Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column: ‘Don’t blame JET for Japan’s bad English”


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Hi Blog. Here it is, for discussion. I’ll be on the road from today for the next month, but will try to be online as much as possible to approve your comments. Arudou Debito in Sapporo



The Japan Times Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2010
Don’t blame JET for Japan’s poor English

Courtesy http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20100907ad.html

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).
http://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/71943_web.pdf (see page 10)

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.”
(Same in Japanese: JETプログラムは主に海外の青年を招致することによって、地方自治体、教育委員会、及び日本全国の小・中・高等学校で、国際交流と外国語教育を支援し、地域レベルでの草の根の国際化を推進することを目的としています。個人レベルでの日本人(主に若者)とJET参加者の国際交流の場を提供しています。http://www.jetprogramme.org/j/introduction/goals.html)

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

44 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column: ‘Don’t blame JET for Japan’s bad English”

  • From experience, my two young nephews-in-law both hate English. I mean they actually “hate” a language and probably for many of the reasons stated in your article. This really must end. Japan’s resistance to effective second language learning is indicative of the social neurosis that still plague much of the populace. It is just another “non-Japanese” thing to be maintain their guard against, where “anshin” comes in the form of a Japanese teacher to teach English in order to empathize with the students’ insecurities. Has anyone seen the recent ECC commercials asking for home teachers from the housewife demographic? “Like English?” “Like kids?” “Then teach English!” Ridiculous….

  • Dear Debito-san, I read your article yesterday and I think it is very well written and gives us good view on the real problems of the English education in Japan (some used to call it edutainment).
    I would like to add that, although the real aim of the program is cultural exchange and teaching, it has focused on English-speaking countries’ culture and language, which, as you can see from some of the comments in the same JTimes edition, makes other nations feel discriminated.
    There are many other cultural aspects for “exchange and teaching” except language- national food, crafts, art, general education (I would invite Chinese and Korean teachers to tell me how do they teach their kids so that they top every math or sciense competition), human rights, etc.Artists or specialists in folklore or history could help Japanese game designers with ideas and information.
    In my country right now you can’t survive without English, but it is not compulsory subject. Every school decides to teach English or not, and there are many schools where besides English , French, German and even Japanese is taught, and students can choose the language, they want to study-and in most cases it is more than one.
    I agree that the general attitude towards things foreign is to great extent the reason for language failure. But I think that the biggest difference between our kids and the Japanese kids is in the will communicate with people from different cultures, which in our kids’ case is strong enough to make them overcome any obstacle and enjoy language learning.
    And finally, I have noticed that in most Japan-related forums native speakers do ridicule and intimidate non-native speakers for their mistakes. You do it too, although you criticize the Japanese media for doing exactly the same (like the centenarians-centurions case).

    — Off topic, but cite me an example where I “ridicule and intimidate” please. If I’m going that far, I’ll apologize.

  • Wow! Hit the nail on the head. As an ALT on JET starting my third year, I have times where I want to bang my head against the chalkboard during English class with the way things are run in the English department. However, I am lucky enough the have a class of my own where I get to do my own curriculum and I’m allowed to teach the students, mostly Jr. High 1st year, about my country and other places I’ve been to or anywhere they are interested in. These classes are conducted in Japanese and it’s a time where I get to interact with the kids in a relaxed environment. I have really formed a profound bond with the students and I am no longer just “the foreign English teacher,” (I guess the fact that I also had most of them in elementary helps.)

    The JET Programme changes lives, and depending on the effort you put in, you’ll get back ten fold and deepen your bonds with the students and the community. Keep JET. In my experience, it’s been amazing for everyone involved, the BOE, the students, the teachers and me. If it needs amendments, Ok, put them on the table, but I am fingers crossed that they keep it as a whole.

    Alain in Ehime

  • Bravo, Great article!

    If they phase out JET they will only be hurting themselves more by using lesser companies that have less quality control on the teachers they hire. I know because I work for one such lesser companies. =(

    What really is needed, which you basically hit on the head, is to hire qualified teachers who actually have power over the curriculum they teach, and in additional to moving away from test centered English education to communication based education. Many Japanese can correct a native English speakers grammar and spelling errors on paper, but if you speak a normal English sentence at normal speed they don’t comprehend any of the meaning. They just understand the individual vocab that you used. What’s the point of teaching it if you cannot even use it to communicate?

    Since the Meiji era there has been many advances in how the English language is taught. Japan should take this Meiji mentality and go out and look at the new teaching methods in order to mordernize their English teaching practices, before trying to sack things like the JET program. The real money sink isn’t the foreign teachers, it is the inefficient system in which it is taught.

    And even if only highly qualified teachers came to Japan to teach English there currently isn’t any future for those individuals. You basically get hired as temp teacher outside of JET who never gets a raise and no to little room for advancement. This mentality has come about with the thinking that current ALT’s will find a different job or leave Japan within one or two years, so there is no reason to give them pay raises or advancements. I see many parallels with Japan’s nursing program. Japan gets cheap labor, but doesn’t retain any of the experienced professionals.

  • It reminds me of how the Amish bring up their kids:

    -Teach them how different they are from the “English” world
    -Do not prepare them, ideologically, intellectually or in terms of life skills, for life in the English world
    -Allow them to experience the English world for a short time (“Rumspringa”), to interact with the non-Amish
    -Result = failure, alienation, humiliation, etc.
    -End result: return to Amish community, border between ingroup and outgroup reinforced, status of ingroup as sole possible source of self-worth affirmed.

    Compare that to (my perception of) Japanese English education:

    -Embedded in a larger education system in which nihonjinron often masquerades as social studies
    -A system designed to result in poor English ability
    -Interaction with JET or other foreigners
    -Failure to communicate anything meaningful, both because of poor ability and the range of sanctioned topics being limited to stale tropes about cultural differece.
    -Result: identity as Japanese reinforced, foreigners affirmed as eternal other.

    — If we’re going to bring up the Amish, please provide a source.

  • Debito, apologies as this is perhaps too off topic to be posted here.

    Great article Debito. The lead story in today’s Daily Yomiuri only confirms the schizophrenic nature of English education in Japan. After discussing the introduction of English into the elementary school curriculum for 20 years MEXT finally agreed to begin instruction in all public schools in 2011. We’ve seen any number individual districts start implementing English instruction over the past few years in order to be better prepared for when it becomes mandatory. The cases I heard of locally amounted to a mini-JET program where students could at least feel comfortable when they encounter a foreigner and learn a few expressions in English.

    Now MEXT decided, after a 30 minute discussion that the teacher guide to teaching English in the fifth and sixth grades, Eigo Note. will be discontinued. Well, they decided to reverse that decision after numerous e-mails and phone calls from teachers. We can only assume that the teachers were never consulted prior to the 30 minute that would have undone years of preparation.

    MEXT had wished to change from the printed form to a digital one. This was OK until they determined that the changeover would force local schools to pay far more then the ¥40 per copy that the government now underwrites for its mass printing. I wonder why the local schools feel the need to print them to begin with. All schools were to be equipped with SmartBoards that worked in conjunction with Eigo Note. Why couldn’t they be used with a digitalized version? I suspect that the majority of these high-tech boards are sitting in storage closets collecting dust. One would think (hope) that the teachers would have computers, phones or other devices that would enable them to read the digitalized version.

    The graph that accompanied the article is the most telling part. It depicts government expenditures for English education from elementary through high school. The current budget for 2011 appears to be 1/5 of that in 2007. This seems at odds with the push to improve English education outcomes and could result in an even worse situation than we have now.

    I for one am not sure that elementary, jhs or hs students need English as a mandatory subject, particularly since in most cases it is really taught to reinforce Japanese. What I am relatively certain of is that the powers that be in Education in Japan need to get their collective heads out of their asses and start to act as though they were actually informed and knowledgeable and really cared about foreign language acquisition.


    — Please provide a link to the Yomiuri story. Thanks.

  • Excellent article, Debito. As someone who worked as a part-time eikaiwa teacher (not JET) at some point during my stay in Japan, I’ve always puzzled over my students’ reluctance to actually speak English. Out of 50 minutes of class, they spent about half either asking questions in Japanese or struggling to form long and complicated sentences and then hurriedly apologizing for their mistakes.

    In my view, the fact that “mistakes are greeted with ridicule and shame” is perhaps the biggest mistake one can make when teaching a language. Beginners will make mistakes, that’s a given. I had trouble getting my students to accept that simple fact.

    Now on to the main point of my comment: I have some formal teaching education, and I found it hard to teach English in Japan. I can only imagine how difficult it is for the kids (using the word loosely) in the JET programme to make a difference. It’s like putting a duck next to a gold watch and expecting it to lay golden eggs.

  • The article claims intimidating classroom environment is the reason Japanese have unfruitful English education. I believe there are a lot more factors that many Japanese dislike English.

    In the beginning level, pronunciation is the insurmountable wall for many Japanese. Japanese have 5 vowels whereas English has a lot more than that. Most Japanese have difficulty in distinguishing hurt and heart, map and mop, and ball and bowl.
    Most Japanese speakers have difficulty pronouncing and listening to successive consonants since in Japanese a consonant except n is always followed by a vowel. These differences in pronunciation make most Japanese dislike English.

    Other reasons to dislike English include spelling, difference in grammatical structure, irregular verbs, singular/plural, countable/uncountable, articles and so on.

    Ask a Japanese if he dislikes English and, if he does, ask him why. I think the story would be totally different from the article.

    — You might try harder to understand the point of this article, HO. And if you just happen to be an actual Eigo Kyouiku teacher, I would cite you as part of the problem, i.e. a lack of training in linguistics. If not, I’m glad you’re just commenting here instead of making your ignorance generational.

  • Another BRAVO for this well-written article. I may not agree with every single one of the fine points, but you’ve summarized the state of English education in this country very well. I do hope that this article reaches someone with the power to make a difference (well, more immediately so than all of the voters who have already read it, anyway).

    I would love to see English taught by a bilingual teacher (regardless of which is their native tongue), to students who have an interest in being able to really learn the language. Those who aren’t interested would be better off taking another language (Mandarin or Korean, anyone? Probably much more immediately useful in geographic terms) or a different elective entirely. No reason that someone who’s planning to be a housewife or a factory worker or to carry on the family liquor store or whatever needs to know international business terms… let those students study something that THEY will be able to use. But that way of thinking is probably a few generations away, at least. If my kids learn English the way I learned Japanese, instead of the way I learned Latin, I’ll consider it a success.

  • Kevin, I would think a ‘Meiji’ outlook to English education is the last thing Japan needs. The whole Meiji era push to gain knowledge was just that, to take from the foreigner and not give anything back. English education is essentially about learning to read so that Japan can take information from the outside with very little emphasis on communicating back to the outside world. Hence the dismal speaking and writing ability of high school grads. Japan needs to learn the simple lesson that communication is a two-way street.

  • On the topic of why Japanese people don’t speak English well, there was a recent series of opinion pieces in the Asahi Shimbun (I saw it only in print, and I do not have the link, sorry). One of the most striking pieces was by an English Juku owner, who explained why his school makes so much money and sees so much demand from students: Japanese middle and high school english teachers have on average a TOEIC score between 560-600 or so. In other words, the teachers are at a level where they should be students, not teachers, of English, and the only job where one can have such poor English and make money is that of a teacher. This is the root of Japan’s problems in international competitiveness and poor English skills, HO, not the typical BS about how hard it is to learn Japanese and English. A couple of legitimate years of intensive, full-time study can cause any native speaker of one to be a perfectly usable speaker and writer in the other. However, if their own teacher can’t perform in the language, it is “psychotic” to expect the students to learn it.
    As suggestions, he suggests imposing mandatory minimum scores around 760 or something for high school teachers, so they have to improve their English to keep their jobs. My suggestion is to move them all to gym class and hire young Japanese people with study abroad experience and shukatsu difficulty.
    All that said, I agree with Debito’s article and think it is solid.

  • Seriously., teach them Korean first. Teach them Korean from the third grade. It’s the closest country culturally (I know Russia’s physically closer) and the nuts and bolts of the language (vocabulary excepted) are basically the same. Once they realise that foreign languages aren’t some kind of magic trick, then introduce them to English. Everyone talks about how well the Swedes and the Danes speak English, but they’re not asked to learn Chinese or Turkish from the third grade. English is very close to their own languages.

  • My back ground is one of having taught in eikaiwa and schools in Kyushu. I now live and teach in China and I can see why Chinese students do better.

    “The Programme was started in 1987 with the purpose of
    increasing mutual understanding between the people of
    Japan and the people of other nations. It aims to promote
    internationalisation in Japan’s local communities by helping
    to improve foreign language education and developing
    international exchange at the community level. Now in its
    23rd year, the Programme has seen significant growth: from
    its original 848 participants from 4 countries in 1987 to 4,436
    participants from 36 countries in 2009.” (http://www.jetprogramme.org/documents/pubs/2009_Pamphlet_e.pdf)

    To keep, or not to keep the jet programme is not even a question any more. When you read this section from their own pamphlet to promote the programme, anyone who has spent time in Japan has to conclude that JET is a complete failure. How can I make such a bold sweeping statement you may ask. Well having lived there in Japan for a time my experience is not one of come meet the foreigner and learn about his country and culture. It’s more “Come and watch the Monkey dance!” How is is this representative of our cultures? Seriously I would like to know. for many the way we are expected to perform (and yes it is just a performance) is so unnatural to most of us that it makes the idea of this being an exchange a farce. We are expected to perpetuate the stereotypes they hold, and nothing more. If it had worked as a programme in this respect why did I and others have to face the humiliation of hearing “Gomen! Gaijin no!” (this was from an estate agent who claimed they spoke English) when looking for an apartment. Sure there maybe less finger pointing and staring, and the JET programme may have started something but the truth is most of the foreigners in Japan that people see are not JETs any more.

    The system smashes our square “international culture” into a round Japanese hole. Everyone I know living in Japan is aware that they become more and more Japanese the longer they stay. There are people who have been in the country for several years who are for want of the language skills, quintessentially Japanese in manner and thinking. I am not saying this is a bad thing as we accept the ideology of “When in Rome…” readily. However the xenophobic reaction still continues. Who has not experienced that frightened rabbit look and lack of comprehension even though you spoke Japanese? Or the disbelief that you can use chopsticks?

    To be fair it is not completely the JET programmes failure, a huge share of the blame has to rest on the education systems shoulders, as they refuse to change with the times and the JETs are forced to abide with Japan’s teaching methods.

    Japan Exchange and Teaching! Teaching? Why is this word part of the name for the programme? It has failed to improve foreign language education at any level. The JETs who work as ALTs get paid bucket loads of money for occasionally performing for students entertainment, because it’s about making English fun not really to teach them at elementary level, being a human tape recorder, and sitting around for hours doing nothing or making thousands of flashcards that will never be used just to look busy.(Good for them) And for a lot of them they get to go home early because the school don’t want to have to deal with them.(Also way to go guys) Their single solitary role is to do what they are told and follow a curriculum designed by Japanese people. They are not there to influence the content of what is taught. It came into existence because of Japan’s horrendously low English test scores compared to the rest of Asia. Oh look not much change there! This leads me to believe the programme was doomed to fail on this point to.

    So in short it is not broken don’t fix it just discard it as the useless PR trip that it has and always will be. It needs replacing with something that is not a puppet for the education system to use as it wishes. The stated aims of JET are admirable but ultimately unachievable. The tweaking needs to be done at policy level and enforced more strictly than policies are now. For example the battle for forcing schools to accept the policy on direct hire of foreign ALTs in the public schools, That regional Boards of Education blatantly ignore.

    I agree with you on one point. The main fault is in trying to make students enjoy learning English, but that is the role of an ALT. which is a shame since the students are not taught effective or useful English. The students are aware that they cannot speak to foreigners and be understood. I suggest that providing quality experience language instructors with the power to adapt the teaching material for the level of the students involved may result in school leavers who enjoyed studying English, because they have confidence in there ability to communicate with us thus having a sense of accomplishment.

    Berate the Eikaiwas all you like but the students I met at junior high schools who could communicate in English, all went to private language schools. Those that hadn’t were incomprehensible. So here is thought make these companies responsible for English education. Better still look at GAC programmes used the world over to prepare non native speakers to go to the US, Canada, the UK, etc.. It would be nice to get rid of the materials used now that are full of phony, outdated, irrelevant and grammatically incorrect phrases, not to mention the problematic nuance based language they contain.

    So I apologize for the vehemence with which I disagree but I really think people should start thinking like a developing country and when something is not working change it. I believe tweaking one (JET) without changing the other (Japan’s education system) is pointless and even you agree that in its current state JET is flawed. And if katakana English spoken at break neck speed in no discernible context is OK, then maybe the way kids are taught is fine and tweaking JET is acceptable.


  • Dang, Debito, you hit the nail on the head! I was talking with some friends in the Vocaloid Translators group, and when we discussed ESL, they had pretty much said the same reasons as you as to why the common Japanese does not excel in the English language.

    Dang, I’m so glad when I have kids I will teach them English myself. I’d hate for them to go through English classes as it is now.

  • There is nothing special about Japanese ears that makes them incapable of hearing the difference between the sounds of English.

    There is nothing special about Japanese mouths that makes them incapable of producing the different sounds of English.

    The reason students over here have such problems is, just as Debito suggests, mostly due to the often horrendously poor quality of input they receive – most Japanese English teachers over here are themselves not adequately skilled at English, and are especially lacking in ability in pronunciation (Bob’s figures bear mention here). The general transfer of English knowledge comes from a cadre of English teachers who, by and large, don’t have enough ability in the first place. It’s like copying photocopies, or (even better) copying cassette tapes – noise creeps in to the process, and it inevitably degrades in quality. This trend can be overcome if there is enough focus on bringing in authentic, outside materials, but such is not part of most classrooms here.

    Debito’s other point about teaching English as if it were Latin also strikes home. Students need to learn IN the language, not ABOUT the language, and yet the latter forms the vast majority of English education here. I have observed English classes in which the teacher never spoke English; rather, they cowered behind their CD player, and then diagrammed sentences as if outlining a battle plan to attack the language (“Okay, class, we have a subordinate clause coming up on the left flank. Focus your attention on the noun it modifies!”). There is so little benefit to such classes that I am tempted to say there is none.

    Overall, spot-on article, Debito. Unfortunately, I fear we’re mostly all just preaching to the choir.

    — I like your cassette tape and military maneuver metaphors very much. Thanks for them.

  • I mentioned in my post, but again:
    “The Japan Times states that there were over 30,000 centurians in Japan as of 2008, and trending higher. So the 57 unaccounted for as of yesterday are still less than 0.2% of the total number, hardly enough to dent any previous population simulations.

    – Not if those centurians get loose and start stabbing people willy-nilly with their swords!

    (sorry, couldn’t resist. it’s summer)”
    I don’t feel sympathy for the poster, because his reaction was very rude, but non-native speakers like me would hesitate writing their thoughts freely, after a comment like this one.

    — Oh come on. It’s hardly “ridicule and intimidation”, and I’m sorry if you took it as such. But I should think it would be tough for you to post anywhere in the Wild Wild West of internet commentary if you took this attempt at humor so hard. Anyway, back on topic.

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    I believe there are a lot more factors that many Japanese dislike English.

    HO, that’s probably true, but these things aren’t specific to English. While I certainly sympathize with these difficulties, it’s also true that they, or other difficulties like them, would occur no matter what language the students were attempting.

    They could choose another five-vowel language (Latin, Spanish, Italian…), but then they’d have to deal with word conjugations that are much more complex than English. Swahili has a syllable structure that’s a lot like Japanese, but the word classes are much more complicated.

    You’re going to have different features no matter what language you’re learning. That’s no excuse for disliking a specific foreign language.

  • Interesting article, and I agree on some points, but I have to take issue with your criticism about the Japanese not wanting to learn English. I don’t disagree, but from the American viewpoint, it’s hard to criticize them for not wanting to learn other languages when we make no effort to learn any other ones ourselves. At least the Japanese are trying, if in vain, to broaden their worldview– we aren’t even accomplishing that…

    The pot calling the kettle black, no?

    — No.

  • I thought it was a great article, but as I’ve been saying, they need to take the focus off “exchange” and put it on teaching. They should rename the program Teach for Japan and open it up to anyone who wants to teach.

    The best learning comes from varying the methods. So practice matters, but so does grammar and explaining what the language is doing. Very few of these show-up ALTs around Japan know about any of this. Very quickly, their value, too, becomes “exchange”.

    I want to point out that recent science suggests that the most effective tool in learning is something we know as the test or the quiz. But except for things like TOEIC, there really do not seem to be very many effective tests of English in this country. But there are for almost everything else. This shows that the Japanese government is focused on relegating English to some kind of mizushobai (water trade or nightclub) pursuit, for people who manage to master it to some level.

    So I totally agree with all your points about knocking down barriers to learning; and, maybe outside of Kantou and the Osaka area, the program adds an element of internationalization to the school system. But the JET does need reform.

  • All the comments have been from the western mindset. As stated before, this really is preaching to the choir. The foreigners and expats in Japan that disagree with this article have either been assimilated in to the Japanese hive-mind (by thinking English is too difficult to learn) or lack formal educational training to fully appreciate the point of the article.

    Debito, what are the Japanese staffers and editors at The Japan Times saying about this article?

    — Dunno.

  • @ AC
    I want to pick apart your post.

    Japanese schools teach English and students don’t have a choice.

    The 30 percent or so of American’s who have a college degree, are almost all required to study a foreign language to be accepted to said college.

    30 % of American’s are of Latino decent and many of them speak Spanish at home.

    A healthy percentage of US citizens are naturalized from non-English speaking countries.

    So your 2 stereotypes don’t hold up well. One, a healthy percentage of Americans speak a foreign language and Two, the Japanese aren’t trying, they are being forced to study.

    So was your final comment a barb at Debito? I don’t see the relevance, he is not even American anymore.

  • `AC in #20, I think there’s a difference between WANTING to speak English, feeling like they SHOULD be able to speak English, and WISHING they could speak English. If you lump all of those people into one category, it’s probably a pretty significant number of people.

    I don’t think the average American’s foreign language ability is great either, but that’s a different culture and a different issue. Still, think of that 50-something relative who says with resignation, “Guess I ought to learn Spanish, them Mexicans’re takin’ over.” Does that person WANT to learn Spanish? No more than the average Japanese person probably wants to learn English. Acknowledging that the language might be useful isn’t the same as actually having the desire to put in the effort, make the mistakes, and work for a decent level of mastery.

  • Wait wait wait, AC. How many Americans have come over to Japan or other languages to work or live? I’m pretty sure that shows a desire to learn a language and become fluent in it. What about the number of Americans that are bilingual in English and Spanish? Do they not count? This Gallup poll conducted in 2001 concluded that every in four Americans can hold a conversation in another language. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/1825/about-one-four-americans-can-hold-conversation-second-language.aspx) I think that saying that Americans make no effort to learn a new language is a little off.

  • Hey All,

    A few responses:

    @JP 30% of Americans have a college degree and are thus required to learn a foreign language. Then doesn’t that just prove that the other 70% aren’t required to learn any languages? You say that 30% are Latino and speak Spanish at home– that means that 70% aren’t Latino and don’t speak Spanish at home– my point exactly.

    @JP If the Japanese are being “forced” to learn English, how do you explain the gargantuan Eikaiwa industry in Japan? No one’s forcing them to spend their hard earned cash…

    @Allen, one in every four Americans can hold a conversation in another language? That still means that 3/4 can’t!!!

    How are either of your posts disproving my claim??

  • AC, your logic just doesn’t hold water. 30% of Americans being college graduates, we know at least that they are required to learn a foreign language; this says nothing of the other 70%, most of whom still must study foreign languages in high school, which is mandatory education in the US.

    I could go into further detail, but all it would do is draw attention away from the fact that the US’s policies are irrelevant to this conversation. This is not a US blog, it is not owned by an American, and not everyone who posts on it is American. Even if there were a really good reason to consider the debito.org perspective an American-based perspective, the flaws of America are no excuse for the flaws of Japan. Those of us here are trying to improve the country and society in which we live, and not merely win a flag-waving competition for whose country is least terrible.

  • Whoa. I completely agree with #14 Joe! I’ve been saying that for years. (Although that ‘close’ argument is lost a bit when you consider how many Finns speak English well).

    Otherwise, I think this article is extremely accurate. Good job! There is so much more to language teaching/learning in JET and it does have value, but someone really needs to address the treating-people-as-things issue with EVERYONE involved in the program. I think that would play a huge role in making it more effective.

  • @AC

    Your point, “but from the American viewpoint, it’s hard to criticize them for not wanting to learn other languages when we make no effort to learn any other ones ourselves.”, assuming you are American and your viewpoint represents all Americans, states in no uncertain terms that Americans make “no” effort to learn other languages. I simply refuted this and gave info on how Americans do make an effort.

    Point 2, Japanese students from the 5th grade until graduating high school are required to study English. Universities also have an English section on their entrance exams, but of course you could argue that university education is a choice. But if you want your kid to get into a good school, you will need to fork out your hard earned cash to a juku to make sure your kid passes the test. It may not be a choice after all.

    So, in your response to my response to your original post, you seemed to try and change “your point” by stating and I paraphrase, “a majority of Americans don’t speak another language and don’t make an effort to speak another language”. So if this is what you wanted to say in the first place, you should have just said that.

    And to sum up, I still have no idea how any of this is even relevant to the article that Debito wrote. The article discusses a Japanese government program being discussed in Japan on Japanese terms. How does the USA even figure into the whole discussion?

  • Wait wait wait… does anyone actually think that everyone who had to study a foreign language in college still speaks it? Or EVER had a chance to speak it in actual day-to-day life? At my school, I had to take six semesters (and chose to take eight) because I majored in IR. But non-IR BA candidates only had to take four semesters. After four semesters, I was a straight-A Japanese student but still could barely do more than: “Hello my name is Kimberly. I am American. I am 19 years old.” …. basically the rote memorization of a self-introduction that your average eikaiwa student can do. Because I spent the FIFTH semester in Japan, I did become decently proficient at the language… but I imagine that a lot of people who have no real desire to learn whatever language they take, but do the minimum amount of work to meet the requirements for their degree never become anywhere close to conversationally fluent.

    The same assumption seems to hold true in Japan… anyone who graduated from a well-known university is more or less assumed to be more bilingual (as if you could quantify such a thing, but that’s another issue) than a native English speaker who has actually put a lot of effort into learning Japanese. Therefore the lack of “bilingual” jobs that end up being filled by non-native Japanese speakers. A HUGE percentage of the Japanese population is bilingual on paper. If “college graduate” means “bilingual,” anyway. Anyone who’s ever taught English to adults will know that the two are absolutely NOT synonymous.

  • Funnily enough, I used to work for one of the “lesser companies” and whilst the pay was questionable given the contract worth, and there was a blatent disregard for shakai hoken laws, the kids got a decent education. The dispatcher in question actually put a heck of a lot of effort into ensuring the only hired decent workers, and then put them through trial by fire. Insane hours for the money involved and basically no curriculum, so naturally most schools were a revolving door, but for those that kept a teacher all year, you could see the benefits of leaving staff free to properly teach. Those schools got a truly functional English programme.

    Incidently, the best response I saw from kids came in elementary, where the lack of a government textbook (until this year) ensured grammatical rote-learning crap was kept the hell out of the classroom, in lieu of confidence-building phonics based approaches. Some of the most functional classes were those co-taught (usually elementary) with a non-English-speaking Japanese staffmember. Proof right there of Debito’s postitive role-model comment (seeing a celebrity succeed on TV, seeing a familiar Japanese teacher learn — or pretend to “learn” if they knew already — along with them).

  • Kimberly: A humourous annecdote for you. I once met a couple of people socially in Tokyo. I asked them in Japanese what they did (as you do), and both were university students, final year. One was majoring in Intl. Relations, minoring in English. The other was majoring in English. Good start.

    Neither could say a word beyond a nigh-incoprehensible “Herro”. In any Western university, majoring in Japanese without being able to say こんにちは would see you fail midway through 2nd year and be barred from re-entering the uni for 1-2 years. Theres something wrong with the system if even basic oral assessments are not undertaken.

  • Growing up in Toronto I was shocked when I got to Japan and realized how bad so many people’s english was. Here in Chinatown a recent chinese immigrant will talk non-stop in a shop or something, completely butchering english but not letting it slow him down. My impression of Japanese people was that they wanted to be perfect before they started, and so were reluctant to speak at all.
    Your explanation makes a ton of sense and made me re-evaluate all my previous suppositions.

  • I agree with a lot of what you say in this article. It’s a total myth that Japanese people can’t /won’t speak good English.Over my years teaching in Japan I met a lot of students who were very very good at the language.The point is that they are seen as odd if they ever try to use their skills : they are shows offs, they are being ‘un Japanese’ etc and are often figures of fun on television.So the lack of positive role models (in the media especially) does I think make it hard for the average Japanese person to think they can get a grip of English. This is compounded by some of the other problems you touch upon – an outdated teaching methodology which treats English as a subject and not a language, tests (school, entrance exams, TOEIC, TOEFL, EIKEN) which place no importance on communicative competence,’educational’ English programmes featuring Westerners who want to show off their Japanese and only speak three words of English in a 30 minute programme and the nonesensical belief that a native speaker is always going to a better English teacher, even if s/he has no teaching qualifications of any sort.

  • My sister-in law is, or rather was, an English teacher. She attended a very prestigious university and language school, was always used in her schools for foreign language etc etc.

    Yet the first time i met her, she didn’t speak English with me, not even to try. This persisted, and even now, some 8 years later has only ever spoken to me in English once. Just one simple sentence, because she was trying to encourage her kids to speak English.

    Reason, as you point out, fear! Suddenly being confronted with a native speaker is a bit more involved than hiding behind a CD and repeating verbatim text.

    I’ve recent returned from a long-ish biz trip to China. I was seriously impressed with the Chinese and their English language but more importantly, their comprehension of English. The Chinese are way way ahead of the Japanese….and probably for all the reasons cites in the article above.

    I also used to do a voluntary English teaching/lessons to a group of professionals who need to improve their English for their work. I was eventually “over looked” as I pointed out far too many flaws in their text and teaching methods….it just doesn’t sit well with their own level, again, as noted above.

  • I think this goes back to social pressure. If you speak good English, you will stick out and may even be considered weird. There is no serious drive from the government to make the population feel comfortable about English , just empty platitudes about the need to communicate in a global world etc. Koizumi ( and I am not a fan politically) apparently spoke good English for example, but this was never shown on TV to my knowledge. One or two of the national football team can speak decent English as I recall but they are never put up as examples.When non-Japanese people appear on TV nobody ever talks to them in even simple ,basic English.Instead they are treated as exotic pets and the interpreters have to translate any number of bizarre questions.Christiano Ronaldo came on TV once and instead of asking him something mildy sensible in English (and Ronaldo is only a fairly basic speaker of English himself), the interviewer just asked, in Japanese, if he could touch the muscles on his legs.

  • @HO:

    here is my counter-argument: take Filipino for example. Our basic alphabet consists of the ff: a, ba, ka, da, e ,ga, ha, i, la, ma, na, ng, o, pa, ra, sa, ta, u, wa, ya. And I expect that you’ll do a rebuttal with the fact that the US took over the islands for 50 years, thus giving us a headstart of some sort. While that may be true, what really counts is what our country even after US granted the Philippines its self-autonomy. Moving to the present day, I can assure you that our English curriculum capitalizes on the notion that English, as a universal language, is a must for both local and international affairs.

    Whether or not we speak in the same way as the native speakers do is another story for the day, but i am definitely certain that in terms of English, Filipinos tend to do much better than the Japanese. And for a developing country like mine to have an advantage over Japan does really come as a surprise.

    Hence, I firmly believe that Debito has indeed captured some, if not all, of the realities in the Jaapanese way of teaching English. A paradigm shift is exactly what’s needed for significant changes to take place.

  • HO
    “..Most Japanese speakers have difficulty pronouncing and listening to successive consonants since in Japanese a consonant except n is always followed by a vowel. These differences in pronunciation make most Japanese dislike English…”

    So, by that logic, the Japanese have a dislike for beer and milk, for example? Since it is a genetic fact that Asian physiology is different from “white” or Caucasians. Since many Asians have non-functional copies of the ALDH gene which seriously affects how alcohol is broken down; the alcohol directly triggers a process that results in a real allergic reaction. Then going onto drinking milk, the gene in lactose with a mutation in the gene in up to 90% of Asians, which should have switched off when young, but it doesn’t. So, do Asians decide …ah….wont drink beer…or drink milk, because of a “difficulty” or “difference” in physiology..??…poppycock!

    Unlike Japanese, there is no つ sound in English…er…..so what?
    Unlike English, Japanese never has a consonant cluster in one syllable….er…so what?
    Unlike English, Japanese is pitch accent rather than stress accent…er…so what??

    Try citing proper actual reasons, rather than your own myopic biased ones.

  • Andrew Smallacombe says:

    Some thoughts from the frontline (No, I’m not a JET)

    * I remember high school English classes back from my days as an exchange student some 20 years ago. While the teachers were competent (but had trouble understanding my Australian accent!!), they would barely utter a word of English in lessons. The situation has improved somewhat, but there is still so much emphasis on rendering a piece of English into Japanese, but never the reverse. Ulitmately, all the students really studied was grammar translation and, as I often said to myself in frustration, “they can’t even get that right!”
    * 20% of the score for the Saitama high school entrance exam English test comes from the “compostition” section. This consists of writing five (5!!) sentences on a given topic. Marks are deducted at the rate of one per each grammar mistake and one per each spelling mistake. The best strategy for doing well is to write the shortest, simplest sentences possible. So much for testing English ability…
    * Students have very few opportunities to experience English outside the classroom (with the possible exception of the ALT). TV only seems to reinforce bad English.
    * Pronunciation practice is easily destroyed by the classroom clowns, who either try to make every utterance in English sound like a piece of Japanese (anyone else been stuck with “brother has the letter” = ブラザ外れた or “What time is it now?” = 掘った芋いじくな?), or spend the lesson taking the mickey out of foreign accents.
    Being bad at English is sometimes seen as a source of pride.
    * Texbooks seem to be aiming to reinforce Nihonjinron (the [i]Sunshine[/i] series loves talking about how healthy Japanese food is, and how Japanese animation is better than American animation), or deciding that “Hiroshima” is a high-frequency item of vocabualary.
    * While Debito correctly asserted the risk of ridicule for getting it wrong, the diligent student runs the risk of ridicule for getting it right.
    * Xenophobia overriding any language skills.

    Just off the top of my head.

    Loved the article!!

  • You got some responses on the Japan Times article.


    Ever notice that some of your worst critics don’t even live in the nation? Mr. Parisi’s comment reminds me of so many comments I see on Youtube (since there are not videos of interviews or the like on Nico Nico Douga) that make me want to pull my long liberal hippie hair out. Anyway, there you go.

    — Thanks. I guess.

  • @ Bill, and John K about correction not “sitting well with professionalss level” (pride level?), youre absolutely right. It is fear of making a mistake and the loss of face (ie. pride to hide the fear in later years) that involves which, as one teacher who had also taught in Taiwan said to me recently, “why many Japanese cannot speak English despite all the study”. You obviously tried to actually teach that voluntary class English, when in fact it wasnt a serious lesson, more a pat on the back ego boost.
    This is why many corporate classes are doomed to fail in making serious improvement, as all correction-if any is allowed-has to be very indirect, and is dependent on the political dynamics of the classroom. If younger students show up their superior, you can bet that class contract will not be renewed.
    That, and scolding they receive for making mistakes in high school which may lead to a hate of English, and thus not wanting to stand out, are the core reasons.

    Slight tangent but there is a current article in the UK at yahoo news which reminded me of the situation of some classrooms in Japan. Not so different maybe, unless one believes that in Japan not standing out is “good”:

    Quote: “We Brits are a cynical bunch. At state schools bright and enthusiastic pupils are labeled ‘keenos’ and dumb-down to survive – not only the ire of the class orcs, but even the teachers who find some pupils “too clever by half” and tell them it’s wrong to grass on their troglodyte tormentors”


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