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Interview with Kensaku Yoshida

kensaku_yoshida.gifKensaku Yoshida was born in Kyoto. He is Director of the Center for the Teaching of Foreign Languages in General Education, and a Professor in the Department of English Language and Studies, Sophia University. He is the author of 'J-Talk' (Oxford University Press) and 'Heart to Heart' (Macmillan Language House).


On Teaching

ELTNEWS
ELT: Why did you enter the English-teaching profession?
Kensaku
I had already made up my mind to teach English when I was in high school. I belonged to the ESS and I used to help the other members of the club with their English, and I liked it. However, my original intention was to teach in junior high school and not in college. Several of my professors encouraged me to stay on and teach at Sophia. I was told by my advisor that although it would of course be a wonderful thing for me to teach in junior high school, he felt that I could also do a good job training future teachers of English in the university. So that's why I work with teachers so much. That was the reason why I stayed on to teach at the university.
ELTNEWS
Do you remember the first English class you taught?
Kensaku
Not really. However, in 1974 when I first taught at Sophia, I remember teaching English to Russian majors, and I used a textbook -- annotated by my own professor -- on Jean Jacque Rousseau! It was basically an English to Japanese translation class. It was a very 'traditional' class.

On English in Japan

ELTNEWS
How has English-language teaching changed in Japan since you entered the profession?
Kensaku
I began studying about foreign language teaching in the late 1960s, and the 'new'way of teaching was still basically 'audio-lingual.' I wrote my B.A. thesis on a contrastive analysis of Japanese and English auxiliary expressions, and my M.A. thesis was on the new 'cognitive approach' which came into existence as a result of the psycholinguistic research following Chomsky's new linguistic theory.

As I mentioned above, I began teaching in the old traditional way. It was the most popular approach to language teaching at that time -- although it still seems to be the case in many schools. Since then, we've gone through the so-called age of methodologies, communicative approaches to language teaching, learner autonomy and learning strategies, and back to the acknowledgement of the importance of the conscious ability to manipulate grammatical rules. However, even with the emphasis being placed once again on knowledge of grammar, the recognition of locals Englishes and learner language shows that 'grammar' does not necessarily refer to the so-called 'native' English grammar which has always been the norm to achieve.
ELTNEWS
You are a member of the special advisory committee to the Ministry of Education on education reform. From the monthly meetings was a consensus reached on the status of English in Japan?
Kensaku
Let me just say that everyone acknowledges the importance of English for Japan in the 21st century. However, there is still much controversy as to how much it should be emphasized. Some people feel that it is important for only a handful of people who will actually be representing Japan in international negotiations, and that English should be an elective subject in school.

Our committee, however, made a distinction between two types of Englishes -- one at the level of everyday conversation and transactions (what in Cummins' terms might be called BICS), and the other, at the level required to conduct cognitively demanding interactions (in Cummins' terms, CALP). The former level of English is something that we feel everyone should be able to attain. We do not want stores, inns, some hotels, as well as boarding houses refusing foreigners simply because they cannot speak English (or other foreign languages). On the other hand, we do not expect everyone to be able to debate and negotiate at international conferences either. In other words, we feel that BICS is something that should be left to compulsory education, while CALP is something that should be kept as an elective subject in our schools.
ELTNEWS
Should English be an official language in Japan?
Kensaku
The proposal to make English the second official language of Japan came originally from the business world. People were frustrated by the fact that only a handful of Japanese were able to compete equally with their foreign counterparts at international negotiations. The general feeling has been that the educational world was not succeeding in producing the kind of Japanese with the necessary ability in the use of English. The proposal, therefore, was made to pressure the government into changing the way English is being taught as a top-down initiative.

The general feelings have been more negative than positive. Although the proposal has suggested the importance of creating more concrete objectives for the teaching of English in Japan -- and in this sense has had a positive effect -- I feel that the proposal lacks in concrete measures as to how to bring about the necessary changes in English education in Japan to fulfill the spirit of the proposal. In fact, if the necessary measures can be provided to overhaul the teaching of English in Japan, then there will no longer be any need to make English an official language.

There are already many cities and districts which provide their home pages not only in Japanese and English, but also in Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, etc. Municipal offices provide assistance to foreigners in several foreign languages. Believe it or not, there are 22 languages being taught as foreign languages in Japanese high schools. Although foreign languages will become compulsory from the year 2002 in junior and senior high schools, English is not mandatory.

In Hokkaido and in parts of northern Japan facing the Japan Sea, maybe the most important language will be Russian. In Kyushu and along the southern part of Japan facing the Japan Sea, the most important language will be Korean and Chinese. English IS important because it is de facto the international language. However, as has been shown in research on attitudes, top-down coerced change will not necessarily bring about real change.

On the Future

ELTNEWS
What changes would you like to see in the ways English is being taught in Japan at the various levels (e.g. elementary, high school and university)?
Kensaku
One of the most important things is for everyone concerned with the teaching of English in Japan to come together with people in the business world to come together to discuss the real needs and objectives of English education in Japan. Until now, not one applied linguist or TESL/TEFL specialist was included in the committee that came up with the proposal to make English the second official language. The committee on revising English education in Japan was a mixed committee, but with not enough input from the business sector.

Furthermore, up to now, there has been relatively little cooperation between junior and senior high school teachers of English, less communication between high school and college teachers of English, very little communication as yet between junior high school and elementary school teachers; and also, very little communication between Japanese teachers of English and Foreign teachers of English. Sectionalism is the first thing we have get rid of if we want to make the necessary changes in Japan's English education in the 21st century.
ELTNEWS
To what extent will technology play a role in the teaching of English in The future?
Kensaku
Technology will no doubt play a very important role in the teaching of English in the future. However, we need so much more research into what can and cannot be done by using technology. We know for sure, that with email, net-conferencing, virtual universities, etc. that technology can provide our students with genuine opportunities to interact in foreign languages. We also know that the technology is also providing us with opportunities to find better and more effective ways of practicing language forms, functions and meanings. However, we also know that face-to-face communication is something which is essential to human communication. There is so much more to communication than simply the ability to use language effectively. Technology will change a lot of the way we teach foreign languages, but 'human' communication will still be conducted in real-life contact situations.

On Kensaku

ELTNEWS
What are your EFL/ESL research interests?
Kensaku
I'm very much interested in intercultural communication and how it might be realized in the context of foreign language teaching. However, my essential assumption is that intercultural communication begins at the interpersonal level. In other words, we first have to think about how people most effective communicate with each other at the interpersonal level. If we are successful at this interpersonal level, then I'm sure that that knowledge can be applied to the intercultural communication level as well -- after all, we're all the same human being, aren't we?
ELTNEWS
You are one of the very few Japanese ELT practitioners who regularly give workshops and seminars to fellow teachers in Japan. What themes do you like to present and why?
Kensaku
I usually do workshops on communicative language teaching ideas as well as on intercultural communication. That's because there is so much need among the Japanese teachers of English to learn about and experiment with new ways of teaching English. I also lecture on more general goals and trends in English education in Japan, as well as talk about the problems of the so-called kikokushijo. In fact, I will be talking about this broader theme of English education in Japan at the TESOL 2001 Conference in St. Louis.



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