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Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2004

THE ZEIT GIST

Freedom of speech

'Tainted blood' sees 'foreign' students barred from English contests


Consider this: You are a student in a Japanese J.H.S. Your native language may or may not be Japanese, but you are learning English as a second language like everyone else.

You have enough of a knack to become the best in the class, then the best in your school. Emboldened, your teacher encourages you to enter a national English speech contest. You then win the regionals. Suddenly, a tripwire.

Officials: "It has come to our attention that you have foreign blood. You are hereby disqualified." Sound far-fetched? This happened in 2002 to a Chinese student in Aomori who entered the "Takamadonomiya All Japan Junior High School English Speech Contest," Japan's largest English-language competition.

A prestigious event, name-sponsored by the late Prince Takamado, its goal is: "To create an internationally rich youth culture, both proficient in English and widely popular (sic), which aims to develop Japanese culture and contribute to international relations."

Yet its disqualifiers are oddly xenophobic: Rule 3: "If any of your parents or grandparents are foreigners (including naturalized Japanese) in principle you are excluded." Rule 2a: "If you are born in a foreign country and have stayed abroad past your 5th birthday," and; 2b: "If after your 5th birthday you have lived in a foreign country for over a total of one year, or if you have lived in a foreign country over a continuous six-month period," you may not enter the contest.

The organizers seemed to have forgotten that not all foreigners speak English.

In fact, few registered foreigners in Japan do. Most learn English as a second language -- including that Aomori Chinese student.

Moreover, disqualifying people with overseas roots (including Japanese children of international families) illogically assumes a linguistic advantage from foreign blood.

After protests, the organizers of Takamado, the Japan National Student Association, replied (in English) on Oct. 22, 2002:

"In order for the devastated Japan to make a fresh start for a democratic country, we determined to educate young Japanese for the English language as an international language . . . In future, we may further modify the terms and conditions of the Contest as time goes. However, we want to maintain the present regulations for the time being. (sic)"

Inertia at the top trickles down. Consider another case in Hokkaido.

Susumu and Linda Takiyama have lived in Tokachi for 15 years as an international couple. Their daughter, a native-born speaker of Japanese, attends Japanese junior high like any other Japanese -- and undergoes their English curriculum and events.

In preparation for the All-Hokkaido English Recitation Contest, the school devoted classroom time and summer holidays to memorizing chapters of English textbooks.

The Takiyamas' daughter won the contest. However, she was disqualified afterwards by her teacher in front of her whole class, because her "mother is a foreigner."

This also happened to a Mongolian student in a nearby town.

Yet the winner of a local contest in Obihiro, Hokkaido, whose father is American, was not barred from the regionals -- showing how arbitrarily the rules are enforced.

The Takiyamas took this up with various Boards of Education. The BOEs answered that the rules were beyond their control, since the contest organizer is a private organization.

But then why is a public education system devoting so much class time to a private event? Demurrer.

Then the BOEs invoked almighty precedent: The renowned Takamado English Contest has the same rules. So there. The issue reached an impasse, and local protests by other annoyed parents nationwide began gathering steam.

Time out.

Admittedly, this topic is less clearly an issue of "discrimination" than, say, a restaurant refusing service to all foreigners. After all, a strong case can be made that having an English-speaking parent increases one's exposure to the language, thus giving the student an advantage.

But remember, this is not what the rules enforce. Excluded is anyone with foreign lineage dating back three generations. Not English-language-related lineage. Foreign. As if all foreigners are automatically better at English than Japanese are, and "foreign" blood alone provides a linguistic advantage.

Also, don't forget we are dealing with the phenomenon of language learning -- a tough topic to sweep generalizations upon. Not only do we have loose ways of judging whether people are actually any "good at it," we still don't know exactly how people actually learn a language. Is it rote, exposure, recitation, repetition, needs-based, etc., or a combination thereof?

In any case, having a foreign parent (or grandparent) does not guarantee all these learning methods will be utilized.

In fact, surprisingly few international families formally teach their kids much beyond "kitchen English." Without more formal instruction in school, they rarely reach a level required for public speaking on more complex issues.

The point is that these contest rules are a very blunt instrument for social stratification.

Japan has around 40,000 international marriages every year, and most of their children become native speakers of Japanese. Result: a lot of Japanese kids are investing education time preparing for English contests which refuse them. Which means some get discouraged at an impressionable age from developing an important ability.

And don't forget these rules affect "pure-blooded" Japanese students too. As mentioned above, those overseas for "extended periods" of as little as six months are also barred. Yet rich families sending their kids to domestic English schools from an early age get admitted.

Consequently, and ironically, Japan's English-language contests are excluding those people who might be any good.

Given Japan's consistently low English scores on international tests, this is counterproductive. Banned are students who could raise the bar.

The solution? I say form leagues for all students of English as a Second Language. Perhaps one contest for beginners, one for nonbeginners (both with similar restrictions on entry based on English -- not "foreign" background), and one completely open to anyone doing ESL.

Stop excluding children interested in learning English from an outlet for their talents.

It does an internationalizing Japan no good.



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