Professor Noriguchi at Kitakyushu University is becoming a regular
pundit on English language education in Japan. After saying not two
months ago that one problem with non-Japanese teachers is that they
stay in Japan too long (http://www.debito.org/?p=34),
he’s back again with a response to his critics (or, as he puts it,
Let me rewrite a few of Noriguchi’s points and weave in comment and
interpretation. He essentially asserts this time:
So much energy devoted to the study of English (as opposed to other
languages) is not only unneighborly, it is a reflection of a Japanese
inferiority complex towards the West.
One consequence of this much focus on English is a lot of swindling
and deception of the Japanese consumer, with bogus advertising about
the merits and the effects.
In any case, English is hardly necessary for life in Japan, so why
require it on entrance exams? Especially after all the trauma that
Japanese go through learning it.
No wonder–Japanese have a natural barrier to learning it, given the
“Japanese mentality”, the characteristics of the language, and the
homogeneity of the country.
More so than other Asian countries, he mysteriously asserts (Koreans,
for example?–and won’t the same barriers apply to other Asian
languages if the Japanese are indeed so unique?).
Meanwhile, let’s keep the door revolving on foreign English-language
educators by hiring retired teachers from overseas, who not only will
bring in more expertise and maturity, but also by design (and by
natural longevity) will not stay as long in Japan and have as much of
(NB: The last point is not his, but it’s symptomatic of Noriguchi’s
essays which throw out ideas not all that well thought through in
practice. After all, nowhere in his essay does he retract his
previous assertion that part of the problem is foreign teachers
staying here too long…)
Professor Noriguchi is reachable at
He says that most people support his views than not, so if you want
to show him differently, write him.
Now for the article:
POINT OF VIEW/ Shinichiro Noriguchi: Why the focus on English as a language skill?
SPECIAL TO THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
I unexpectedly received a number of responses to my Sept. 15 article in this column on English education in Japan. About seventy percent of the comments were favorable, 20 percent critical and 10 percent neutral. Thus emboldened, I wish to expand and clarify my views, focusing on three points: foreign language education in Japan, the English language and its relation to the Japanese people, and how I personally went about learning English.
As regards foreign language education in Japan, I wish to make two points. First, in addition to English, Japanese students should be learning Asian languages such as Chinese, Korean, Hindi, and Russian. It is imprudent as well as simply unneighborly for the Japanese government to neglect the teaching of these languages. Japan is a part of Asia, but it has devoted its teaching resources almost exclusively to English.
English is originally the language of a country that is geographically distant from Japan. The fact that we have made English the central focus of foreign language education is, I would suggest, a reflection of a Japanese inferiority complex toward Western cultures and, in particular, English-speaking cultures.
In this vein, I think the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology should offer Chinese, Korean and Russian as well as English as compulsory subject in the seventh grade. From the eighth grade onward, these classes would be electives depending on students’ talents and personal preferences. It is neither fair nor reasonable, given the political and economic changes which have occurred over the past decade, to expect students to learn only English as a foreign language for six years until they enter universities.
Second, I believe that English should be eliminated as a subject from entrance examinations for public high schools and national universities. According to scientific tests on human memory, people generally recall only 12 percent of what they were forced to painfully memorize. However, people remember 55 percent of what they did for the fun of it and 33 percent for curiosity. Very few students are really happy about taking examinations of any kind. For this reason, English education geared to preparing students for entrance examinations can never be effective and, indeed, it represents an enormous loss of time, money and energy for students and teachers alike.
In reality, most Japanese can live comfortably in this country without any knowledge of English. It is simply unreasonable to continue making English a central subject in entrance examinations, which remain key determinants of a student’s choice of university and ultimate career.
Because English has become not only a de facto official language for international transactions but also a global language, we should, of course, not ignore English, and Japan should continue to give thought to the most effective strategies to achieve the best possible results in English education. It is not necessarily bad for Japanese elementary school pupils to be exposed to English, but they should not be compelled to learn it.
Having said that, I would argue that perhaps about 15 percent of Japanese should be trained to become highly competent users of English, with skills approaching those of native speakers.
Fluency difficult to acquire
Without question, Japan must remain in a position where it interacts economically and politically with other nations. The need for communication in English will increase as economies and societies continue to internationalize, and indeed it will probably become more important as a world ruled by trade and finance replaces an order based on military force and weaponry.
I am frequently asked whether Japanese are by nature adept at becoming proficient speakers of English. My answer is no. It is very difficult for us to become fluent speakers of English. There are three reasons for this; the Japanese mentality, the characteristics of the Japanese language and the homogeneous nature of this nation.
In Japan, a man of few words is still considered to be the model gentleman. When I was in elementary school, my father once told me to look at myself in the mirror. He explained that heaven created me with two ears and two eyes, but only with one mouth, merely because heaven intends that I should listen to and observe others twice as much as I speak.
This sort of mentality has kept Japanese from believing that active participation in communication is a necessary social skill. Can we break through this barrier? It would seem easy, given the long process of modernization, but it is not because the Japanese mentality has changed little in spite of this country’s Westernization.
Another difficulty is the huge difference between the Japanese and English languages. The structure of the Japanese language, spelling, pronunciation and intonation are completely different from those of English. In this respect, compared with other Asians, we are handicapped. And yet, it is not impossible for any highly motivated Japanese to master English. It requires constant effort. There is no easy way to learn English in spite of what some advertisers of language learning methods, texts and devices suggest.
It is, in fact, simply a swindle for newspapers or magazines to insert such deceptive advertisements. In the case of canned foods, buyers can sue a company when the picture on a can and its content are different.
Why can such exaggerated advertisements be freely issued? We often fool ourselves that we are learning English. For eight years, I listened to the NHK radio English conversation program each morning without recording it. Why? Once we record the programs we tend to think that we can listen to it at any time. That is a common mistake, which simply leads to piles of recorded tapes which we never listen to. Once we make up our mind to listen to this program, we should do so when it is really broadcast. After the program we should read the textbook aloud, often and repeatedly, until we have completely memorized it. Finally, we should be able to write the texts and dialogues without errors. This, I believe, is an effective teaching aid.
But probably the most effective way of learning English is to practice the language with native speakers. The government should accept many more ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers), but it should change its policy and not employ so many young people fresh from universities and colleges in English speaking countries as it does today.
Let’s use retired teachers, too
Instead, retired teachers would be more beneficial for Japan due to their teaching experience and maturity. I have the impression that some young ALTs have actually made a mistake in deciding to come to Japan. They are reasonably well paid and treated with much respect, but in fact they are simply having fun and postponing important decisions regarding their lives and careers.
Let me summarize my suggestions as follows:
・Basic Asian language classes should be provided for all seventh graders, and after that these courses should be taught as electives.
・English should be eliminated as a required subject on entrance examinations for public high schools and national universities.
・About 15 percent of Japan’s population should be well trained to be highly competent in English, which is to say, approach native-speaker fluency.
・Businesses with deceptive English education materials should be reprimanded.
・More retired teachers from English speaking countries should be employed as ALTs for the benefit of Japan.
* * *
The author is professor of English at the University of Kitakyushu.(IHT/Asahi: November 4, 2006). Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Agree or disagree with his opinion? Send him your view at
He says that most people support his views than not, so if you want
to show him differently, write him.
Conclusion: I guess some people just don’t seem to get it, and think
that because people apparently agree with them they must be saying
the right thing. Alas, life is not quite so simple. Arudou Debito in Sapporo
FEEDBACK FROM CYBERSPACE:
(From a major professor in academia, anonymized upon request)
November 15, 2006
Hi Debito-san, How time flies! Got your latest just as I lamenting to friend with a degree in language teaching. He agreed with my “common-sense” view that if there were a vastly more effective method for teaching or learning languages, someone would have found it a long time ago. Then coming back from buying ink for my printer, I saw along the way back up to this office a poster advertising a foreign lady who claims that she can improve English-learning skills with jazz rhythms. A female colleague in another department happened by and saw me looking at it. I went into a bit of a tirade and told her what fraud that is. Our abysmally ignorant students need remedial liberal arts (history, philosophy, literature…); they *don’t* need another scam…She listened with an air of politeness mixed with fear at being in the company of a lunatic.
Anyway, let me comment on this Noriguchi idiot with a little devil’s advocate playing:
The trouble with these guys is that there is often at least a kernel of truth in what they say. Much of what goes on the classroom in which English is supposedly being taught *is* a waste of time. The vast majority of students *never* learn to speak English with the kind of fluency that would allow them to carry on a genuinely meaningful conversation. Those who can “manage” typically sound so stereotypically Japanese (in what the say more than in how they say it) that no one takes them seriously anyway.
It would obviously be a disaster if English teaching were drastically reduced. But for whom? For the eikaiwa industry and those who work in it. But I suspect that those with sufficient interest and talent could learn English pretty much on their own. I myself am anti-eigo-suuhai, but it’s, of course, the *Japanese* not the “foreigners” who are promoting that silly cult. The depressing thought I often have is that the reason the Japanese as a whole are very bad at English is not that they are bad linguists but rather that anything [+foreign] triggers verbal gibberish – even in Japanese.
I’m a great admirer of Ivan Hall and was myself involved in the movement to protest the way the fascist Monbu-kagakushou treated foreign language teachers, but I think the weakest part of Cartels of the Mind is about education. Ivan himself was treated shabbily, but he also knows perfectly well that there is an enormous difference between himself, a fluent Japanese speaker with impressive scholarly knowledge, and the eikaiwa teacher who happens to land a job in a university. Many of them are not themselves terribly “knowledgeable” (let alone “scholarly”), and I always found it embarrassing to discover how many of them could not speak Japanese even after five or ten years here. I see nothing immoral or cruel about limited contracts for such people. American universities have *always* distinguished between language teachers and academics. Those who want to be treated in the latter category have to jump through the right hoops. Its’s a simple as that. Japan has *no* obligation to provide a meal-ticket for a person who back in his or her own country would be lucky to be a high-school teacher.
The problem with the Japanese system is not that it’s harsh but rather that it’s vague, wishy-washy, inefficient, and hypocritical. Furthermore, what *I* worry about is not the elimination of eikaiwa but rather a more plausible move toward eliminating foreigners who do anything else, the argument being that such should be performed by Japanese. I teach linguistics in Japanese. My non-native Japanese ability aside, I think I am better able and qualified to teach linguistics than *any* of my colleagues, including the so-called linguists. But what the Noriguchi types really want is grinning foreign flunkies for the “real” professors. *That* is what has to be resisted.
Well, anyway, stay in touch. It was great seeing you for the symposium. Your presentation was excellent. Hey, you could have been on TV! COMMENT ENDS