Japan and Finland, Worlds Apart

The title is not a reference to the British boyband of the 90s, just to be clear.

I had long wanted to rant a bit about language education in Japan, and the Japan Blog Matsuri provided me with a great excuse to do that. I’m not a native English speaker myself, and although I’ve been bombarded by foreign languages from a very young age, I can still somewhat relate to the difficulties the Japanese encounter when learning English, currently their most important foreign language.

There is a pretty stark contrast to language education and learning between Japan and Finland. Although Japan employs a variety of native English speakers as teachers, some of which operate on very different bases, the system as a whole, from what I’ve seen, is still in a lamentable state. I spent one academic year at the Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka studying Japanese. That’s not the point here, though. One local I befriended at the time told me that Kansai Gaidai was a great school for foreigners, much less so for the Japanese. Judging from the results, this statement proved very true.

A large amount of the Japanese graduating from Gaidai work hard for the purpose of becoming English teachers for Japanese kids. The university also boasts the highest amount of foreign student throughout Japan, somewhere around 500 people during an academic year, whilst also encouraging intercultural and interlinguistic interaction very vividly. Most of the students keen on becoming teachers had spent at least a year abroad in an English speaking country and had been studying the language since primary school.

Open Campus Day at Gaidai, Finnish Booth

Despite all this, the Japanese students graduating from Gaidai with a level of English sufficient for speaking properly, let alone teaching it, were about as numerous as my posts which omit the word fuck. Written grammar was flawed, spoken output stuttering and lacked in confidence. I won’t even go into the puronanshieeshon part. Clearly the problem is deep, and very topical; some international firms such as Rakuten are already moving towards making English the company’s official language by the end of 2012.

In Europe, language education, at least in schools I have frequented, has been performed by extremely competent people. This not only means that they don’t make shameful grammatical mistakes, but also that they possess a natural native English accent (often Oxford or General American English). It would seem logical that hearing the right sounds would make it easier for kids to reproduce the right sounds. Furthermore, speaking up and having conversations are both encouraged in Finnish schools from a young age.

In Japan, the standard persists that homeroom teachers are responsible for teaching English at the primary school level. Arguably, this would be the most important time for Japanese children to develop an affinity for speaking a foreign language correctly. The homeroom teachers themselves have admitted to not being confident in their English teaching and feeling burdened by the task to an extent where they would rather see someone specialized take care of it.

Suddenly, Engrish! (Okinawa, March 2009)

Considering Japan has an incredible amount of private English schools and English conversation schools aimed at all ages populated by native speakers as teachers, I find it weird that standard schools are not able to recruit that kind of specific talent. There is a huge supply of inexperienced native English teachers willing to come to Japan to perform the tasks that homeroom teachers would prefer to avoid, as shown by the pool of people that get cut from the JET programme every year. Due to current teachers being incompetent, they do not have the necessary tools to engage the children in interactive learning, and the revolutionary system of “repeat after me with the same horrendous accent” is a common and favored approach.

Naturally, the completely differing writing system adds a handicap that is not possible for me to entirely fathom. Yet, I do see the need to diminish or completely remove katakana-based phonetics from the English teaching system at a relatively early phase. One highly learned Gaidai student whom I talked to a few years ago admitted to reading the katakana versions of songs when singing English karaoke. Et tu, Brute? A 20-year-old English major? I fell into a coma at that moment. How are students ever supposed to learn proper pronunciation if they keep on using a writing system that is suited for English output about as much as a gaijin is suited to become a Shinto priest.

Japan faces a great challenge in trying to upgrade the general English proficiency of the workforce at the rate that international markets and local companies require. One thing is certain, though. Adult education and English conversation cafes are not the answer in the long run. Something has to be done about the way children are educated.


P.S. Thanks for hosting the April 2011 Japan Blog Matsuri go to NihongoUp

  1. I too find it incredible that the general quality of JHS and HS native English speakers is so low. It’s also incredible that no Japanese knowledge is required. If it were, I probably wouldn’t have made it here in the first place, but a basic knowledge of your host country’s language (or at least culture) is just polite.

    • Especially when teaching kids I think a rudimentary command of Japanese is important, but even that could probably be handled by having a native English speaker and a part-time Japanese assistant who could help with the most acute language conflicts. That system could prove difficult to implement but the current situation is untenable so MEXT should at least try to consider different solutions.

  2. Ah yes, the curse of katakana
    and a lack of confidence!
    Oh to be able to ban katakana!
    Of course, English really is a dreadful language as George Bernard Shaw well knew.
    Jaa, gambare mina san!

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