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English education reform in Japan

January 16, 2009

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.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Dad permalink
    January 16, 2009 8:09 pm

    You should send that – maybe with a little less of the irony, lots of other nationalities don’t get that – to the Department of Education, or whatever its called in Japan. Then, when you don’t get a reply, send it again….and again …. until you beat them into submission!

  2. takaohara permalink
    January 18, 2009 12:45 pm

    hi, this is taka. Thank you for your comment.
    I understand what you mean. Thank is right. Now Japan has to change so many things. I have comment on your comment.

  3. January 19, 2009 12:24 am

    I’m sure you’ve been in Japan long enough to know that the chances of any of this happening are exactly zero. There are too many people with vested interests in perpetuating the dysfunctional bureaucracy for any sensible changes to be made. Why let good sense interfere with job security and unproductive paperwork?

  4. Firu permalink
    January 19, 2009 12:52 pm

    Good comments, I disagree with Tony though in that yes Japanese bureaucracy is slow to react but once it is set in motion it can go pretty far (for good or bad). Remember the old adage: ishi no ue ni san nen. Spread the suggestions repeatedly for long enough and who knows, it may make headway at some point.

  5. Ian permalink
    January 19, 2009 7:27 pm

    Your frustration comes through with every word and it is obvious that this is something you feel passionate about. What have you done to change this? How hard has it been to reverse what is the accepted way of doing things?

  6. Sam permalink
    January 19, 2009 8:12 pm

    I’ve just discovered your blog and really enjoyed your last few posts. This particular post hits home with me considering how to keep my kids as bilingual as possible. Two days ago, I just had a conversation about how Little Charo would be a great study tool if they cut all the Japanese companion pages out of the accompanying study guide.

    Anyhow, I know it’s a big ask, but would like to challenge you or one of your readers to:
    1. Translate this post into Japanese so that we can forward it to friends, family, teachers, principals and directors in boards of education as a representation of how a large number of people in Japan feel about this subject.
    2. Post suggestions on what strategies concerned parents in Japan can employ to highlight this issue and make a dent in the monstrous task of reshaping education in Japan.

    Looking forward joining the challenge!

  7. January 20, 2009 9:33 pm

    Just came across this letter/ article that might interest you:

  8. January 21, 2009 8:20 am

    Thanks everyone for your comments. There’s certainly food for thought. Thanks, Tony, for that link. That might be the first place to send something. Then look into a translation.

  9. March 10, 2009 12:59 pm

    Awesome post dude!! I’m on the front lines of the battle since I have my own little School.

    Great post!! Best I’ve ever seen on the current “State of Affairs”

  10. March 10, 2009 1:01 pm

    By the way….I just added you to my Blog roll. hope that’s O.K. with you.

  11. Denis C. permalink
    March 2, 2011 12:41 am

    China has english TV news since i don’t know when…….as if it matters!!!!
    Japanese pronunciation is awful because they just cant imitate what the teachers say? Maybe…but what about:
    1- lets face it….australian and british pronunciation dont help that much;
    2- japanese english teachers…..well, read the question (japanese english teacher….come on!);
    3- lack of music, videos and all the other things that you all know is crucial.

    OK, i can seat back and say i agree with the beautiful lecture about how bad english education is in Japan…but believe me, the japanese culture is a bigger obstacle when it comes to learning english.
    I already met japanese dudes, big time lawyers, that went to the United States, studied at remarkable universities there, brought back the wonderful diplom and believe me, they still speak english like L and TH sounds never existed.

  12. John A F Hopkins permalink
    December 14, 2013 9:51 pm

    The big problem with English teaching in Japan is that virtually no-one realises that language is oral-aural. Writing is a completely separate issue, on which the Japanese system is hooked.

  13. John A F Hopkins permalink
    December 14, 2013 9:58 pm

    to Denis C.: have you never heard of the British Commonwealth? With its 2 billion English speakers? E.g. Kenya, where your president’s father comes from? By contrast, USS media-style pronunciation is useless in Japan. Americans Go Home !

  14. John A F Hopkins permalink
    December 14, 2013 10:00 pm

    BTW, “English education” is NOT English. Sounds more like a transliteration of the Japanese “Eigo kyôiku”.

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