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Sunday, Sept. 1, 2002

MEDIA MIX

Hitting English language-learning overdrive


The Japanese media is in the middle of another of its sporadic English-language learning frenzies, which, this time, seems to have been sparked by an Education Ministry decision to promote English conversation lessons in public elementary schools.

News photo
SMAP's Shingo Katori (right) calls the shots during the English-learning portion of TV Asahi's popular "SmaStation" show.

NHK has taken this directive to heart with "Eigorian," an English-language learning show aimed specifically at kids. Broadcast weekday mornings at 11 on NHK's educational channel, "Eigorian," which started two years ago, has become the standard-bearer in NHK's campaign to kick into gear its children's programming, which is partly stuck in manual mode (i.e. adults in animal costumes singing silly songs).

Within its limited scope of teaching a foreign language to people who are still learning their native tongue, it's a lively and colorful 15 minutes, usually sticking to one theme (body parts, simple commands) but with enough variety to keep kids interested.

NHK has expanded its English-teaching mission in other ways. There are special nighttime installments of "Eigorian" aimed at elementary-level instructors of English. Professional English-conversation teachers offer tips on making lessons fun and effective for young children. Such tips include, of course, using the "Eigorian" program and its related texts in class.

The public broadcaster also airs a show called "Eigo de Shabera Night," a pun on the Japanese phrase shaberanai-to, which means "must talk."

The program is aimed at adults, and downplays grammar and usage (you can get those on the traditional English conversation and business English shows) in favor of a "philosophy" for language learning. In other words, the program means to undo what, for many people, has been a lifetime of bad English-learning practices.

The protagonists of "Shabera Night" are NHK announcer Katsuya Matsumoto and gaijin tarento Patrick Harlan, a Harvard grad who has made a name for himself here as a Japanese-language comedian. Patrick is guiding Matsumoto-san to English proficiency by telling him he "has to speak . . . fearlessly."

Fear, in fact, is the unofficial theme of the show, since it is seen as the main obstacle to effective English acquisition. And while anyone who has ever taught English in Japan will agree that this is true, there's something potentially self-defeating about predicating a language-learning TV show on behavior modification.

A similar idea props up the English-learning portion of TV Asahi's popular "SmaStation" (Saturday 11:30 p.m.), a live program hosted by SMAP member Shingo Katori.

With its celebrity guests and cutting-edge visual style, "SmaStation" aims "to get young people more interested in current affairs."

But old programming habits die hard, and the show's main features are built around competition. In one segment, Katori and that week's guest test each other's knowledge of current news stories. In the show's most popular segment, Katori and the guest are quizzed on their knowledge of English phrases. Called "Bera Bera English," the segment has already spawned a best-selling English handbook.

The phrases are useful, but within the context of the show they seem arbitrary. The segment's value is mainly as entertainment, since it shows us celebrities squirming as they try to come up with acceptable English translations.

"Bera Bera English," like "Shabera Night," treats language learning as chiefly a ganbaru pastime, something that, despite all the lip service lent to "enjoyment," requires hard work and an iron will.

There's no denying that learning to speak a foreign language, especially later in life, is a difficult undertaking, but by presenting it first and foremost as a "challenge," it turns into a stunt, especially when it's presented that way on TV.

Another thing that's different about the current eigo boom is the utilization of celebrities.

The bookstores are filled with relatively useless phrasebooks "written" by famous English speakers (Dewi Sukarno has one that will teach you how to speak English to royalty), and even NHK uses celebrities on "Shabera Night." As with "SmaStation," the purpose seems to be to display a hardworking but recognizable model.

But if that's the purpose, then some celebrities are better models than others. Katori, who is only 25, has been an idol for at least a decade, which means he probably only graduated from junior high school. The ganbaru spirit he demonstrates while learning about English and current events has an edge to it. (Subtextual tie-in: He's currently appearing in a series of TV spots for a cram school in which he plays an earnest home tutor -- minus the bleach job he sports on "SmaStation," of course.)

NHK prefers pedigree. On one installment of "Shabera Night," actress Rei Kikukawa put her own English ability to the test by preparing to interview her hero, Tom Cruise, at a Tokyo movie premiere. Kikukawa's main sales point is not so much glamour as glamour combined with a degree from the University of Tokyo. (Subtextual bonus: Kikukawa was one of the women considered for the lead in "Memoirs of a Geisha," which, according to one rumor, director Steven Spielberg abandoned because he couldn't find a Japanese actress he could communicate with.)

On the show, Kikukawa practiced with a private teacher and received interviewing hints from Patrick. Thus, when her big moment came and Cruise was steered in her direction at the premiere, she didn't choke. She also didn't say anything interesting, but we're talking about Tom Cruise here, so there was at least parity on that level.



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