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Don’t speak English in Japan!

Friday October 20, 2006

John Abecasis-Phillips

?The first shall be last and the last first?, or almost: those pupils attending the A-stream senior schools in Japan and destined for university will learn English the ?grammar-translation? way, which means virtual exclusion of aural and oral skills. Often the brightest pupils can neither speak nor understand English when they hear it, which is seldom in class from a native speaker.

It is not a question of intelligence ? quite the reverse ? but of local teaching methods hallowed for years to the frustration of all, save schools and universities relieved of the expensive chore of hiring sufficient costly foreign teachers. Or improving teacher methods. Local teachers do not need to hone their ability to ensure their pupils at school (and later students at university) can communicate in the language. It is only in the high schools for pupils who will not go to university that a more relaxed and sensible approach to teaching English is adopted: pupils are encouraged to speak English.

The current debate about introducing English into primary schools, which is being won in favour of the language, seems arcane when the brightest of those children, later destined for university, will have to rely on teaching at primary, and later junior and middle school, but never during senior high school, to practise using the language to communicate with foreigners. Add the problem of locally produced textbooks geared to grammar-translation and one understands why some highly educated Japanese professionals effectively cannot communicate in English. They know the grammar backwards, can translate back into Japanese and read English ? slowly, automatically, mentally translating it into Japanese but, significantly, the skill of summarising is not taught in school. It?s back to square one: grammar-translation!

Education ministers come and go preaching more effective teaching methods, local pundits ? expatriate as well as local ? urge reform and so-called Jet Scheme teachers, usually pedagogically untrained gap-year students, undoubtedly do valuable work under the watchful eye of local teachers. Change comes slowly in fits and starts. Some enlightened universities either introduce oral exams as part of the entrance drama or make an English exam optional. Wise parents send their children to language schools so that their children at least get the sound of the language.

English is primarily viewed as a teaching and not a learning problem. The pupil, later student, comes last, but last of all comes English! I used to ask my first-year students if their liked English. Most wrote ?No!? and gave as reasons ?grammar and difficult words?, but, and this was the pathetic part, would sometimes add ?but I would like to speak English with foreigners?. And this after learning English for six years.

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