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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

December 27, 2012

A buncha fat, greasy, English edu-political opinions

Here are some 'unpopular' opinions that have been tugging at my ticker after reading several articles and websites about English education in Japan. I don't expect that these are going to go down well with everyone but, hey, that's why you're reading this piece, right?

So, let's get right into it.

1. It's not the government's fault

Sure, sometimes governments enact policies that backfire, marginalize half the populace, or were never meant to benefit the citizenry in the first place. But let's face it, blaming the government is often a default, knee-jerk reaction, an unexamined, uncritical, stock response to any perceived shortcoming in society. Which is fine for chinwagging over brews at your local nomiya but is hardly a substantial riposte when actively dealing with the issues- issues like the alleged poor English competency of EFL learners in Japan.

Blaming the government is like blaming 'society' for some wacko's gun rampage-- ultimately you are effectively holding no one responsible and thus cannot expect positive change to be enacted. It's the political equivalent of blowing a dandelion fluff into the breeze and praying that somehow everything will turn out fine. You are crafting responsibility into thin air.

MEXT- 'The scent of whale meat?'

So let's apply this to English education policy in Japan. I know the popular image of MEXT policy makers is that they are a bunch of blue-suited, middle-aged men with bad comb-overs and the faint scent of whale meat on their breath. But unfortunately, the caricature does not match the reality.

Have you ever met a MEXT English education policy maker, or heard one speak? I have on numerous occasions. They have always been, in my opinion, experienced, fairly cosmopolitan, bilinguals with a sound knowledge of language acquisition theory and pedagogy. In fact, many have been drafted or borrowed from the ranks of academia, such as Kensaku Yoshida of Sophia U. or Osamu Kageura (go ahead look 'em up). These people know their stuff, and, no, they don't need comb-overs.

Critics should also take a gander at the MEXT English education policy website . There is an English version. There is no endorsement of grammar-translation or audio-lingual methods or the expectation that English = diagramming sentences. Over the past two decades there has been an explicit policy move to foster Japanese who have practical competency in English as well as fostering a sense of English for enjoyment and communication. The rationale statements say all the 'right' things.

One popular, widespread belief is that MEXT determines classroom policy in detail-- syllabi and curricula are defined by bureaucrats to a T and teachers are duly bound to follow suit. Nonsense. MEXT guidelines are just that, guidelines. The textbooks, methodologies, and materials used to expedite MEXT's policy goals are almost completely left up to the local education board, individual school, or teacher. No, every English classroom in Japan is not doing the same government-mandated lesson at the same time, not even close.

So, the bottom line is that if there is a methodological or materials problem it ain't the government that foisted it upon you. (Aside- the prejudice that national governments decide everything in Asian societies is a monolith and an outdated stereotype, and in many cases is based upon 'othering' ignorance. Let's get past it).

2. The university entrance exams are not to blame

Another auto-pilot whipping boy, where critics assume that equally antiquated university bureaucrats make the exams and fill them with obscure, arcane, grammar-translation questions that washback into the public school system, 'forcing' antiquated methods upon teachers.

The truth is easily discovered. You can peruse the Center Shiken or any university English entrance exam at your local bookstore quite easily. I've investigated these tests quite thoroughly in published research and, repeating what I've stated on numerous occasions, most second-stage entrance exams focus mainly upon cognitively challenging tasks, or at least demand competencies beyond mere ei-wa sentence manipulations. The vast majority of tasks address and measure a variety of skills (although, obviously, interactive, dynamic speaking skills can't really be carried out in these tests).

'Most NJ university teachers sit on these committees'

And you know who makes these tests? Probably a huge number of readers of this blog-- most NJ university teachers I've met in Japan sit on, and often take prominent roles in, these committees. So, if you want to point the finger at the university entrance exams you'll be pointing the finger at a number of well-educated, progressive, knowledgeable foreign teachers, not to mention that many of the Japanese teachers on these committees are well-versed in testing, pedagogies, SLA, and teaching methodologies too.

Ditto for the Center Shiken. Due to its nation-wide status, it has to be designed to be quickly calculable, machine-read, and as objective as possible-- but it takes only a quick scan to see that a variety of skills are being addressed and that a student coming from a grammar-translation based methodology will not be rewarded. I can also tell you that the Center Shiken committee is made up of prominent university professors (I know of a handful) who know the issues, know the field-- both in classroom practices and in theory, and would come across to any reader of this blog as being well-informed. And, yes, they include several gaijin too.

3. So is grammar-translation to blame?

Not really. Grammar-translation, as Paul Nation has stated, has a role to play. There is a place for it in our classroom, as long as it is balanced and supplemented by other supportive methods. It's not a 'bad' methodology per se, it's just limited and should not be the automatic choice or a methodological priority.

And while I'm at it, can we please toss out the tired, old dichotomy that assumes that Japanese teachers do GT while NJ teachers do the 'communicative' stuff that students really love, the stuff that helps them? It's getting old and does not correspond to much of what I've seen and/or heard from both camps (based on friends, colleagues, meeting academics, reading research and policy by both NJ and Js on the topic, not to mention having a 16-year old son in the system). It's a huge oversimplification, which often allows NJ teachers to be unduly smug and self-righteous. Equally odious is the reciprocal binary equation-- that J teachers do all the serious teaching, while the foreigners merely play games or teach 'How do you do?'.

4. So the problem is that English taught in public schools is not really practical?

I don't really buy this-- for several reasons. Public school education should not be oriented towards instrumental goals like helping students to order hamburgers abroad, chat with foreign guests, or help lost Gaijin on the streets of Kyoto. Public school education should be about setting foundations (which is why grammar-translation, drills etc. have a place) that can be later adapted to practice. There must be a formative, academic rationale behind public school education. It's not a place to practice chatting. It's not Eikaiwa land.

Now, here's the kick. The teacher who can set these foundation in such a way that they can easily be transferred into extended and meaningful forms of communication, and the teachers who can enable that transfer from the passive to the productive, are the ones who are likely to get positive results. More on this in a moment. But first we must ask ourselves...

5. Is there really a problem?

All along, we have been assuming that Japanese non-proficiency in English is a problem, that someone has to be 'blamed' for. But is this really a fair depiction?

Sometimes I can't help but think that many J English education critics have not travelled widely-- or at least in their travels have been limited to speaking with people in the tourist or related industries, and thus have a skewered notion as to the relative English proficiency of countries X and Y vis-a-vis Japan. In Japan instead, they would have been subjected to a wider range of interlocutors, many unwilling, most by force of public school education, mostly geographically removed from Shibuya Center Gai and the like. So, naturally Farmer Hayashi's kid in Oita Prefecture is not going to sound as adept as the receptionist at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok.

And, to be honest, when I do the 'tourist/visitor' thing in Japan (stay at Tokyo hotels, go to restaurants/bars in such an area, attend conferences, go anywhere in Ropponngi/Hiroo- God forbid) I see little difference in comparison to Japan's neighbours.

The international test results canard

Of course, someone probably feels duty-bound now to bring up Japan's low-ranking composite scores on international proficiency tests, where they tend to edge out, oh, Bhutan and Montenegro by maybe a few decimal points. First, there are many, many 'hobby' test-takers in Japan, not to mention people ill-prepared but who are encouraged by English teachers or institutions to do so a bit too early. But my main problem with introducing the test score canard is that many of the same people who raise this objection are also people who would argue that discrete-point proficiency test scores are not an adequate measure or actual language ability. Somehow, this paradox seems to be lost on them.

And it should not be lost on those Canadians like myself who studied French, a national language, for five years and can't communicate in it as well as our average Japanese can in English. Think about it.

'Japan needs English for... whatever'

Finally, I must mention the ubiquitous but dubious 'need for English' criterion. Slogans like 'Japan needs English for...' sound sensible at a glance. But although young Ayaka from rural Wakayama might intuitively grasp that some Japanese need to be able speak English to sell Toyotas to Americans, that has little impact upon Ayaka, who plans to work at a nursery in her town of 50,000 people. Last time I looked, nurseries weren't peddling Priuses to the great American public. Grand policy statements using the monolithic 'Japan' rarely apply to 'every last Japanese person'.

6. So just who is responsible?

If you think your students are not where they should be in terms of English skills- you are! And when I say 'you' I do mean 'me' as well. Giving up by passing the buck onto 'the system' or 'the man' is a cop-out. We are instantly absolving ourselves of responsibility. You see a weakness? It is your responsibility to try and fix it.

Lookit. There have been NJs teaching wide and far in Japan for three decades. The ALT/JET system has been around since the bubble period. Eikaiwa schools are on every block, staffed mostly by NJs. More and more universities have NJ professors in long-term, policy-influencing roles. If the English proficiency situation hasn't improved then we have to start looking at ourselves. We are culpable here. We have to stop assuming that we, and our methods, are the solution but the 'man' keeps us down.

Stop blaming...

Do you want to see improvement? First, ask yourself- is it really necessary for my students to become proficient at English? (MEXT thinks so). And then ask yourself, are my students really so bad? And if the answer you give yourself is 'yes' then please do the following:
1. Don't blame MEXT. Or at least get informed as to what MEXT is actually saying or doing.
2. Don't blame university entrance exams.
3. Don't blame the 'other teachers' (usually meaning the old, racially-charged, NJ-J dichotomy)
4. Don't throw out the grammar-translation/drill baby with the methodological bathwater.
5. Don't assume that public schools are institutions where students should be learning immediately practical 'street' skills in any subject.

And, more positively, think of what you can do as a teacher to enable students to transfer their latent, foundational English skills into more cognitively-engaging, meaningful production. It's all about helping our students' skills develop-- the basis of what it means to be a proficient teacher.

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What would you say is the fix? I agree that not all Japanese need English, and perhaps one fix is to stop making it mandatory. But until that happens, the public schools will still go their way of interpreting the MEXT guidelines. Most ALTs that I know who are long-term veterans of the BOEs are fed up with being handcuffed by poor JTEs and by crappy curricula thrown their way. They have practically no power to wield in changing the system. Since public school is where it all begins, this would seem to be an important staring point.

Many Japanese will become immersed in some aspect of the globalized corporate world. Little Akiko and Taro in HS may or may not realize this. Research is emerging to show that HS kids don't take to the GT teaching they get, and that they want something more practical (perhaps exactly what you described instead of eikaiwa set phrases and such). But how can these feelings get heard so that change takes place?

Even students of various ESP fields prefer the casual conversation skills over technical stuff, says some research. Students will need to learn the grammar basics first, of course, and probably need some form of active listener/speaker training next before they can dive deeply into technical ESP language, but what is the best approach to accomplish all of those goals in the most practical and optimal time frame? Uni kids today get their language credits "out of the way" ASAP, then treat the rest of uni life as J students have always done: a relaxed time to pass courses and begin their networking. Companies seem to want it that way, which only lends another link to the chain that needs to be approached.

Nice article Mike, but the problems of English education are simple: large classes (in one private university in Hiroshima I had 70 students in one conversational speaking course, and in my national university classes it ranges from 40 to 28, which is better but still difficult to evaluate everyone's speaking ability, much less I how they can do presentations (once a semester); poor ESL textbooks from Oxford or Cambridge which have NO connection to Japanese culture, so students are bored and teachers tired from explaining (constantly!) the context and problems in the dialogues and tasks which they do not understand; classes which are held ONCE a week with long vacation periods in summer and winter (no way to have students make progress with this arrangement AND the Japanese government does not want to pay for daily classes (NOT ALL THAT serious about English or any language education; and finally the last problem is how English is taught in junior and high school with the BOE screwing over ALTs (my wife now only teaches 7 months a year now, and the outsourcing of English education at this level amounts to one bad joke, as the homeroom teachers whonare supposed to take over later are NOT getting it (it being the language and how to teach it and they are furious about having to do it in the first place.As for English exams, Korea now has a speaking part to it, but not Japan. The last (and perhaps the most serious issue with any language education is cultural---Japanese are far to SHY and reserved and PASSIVE. I heard from one of my part-timers that teaching in Kyushu University (#10 in Japan) was a bit of a pain as the students were incredibly obedient, as they were the best of the best, but would NEVER talk unless asked. No opinions about anything as they have been too busy studying in their lives.Mix that shyness with a lack of confidence, charm and charisma, and you have a huge problem. But I have started with doing my own EFL textbooks and small publishers like Perceptia Press have books that are at least for Japanese students. Just my two LONG bits.

Thanks for writing this, Mike, but I think you skirt the issue.

The reason there is a persistant low standard of English fluency among Japanese academics and businessmen is that both Japanese and English educators fail to recognize the enormous influence of Japanized-English assimiliated into the Japanese language.

The fact is that Japanese children have already learned and can speak "English" before they ever set foot in the English classroom; but they've learned it wrong. TV, the internet, other mass media, and virtually every ordinary conversational interaction in Japanese that uses "Gairaigo" foreign loanwords is saturated with a Japanese Pidjin English dialect that has been developing since Commodore Perry and the Black Ships.

There is a proprietary quality to this "Japanese-English" (as they call it) -- it's their English; they possess it, they control it; they add to the vocabulary; they attribute their meaning; they apply their methodology. Its essentially what one colleague has called "Christmas Tree English," English words (with Japanese meaning, usage and pronunciation) hanging off of Japanese Grammar. It contaminates the English practice of most Japanese educators at least as far up as the high school level.

There are many a priori assumptions of their language that carry over into this Pidjin that are very subtle but undermine efforts to teach correct English: how students are trained to listen, how ritualize our language unnaturally; the teaching of "romaji" pronunciation which essentially has nothing to do with English at all!; the absence of the singular/plural and definite and other systems in the Primary School English curriculum; the Japanese convention of fixed vowels which only plays havoc with their listening fluency in English (e.g. they understand "Holly Pohtah" and "Joan Rehnohn" but cannot comprehend "Harry Potter" and "John Lennon"-- person after person after person!) There are many more assumptions.

An assumption of Japanese instructors is that it is an easy thing for long-time students to improve their accuracy after the six-year foundational program junioir and senior high schoolers go through. This is not my experience. As a Business English Instructor for many years, my job was to un-teach poor instruction, like a doctor breaking poorly-set bones in order to reset them.

And yet I seldom see this topic brought up in workshops, trainings and conferences, unless I bring it up. I personally believe that the multi-cultural ethic that fosters the appreciation of the cultural differences renders Native English educators with great embarrassment and confusion upon confronting this bizarre mass-appropriation of our language. We can't stop it; we can't change it, but we can develop strategies to deal with it in the classroom, and learn how to speak about it and prepare new instructors for it in training courses. I personally rely on a theory that a good knowledge of Japanese Pop culture, and the ability to immerse students into a hermetically sealed English environment are essential strategies for avoiding the bone-breaking later on.

For long-term correction of this problem, there needs to be a critical mass of trained Japanese English educators, both teaching and writing curriculum, who have evolved their language fluency beyond speaking Pidjin and into fully fluent English. These instructors could be taught at university level by professional Native English instructors who understand the pitfalls of mass-Pidjin fluency on teaching academic-standard English.

This English Pidjin not only sabotages English education, but also undermines cross-cultural communication between the Japanese and non-Japanese speakers, as many who live along the "frontier" have colorful anecdotes about. This is the first time I've tried to share these ideas with language professionals. Many may disagree, but I hope this begins to spark a discussion.

The best cure for incommunication is good communication.

Erik Kaye,

Gairaigo is an important thing to fix. There are pronunciation issues compared to the real English, as well as usage grammatically. However, I don't think it is as important as other things, like getting the foundation of grammar established early, followed by proper training in the strategies needed to use English in typical situations. Students need to lose their dictionaries so they don't rely on them when speaking, and learn how to use them when they should ( instead of picking only the first meaning). They need to learn how to ask others for clarification and meaning, as well as know how to provide the same when asked.

Fair article, and well written. Paints a nuanced picture to hopefully fill the void left by the caricatures floating around.

Thanks for these considered responses. And sorry for being late to respond myself, having been caught up in New Year's festivities, such as wearing a pointy party hat.

I could write another essay responding to the first three comments above but I'm saving much of it for a soon-to-come DY article, so I'll hold off. Instead I'd like to respond to some of the points raised above that I agree with, followed by a few tangential points.

First, to Glen.

I definitely agree that making English non-mandatory would be a positive move. A culling would sharpen pedagogical focus and mean that (ideally) only skilled teachers and committed students would be learning, as opposed to the current motif of English being all things to all men-- throw enough crap at the wall....etc.

Until then though, I think we should lower our expectations, IF those expectations are that all Japanese should (morally or logically) become competent at English. I accept myself that for many, English will be largely forgotten or go unused and become brittle, with no apparent detrimental effects.

If I'm teaching such students my expectation is that, if I teach well, they may have a positive view of English and its utility so that they can pursue it more deeply if they so choose. Beyond that, I can't expect much more from them. In other words, I hope to inculcate post-course autonomy skills so that they might be used if/when the student feels the need.

For Medical students, obviously, I set the bar higher but still do not expect most or all to develop day-to-day proficiency. But I strive to equip them so if they take that option.
(Please keep in mind that when I say 'lower expectations' this definitely does not imply teaching sloppily or allowing for mediocrity to earn a credit. It does mean to make an effort to challenge and engage students in meaningful tasks-- it's just that I don't expect most institutional EFL learners to come out of courses being proficient).

This connects somewhat to Robert's point. I definitely agree that personality, and its occasional dovetailing with socio-cultural classroom behaviors, can be a limiting factor. Then again, I don't want to change personalities or cultures although I can hope at least to open doors for those who might have the personality, interaction skills etc. to go beyond that English doorway. And, as Glen said in his second post, strategic competence skills-- interactive management-- need to be stressed more to help achieve this.

As for large classes, I think they can have a role in English education. Lord knows hundreds of people are watching TED lectures and will still manage to get a lot out of them-- as long as we don't limit our notions of teaching English to interactive skills alone or assume that Eng-Ed is reducible to dynamic communication practice. For the development of those interactive skills though, yes, you really do need smaller classes-- so if all the classes at your Univ, Robert, are in the 30-80 range, I can see your point.

I'm not so certain about Eric's point though. The appropriated English is adopted into the Japanese language system syntactically, semantically, and pragmatically so I don't view it as a bastardization of English (not your term, I know) but as an expansion of Japanese.

This is normal for evolving languages, that chunks from more dominant languages are adapted and altered-- just look at all those French and German-based words in English (not to mention what you can hear in English varieties all over the world).

Almost all Japanese people I've met are aware that gairaigo are divorced from actual native English usage and that they often don't match 'native' usage, although these phrases still remain fall-back options when more accurate or appropriate expressions fail the speaker.

More than being an imposition or a barrier, I think at times they can serve as a bridge-- serving as a creative extension of the English I/we grew up with-- although there are certainly some gairaigo items that will cause more confusion than communication when used outside Japan.

I'm certainly not of the belief that Japanese people, or EFL learners anywhere, need to mirror US or UK English speakers to speak 'properly'.

Nice article, and a lot of common sense.

Maybe people should compare the second language ability of school children from England to Japanese kids English ability......

I think the hiring of 'native teachers' with no training or experience is a big problem.

I have six years teaching experience, an MA in TESOL and a few other English teaching qualifications and I have been more or less unemployed (one and a half days of work a week) since completing my MA. Meanwhile many inexperienced "teachers" with no qualifications can get a job without any trouble at all. There is a big problem with the ESL situation in Japan when a qualified applicant is being passed over time and time again for unqualified applicants because they likely look the part. Tell me in what other country being a qualified applicant closes more doors than it opens?

There is a huge problem with the English teaching industry in Japan and it is at all the structural levels that you are using dubious anecdotal evidence to attempt to refute. Just because Mr. So and so from the Ministry of Education is an educated guy with years of teaching experience and wonderful personality does not prove that the English education in Japan policy is sound.

By the way I live in your prefecture Miyazaki and I can tell you from experience that there is a lot wrong with English language education policy here.

Thanks for writing, Paul.

Hiring decisions are made at the local level, which means, yes, that factors other than academic credentials and/or experience come into play. Knowing a candidate personally will be one, having the candidate recommended by an esteemed current teacher is another. And in some cases over-age and over-qualification appear to raise their heads too. And it does happen in other countries and industries/institutions too.

I don't intend to pretend everything is fine and dandy in Japanese English education but I do believe that some of the popular critical salvos are unwarranted or mis-aimed.

I really do think though at some point that the people who are making the decisions about the direction English education is taking in Japan have to take some responsibility for the shortcomings in the system. This article seems to want to absolve people of that responsibility which seems too convenient for me. I haven't met the bigwigs at the Ministry of Education that your article discusses but I have met plenty of English teachers in the school system and people on various boards of education and most of them have no real interest in English education at all and likely shouldn't even be teaching English in the first place. Someone has to take responsibility for a failing system just as I have to take responsibility if my classes are failing. I know you didn't say everything is fine and dandy but you did allude to the fact that a number of areas that might be a problem are not a problem at all. I think this is disingenuous at best.

It seems very unfair to me that someone who is qualified can't get a job even as an ALT or an eikaiwa teacher but the same schools and eikaiwas are packed full of teachers who had never set foot in a classroom before they came to Japan and probably can't muster up an English teaching qualification between them. At what point is is better to have a teacher who is not qualified at all rather than a qualified teacher? I mean we are talking about teaching here which is a profession not just a job to pass the time. This tells me that learning English is not the objective at all. Again this is the system here we are talking about. For the record I am hardly old, unless 37 qualifies as old these days.

I also think that comparing the success of English teaching in Japan with French in the UK or Canada is a complete cop out and perhaps the reason why are failing. We could quite as easily compare it to English teaching in Norway or Denmark but that wouldn't be fair either would it? I want to teach my few classes the best that I can and achieve good results in the classroom regardless of what they are doing elsewhere, which is not my concern. Should I tell my students that I don't really have any expectations of them because they are crap at speaking in the UK?

By the way I really enjoy reading this blog and find your opinions insightful and thought provoking most of the time but this particular article left quite a sour taste in my mouth, no doubt due to my personal situation. This article seems to want to absolve responsibility from those that should be responsible.

A system that was working well and really cared about English education as it's primary objective would make best use of a qualified teacher. The fact that it doesn't leads me to think that the teaching of English is not the objective at all. I spent some years working as an ALT in Japanese public schools and I can say that they don't learn English at all, they learn about English which is an entirely different thing.

One more thing. I have often thought that for the amount of money that Japan spends on ALTs through both the JET programme and private dispatch agencies they really could get well qualified and trained applicants. Take a look at any international ESL/EFL job board and you can make a quick comparison with what the rates of pay are elsewhere. The fact that they pay so much and expect so little says that it has nothing to do with learning English. You can wheel out the cultural exchange debate but I really don't think that has been the case for some years. You said hiring is done at the local level but someone is making decisions on a national level about the school system and they could force the B.O.Es to change if English education was a priority for them.They could even make it a prerequisite to be able to speak English at an advanced level to become an English teacher. Rules and even laws can be changed by those higher up the pecking order, it is a top down system here after all.

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