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Interview with Kumiko Torikai

kumiko_torikai.gifKumiko Torikai is the Director of the English Language Program at Rikkyo University and has been a professor at the university since 1997. A graduate of Sophia University and Columbia University, Torikai has over 30 years experience as an interpreter and interviewer.



On English in Japan

ELTNEWS
How did you learn English and when did you decide that teaching English would be your career?
Kumiko
Basically I learned it in Japan, just as any other Japanese, at a private high school in Tokyo, plus trying different things on my own, such as reading or watching movies in English, participating in English speech contests or dramas. As for overseas experience, I spent one year in the United States as an AFS (American Field Service) exchange student while I was a senior in high school. I thought about teaching English about 15 years ago, when I took a break from my interpreting/TV interviewer career to raise my children. I started to think about it seriously when I was offered a position to teach at a new 4-year university.
ELTNEWS
Why do the Japanese need to speak English?
Kumiko
I doubt if all the people in Japan have the need to speak it daily, but it is true that a certain percentage of our population do need to use it as a de facto lingua franca. You cannot deny the fact that English has become a global language, and will probably remain as a means for international communication in the foreseeable future. In digital world of Internet and email, you may not have to speak it orally, but you certainly have to be able to read and write English. It is also true that if you know English, it is easier to get information, to widen your perspectives and also it's more fun!
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?
Kumiko
One thing we agreed on was to consider English language education holistically, integrating all levels of teaching. At present, English is taught at different levels, at high schools and colleges, without any effort to give it coherence and continuity. In other words, people in the ELT field are doing what they feel is the right thing, but there is as yet any effort to review the whole picture in terms of cohesion, which is counterproductive and would not produce tangible results. The committee will hopefully come up with some specific suggestion as to what should be done in each level to attain some goals that would also have to be discussed further.

On Japanese Students

ELTNEWS
Why do you think Japanese students have such low TOEFL scores when compared to other test-takers in Asia?
Kumiko
The answer is twofold:

First and foremost, the number of people who take TOEFL in Japan far exceeds any country in Asia. TOEFL, as we all know, is a standard test to assess the language ability for the purpose of study at colleges in North America. In Japan, not only people who are interested in studying abroad, but people who are interested in English tend to take it just to see how they score. If the number of applicants becomes big, it is not surprising that the average score goes down.

Secondly, and perhaps more important, is that the Japanese test-takers tend to score low in the last section of TOEFL, the reading portion. This may sound like news to many people when it is almost taken for granted that the Japanese learners are good at reading but not in speaking. You cannot judge speaking in TOEFL, so we are discussing here which of the three sections Japanese are not good at.

Among the three parts, listening, grammar and reading, the Japanese learners seem to have difficulty in reading, or they do not perform as well as they should, chiefly because they are too slow in reading in English, not having received proper training in reading strategies.

Most of the time, the reading that is taught at school is bottom-up reading, analyzing sentences with the help of dictionaries, consulting every single word that is new or unknown. What the Japanese learners need is top-down reading, to enable them to read faster and more efficiently. Some cram schools have started teaching rapid reading/speed reading, and in some universities, courses are offered to teach top-down reading. For example, at Rikkyo University, we have just completed video/textbook materials called "Information, Please!" and "More Information, Please!" (both published by Shouhaku-sha,) to teach top-down reading, in our twice-a-week Reading and Listening course, taught in language labs.
ELTNEWS
There is a general perception among Japanese that the best way to learn English is from a native speaker. Many of the big eikaiwa schools hire foreign teachers even though they have no teaching experience or qualifications. What are your views on this?
Kumiko
Native speakers have a great deal to offer language learners when we think how language is closely related to culture. As such, I fully understand the learners' preference for native speakers. However, if a foreign person is hired just because he or she is a native speaker without any training in teaching languages and without any understanding of their students and their culture, the teaching often ends in frustration and disappointment on both sides, which is unfortunate.

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. high school and university)
Kumiko
I'd like to see the following:
  • More consistency and cooperation among different levels.
  • Discussion and agreement on the goals of teaching English.
  • More discussion on why we need English, and what kind of English we need to teach the future generations.
  • More training to teachers of English; giving them easier access to post-graduate level TESOL study and more opportunities to study in English speaking countries.
ELTNEWS
What advice would you give to a young Japanese graduate who wishes to enter the ELT profession?
Kumiko
Always think why you want to teach English, and try to give as much as you can so that the students can enhance their world-view via English. Always bear in mind that we teach English for global communication.

On English

ELTNEWS
If there were one thing you could change about the English language, what would it be?
Kumiko
Can you do something about definite and indefinite articles?! I'd like the rules of usage simplified!



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Comments

I think Prof. To"rikai's comment that Native Speakers are important when we think how closely English is connected to culture" is misguided, when we realize that NSs now represent a minority of those using English in the world, and that in India or Singapore or the Philippines, it is that local culture which is expressed using English, rather than No. American,UK, or Australian culture...


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