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English Education In Japan

WRITTEN BY: Tim Matheson     ADDED: Mar 16, 2012





It was a hot, steamy day in the summer of 1976 when I got my first taste of English here. I was walking along one of the streets of Osaka when a young voice called out loud and clear: "A, B, C!" I looked over to the other side of the street where a small group of uniformed junior high school boys were standing, smiling and waving. The brave one continued to enlighten me with: "This is a pen! I am a boy!" And I must say that even though he wasn't displaying a pen of any kind he did look just like a boy.

At first I thought this very strange because I had believed the Japanese to be very quiet and reserved. Also, what made him think that I could understand English? I am obviously not Japanese, but I could have just as easily been from France or Germany. Anyway, I smiled and waved and went on my way, noticing that he was receiving high praise from his schoolmates. After all, he had gotten the attention of a real live foreigner by using real English, probably learned that very day.

This was to become, I soon learned, a common occurrence. Girls never did this, and boys walking alone or in pairs never seemed to have sufficient courage to give it a try; but when I saw three or more of them together notice me I knew that I was in for some more freshly-acquired, grammar-book English. Sadly, the only thing I ever heard was, "This is a pen! I am a boy!" or, once in a while, something even braver — something that sounded like "I am me, you are you, he is him, and she is her!" Fascinating, huh? I discovered later that these were set phrases found in their grammar books which were repeatedly drilled in order to familiarize students with the fundamentals of English sentence structure.

One of the worst things that Japan's Ministry of Education has done to English education is approve textbooks which include katakana as a pronunciation guide. Katakana is one of 4 "alphabets" used in Japan, primarily to make noises in comic books and write foreign words and names. Unfortunately, it also does an effective job of teaching children how not to pronounce English correctly. No katakana exist which can accurately represent sounds like r, l, th, f, v, and many of our vowels, so the closest ones are used. This results in having all these kids memorizing "Japanese English," a brand of English that is incomprehensible to native English speakers. Coffee becomes cohhee; dog, dohggu; cat, kyahtto; and hot, hohtto. Unfortunately, these kids think they're learning English while actually learning a unique form of English only known in Japan.

To cite one good example of how great a disservice this is to students, once while on a homestay program with a group of students in California a perplexed student came to me and said, "I went to a carnival with my host family yesterday, and when I tried to order a hotdog at a food stand the man couldn't understand me."

"What did you say?" I asked.

"'A hohtto dohggu pleazu,' and even though I repeated it 3 or 4 times he couldn't understand."

"Well," I explained, "It's simple. All you have to do is say 'a hotdog, please' and forget all that katakana English they taught you in junior high."

The Ministry of Education has made English a mandatory subject for all junior high and high school students, but grammar and sentence structures are taught in an analytical way, more like a science than a living language, and correct pronunciation doesn't really matter. If you looked at the pages of a typical English grammar book, you will see equations that look like they would be more at home in a book on chemistry. Additionally, too many English teachers here have insufficient ability when it comes down to real conversation, and probably would not have done much better ordering a hotdog than the student mentioned above. That's because "English theory" is emphasized instead of actual communication.

To be fair, the Ministry has begun a program which has for several years brought native English speakers to Japan to help in the English classes at junior high and high schools. These contracted "English helpers" stay in Japan 2 or 3 years and do what they can to add an international flavor while letting Japanese kids hear what real English sounds like. However, the total hours of actual practice and exposure are just not enough. Many students can show a fair knowledge of the written language, but their conversation ability is very poor when you consider that they've had 6 years of English classes.

This becomes a source of great frustration to host families when these kids go abroad on programs like homestay. The families receive an introductory letter from their student written in very understandable English. Then, when that anticipated day of arrival finally comes, they are baffled that their student could write so well, but speak so little. The reason is simple: a certain knowledge of English — not practical ability — is what's necessary to get through the present school system here in Japan.

I would like to relate a story here that illustrates this, and made me really realize that Japan is in serious trouble concerning English education, but first I'll need to explain a little bit about the "school life" (as they call it here) of young students.

One nice thing about Japan is the fact that it is relatively easy to make extra money on the side as a home teacher or tutor. Housewives do it, college students do it, and foreigners can do it. This is made possible because mothers here are, to a ridiculous degree, very competition conscious when it comes to what their kids are learning compared with the neighbors'. These kyoiku mamas (education mothers) start their kids in some extra-curricular class from a very young age. Swimming, penmanship, calligraphy, abacus — these are just a few of the popular evening classes that are available in just about any neighborhood. And just try to find a girl who has not taken piano lessons. With a little talent, a little space, and by knowing the right people, just about anyone can set up a specialized class in their home because of the high demand.

When kids start junior high (middle school) here, emphasis is placed on keeping test scores high in order to get into a decent high school. Kids just don't go to the high school nearest their home, they compete for a place at their "target high school" much like students in other countries compete and work to get into a desired university program. Many qualified women provide prep classes in their homes to help students keep up with the game and prepare for high school entry. Since everything is so standardized in the Japanese system, thousands of women throughout the country know just how to teach these "exam strategy" lessons so that their students can pass the next one. And they make good, tax-free money doing it, without ever stepping outside their house.

On with the story:

Many years ago I started teaching English a few hours a week in the evenings to kids in the neighborhood. Word spread, and before long most of my weekday nights were booked from 6:30 to 9:00. Then I had to start turning people down. (I'm not a workaholic, or perhaps I could have retired by now. That, or be staring at a wall in a mental institution.) When I had new students come in, I'd emphasize the fact that I teach conversational English, not "test English." I told them that the English they learned from me would be helpful if they ever went abroad, or spoke to a native speaker in Japan, which is quite different from the English they would be getting in school.

As is usual, one of my students quit my class after graduating from elementary school so he could start attending a "high school prep" class run by an older Japanese woman who I had heard of (and vice versa, so it seems). In her class he would learn about math tests and social studies tests and, of course, English tests; what kind of problems there would be and how to pass them. I thought this amusing since this woman could not speak English. Nevertheless, what really knocked me over was what she said to my former student on his first day there, as reported by the boy's mother to my wife: "Now, I want you to forget all that 'correct pronunciation' nonsense that Mr. Matheson taught you. I'm going to teach you the English you need to succeed in Japan." (!!!)

It was this event that really hit me like a mallet, causing me to see that the attitude towards English taught in the schools here was seriously twisted. With this kind of help it's no wonder that we have students unable to order a hotdog in spite of 6 years of English. And I believe that it's this problem of not taking English education seriously enough which allows thousands of household items to be smothered with all kinds of nonsensical English words.

Reading the English on my students' T-shirts, bags, notebooks, pencil boxes, etc., not to mention the many, many everyday household items around me, has provided much amusement over the years. At school I saw "DANCE YOUR ARSE OFF" written big on a girl's T-shirt, and could barely keep from laughing. My wife bought me a polo shirt that says "MAKE A STINK" on the label. But at least these examples are grammatically correct. Usually what you'll see here are a string of mismatched words just begging to sound cute, like "BABY RABBIT AND LITTLE DEER LIKE SUN DAYS IN PARK PICNIC" or "PATTY AND JIMMY ARE BEST FRIENDS. THEY TOGETHER ENJOY HEALTHFUL DAY."

And it doesn't stop there. Go anywhere in Japan; read anything: books, brochures, manuals, signs, billboards. It won't take any time or effort at all to find some English, and you won't be able to read very far before spotting an error, whether it's a small spelling mistake or an unnatural sentence made up of words carelessly thrown together. Why is such an effort made to show such carelessness, especially from a people who have the reputation of being just the opposite? Are there any other countries that treat the language of another in a similar fashion? I've often wondered what the Japanese would think if they went to the States or Canada and saw their own language treated the same way.

I once bought a CD here in Japan that was produced by Sony that included a lyric sheet for the vocal tunes done in English. I was absolutely dumbfounded to see all the mistakes! There were many spelling errors, even on simple words. One line was a meaningless jumble of words and letters, as if someone had the job of writing down the words to the song, but not being able to make it out, and being too lazy to check it or ask someone else with better listening comprehension abilities, just wrote down what it sounded like to him or her. Whether correct words and sentences were formed was beside the point.

One of my favorites can be found in the instruction manual that came with the equipment that my school had installed in the language lab. The manual was done in both languages, but the English was so bad in places that I found it necessary to check the Japanese just to be sure about the important points. My favorite line read, "Please be careful to spill a drop like coffee in the master console." And this isn't a dinky, two-bit operation, either. This is Matsushita Electric, better known as Panasonic, that's letting this blundered English out the door!

These two examples concern huge, international companies. You know very well that they would not let such English go free in countries where it is the language spoken. Why don't they care about the English seen here?

When the new airport here in Takamatsu was finished I went to check it out. Very nice, and no funny English. Well, almost. On my way out a little sign with an arrow caught my eye. It pointed the way to the elevator, only it said "ELEVATER." Too bad — I had been hoping for an A+. "Why?" I asked myself. Any junior high kid with a dictionary could look up and check that word in a few seconds. You'd think that people would check a foreign word before going to the trouble of silk-screening it onto a metal plate, right? Fortunately, one of my graduate students worked there and was able to report it to the right person. As far as I know, Takamatsu Airport is now free from embarrassing English.

The Japanese language is, of course, taken very seriously. You can bet that everything in Japanese is checked and proofread over and over before it finally goes to print. Isn't it strange that English is not given the same consideration?

Just one more recent example: The news program we watch in the morning has a little section about what's going on all around Asia. They call it Asia & World. Why? They could have just as easily made it Asia & The World, but no. It's by allowing stuff like this that kids will have a harder time than necessary when it comes time to learn about the article the. It takes a lot of time and effort to unlearn the mistakes which were picked up naturally by seeing and hearing them everyday. And this is NHK doing this, the government-run TV station. A conspiracy maybe?

Thankfully, there is a bright side. Though just a little bit of glitter on the horizon now, Japan is slowly thinking about more realistic English education. Pilot programs which will expose elementary kids to natural English are now in the works, and some are scheduled to start with the beginning of the new school year (April 1999). I'm happy to say that I know of one elementary school here in Takamatsu that will incorporate a very casual English program starting this year. It's about time, and I have high hopes for it. If it succeeds we should see similar programs implemented in elementary schools throughout Japan.

With internationalization becoming a well-worn buzzword and the internet accelerating connections around the world, more than ever young people here are going to need a working knowledge of real English. The Ministry can help make a positive contribution if they will look at the challenge seriously, throw away distrust, and get the help that they desperately need from those who are best qualified to give it. Then finally we'll be able to see English used for more than just a trendy promotional gimmick.

I sincerely hope that they will go forward with the programs I have heard them talk about without letting the current economical situation put a damper on things.

That's all they need to do. They've just got to want to do it.

Tim Matheson has graciously allowed Englipedia to host this article.  It's interesting to note that even though he wrote this article in 1999, much of it still applies to Japan's current English education system.



This page was last modified on Wednesday, March 19, 2014 07:06:28 PM