Teaching English in Japan: more observations

Although I am “by trade” an accountant, from time to time I’ve taught English here in Japan.

So by that, and being past the age of oh, eh, four-zero, I think I am one of the handful of folks in the world who’s seen the state of affairs with teaching English in Japan.

So every now and then I want to blog about it. In generalities, of course. Not to the individual learner.

One thing that makes me do a double take is how many times I’m told that English is taught for 6 years in Japanese schools. Six years! You’d think people would be confident about a basic English sentence.

I know that if I was taught Japanese formally for 6 years, rather than try to pick it up in my own time, (and on my own motivation), I’d probably be a lot better at it than I am now, with my eyes glued to the ceiling as I try to figure out what the right vocabulary and grammar is for what I’m trying to say.

So I’m convinced that English really isn’t taught in most Japanese schools. But rather there is a program of sorts, “material”, which is gone over in the respective years, and whatever the students pick up, well, that’s what they learned.

It’s partly the difficulties of surmounting a very rich language that is in the Indo-European tradition (not Altaic like Japanese). And I think it’s part of the postwar spite of the ruling elite here, that didn’t want the population learning the “conqueror’s language” and having it assert an influence on the “pure” Japanese culture.

And a third thing is that it might just be easier to hand kids a list of Latinate vocabulary words and have them memorize it. Then, give the test. Maybe the Bureaucrat Theory of why it’s difficult for Japanese to get a handle on English.

So when I teach it, I emphasize plain English and the grammar rules. Because it’s clear that this isn’t what’s taught. When I say grammar rules, too, we deal with things like “ain’t” and “he don’t” because this language is used and it has its own set of rules, even though it is not Standard English or proper English, or whatever you want to call it.

I feel that if the curriculum here focused on plain speaking and basic grammar, many Japanese would feel that they are on very solid ground when they come across a non-Japanese and want to speak English. (Chances are in the contemporary world, the foreigner is going to know English, right?)

The big hurdle, ironically, is a resistance that I get to this approach by people who learned vocabulary lists and think they can avoid prepositions and more complex verb tenses. They are trying to make English the invented language they half-learned in junior high school. It shows.

The people here who are good at it, are the ones who were fortunate enough, somehow, to have somebody explain the basics and then drill them in the beginning. Then, all the heavy, Latinate vocabulary sits on top of that, and everything is fine. Because that’s how native speakers get to learn the language.

It’s a German of course, English. So if you don’t appreciate grammar in Germanic languages, you have a hurdle right there. French and Latin teachers, sometimes Spanish ones, love to point out the influence of Latin on English. And it’s undeniable. But it is a Germanic language. Even if the car looks like a Pugeot or Ferrari on the outside, the inner workings (the motor and drive train) are a Volkswagen.