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Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2010

JUST BE CAUSE

Don't blame JET for Japan's poor English


The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, touted as the world's largest cultural exchange scheme, has brought thousands of non-Japanese into the country to teach at local boards of education. These days, with many government programs being told to justify their existence, a debate is raging over whether JET should be left as is, cut or abolished entirely.

Essentially, the two main camps argue: a) keep JET, because it gives outback schools more contact with "foreign culture" (moreover, it gives Japan a means of projecting "soft power" abroad); versus b) cut or abolish JET — it's wasteful, bringing over generally untrained and sometimes unprofessional kids, and offers no measurable benefit (see Japan's bottom-feeding TOEFL test scores in Asia).

The debate, however, needs to consider: 1) JET's misconstrued mandate, and 2) Japan's psychotic — yes, psychotic — system of language teaching.

First, when critics point to Japan's bad English, bear in mind that ESL (English as a Second Language) instruction was not JET's foremost aim. According to JET's official goals in both English and Japanese:

"The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme aims to promote grass roots internationalisation at the local level by inviting young overseas graduates to assist in international exchange and foreign language education in local governments, boards of education and elementary, junior and senior high schools throughout Japan. It seeks to foster ties between Japanese citizens (mainly youth) and JET participants at the person-to-person level."

Thus the "E" in JET does not stand for "English"; it stands for "exchange." So when the goal is more "fostering ties," we get into squidgy issues of "soft power." Like "art appreciation" (view an artwork, exclaim "I appreciate it" and you pass the class), just putting people together — regardless of whether there is any measurable outcome (e.g., test scores, pen pals, babies) — is an "exchange." Seat youths next to each other and watch them stare. Goal accomplished.

Under a mandate this vague, what are JET teachers here to do? Teach a language? The majority of JETs aren't formally trained to be language teachers, and even if they were, it's unclear what they should be doing in class because — and I quote JET officials — "every situation is different." Exchange culture? Uhh . . . where to start?

But the bigger point is that Japan's low English level is not the JET program's fault. So whose fault is it? Well, after more than two decades' experience in the industry, I posit that language teaching in Japan suffers from a severe case of group psychosis.

Start with the typical Japanese eigo classroom environment: Sensei clacks away at the chalkboard teaching English as if it were Latin. You get some pronunciation help, but mostly tutelage is in grammar, grammar, grammar — since that is the aspect most easily measurable through tests.

Now add the back-beat of Japan's crappy social science: Sensei and textbooks reinforce an image that speaking to foreigners is like a) speaking to a separate breed of human or animal, where "everything is different from us" and "we must study people as things," or b) attending an international summit, where both sides are cultural emissaries introducing allegedly unique aspects of their societies. This puts enormous pressure on students to represent something and perform as if on a stage (instead of seeing communication as a simple interaction like, say, passing the salt).

Moreover, thanks to the tendency here towards rote-learning perfectionism, mistakes are greeted with ridicule and shame. Yet mistakes are inevitable. It hardly needs saying, but communication is not algebra, with people behaving like numbers generating correct answers. Languages are illogical, have dialects and embellishments, and evolve to the point where grammatical structures that were once incorrect (such as making "gift" and "friend" into verbs) are no longer such. Just when, by George, you think you've got it, up pop exceptions — and Charlie Brown gets laughed back to his desk.

Then consider all the pressure on the Japanese teacher, who's grown from scared student to scarred Sensei. The obvious problem with him teaching English like Latin comes when an actual Roman shows up (in this case thanks to JET) and speaks at variance with Sensei, giving students a snickering revenge as a defensive Sensei flubs his lines. So the incentive becomes "make sure native speakers only work within the qualification (and comfort) level of Sensei" — meaning that instead of teaching content, genki JETs provide comic relief and make the class "fun." Once the fun is over, however, we wheel the human tape recorder out of the classroom and get back to passing tests.

Ah, well. Sensei went through the eigo boot camp of belittlement and embarrassment. So did his sensei. So that's what gets used on the next crop of gakusei. Then the system becomes generational.

And pathological. What kind of school subject involves hectoring its students? Obviously one improperly taught. If you teach adults, take a survey of your own class (I do every year) and you'll find that a majority of students fear, if not loathe, English. Many would be perfectly happy never again dealing with the language — or the people who might speak it. Thus eigo as an educational practice is actually fostering antisocial behavior.

Now bring in the vicious circle: "We Japanese can't speak English." Many Japanese do survive eigo boot camp, enjoy English, and get good at it. They pop up occasionally as NHK anchors doing overseas interviews, or as celebrities with overseas experience. Yet where are the mentors, the templates, who can make English proficiency look possible? Stifled. Ever notice how the Japanese media keeps voicing over Japanese when they speak English proficiently, or picking apart their performance for comic value? Because eigo is not supposed to be easy — so throw up some hurdles if there's any threat of it appearing so.

Conclusion: Better to remain shy and meekly say that learning a foreign language is too difficult, so everyone feels less inadequate. The eikaiwa schools love it, making a mint out of the unconfident who, convinced they'll never overcome the barriers, settle for being "permanent beginners."

The point is, JET cannot fix — in fact, was never entrusted with fixing — Japan's fundamental mindset toward language study: the dysfunctional dynamic that forces people to hate learning a language, then exonerates them by saying nobody can learn it anyway. Untangling that would be a tall order even for trained professionals. But force that upon a JET, who comes here with an unclear mandate, has no control over class, and has a contract of only a few years before experience deepens? TOEFL scores will not budge.

For the record, this columnist (who was never a JET) is still a fan of the program. For all its flaws, JET has indeed done something important: helped Japanese "get used to" foreigners. (This shouldn't be necessary, but again, given the state of social science in Japan, blatantly fueled by stereotypes, it was probably inevitable.)

Compared to 25 years ago — and I know this because I have lived the duration in backwater Japan — there are significantly fewer stares and fingers pointed at foreigners than before. Good. Get rid of JET, however, and the eigo psychosis will force things back to the way it was, with cries of "Gaijin da!" from behind garden fences.

In sum, keep the JET program, even if it involves some cuts and tweaks. Calling for its abolition is counterproductive. Demanding that it work magic — by making Japanese enjoy learning English — is sadly beyond anyone's mandate.

Debito Arudou coauthored the "Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants." Twitter arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments on this issue to community@japantimes.co.jp


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