When 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.