Category Archives: Japanese school life

Diligently, pedantically, reluctantly

New CrownWhen I first lived in China, I remember often meeting people who spoke impressively fluent English. On a train, walking down a street, at an ‘English Corner’ where people went to practise their English together, I met people who had studied for years, often on their own, who were keen to speak English and were eager to share opinions. I heard people speak with enthusiasm about Voice of America radio programmes, and was sometimes perplexed to be asked to speak ‘Special English’, which was VOA’s slowed-down version of the language for students of English. I remember on at least one occasion meeting someone who told me I was the first native speaker they had spoken to. And yet their English was very good; fluent, confident and accurate.

Then I came to Japan, and was perplexed to find how little English was spoken here, despite the many years of English classes in junior and senior high school which everyone receives. I began my English-teaching career in Japan at a language school, teaching little kids the name of every animal under the sun, a range of shouty toddler verbs (point! touch! run!) and not much grammatical glue to hold everything together. On the days when I wasn’t teaching little kids, I taught English to adults. They seemed to enjoy the classes but it was more a hobby, a social activity than an intellectual endeavour. It was fun, it was a lovely introduction to Japan, but it wasn’t like any approach to language study that I had ever encountered before.

After two years at the language school, my next job was at a private high school, and for the last twenty years that is the teaching environment I have found myself in. It is something I know well, but I also know the limitations and the frustrations. The challenges of teaching English in Japan have been written about many times, the apparently never-ending supply of weird and wacky English often posted online. I do it myself.  So it was with some sighing and eye-rolling that I approached an article the Japan Times published several weeks ago, titled, ‘English fluency hopes rest on an educational overhaul’. That old chestnut.

At the heart of the discussion are always the questions, why is the standard of English so low in general, when students spend so much time studying English? Why can’t Japanese people speak better English? And what’s up with all the weird stuff? People unfamiliar with the Japanese education system make the mistake of assuming that English is studied as a language, as a form of communication, that the goal in learning this language must be to be able to express yourself and communicate effectively. Those people are wrong.

The study of English in Japanese schools has always been primarily with one specific goal; to be able to pass entrance exams and enter university. All teaching methods, all textbooks are influenced by this one aim. All the private universities set their own exams, but for the national universities there is the Centre Test, a weekend-long marathon of tests administered around the middle of January and taken by all students hoping to enter a public university. The English component of the entrance exams, both private and the Centre Test, is heavily influenced by TOEFL and TOEIC, with lots of multiple choice questions. There is very little requirement to manipulate the language, and unless you are interviewing to major in English you probably won’t have to speak English either.

To do well in these exams, you need to study English grammar to a very high level, and learn a lot of very long words. In the teaching of this grammar, I have heard Japanese colleagues breaking down sentences into types, in a way I am unfamiliar with. It is rather like the classification of species. There are books of very long words, archaic and ridiculously formal, which must be memorised, but the lists are so random I wonder how anyone focuses. The idea of learning anything by lexical set is an alien concept.

This brings me to another aspect of the Japanese education system which emphasises a skill which I remember being actively discouraged from at school: memorisation. Of course, at school I had to study vocabulary, learn grammar rules, but memorisation, the rote learning of something simply to be able to regurgitate it exactly, that was not part of my education. It is a skill that Japanese students need to develop, and the amount of information they assimilate in this way is impressive. Somewhere in junior high school all students memorise all the countries in Africa. For a test. After the test they forget it again. The same goes for vocabulary tests. Memorise it, regurgitate it, next.

One method that Japanese English teachers use to encourage students to develop this skill is the memorising of chunks of English text. This has the unfortunate consequence of having the students focus on the memorising to the exclusion of all else, including pronunciation, which becomes garbled. But the student passes the ‘speaking test’ (which is really no such thing) and the idea that pronunciation is not so important is somehow planted in their minds. Another unintended consequence of this studying to such a high level, is that students are reluctant to speak because they feel unable to manipulate such complicated language, when the reality is, no one uses language at that level unless writing a formal letter or making a speech.

In all this, the teachers are trapped as much as the students. They teach from textbooks approved by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (文部科学省 Monbu-kagaku-shō), also known as MEXT, or Monka-shō, the Ministry formally known as Monbushō. While they seem to have a lot of time allotted for English classes, the amount of material they are expected to cover means that there is no time to review previous lessons, there is just one headlong dash through grammar and vocabulary at dizzying speed. It produces pressure and stress and a lot of people who really don’t like English. But it’s a means to an end, and that end is a university career that can affect the rest of your life.

Despite all this pressure, there are students who are enthusiastic about English. Travel and technology have made English more accessible, relevant and interesting. I have known many students who love English, who enjoy the challenge of communication, who somehow manage to juggle the demands of the academic study of English with their determination to speak, to write and to be themselves in another language.

Although the current state of English in Japan is largely due to the requirements of the educational system, I do wonder about these pronouncements that Japan is going to improve the overall level of English. I wonder for several reasons:

While the stated aim is to improve English ability, the approach can be haphazard. Having declared that children in elementary schools would begin learning English, elementary school teachers were required to start teaching – despite the fact that they are not trained teachers of English, often don’t speak English, and are just a step or two ahead of their students in what the lessons cover. More animals, the fruit and vegetables of the world and probably some verbs for good measure. Oh, and some greetings, such as ‘How are you?’ – ‘I’m fine, thank you.’ Everyone is always fine.

These regular articles about Japan needing to improve the level of English spoken by its people raise questions about Japan and where it sees itself on the international stage. Why do successive governments make these pronouncements? If they want to really change the system, they need to start with the university entrance exams. Nothing changes without them. Is English the language Japan needs? China is a near neighbour, as is South Korea. Why are those languages not taught more?  What is Japan going to do if it achieves its improved English? Just as in the UK, where very few public figures are ever heard speaking another language (though Tony Blair did like to pontificate in French sometimes), Japanese people don’t have many role models when it comes to just having a go and trying to communicate. I sometimes wonder if talking about it and tinkering with the system is just a way of making it seem like something is being done.


Graduation Day

Graduation Day is a milestone in any student’s life, and a great occasion at any school, and today it was our turn. For the students, of course, it is a day of very mixed emotions; the joy of graduating, and the sadness of saying goodbye to the school, their friends and teachers. For the teachers, it’s a formal day, but also a day to celebrate with the students as they come to the end of their school career.

Attire is formal, which in Japan means black, very dark grey or, at a pinch, navy. For men, that translates to a black suit, white shirt and white (or pale and discreet) tie. For women, a black suit, pearls and maybe a corsage. We were ready in the school auditorium by 9:45, and the ceremony started at 10. Since it’s a Christian school, its official title is Service of Thanksgiving and Graduation Ceremony, complete with hymns and prayers.

We started with a hymn and prayers, a psalm (the 23rd) and a reading from the Bible (1st Corinthians Ch.12), then the Choir sang an anthem. Next was my favourite part of the ceremony; the reading of an account of the school’s history, the names of our Founder and first principal, and the total number of graduates over our long history. (This year we are celebrating 125 years, so it is a very long history.) The first graduating class was only one student, but this year (as every year now) there were over 160 and in 125 years there have been over 10,000. This year the account was especially touching and beautifully written.

Then came the most important part; each student received her graduation certificate. It took about 45 minutes for them all to go up to the stage one by one, and was lovely to see each student one final time, and to think about how each one has grown in six years. After that we sang the school song and there were speeches; the principal, the invited speaker, and then an 11th grader wished the graduating class on their way. Finally, there were Speeches of Thanks in Japanese and then English.

Finally, the students (the graduating class plus the 10th and 11th graders who are there to share the occasion) stood to sing the Hallelujah Chorus, we had some prayers and another hymn, and it was over. The new graduates filed out, followed by the invited guests and senior staff, and then the students clambered onto precarious-looking stands to take commemorative photos.

We teachers retreated to the staffroom, where we scavenged for food in the kitchen and wondered when lunch would be. Once the mothers and students had finished their preparations, a delegation was dispatched to the staffroom to summon us to the sports hall. The mothers sat together, and the students and staff (teaching, office and ancillary) sat together at the remaining tables. More speeches, and then the Chaplain said grace, and we could open our boxed lunches. For me, this year, it was an unpleasant surprise, since I don’t eat meat and it was almost all beef and steak. Even the sushi was steak! I quickly shared out the meaty bits to the students around me and ate the remaining rice and fish.

There were more speeches; from the Old Girls’ Association and the PTA, both accompanied by presentations of gifts to the new graduates. The head teacher of the 12th grade made a speech, and then it was announced that there was an addition to the programme. A small group of about eight students came to the front, carrying descant and tenor recorders, said that they hoped we would find their performance relaxing,and tooted their way through a very pretty tune. Then we were back to the published programme, and the whole graduating class stood around the hall to sing two songs in what amounted to surround sound for the mothers and staff sitting at the tables. The songs were rather sentimental, and by the end of the second one a number of girls were crying, but still singing and smiling through their tears. There was a half-hearted attempt to sway with the music, but different clusters of girls swayed in opposite directions, leaving other parts of the long line not knowing which way to sway. It was almost the end of the ceremony. The vice principal spoke and then it was time to put all the remains of our lunch in a carrier bag and leave the hall. We walked back to the staffroom and by 3:30 it was all over.

I’ve worked at the same school for fifteen years, so I have seen a lot of these ceremonies. We even managed to keep going and have one two years ago, only four days after the Great East Japan Earthquake. It’s a formal day and with hours spent sitting on folding chairs listening to a lot of speeches it’s not something I look forward to with unmitigated enthusiasm. But for the students it’s a hugely important day. At some time in their school careers I have taught them all, and the whole day is a very slow goodbye to them. I didn’t cry today, but do feel emotional when I teach them for the last time and think about all the adventures and opportunities that lie ahead for them.

I am deliberately not naming the school, but I wanted to include a photo. What struck me today was the joy of all the students, how much they have enjoyed their six years at school, and how much they will miss each other. Japanese teenagers are more childlike than their British and American counterparts, and sometimes, even in the senior high school, can be endearingly goofy. We spell out the name of the school in pansies in a flowerbed at the top of the drive, the students will happily compete in a quiz and get excited about stickers, and this is a reasonable get-up for fund-raising at the annual Bazaar:

studentsCongratulations to all the students who graduated today!