English in Japan. Simply put, it is everywhere and nowhere at various levels of correctness and authenticity. It is being used by some Japanese on a regular basis to communicate with foreigners they meet or correspond with through their business or study. It, or some semblance of it, is found on thousands of T-shirts and training wear that young people are wearing. It is sometimes on the walls as decoration in cafes and boutiques although it is rarely correct. A few words of it are exchanged between junior high school, high school and university students every day when they say goodbye. But despite studying for 6 years or more, most Japanese have not acquired the ability to speak or understand much spoken English. It is hard to imagine anywhere else in the world that a person could study a language for 6 years without acquiring the ability to speak. But then there is Japan.
I lived here over 20 years ago and taught English at Berlitz for a few years before working as a technical translator for a large electrical appliance company. At that time I had the same question about why so few Japanese were learning to speak English despite so many years of studying it. What I realized at the time was that the objective of English education in the schools in Japan was not to speak but instead to do well on entrance exams for high schools and universities. Those entrance exams did not require the ability to comprehend or use the spoken language. So at the time I proposed via a letter to the “Voice” column of the Asahi newspaper that a “Hearing” test be added to these exams. “Hearing”, although I would not normally have used that term, was the term that was understood by Japanese readers to mean “listening comprehension”. I also proposed that those passing the EIKEN English proficiency exam be exempted from the English portion of the entrance exams. I have heard that after 15 or 20 years some universities have done these things. So there has been some progress and certainly thousands of Japanese who lived overseas and studied in foreign schools have returned to Japan with the desire to keep up and improve their English speaking ability. So there has been some improvement but I am still somewhat surprised by the lack of progress.
On the other hand, this lack of significant progress is continuing to afford myself and many others the opportunity to teach English while enjoying a very comfortable life in what I think it the most pleasant, convenient and peaceful country in the world. So it is difficult to really complain about this situation if teaching English conversation is your vocation. Japan is really a great place to live and operate your own English school.
I do think that there is a need for more progress at each level of public education to emphasize speaking English as the primary goal of learning instead of purely for reading and translation. In future posts I want to try to identify the problems that are particular to Japanese learners of English and some possible ways to overcome them. I hope that my fellow teachers will also contribute to this effort over time.
For now I am enjoying seeing the “RODEO CROWNS” handbags etc. as it a small reminder that there is still work to do here!
Al Bartle (Smith’s School of English – Okamoto)