampered by this rote learning of the alphabet sequence, when time would be more productively spent learning to recognise letters (out of sequence), and reconciling upper and lower case letters.
Whatever a Japanese mother might tell you – “My little darling can sing the ABC song” does NOT equal “My little darling knows the alphabet”.
- 2. Only allow qualified personnel to teach English
You might imagine that to get a job in the Japanese public school system as an English teacher that you’d need to have some sort of English degree, or similar qualification. You’d be quite wrong.
In the article linked above, you’ll have noticed the ripples of panic among teachers at the thought of using English themselves. I once interviewed a person who didn’t sufficiently understand the question “What is your job?” to be able to tell me that she was a junior high school English teacher.
- 2b. Ban katakana from the English classroom
Lovely katakana, one of the many different ways of writing Japanese. Unlike kanji, katakana characters have no intrinsic meaning, instead they represent the sounds of the Japanese language.
“So, what place can it possibly have in the English classroom?” you may ask. What a very astute question to ask.
It’s used as a guide to pronunciation. “But hang on,” you’re thinking. “You said they represent Japanese sounds. What use is that in pronouncing English?” Well, quite.
Japanese has five vowel sounds. English has twenty, along with about 10 consonant sounds unknown in Japanese. How anyone thought that using katakana to pronounce English would make you sound anything other than Japanese is beyond me.
If the simple table of phonemes of the international phonetic alphabet (some version of it is in every decent dictionary) was given out on day one of junior high school, another obstacle would simply vanish. It would, however, require that the teacher knew what it was, and what to do with it.
- 2c. Try employing native speakers, try using materials prepared by native speakers
OK so the first is easier said than done. Of all the native speakers teaching English in Japan, only a small percentage would be qualified to teach in the public school system, and an even smaller percentage would have a sufficient grasp of Japanese.
The second, however, is simple and only common sense. So much material put before school children contains obvious translations from Japanese that are clumsy at best in English, or are written by those with a shaky grasp of English themselves. This leads to unnatural, stilted and weirdly Japanese-sounding English. (“Come to my home and attend a party!” says one little boy. His equally little friend answers, “Yes, I will attend a party!”) This is clearly not very useful.
- 3. Don’t teach English as a science, teach it as a living language
Japanese students of English are often very hot on grammar. This is evidently safe ground for school teachers which can be taught from a book. But there is an over-reliance on books, as English is taught simply as an exam subject, rather than a means of communication.
While we’re talking about communication and exams…
- 4. Give oral exams
A Japanese student can study English through junior-high, high school and university without once ever taking an oral exam.
You should let that one sink in for a moment.
- 5. Do away with entrance exams
Talk to any school student and ask what they’ve been doing recently, and they’ll tell you that they’ve been doing tests. They’re being tested all the time. Isn’t enough data collected from constant examination to enable the school to make an assessment that it can pass on to the university (or the junior high to the high school)? Why then should universities and high schools require separate entrance exams? Could they not be tested on what they’ve learned, rather than just learn what’s on the test?
Revolutionary idea, I know.
Getting rid of entrance exams would trickle right down through the system and solve a lot more problems than just poor English teaching.
Along with all the other ideas above, it’s a shame it isn’t going to happen any time soon.