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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

HOTLINE TO NAGATACHO

Look overseas to address Japan's lag in English ability


By NAJMA JANJUA
Takamatsu, Kagawa Pref.

Dear education ministry,

The article titled "Shame over poor English level lies with education ministry" by Mikine Dezaki (Hotline to Nagatacho, Jan. 20) succinctly summed up the stark reality of Japanese high school English-language education. Indeed, Japanese study English for six years in high school and at least another two years upon entering college, and yet most cannot use it for communication. In contrast, in most other countries around the world where English is not the native language and where it is taught as a foreign language, at least those with a college degree can speak the language with ease. In developed non-English countries in Europe more than 80 percent of the population can now speak English. It is a great irony that Japan, despite being a modern, developed country, remains a nation where not just a high school graduate but even an otherwise highly educated person cannot speak the global language that has become a lingua franca and a window to the world.

Why should it be that Japan lags behind the rest of the world in the English-language proficiency of its people? What could the systems of English education in other non-native English countries have that is lacking in the Japanese system? Comparisons of English teaching methods and tools used at Japanese high schools with those used in other non-native countries point to serious and fundamental flaws in the Japanese system.

First, with respect to teaching methods, Japan is probably the only nation in the world where one can have an entire English lesson conducted 100 percent in the country's native language. In most other countries where English is taught as a foreign language, while the teacher may use the mother tongue of the students in part, never is it the case that not even a single word of English is spoken during the entire class, a reality that I have personally observed in the Japanese English classroom. Although it is said that in recent years more English is being used in the classroom, in the vast majority of the high school classes taught by Japanese teachers, Japanese remains the medium of instruction.

Second, concerning the teaching tools, of which textbooks are the most crucial, Japan seems to be the only country in the world where high school English-language textbooks are full of the native language of the learners. Japanese language in high school textbooks is used for various explanations and also for giving commands and instructions for what the students are required to do in a given section. Never has this author encountered a Japanese high school textbook where the learners are given a command or instruction in English. In comparison, high school English textbooks from other non-English countries such as China, France, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia contain absolutely no Chinese, French, Urdu or Arabic, respectively, and give all commands and instructions in English alone.

As a result of the use of such methods and tools, Japanese high school students are not accustomed to hearing English or to being given commands in English to do specific tasks. It should be no surprise then that they cannot understand, speak or respond in a language that they never hear or are not taught to use for communication. It is difficult to imagine how those of you in the Japanese education ministry in charge of the high school English education portfolio can be completely oblivious to such fundamental considerations in foreign language teaching. It would be very naive on the part of any educator involved in devising a system of oral communication-based EFL education to believe that the teaching methods and tools used in Japan could serve to achieve their objective.

The ministry of education needs to reform the teaching of English at Japanese high schools in a rational and scholarly manner. In doing so, the ministry should look at the systems of other non-English countries where English is taught as a foreign language in a very different — and a lot more effective — way than in Japan.

Submissions to Hotline to Nagatacho should address issues that affect your life in Japan or be in response to government policies. Please imagine you are actually writing to a government official — be it a local school board head or the prime minister himself — to bring attention to an important matter. Send submissions of between 500 and 700 words to community@japantimes.co.jp


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