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Interview with Kumiko Torikai - Parts 1-2

Kumiko Torikai, Ph.D. is a professor and founding dean at the Graduate School of Intercultural Communication, at Rikkyo University, in Tokyo and a visiting professor at Kanda University of Foreign Studies. She is a lecturer/supervisor of the NHK multimedia program English through the News. She is a member of the Science Council of Japan, as well as councils and committees in the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Land and Transportation and the Cabinet Office. She is Former President of the Japan Association for Interpreting and Translation Studies and a former president of the Japan Congress/Convention Bureau. 

Professor Torikai took an MA TESOL at Columbia University and completed her doctorate at the University of Southampton in the UK. She has over 20 years of experience as a conference interpreter, TV interviewer, and a language teacher.  Her research interests include social, cultural and communicative aspects of language education, as well as interpreting and translation as intercultural practice. 

Publications include 国際共通語としての英語 - Kokusai Kyōtsūgo toshite no Eigo (English as an International Lingua Franca) published this year by Kodansha; 英語公用語の何が問題か - Eigo Kōyōgo no Nani ga Mondai ka (English as an official language in Japan?); and Voices of the Invisible Presence: Diplomatic Interpreters in Post-World War II Japan (2009, John Benjamins).

Russell Willis spoke with Professor Torikai at Rikkyo University at the end of May 2011.

Here we present parts 1 & 2 of this fascinating 3-part interview.

Part One: Learning English in High School

“…it is not really fair for people to complain that English language education should be changed–because it has changed.”
Russell Willis:
In your Asahi Shinbun interview earlier this year you said that critics of the current English education system in high schools in Japan were misguided; that they were living in the past when they said that people aren’t learning how to speak. You said that things had swung the other way and that in fact, too much communication-based teaching was going on, and not enough reading and comprehension.
Kumiko Torikai:
The strange thing is that people don’t seem to realize that the government’s policy changed nearly 20 years ago and people still say we only learn reading and writing at school and that’s why we can’t speak English. The Ministry of Education (MEXT) made a drastic change in their policy regarding the teaching of English, and it is not really fair for people to complain that English language education should be changed -- because it has changed.
Russell Willis:
I think that’s where a lot of people disagree with you. It’s undeniable that the policy has changed but actual teaching and the reality on the ground hasn’t kept up or followed the policy. I know that you feel that teachers have been very diligent in implementing the new policy. But, if I could just refer you to a quote from Tim Murphey, a professor at Kanda University of International Studies:

“the truth is too many high school and junior high school teachers are force-feeding grammar.”

He said to me that he had received over a thousand written testimonies from his university students over the last 10 years about their experience learning English at high school. He said that as far as those testimonies were concerned -- about the experience of learning English -- nothing had changed.

I directly quoted your Asahi Shimbun interview to him and I asked him how he would respond to that because it seems to me that what he is saying and what your students are saying is in direct contradiction. He said that his students are still complaining and saying “Gosh, it feels so good now to be able to speak. All we did was study for exams in junior and senior high school.” So, there seems to be a contradiction there. Maybe there isn’t but there seems to be.
Kumiko Torikai:
I think both are accurate pictures. I mean -- how many schools are there in Japan? A whole lot. The situation varies from school to school. You also have to know that private schools have freedom to teach the way they like. So, chances are that some private schools might focus on grammar-translation method. I’ve seen that myself too.
Russell Willis:
Because they don’t have to follow the government policy?
Kumiko Torikai:
They have to follow the general government policy, of course, but they don’t necessarily have to follow the Course of Study (学習指導要領 - Gakushū Shidō Yōryō) , a guideline for teaching, provided by the Ministry of Education. So, the ministry has changed their policy, but a private school may not pay attention and continue their own way of teaching. That’s one thing.
Russell Willis:
But these are a small percentage of schools in Japan.
Kumiko Torikai:
Yes, a smaller percentage, but some of them are quite influential. And even among public schools, there are differences. For example, there might be schools with teachers struggling to teach the very basics to lower level students, and there might be prestigious schools with students who want to enter top level universities. And there are schools which are awarded the status of Super English Language High Schools (SELHi) -- schools which are really geared toward communicative English language teaching, getting the SELHi grant from the Monbushō (文部省 - the Ministry of Education). They are the forerunners of new communicative language teaching. I don’t deny the fact that there are teachers and schools who, behind the back of the Ministry of Education, continue with the grammar-translation method. Their rationale is, well, of course, communication is important but we’ve got to teach students grammar because otherwise they will not be able to be accepted in universities. I say that it’s a big excuse because there aren’t too many universities nowadays who emphasize detailed grammar questions in their entrance exams. I have to say university exams have changed dramatically as well.

Yes, I have to admit that there are teachers who haven’t changed. One thing I can say is that the Ministry of Education knows that.

That is probably why they stated in their new Course of Study that in senior high school, English classes should be taught basically in English. That caused quite a stir among high school teachers and in the media. Part of the reason why they said that was perhaps they felt that unless they officially declared it…
Russell Willis:
It was a way to stop grammar being taught so explicitly.
Kumiko Torikai:
Right. However, there is something else which is an issue -- the prevalent feeling in today’s Japan that grammar is not necessary for communication.
Russell Willis:
I don’t think anyone is arguing that grammar is unnecessary -- but the idea that the vast majority of public high schools students are chatting merrily away in English with teachers using information gaps and the communicative approach just isn’t true. Teachers who ask students for their learning histories show that the majority of public high schools are -- as you say -- teaching surreptitiously the only way they can teach. I don’t know where the evidence is on the other side.
Kumiko Torikai:
I hope you will visit high schools where they really focus on activities like debate, speech and discussion. There is such wide variety even among public schools that it’s difficult to generalize. All I want is for people to realize that things have changed and are changing in schools. They are totally different from the high schools that all these people in their 50s, 60s and 70s know. Yet, people seem to think schools stay exactly the same as in the past. You will be surprised to hear old men at government council meetings complain that schools should be totally changed because they only teach grammar and reading and that is why Japanese people cannot speak English -- but they have never read the actual course of study, never seen recent textbooks and haven’t visited classrooms nowadays. They only talk about their own experiences and make generalizations.
Russell Willis:
I think it should be indisputable that the syllabus of junior high school and high school English classes has changed…
Kumiko Torikai:
Oh, yes, that’s definite. Yes.
Russell Willis:
I suppose the issue is whether teachers are paying attention to that. You say that a small minority are still doing it the old-fashioned way either because they think it’s the best thing to do or because they feel that it’s necessary for passing exams, or because it’s the only way they can teach…
Kumiko Torikai:
Yes, exactly.
Russell Willis:
To be clear: you are saying that that is actually a minority of teachers and not a majority of teachers at public high schools.
Kumiko Torikai:
It’s difficult to specify whether one school of thought is a minority or a majority. You would have to take a poll or do a survey across the country. At least I know that there are many high schools which have been made SELHiS and they don’t get grants if they stick to archaic ways of teaching English. The grammar-translation method is not totally wrong, but the way they teach grammar should be improved. One major drawback of grammar-translation method is that learners get easily bored.
Russell Willis:
Grammar can be taught fairly intensively within communicative-based activities. There is no reason for grammar points to be taught in that way as opposed to sort of a mechanical explication of grammatical form.
Kumiko Torikai:
But even the explicit way of teaching can be more stimulating.
Russell Willis:
It’s difficult I suppose to get evidence of what actually goes on in the classroom but perhaps there’s a way to evaluate the outcome.
Kumiko Torikai:
That’s what I’ve been demanding. What I have been saying all along is that the outcome should be evaluated and studied. I mean it’s been almost 20 years since they changed their policy. Whether the policy has been followed, and yielded some tangible results, should certainly be examined.
Russell Willis:
Right. I often ask what were the goals? I mean if you don’t have the clear goals as to what the change is supposed to achieved, I mean, presumably better English, whatever that means, but presumably, you were involved in these committees in terms of how…
Kumiko Torikai:
No, not really.
Russell Willis:
You weren’t? But you did provide some advice?
Kumiko Torikai:
From time to time, yes, and I am on various government committees and councils, but I’m usually considered anti-English language education policy of the ministry…

I was on a committee once and since I was so outspoken that I was never asked back. It was over the issue of whether to start teaching English at elementary schools.

The purpose of English language education for the Ministry of Education is clearcut. The title of their 5-year project was ‘To foster Japanese who can use English.’
Russell Willis:
How was the success or failure of that project going to be measured?
Kumiko Torikai:
Nobody talks about it. Strange, isn’t it?

The project was quite a comprehensive one, including in-service training of all public high school teachers. Every one of them had to go through this in-service training. but so far I haven’t heard anything about the evaluation of how the training, or the entire project, went or whether it worked, whether they changed anything.
Russell Willis:
Right, because you would imagine that the standard way to go about this would be to decide what the desirable outcome was, devise policies which would help schools and teachers and students achieve that outcome and then measure whether that outcome had been achieved.
Kumiko Torikai:
Exactly.
Russell Willis:
I suppose two of those things have been done but the third hasn’t. Has it been forgotten about or do they just think that the results aren’t worth measuring?
Kumiko Torikai:
I really don’t know. In my book I mentioned that it’s been around 20 years since the Ministry of Education changed their policy so drastically, and so why not measure success or failure, and publish an official report. Nothing has been done and I doubt if anything will be done about this 5-year project.
Russell Willis:
What did the latest action plan cover?
Kumiko Torikai:
Everything you can think of about English language education in this country. They stated the objective of English language education — to foster communicative competence, and even gave numerical targets in terms of EIKEN scores to each level of education. For tertiary level, they told universities to devote their efforts to equip students with English proficiency which can be utilized in their workplace, 仕事で使える英語 - Shigoto de Tsukaeru Eigo. The program emphasized the need to start teaching English in elementary schools, the necessity of hiring more native speaker teachers, and proposed mandatory in-service training for all public school English language teachers. I can say that this has been the most comprehensive program that the Ministry of Education ever had.
Russell Willis:
And so, it was measureable then? It’s not the issue that they set goals that weren’t measurable. They set goals that were measurable but have chosen not to measure them.
Kumiko Torikai:
I suppose you could say so.
Russell Willis:
Or they have measured them and not released the results. Presumably Eiken scores, for example, if those were the key measurements, those are actually available.
Kumiko Torikai:
I haven’t heard that they tried. So, I don’t think they measured anything. I mean if they did, they would have to make it open to the public.


Part Two: Teacher Training

“ ...they really have to scrap and build a new teacher training system... Nobody thinks that teacher training at present is adequate, particularly in English language education. I mean, it takes skills to teach.”
Russell Willis:
You said that this last 5-year plan also included 3 to 4 weeks of teacher training for English teachers. What exactly was that training?
Kumiko Torikai:
Well, it was rather vague. The Ministry of Education said, okay, we’ve got to give in-service training to every one of the English teachers in public schools. And then, what they did was, they gave the work to the board of education in each area. So the content of the training varied. In some areas, they only had TOEFL or TOEIC training so that teachers can speak better English, and not much training in pedagogy.
Russell Willis:
That seems to be a fundamental flaw in the plan. If you’re setting a policy about how students should learn then clearly you need to ensure that the teachers can teach.
Kumiko Torikai:
Depending on the board of education, they offered full-fledged training in how to teach day-to-day classes, but in other places, the program was more of language training sessions, rather than pedagogical ones.

It was strange because even if the training program was aiming for communicative language proficiency, everybody had to participate no matter how fluent they were in English. Some teachers are quite fluent, you see, having an MA degree, graduating from American or British universities, but they had to participate.
Russell Willis:
The Ministry of Education said to the education boards: train your teachers -- but then didn’t lay down exactly how they were supposed to be trained?
Kumiko Torikai:
It was left up to the board of education in each area. That’s how it was run.
Russell Willis:
It seems strange to me that given that the government is pushing a national policy about how English should be learned and what should be learned, it’s not actually pushing a national policy of training people to teach in that way. You would think it would define a syllabus and goals for teacher training in the same way that it defines the syllabus and goals for students.
Kumiko Torikai:
Actually, the Ministry of Education doesn’t really specify how to teach English. They give guidelines as to what should be taught. The purpose at this level is this and the number of words taught should be this, and in junior high first year they should be taught this and this. But it’s not like they are telling teachers how to teach. Maybe that’s why they left everything up to the board of education. Personally, I think it was too bad that they didn’t make the program in each area specifically focused on pedagogy.
Russell Willis:
Yeah, it should focus on how to teach.
Kumiko Torikai:
I mean it takes expertise to teach.
Russell Willis:
In your very first interview with us back in 2001 you were talking about the importance that native English teachers should be trained. And then, I think recently, you commented on the JET scheme saying that basically you feel that it’s no longer necessary or doesn’t fulfill its original purpose or doesn’t need to fulfill its original purpose.
Kumiko Torikai:
A reporter asked me about the judgement of the Democratic Party vis-à-vis the JET program when they did the screening of budgets, and I told her that it was quite striking for me to hear what they had to say – that JET served its purpose and it’s over, that they are not langugae education experts in the first place, that they are young people with good intentions and motivation to know Japan, but Japan now needs more experts in language teaching. I understand their point of view, and at one time I had the same opinion, but you see, things have become worse now that we don’t have as many JETs as we used to have. The JET program was successful because it was…
Russell Willis:
But there are still JETs.
Kumiko Torikai:
Yes, but the number is decreasing—nowadays, not many boards of education are willing to accept them because they cost money: the financial burden is too heavy on some local governments.
Russell Willis:
So they use private companies.
Kumiko Torikai:
Private agencies are much cheaper. Also, for schools, it’s a burden to take care of these young JETs. You have to have a coordinator for a JET/ALT. They need accomodation, and sometimes they cause trouble. But as a government scheme, it was a successful program. JET program was created by the coordinated efforts of the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and also the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Three different ministries got together and worked on the JET program, which in itself was quite an unique endeavour. The program was designed for dual purposes. One was international understanding and friendship -- to increase the number of people overseas who understand Japan, and to have these invited young people work as assistant language teachers during their stay to improve English language education here. That’s how the JET program was initiated.

From the begining, therefore, these young people from overseas were not expected to be experts in language teaching. However, in some schools, they were treated as though they were teachers. As such, some JET ALTs were sort of put in a difficult position. They came to Japan soon after they graduated from universities, willing to experience life in Japan for a couple of years and help teach English. But I don’t think they ever dreamed that they would be treated as full-fledged language teachers. How they were treated at schools varied. In some places, they were treated as teachers and maybe given too much responsibility. In other places, they were frustrated because they felt that they were sort of used as human tape recorders.
Russell Willis:
Yeah, I think the common feeling actually is that in most cases JETs were used as human tape recorders.
Kumiko Torikai:
I think that’s because the word “assistant” was rather vague. What are they supposed to be doing? When asked, the Ministry of Education replied that JETs were not teachers. They were mainly invited for international understanding, for goodwill and friendship…
Russell Willis:
Cultural ambassadors.
Kumiko Torikai:
Yes. So, initially, I agreed with the Democratic Party’s view that it had served its purpose. It’s about time we hired people who are professionals in language teaching. However, what happened was that many boards of education started to have contracts with these private agencies to save money. They are not ready to pay as much as they should be.
Russell Willis:
I think from my perspective and one of the great things that’s wrong -- not just with Japanese English education but British education too -- is a lack of understanding that teaching is a skill and that understanding the subject itself is not sufficient. It’s a necessary requirement but it’s not a sufficient requirement to actually be a teacher or be a good teacher. And so being able to speak English as a native speaker does not in any way qualify you to teach English in a classroom.

I think that the government has, inadvertently perhaps, set the bar low because of the way that the JET scheme operated where it did recruit so many native English speakers to teach in its classroom even though they had no qualifications to do so. And so, you can hardly blame private corporations who say, well, if it’s okay for the government and if it’s okay for for public schools, then we can do it in our private language schools. And so, you have a situation in Japan where hardly anybody seems to be qualified to teach English.
Kumiko Torikai:
Japanese teachers of English have to have a certificate and they have to go through university training specifically for language teaching. They have to try mock teaching for a couple of weeks under the supervision of language teachers, and they have to take a number of courses that have been specified by the Ministry of Education. It takes them 4 years to go through all these. And then at the very end, they take qualification exams and if they pass them, they are certified. After they get certification, then they apply to be hired. So, anybody who’s a full-fledged teacher at public schools has to have this certificate. This means, they’re supposed to be experts. Of course, even if you have a certificate, that doesn’t guarantee that you’re a wonderful teacher, but at least they are qualified professionals.
Russell Willis:
Sure. I understand that. I think that’s also the situation in the UK. I think that was also the situation when I had my first experience of teaching English in Japan about 19 years ago. They were professionals, they were qualified, and they were teaching English. But when I went into the classroom only one of the over a dozen teachers I met had any idea about any kind of teaching outside of rote memorization of English -- and they would speak in Japanese almost all the time. They would write the words in English and then in katakana underneath it. They had never come across any kind of idea of, for example, getting people into groups or using communicative methods. It’s not that they were aware of these kinds of ideas about teaching and had rejected them because they weren’t suitable for that situation. They just had no idea about it at all. So although Japanese English teachers have qualifications, I would be very interested to know what kind of teaching training -- what kind of how-to-teach stuff -- they go through.
Kumiko Torikai:
Not enough and that’s why they really have to scrap and build a new teacher training system. I think the government is trying to do that but not successfully yet. Nobody thinks that teacher training at present is adequate, particularly in English language education. I mean, it takes skills to teach.
Russell Willis:
I think it’s one of the reasons why many people have suggested that instead of spending the money on the JET scheme, for example, why not send Japanese English teachers over on teaching courses and not just for a holiday but to go over and learn English teaching pedagogy in an English-speaking environment.
Kumiko Torikai:
The Ministry of Education has increased the number of teachers who can go abroad for half a year or a year. I would say it should be 1 year but they at least increased the number to a hundred something. They specifically said younger teachers should be encouraged to study abroad. That’s a good thing. At least it’s an improvement, although it would take some time for the program to really work. For example, they initiated a system of allowing practicing teachers to attend graduate schools. The reality is, however, the system is there, but it’s really difficult for each individual teacher to ask for permission to take a leave of absence for a year.
Russell Willis:
Right, you’re abandoning the school.
Kumiko Torikai:
The principal or their colleagues would say, “How? We’re too busy!”

I know there are teachers who attended graduate schools in secret to avoid trouble.
Russell Willis:
There’s a clear difference to me between somebody who studies the academic side of teaching English and someone who studies how to effectively faciliate learning in a classroom.
Kumiko Torikai:
I say we need both.
Russell Willis:
Well, we do need both, but do we need them both in one person?
Kumiko Torikai:
Definitely both, yes. You emphasize classroom teaching. But, if you don’t have theoretical knowledge, you tend to rely on your own experience and intuition, which may not be enough for successful teaching. I believe it’s very important to have some basic understanding of communication theories, intercultural communication studies, linguistics, sociolinguistics, cognitive linguistics, educational psychology, educational sociology, psycholinguistics etc.
Russell Willis:
I agree absolutely. I mean you need to understand theory and have an awareness of theory. There’s no doubt about it. But, in terms of spending the next 10 years doing pioneering research… I think that’s a dedicated profession in terms of trying to understanding how people learn. I think that’s something that academics should do, rightly so. On the other hand I think the first responsibility of a practicing teacher is to actually be a “good” teacher. Now, of course, it means an understanding of theory but it doesn’t actually mean doing full-time research.
Kumiko Torikai:
However, if you are teaching day to day, you’re bound to come up against problems, such as students who are not motivated, and then you need some help from motivation studies or psychology. So, I think theory and practice should be closely linked and it’s an ongoing process.
Russell Willis:
You’ve seen a lot of changes and you’ve written books about these changes. You participated in government panels but have been a bit too outspoken. Let’s imagine that you are the Minister for Education now and you can wave a magic wand today and change the education system, what are the three things that you would do.
Kumiko Torikai:
First, like I said, teacher training. The whole system of teacher training should be overhauled.

Second, put more resources, human and budgetary resources, into junior high schools. I would say junior high school is probably the most important part of the entire education process. It is indispensable, at least in the first 3 years of junior high school, from 12 to 15, to lower the number of students in one class, increase the number of hours of teaching English.

Third, I would have a national debate on the purpose of learning English for Japanese people. Why do we need English?


Why indeed? In the third and final part of our interview, things get even more interesting as Professor Torikai explains her thinking behind a new paradigm for learning English -- not just in Japan, but globally.



« Interview with Tim Murphey - Parts 3-5 | Main | Interview with Kumiko Torikai - Part 3 »

Comments

Russell, your interviewing skills shine through on this one. One of the best interviews I've seen in our field. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

It is not surprising that she would spit a lot of incoherent statements just to be on the defensive. Nothing has changed really about the situation of English learning at the high schools. In fact, the question is:do they really want to speak English???


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