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Saturday, Oct. 14, 2006

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English language disaster in the making


"Hello!" said a smiling boy next to me on the train. "Well, hello," I said, startled that anyone should actually use this phrase unaccompanied by at least a giggle and at most rolling on the floor laughing.

News photo
Who needs English? AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

Because in Japan the funniest thing in the world to a Japanese student is saying hello to a foreigner. The "hello" joke is to foreigners what the "Why did the chicken cross the road?" joke is to Japanese. They just don't get it.

Why is "hello" such a funny word to Japanese? Until recently, students have been taught English as a foreign language in schools, but have never been comfortable using it. Daring to say hello to a foreigner makes non-English-speaking Japanese nervous (thus the laugh) and such communication is largely something left to the class clown.

But these days, children are learning English in elementary school and as a result are more comfortable with it and can see it as a means of communication rather than equal to barking at a dog.

"What's your name?" I asked the boy. "Yuki," he said. "Oh, nice to meet you Yuki. How old are you?" I 'm 10 o'clock," he said. "Oh, 10 years old? Cool."

Yuki was in his school uniform, along with a group of friends. "Where are you going?" He looked at his friend with a questioning look "Nandake?" I repeated "Where are you going?" to which he recalled, "Oh, Kurashiki."

Yuki's friends looked on in envy. They clearly wanted to talk to the foreigner, but were too shy. But the most amazing thing was not that a 10-year-old could carry on a conversation with a foreigner, but that he could do so while not rolling on the floor laughing. He was serious about his communication.

Bunmei Ibuki wants to change this. He's the incoming minister of education, who earned the honor of "Dick of the Week" in the Planet Japan Podcast last week.

Ibuki, in his good intentions to reform the 1947 Fundamental Law of Education, has decided that learning a foreign language is not so important for children.

He feels that Japanese students should concentrate on sharpening their Japanese speaking and writing skills before learning a foreign language. Oh pureezu!

Ibuki-san, sumimasen ga, I understand that as an LDP conservative you wish to teach conservative values, but I don't understand what this has got to do with the one hour of English per week taught in fifth and sixth grade. I no undastando.

I'll be the first one to admit that most Japanese people will never use the English they learn in school. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't study it.

Foreign languages are taught through means of music, literature and current events, things that also help shape the values children develop in school. Hora, learning a foreign language isn't just about language; it's about other cultures, values and ideas.

Part of the new patriotism the Education Ministry would like to instill is defined as one that "respects other countries and contributes to international peace and development." Ano ne, Ibuki-san, couldn't that be fostered through learning a foreign language?

After all, the only way to "worldo peace" is tolerance of other religions, counties and cultures. Language is one way to introduce these things.

I guess we should give the guy a break since he was born in 1938, so he could be excused for not knowing what is good for kids 68 years later.

And Mr. Ibuki admits he is not an expert on education. Makes you wonder why he is in the position of education minister, doesn't it?

Actually, Mr. Ibuki's full title is Head of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry. Quite a job, I'd say. Why don't they make the guy the head of just one of these organizations, where he could do as little damage as possible? Such as sports.

Oh no, not sports. Sports are so, well, international. How about science? Oh, science involves information from international journals and research etc. Technology? No, that damn Internet is dominated by English.

Culture nara? Bery gooddo! Now, there is a place Ibuki could be useful. As long as he doesn't get involved in the Visit Japan Campaign. Hmm.

The only option left is the ministry itself, where perhaps he could start a congregation of the LDP religion.

Being that Ibuki has previous experience as minister in charge of disaster prevention, I'd say he should work a little harder at trying to prevent this one. I wish you happy beautiful life Ibuki-san!



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