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.

3 thoughts on “Teaching English in Japan: more observations

  1. > I’m told that English is taught for 6 years in Japanese schools.

    That information is a little out of date now. English is regularly being taught from elementary school now.

  2. Regarding English being taught in elementary schools: just like how Sesame Street teaches Americans words like “Apple,” “Dog,” “Cat,” and counting to ten in Spanish, English in elementary schools in Japan is about the same level. (my daughter currently attends public school in Japan)

    It’s important to note that in the United States, most publicly educated kids also get years of foreign language (usually Spanish) too. And unlike Japan, which borders no English speaking countries and most Japanese are unlikely to ever bump into an English speaker in there lifetime (like Americans, most Japanese never travel internationally in their whole lives), Central America borders the United States, and the odds of an American being exposed to a Spanish speaker is much higher.

    Yet despite this, most Americans would love to have a Spanish ability as advanced as Peggy Hill:

    The secret to foreign language ability is not education, but rather exposure and opportunity — something that Europeans are blessed to have much more of than Japanese or Americans.

    1. I don’t have first-hand knowledge of elementary school teaching, but I have to agree with this, Eido.

      I don’t talk about individual teaching encounters, but what I have seen generally is that the English taught at the elementary level does vary. And the influence of Nova-Kids-as-daycare is very much present. The young kids associate English with Party Time, and a large number aren’t as diligent about studying it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s