Asahi Sep 15 06: Kitakyushu prof discusses problems with English language education


COMMENT: For archival purposes: Kitakyushu University Prof argues (in one of Japan’s premier opinion columns) that one problem with English education is that foreigners stay here too long. Quote: “…native speakers who have lived in Japan for more than 10 years tend to have adapted to the system and have become ineffective as teachers–this is also partly because their English has become Japanized and is spoken to suit the ears of their Japanese students.”

I assume that this means we should not give tenure to foreigners, and that the Gwen Gallagher vs Asahikawa University Case (fired after more than a decade of service for no longer being, quote, “fresh” enough, see is moot.

POINT OF VIEW/ Shinichiro Noriguchi:English education leaves much to be desired

More than 100 years ago Natsume Soseki, a great writer in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), wrote, “These days young people studying abroad and coming back to Japan speak English fluently, but the content is shallow, almost nothing. Why? They do not possess the spiritual backbone–Chinese classics.”

This situation seems not to have changed since then; indeed, it may have become worse, because the number of shallow-minded youths is ever increasing.

Why has this happened? Who is responsible? What should we do to correct what is clearly a deplorable situation?

Based upon my 40 years of experience as an English teacher I would like to make some suggestions about the teaching of English at both the high school and university levels.

First, let me clearly say that Japanese society has been completely duped by the idea that the TOEIC test and the development of “communicative” skills in English will finally solve the long-standing problem of inept English education.

Japan’s higher education is helplessly caught in the trap of the TOEIC and “communicative English” diseases. TOEIC is simply another version of the university entrance examination, a form of assessment that has been severely criticized in the past. The TOEIC has simply been skillfully masked by corporations to appear up-to-date. The content is shallow and does not present any real challenge to the test-taker. Students can achieve higher scores by taking TOEIC-focused classes and cramming. It is for this reason that Japanese English instructors can do a better job teaching TOEIC classes than native-speaking English teachers.

Second, many teachers have been corrupted by the lax attitude toward teaching the English language in Japan. Since not much is expected of students, teachers expect little of themselves. They have created and perpetuated an unhealthy situation in which students who are eager to better their English have in fact little opportunity to improve their skills.

The government, in particular the education ministry, together with Japanese corporations, have been accomplices in creating this lamentable situation. They are blindly intoning the mantra of “communicative English” and the benefits of TOEIC, which is now in fact established as the standard by which English ability is measured. Many have come to believe that “communication” simply means the ability to speak English.

They no longer think that reading and writing in English are a true means of communication. As a result, a strange phenomenon has occurred. Our society has once more revealed its weakness as a homogeneous society, swinging from one extreme to the other. The companies that create and cater to the TOEIC test probably can’t stop laughing at this situation from which they derive great profit.

We should recall the now-forgotten fact that it was through the ability to read English that Japan was able to catch up with Western culture and technology in the Meiji and Taisho (1912-1926) eras. Many university English teachers have been complicit in these developments. They do not spend sufficient time and energy testing what students have learned in class or correcting what they have written in English.

We should fully grasp the extent of the change that has taken place and acknowledge that there is a clear difference between spoken and written English.

There are many people who, despite errors and despite the frivolous subjects about which they talk, can speak English with reasonable fluency, but they cannot write even a few sentences in correct English. The point here is that if we can write our ideas in English correctly, we will become skilled communicators.

The best way to correct this problem is to have our writing in English corrected by native English teachers, but this is not always possible. They must earn a living. Many are part-timers teaching a large number of classes at various universities, where they often simply go through the motions of teaching. But blame should not be placed upon the native speakers, because our society has allowed them to take advantage of Japan’s lax attitudes toward English education.

In particular, native speakers who have lived in Japan for more than 10 years tend to have adapted to the system and have become ineffective as teachers–this is also partly because their English has become Japanized and is spoken to suit the ears of their Japanese students. Some of these teachers are not aware of this.

It is, of course, Japanese university teachers of English who are most responsible for the depressing results of university-level English instruction.

It is a fact, however odd, that some university teachers of English failed the public junior and senior high school English teacher’s examinations, and then entered post-graduate schools only as a second choice.

Within a few years, however, they start teaching English at universities and are qualified to issue credits to students studying for the high school English teacher’s license. University teachers, of course, do not need a license of any sort to teach at universities. The education ministry often creates rules and standards that defy common sense.

The English ability of English-teaching staff is, frankly speaking, often poorer than that of capable students, especially when it comes to speaking and listening comprehension. Regardless of their academic fields–American or English literature, transformational grammar, phonetics, cultural studies–university instructors should possess thorough knowledge of the language and solid practical English skills. To improve university English education, I would propose the following:

・English teachers should have passed the first grade of STEP or achieved a score of over 600 on the TOEFL test;

・Teachers should study abroad, for at least one year, in an English-speaking country;

・The university English curriculum should place far greater emphasis on the reading and writing of English;

・English teachers should spend at least three years teaching English in high schools or prep-schools;

・The education ministry should devise a licensing system for university English teachers.

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The author is professor of English at the University of Kitakyushu.(IHT/Asahi: September 15,2006)

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