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Sunday, March 31, 2002

How to teach the teachers to teach?

Staff writer

To Doreen Simmons, who for more than 20 of her 28 years in Japan has been an editor in the International Affairs Department of the Diet, the idea of Japan adopting English as its second official language sounds "totally unrealistic."

News photo
Doreen Simmons

The idea would make a lot more sense to her if public figures such as Diet members and business leaders were already using the language freely. And certainly, jobs like hers -- rewriting and correcting letters and speeches translated into English for inter-parliamentary activities -- would be a lot more straightforward if the number of competent English-users increased.

But the question is, she says: "How? Realistically, how to achieve the goal?

"Where are you going to get the English teachers from?" continues Simmons, who is also a special adviser to the Foreign Press Center, Japan. "Teachers brought up in this system can only teach what they were taught. To realize the goal of making English the second official language, they would have to learn a completely new approach."

She also points out that English is hardly required as a tool of communication in Japan. "Because people don't need it in their daily lives, that's another reason I can't see that English as the second official language is going to happen."

Though an advisory panel to the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi suggested two years ago that 21st-century Japan should adopt English as its second language, Simmons argues that without drastic reforms in the methods of English-learning here, that lofty goal will remain merely a "castle in the air."

Indeed, Japan has a deep-seated problem with English teaching: Nearly everyone studies the language for about six years in high school -- but few are competent using it and only a handful ever attain fluency. In Simmons' opinion, this is simply because the way they are taught it is wrong.

Backing the argument, she says she is often impressed by her Japanese colleagues' command of other foreign languages, such as French, Chinese, Polish and so on. "Always, their third language is so much better than their English. Why? Because they have learned it properly. They have been taught by native speakers who know their job."

With five years' experience in Japan as a qualified teacher of English as a foreign language, Simmons says that Japanese teachers are too "descriptive" when they teach the language.

"They are talking about the language and the grammar in Japanese," instead of actually using English in the classroom. And they teach their students how to select "one correct answer" to fit the exam questions -- despite the fact that each word, for example, may have numerous meanings, and memorizing just one of them doesn't help someone to learn the language, she says.

It sounds basic. But this simple ingredient has been absent from the English education system in Japan. Unless and until Japan revises its teaching methods, Simmons says, English as the second language "will remain only an unrealistic slogan."

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