What's up with English education in Japan?

Jan. 2014 Three years of English as part of compulsory education

So, what does the Abe administration exactly mean by “development of global talent”? According to newspaper articles, that makes it imperative for Japanese students to work much harder on their English competency. The description is just as vague as the Prime Minister’s pet phrase, “Restoring beautiful Japan”. To a serial killer, for example, blood spatter is infinitely beautiful. (On New Year’s Eve, the final episode of Showtime’s DEXTER, which we used to watch in New York, was aired in Japan. What? Did Debra Morgan have to die? ) What Prime Minister Abe means by “global” is anybody’s guess. It is hard to think that this ambiguous blanket goal will show the teachers how English should be taught to Japanese kids in actual classrooms.

They use the phrase “educational reform”, which probably means that the English textbooks used at Japanese schools will go through drastic changes. But are the current ones so completely useless? Some native speakers of English who teach the language in Japan think that all the school textbooks should be replaced by ESL textbooks. (I’ve never studied English with an ESL teacher or used ESL textbooks myself.)

I purchased three English textbooks used at a public junior high school in Tokyo where the daughter of a girl friend of mine attends. I also bought the five that are currently used at the prefectural high school I used to go to, plus two English conversation textbooks used at some of the schools in my prefecture (Kanagawa).

In the current system, the official English education, including writing and reading begins in 7th grade at public schools in Japan. This is the same as early 1980s when I was a student. From then on, for ten years to the end of a four-year college, many Japanese teens have to go through English education in one form or another. It certainly is natural to think that the teachers of English for 7th grade must present to their students the reason why English is compulsory.

So I opened the first page of the 7th grade textbook. It says:

To learn on a global stage is to develop your potential.

To participate is to accept each other.

To use words is to convey your thoughts.

(My translation)

The same words are printed in the opening spread of the textbooks for 8th grade and 9th grade. They accompany full-color photographs (I say this because my English textbooks in the 80s didn’t have color.) of kids playing sports, studying at school, using PCs and cell phones. In the center of the spread is an outline of the world map in green. The 9th grade textbook also shows how to say “hello” in different languages on the same spread.

Upon reading those words, Student A thinks, “Why in the world was I born in Japan? Japanese is only spoken in Japan. Had I only been born an American, English or Australian, I wouldn’t have to study English!” Student B thinks, “Wow! If I master the content of this textbook I may be able to go to school or get a job anywhere in the world!”

To the teachers of English in Japan, their responsibility is grave. Many ordinary people in Japan live their lives without using English or any other foreign language. To Student A, English is a useless subject to begin with. It’s a foreign language he’ll probably never use until he dies. Yet, he has to study it as many as three years (at least). The student could be studying in those years other subjects he is really interested in. Many Americans don’t need any language other than English for their entire lives, either. Jeremy was in high school in New York in the late 1950s. He was given a choice between Spanish or French as the second language and he chose the latter. He says that it was just another subject and didn’t study it seriously because he didn’t think he would travel abroad. It comes as no surprise that some Japanese junior high school students feel the same way about studying English. On the other hand, if you are the type of person who doesn’t want to be stuck on the islands of Japan for the rest of your life English will come in handy.

As for the students who are interested in English on the first day, the three years of English at public junior high schools is not the ticket to bilingualism at the age of 15. The teachers know it, too. It was the same back in the 1980s. A couple of girl friends of mine and I actually asked the question. My English teacher, who was Japanese and had worked in an embassy in Belgium, once admitted that none of us would be speaking English at the end of the three years. If this situation had changed we wouldn’t find the numerous printed materials for “improving your English competency” at bookstores nationwide. The so-called eikaiwa (English conversation) schools should have gone bankrupt. But the reality is the opposite. That means that teachers of English at public junior high schools would only be leading the students on for three long years.

And the day of graduation has come…What? Already?

Let’s assume that a 9th grader is walking home from the graduation ceremony, where there is no pedestrian walkway. Mom-and-pop shops are lined up on both sides of the street. He sees Jeremy walking toward him. The student thinks to himself, “It’s a gaijin (foreigner),” because he recognizes that Jeremy is a white man. A second later, he sees a middle-aged Japanese woman on a bike speeding up as she approaches Jeremy from behind. Oblivious to the danger Jeremy begins to cross the street diagonally to pick up some croissants at his favorite bakery. The student anticipates a crash. What will he do?

It is typical of Japanese people not to expect a white person to understand Japanese in Japan. Instead, they think that they should talk to them in English. This student would probably think the same, but what could he say in an emergency like this?

So he freezes. Without being able to utter a word, he witnesses the bike crash into Jeremy. He pretends not to see the two on the street bruised and scratched on the knees and elbows. Then, he hears the woman say, “I’m sorry,” to Jeremy in English. Then he hears Jeremy say, “Daijobu-desu,” (I’m O.K.) in Japanese. He is speechless.

This simulation for helping Jeremy safely cross the street to get to the bakery is not at all a joke. In most cases, Japanese people who meet Jeremy here try to speak English to him. This is despite the fact that we are in Japan. Older people who don’t know English at all simply stare at Jeremy’s face without saying a word. They speak only to me in Japanese and wait for me to interpret into English. There are many Japanese people who automatically think that they should speak English to foreigners, especially to white people.

Japanese people have difficulty starting a sentence in English right on cue. I think that this is experienced by many while on vacation overseas. Another common behavior among Japanese people is that they compare. When a Japanese person sees another Japanese person speaking a foreign language, especially English, he tends to feel ashamed of his inferiority in English skills and stops talking altogether—even in Japanese.

In real life, however, it’s easy for Jeremy to get to the bakery without a scratch.

First of all, it is not necessary at all for the student to use English in this situation. All he has to do is to scream, “JITENSHA!” (Bicycle) as soon as he sees the danger. Having lived in Japan for more than three years, Jeremy naturally knows that particular word. The student froze, probably because he failed to translate the Japanese word that had popped up in his head into English. That word would be “ABUNAI!” The literal translation of this word would be either “Danger!” or “Dangerous!”

I looked at the junior high school textbooks that I had bought. These two words are listed as new words for 7th grade, so they should be included in this 9th grader’s vocabulary. After all, he has just graduated. However, he would be too shy to say anything aloud in English because public school English classes in Japan provide kids with few opportunities to put their knowledge to practical use.

Suppose this student was able to scream, “Danger!” It still wouldn’t prevent the crash because in this situation, that wouldn’t be the word of choice by a native speaker of English. If the scream reached Jeremy’s ear he wouldn’t know where the danger was coming from. Jeremy could step aside and avoid the crash if the student said, “Behind you!”

Again, I looked at the textbooks. The word “you” is in the 7th grade list, but not the word “behind.” I looked more closely. In the 7th grade textbook, there are nine lessons on expressions commonly found in daily exchanges. Though Lesson 3 teaches how to describe physical locations of objects it only mentions “in”, “on”, and “under”. Then 21 pages later, in Lesson 5 for teaching the word “whose”, the expression “next to” appears. Then the kids will find the following year, in the 8th grade book, an illustrated section in the appendix entitled, “Various prepositions.” In this section, six words are featured namely, on, in, at, near, around and under. A red ball and a transparent box are used to describe different physical relations between the two objects above the sentences like “A red ball is on the box,” and “A red ball is in the box”. Strangely enough, however, there is no “in front of the box” or “behind the box” in this section. Why? Anybody would want to learn all these essential expressions together rather than separately, like in different years

The word “front” appears for the first time in the textbook a year later for 9th grade. It does when the idiom “in front of” is used in a sentence that reads: “Dr. King later made a speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial.” It is a chapter about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. However, in the same textbook, the word “behind” still does not appear.

So I opened the 10th grade (high school) textbook and found the word, “behind.” It is listed as a “word already learned in junior high school.”

You might laughingly say, “Of course the students know the word “behind” because in actual classrooms, teachers supplement the textbooks with extra knowledge. Textbooks contain only the very basic information that supports the curricula.” If that’s the case, it’s natural that these expressions be taught together in the first lesson about physical location of objects, isn’t it? In addition, why is “in front of” on the list and not “behind”? Each of these textbooks is written by about forty university professors in Japan. Two of them have Western names. I presume they are native speakers of English. How do they decide which words should be taught in which year? A majority decision?

I looked at the elementary Japanese textbooks for adults that Jeremy and I are using. There are 22 lessons in total where students learn basic expressions and grammar. Sentences using the word “where” for asking physical locations appear for the first time in Lesson 8. In this single lesson, Jeremy learned how to use all of “next to”, “in front of”, “behind”, “on”, “under” and “in” in Japanese. This textbook is authored by five Japanese women. I also looked at a textbook for learning Japanese we had bought in New York. It is entitled, “Read& Speak Japanese for Beginners”, which was written by two American ladies. It has a total of 8 lessons and the same six expressions are taught together in Lesson 4.

Is this comparison irrelevant? Is the public junior high school English program different from practical language classes for adults in that it has other purposes? But unusable knowledge of a foreign language is totally meaningless even to junior high school students. On top of that, we are talking about compulsory education. If English is required no matter what it’s got to be taught with priority placed on practical expressions and in the way they can be used right on cue.

Following the “Jeremy incident” after graduation, the ambitious Student B who had had the potential for becoming a fluent speaker would be disappointed that he couldn’t even help one “gaijin” in Japan. His dream of making it overseas now seems so far away. No one wins after three years of compulsory English education in Japan.

How can that be? Three years of English should have at the very least made sure that Jeremy was able to cross the street and buy croissants.

Feb. 2014 Why doesn't it change?

In June 2012, I had a chance to see two English classes (7th and 8th grades) at the junior high school I attended about 30 years ago. It is a national junior high in Yokohama City. After coming back from New York, I went to the city’s employment office, where I found some temporary job openings. Several junior high schools were looking for part-time teachers for after-school supplementary English lessons. When I phoned the office the lady in charge told me that the positions were only for people who had lost their jobs due to the 2011 Eastern Japan earthquake and tsunami. I didn’t get the job, but I found out that some public schools in the city could use help teaching English.

Our home happens to be situated near the junior high that I attended, so I wrote to the principal and volunteered to help the students with English after school. I wrote that it would be nice if they could introduce me as just a bilingual neighbor who happened to have graduated from the same school. I was ready to help even if it was just once a week. I thought that students could take advantage of my free help in practicing conversational English or by asking questions before an exam. Several weeks later, the deputy principal phoned me and invited me to meet with them.

We met in the principal’s office. I sat down with three men, namely, the principal, the deputy principal and the supervisor of the teacher. The principal first said that I was probably the first ex-student who offered any help for free. He then said, “We’ll discuss with other teachers how we may be able to take up on your offer,” and “Let’s have lunch together so we can talk about it in more detail.” But he also said that accepting help for only English would cause the English teachers to lose face. I had included in my letter my Eiken (Test in Practical English Proficiency), TOEFL (Test of English as Foreign Language) and TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) results, which quite impressed him, but he confirmed that I was not a certified teacher of English and became silent.

Then the supervisor took over. He said that the students would most likely bring their cram school homework if I was there to help after school. He continued to saying, “What’s more, students’ parents would ask you to side with them in protesting at questionable grading of exams by the teacher.” He sounded as if he were some kind of a prophet. After all, the principal had just said that they’d never had an ex-student who did any volunteer activities at the school.

I felt sorry for the supervisor, who had little trust in his own students and their parents. It was obvious, however, that the decision had already been made not to accept my offer. If that was the case, why did they ask me to come?

I said, “Let’s forget about it because I’d only be making trouble for you.” This seemed to give them such relief that they invited me upstairs to see a couple of English classes.

It was really shocking to see how unchanged everything was in the classrooms. First, the students sat in parallel rows facing the blackboard in front. I expected to see kids sitting in a circle so that they could see each other, but it turned out that I had been too optimistic. Second, the students still had their faces buried in their textbooks. They didn’t voluntarily speak out in English unless the teacher picked somebody. They basically kept their mouths shut.

The two teachers (male and female) appeared to be in their late 20s or early 30s. They both spoke English to students whenever they could, but their pronunciations didn’t have the rhythm of English.

The principal proudly told me that the school had been chosen as one of the 100 test user schools for the new national audio-visual English program. These schools will provide each student with a computer to teach English. To speak candidly, I wasn’t impressed at all. I learned English when nobody had a computer or a cell phone at school or at home. I saw a female researcher walking around during the class. The principal explained that she was sent to examine the classroom environment in preparation for installing the new computer system. By the way, didn’t the education ministry recently announce that kids who spent many hours on the Internet do poorly at school?

Before I left, the deputy principal and I stood in front of the main entrance chatting. I asked him if the two English teachers had studied abroad before. The answer was no. I said to him, “Why do school classrooms stay so unchanged?” He cocked his head and said, “I, too, wonder why.” He said that a volunteer English helper like me could help the returnee students from the English-speaking world because they had fewer chances to speak the language in Japan. He also said that the students would learn English faster if they had opportunities to use it in doing things they liked. The conclusion, however, was that there was no system in place to allow “your average bilingual neighbor” into the school.

The system stays the same. It shuts out ordinary Japanese people who use English on a daily basis. English is still being taught as a subject by Japanese teachers who never use the language in everyday life themselves.

In the U.S., English is taught to the people who come from abroad as Lingua Franca (A medium of communication between peoples of different languages). When we were living in New York, we had many people around us whose mother tongue was not English. An investment banker who was born in Romania and lived there until he was 10 moved to New York and met a wonderful ESL teacher that taught him how to speak English. (You’d never guess he isn’t a native speaker of English.) A man who migrated from South America spoke to his South American wife in Spanish, but he only spoke English with his U.S.-born sons. A Chinese herbalist who had a business in Chinatown spoke Cantonese to his wife, daughters and employees, but for communicating with his clients he spoke simple English. In India, a former British colony, a large number of people speak English in addition to their own language. They usually have heavy accents in English, but can be easily understood. In these countries, English is spoken in an environment where the speaker is not required to be fluent or perfect.

I wonder if English education in Japan teaches English as Lingua Franca. When a Japanese person goes abroad, in many cases, he would be speaking English to non-native speakers. If so, schools should take advantage of the help from Japanese people who have had the experience of using English as a common language overseas.

In any case, I think it was ridiculous that they didn’t even let me see one English teacher at my junior high. Since when have public school teachers become so important?

By the way, the subjects other than English are also taught in a similar classroom atmosphere at Japanese schools. There isn’t much active communication in the classroom. That means that school education as a whole needs an overhaul. English classes draw more attention because it’s clear that they have failed: Japanese students can’t speak conversational English after many years of studying; and Japanese test-takers do poorly on TOEFL and TOEIC compared with their counterparts from other Asian countries. I sometimes see on TV high school students who can’t answer what happened in Japan on August 6, 1945, or have never heard of the word “tokkotai” (the suicide kamikaze squad), which is why I think history classes have a more serious problem. However, I rarely hear people blaming history teachers.

Mar. 2014 If English is compulsory, make it correctly so

In the post-war years, English, not Chinese or Russian, became the most popular foreign language in Japan. The practical reason why English is the compulsory foreign language subject at school today would be: 1) It is the most familiar to Japanese (TV programs and advertisement are flooded with English); 2) It is the easiest to learn; and 3) If it isn’t English there simply aren’t enough Japanese teachers to cover all the public junior high schools in the country. Given that the Abe administration could go on for three more years, there isn’t the remotest chance of having either Chinese or Korean as a foreign language in compulsory education any time soon.

Statistics show that the City of Yokohama had 33600 Chinese and 14900 Koreans living in it at the end of 2011. The population of Americans, on the other hand, was 2360. This number was actually lower than that of Filipinos, Brazilians, or Vietnamese. The chances of running into a Chinese person and a Korean person are about 15 times and 6.3 times (respectively) higher than that of running into an American in Yokohama. It would make more sense to teach either Chinese or Korean at public junior high schools in the city.

Anyway, back to English. Many Japanese people say that English is difficult, but is it? I watch Jeremy learn Japanese almost every day and I’m convinced that elementary English is easy. First, there are only 26 characters. Second, the introductory level English can be taught in a simple manner. The interrogative “where” in English replaces "doko" ("where" as in "where is something?") "dokode" (at which place), "dokoni" (another way of asking at which place) and "dokoe" (to where) in Japanese. Let’s take counting, for instance. In Japanese, you must memorize many different counter suffixes before you can count anything properly. Cars, birds, trees, and animals?they all take different counter suffixes. In English, on the other hand, you can simply show your students how to read numbers and pluralize nouns.

Let’s look at these two sentences:

Two cats are walking.
Please give me two cats.

In Japanese, there are two possible word orders for “two cats” in the former sentence, both of which are different from the word order for “two cats” in the latter. In English, “two cats” stays put, but not in Japanese.

Here is another example. Let’s look at the two prepositions in the following sentences.

I got a present from my mother.I sent a letter to my mother.

In English, "to" and "from" indicate two opposite directions. In Japanese, however, these opposite directions are taken care of by the same particle "ni". This kind of thing is also very confusing to non-Japanese people, including Jeremy.

But alas, Japanese kids have no problem using this complex language. They will find elementary English simple--if they study it right.

Naturally, I think English textbooks for junior high school students should be designed to emphasize exactly that point: English is easy. The plainest way to get that across to the students would be to make the textbooks as thin as possible. However, each of the three I purchased has as many as 143 pages. The first step toward assembling a sentence and speaking to another person in English is to look up from the textbook and look at that person. Giving kids such thick and large-sized textbooks is like adding more training wheels to the bicycle when the kids need them removed. The same can be said about Japanese people buying many study-aid books in the hope of becoming an English speaker.

In fact, my first impression on opening the three textbooks was, "Wow, they’re totally different from the ones I used 30 years ago." There were so many illustrations that I thought for a second that I had opened a manga (Japanese comic book). At the back of the book, I found a dozen or more illustrators' names. The photos are printed in full color. Are these textbooks designed so that the kids never take their eyes off them?

Page five explains how the textbook works. This is also unbelievable. It has detailed explanations of the 23 icons that repeatedly appear throughout the textbook. For instance, the star symbol with the word "Point" means "sentence patterns to memorize". Idea Box in green letters indicates a section where additional useful words are introduced. The icon "Try" means optional activities for deeper understanding. Is this a guidebook for teachers?

Here is how I would react if I were a junior high student. The star symbol shows materials which I will definitely be tested on so I’d better memorize everything that follows. Idea Box is a time-saver because without it I would have to look up those words on my own in the dictionary. The Try icon is for interested students only and has nothing to do with getting good marks on examinations, so I’ll just skim through it.

How about you?

The explanations are printed in much smaller letters than the text on the lessons pages. I wonder if they are intended for kids' parents. The wording such as "This is a section for training writing skills," and "This exercise involves coordinated skills," also make me wonder. Do the 13-year-olds need to see this kind of information?

Speaking of unnecessary info, there is a page in the 7th grade textbook that shows how to look up new English words in the quasi-dictionary word list, which is an appendix. Then 21 pages in, I found instructions for looking look up words in a dictionary. What?

Textbooks don’t need a word list. It makes the most sense to instruct the kids to use the dictionary from the very beginning. The word list has only the specific meaning of each word that happens to be featured in the textbook. What’s worse, there are hardly any example sentences. Teaching the students to use the word list in their first English textbook would only make them lazy. They'll tend to avoid referring to real dictionaries further down the road.

Dictionaries printed on paper are better than electronic ones because it allows you to reinforce your vocabulary through the peripheral view. You learn not only the word you wanted to look up, but also some extra words in the same column or on the same page. It is a huge contradiction on the educators' side to attach a word list to the compulsory English textbook and expect the students to perform well on TOEFL and TOEIC when they grow up.

I asked a friend of mine who is a parent of a junior high school student in Yokohama. She said, "Oh, my kid never uses a dictionary. Kids today are used to having everything on a silver platter." I asked her if her kid has learned to speak English. "Not yet," she answered.

The three-year compulsory English education teaches kids 1000 to 1200 English words. This is not enough to read even the police news on English newspapers. At that stage, students should work to absorb new words no matter what they may be. Unless they do, their experience in English will remain limited within the boring textbook English.

I remember reading biographical writings for kids when I was in elementary school, but I began to read novels when I became a junior high student. My parents had books of collected writings of prominent authors on the shelves. They included Natsume Soseki, Shimazaki Toson, Mishima Yukio, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Dazai Osamu and Mori Ogai, whose stories appeared in my Japanese textbooks at school. I also began to read long stories that came in several volumes such as Gomikawa Junpei's Ningen no Jouken. Meanwhile, I read the Japanese translation (by Nozaki Takashi) of The Catcher in the Rye and totally loved it, and wanted to read the original in English. In other words, I began to consciously take note when I was reading a Japanese translation of something written in another language. Teenagers grow up really fast. Every day the gap grows wider between their intellect and the boring English in their textbooks. Naturally, students quickly lose interest in English.

I was bored to death with my English textbooks in junior high. However, I didn't think I was up to the task of reading The Catcher in the Rye in English. Plus, we didn't have any English books at the school library. Back then, the English paperbacks at bookstores were very expensive, too. I was lucky enough to borrow some Hardy Boys books from a returnee classmate from New York. I knew about the series by watching TV shows when I was in elementary school. The books were written in simple English for low-teen readers and had illustrations on some pages. Most of all, mysteries are interesting to read. You must understand each concrete piece of information to figure out who the bad guy is. The thrill of understanding was absolutely wonderful. I had to look up many words in the dictionary, but I kept at it because I wanted to find out how the story ended.

Junior high school students in Japan should refrain from studying juken eigo (English for exams) by using textbook word lists and study-aid books if they don't want to waste their time.

In my case, I took the Eiken (Currently Test in Practical English Proficiency) level one test when I was 20. I passed it and won a prize and a scholarship for taking a class at a University in the U.S. for the summer. Around the same time, I took TOEFL, and passed the standard for applying for Ivy League colleges. I took TOEIC two years ago when I was 43 just to see what the exam was like. My score was 985. (The full score is 990.) I did little preparation for all these tests. Each time, I bought a couple of copies of official exam book or a book of problems from the past exams to see what to expect, and that was about it.

A Japanese person who uses English daily can get a pretty good score on these tests. However, good scores on these tests do not necessarily guarantee fluency in English. Jeremy and I actually know some people who have done fairly good in TOEIC but can’t converse in English. According to a newspaper article, Japanese business persons with high TOEIC scores are known to complain that they are not quite in control when it comes to actual international dealings.

I find it pitiful that getting good grades on these multiple-choice style exams may be the only chance for an average Japanese person to see if the three years of compulsory English education worked. I showed Jeremy a book of official TOEIC exams and asked howl he thought he would do on TOEIC. He said, "Maybe 20 points." Upon glancing at the problems, he was completely uninspired.

On the day I took TOEIC I almost fell asleep before the test actually began. After I took the designated seat at the venue, which was a college classroom that contained about one hundred of us, a few staff members walked up and down the aisles to check to see each test taker's cell phone had been turned off. This was done to prevent cheating. Almost everyone but me had brought his/her cell phone. Then we had to sit through a speaker test for the hearing exams and waited even further while one of the test takers complained about a cold draft coming through the door and moved to another seat. During the exam, you are not allowed to take notes because somebody may cheat. The result of each TOEIC test you take is good only for two years. A substantial number of Japanese are being forced by schools and companies to repeatedly take TOEIC, a test that takes more than two hours to complete. No wonder people think about cheating.

On the other hand, what's the point of getting a good grade by cheating on a test like TOEIC? Executive and managers who can speak English would never have to rely on TOEIC to find out who has a good command of English. All they have to do to is to conduct an interview in English

I have doubts about the accuracy of these multiple-choice English competency exams. After I passed the Eiken level one test I was asked to cooperate to improve the test. I went to a language school in Tokyo to take various experimental English exams. In other words, I was their Guinea pig in English education. They paid me one man yen (about one hundred dollars). These experimental exams were different from the level one test that I had just taken. In one test, I was called into a private interview room to listen to a radio news program for several minutes. Then an interviewer, who was a native speaker of English, asked me questions about a story he had randomly picked, which was about the situation in the Middle East. I was also asked to concisely summarize one of the stories that I had just heard in the program. I thought that these tests would be more instrumental than the multiple-choice method in finding out who is really fluent. However, they were not included in the level one test at that time, which meant that passing it wasn’t such a big deal. My first employer after college graduation allowed me one man yen (about a hundred dollars) a month because I was an Eiken level one certificate holder. This proves that there actually was a corporation that considered that certificate valuable. Nobody in the management had the same certificate, at least when I was around, and I think that's why there was that allowance.

I remember that I became confident about my conversational English in the summer of 1986, I was 17. I had just graduated from a U.S. public high school where I had been studying for one year. A year before that, my older sister had been on a school exchange program on a full scholarship. This obviously saved my parents some money (A dollar was 250 yen back then.) and that's how I got to live in America as a teenager. In the month before going back to Japan, about 20 exchange students from all over the world participated in a camping trip across the western states. An American couple who had hosted one of the students drove two vans. This couple had two kids?a daughter about five years old and a three-year-old son who came along with us. We spent long hours together in our van every day and became buddies. One day, when we stopped to get gas, the younger child came to me and said, "You speak the best English."

It was incredibly touching. His words were much more rewarding than any English tests I did well on. The participants of this trip included many from Western Europe and Scandinavian countries. They seemed so comfortable speaking English. But the three-year-old especially liked my English. Great!

There is a scene in the movie, Bowling For Columbine, in which the singer, Marilyn Manson says something like "American society puts pressure on young people saying that if you have pimples girls won't fuck you…" How effective is it to say to teenage kids, "Japan will lose against other countries unless you speak English", or "You won't make it in the world if you don't do well on TOEIC"? They feel constant fear and it's not fun. The greatest pleasure in speaking English is to be able to talk to many non-Japanese people without an interpreter. When that becomes part of the students' personal experience in an early stage of their lives they will be able to decide for themselves how far they want to stick with learning English.

Incidentally, my English teacher at the Prefectural high school was initially against the idea of my taking part in the one-year exchange program. My mother had to go see her to discuss it. Many years later, my mother told me that the teacher said that it wouldn't be too late for me to study in the U.S. as a college student. But my mother knew that sending me to a college in America would be much more expensive. She said about my teacher laughingly, "Who was she to suggest that you go to an American college when she wasn't going to pay the expenses herself?" Back then, my high school, which was in the 18th year since the founding, was making desperate efforts to increase the number of students who pass the entrance exam of the University of Tokyo. Many public school teachers worry that going away for a year in high school would cause the student's academic performance to drop after coming home, which would result in failing to overcome the hurdle of college entrance exams. My homeroom teacher told me to take the entrance exam of the University of Tokyo just because I had had attained high enough deviation values in various simulations. I refused because it was'’t the one I wanted to go to.

I had another interesting experience at that high school. I was picked by my English teacher to compete in All Kanagawa High School English Speech Contest. This was when I was in 10th grade before going on the foreign exchange program. My teacher would make me stand in front of a roomful of senior students studying an unrelated subject in class so that I could practice giving the 3-minute speech on borrowed time. Caught off guard, my audience was more or less gawking at me. My teacher wouldn’t give me a prior notice for this guerrilla practice. I came in second at the contest. This was the first time a student from my high school won a prize in that contest. The result was on the local section on the newspaper. The next day, my classmates were impressed because I beat a contestant from a prestigious private girls' school, who came in third. The first prize went to a contestant from a prestigious private boys' school. It surprised my classmates that a public school student who only had Japanese teachers of English had proven a worthy opponent against the students from private schools where English was taught by teachers who were native speakers of the language.

Today, English is taught by or with the help of native speakers even at public schools. However, English competency of public school students has not visibly improved. In other words, my classmates were wrong in thinking that you must have native speakers as teachers at school to improve your English skills.

I wasn’t a part of the extracurricular activities in junior high or high school. I didn’t think that I was the type of person who would be willing to give up my weekends for playing sports at school or obey older students blindly. I wasn’t interested from the very start. I would leave school as soon as the classes were over, and listen o music on the radio, read books or go to the movies. The 80s were the golden age of British pops. I repeatedly played the songs I liked, put lyrics down on a piece of paper and sang with my cassettes. This means that I spent a significant number of hours after school in the world of English. Meanwhile, my classmates spent the same number of hours using Japanese in club activities at school.

Back then, there was no bilingual broadcasting or subtitle services on TV. There were only three types of English learning program on NHK radio, namely, Basic English, the sequel to Basic English and English conversation. I was loyal to the 20-minute program every day for four years. I listened to native speakers' English and practiced speaking myself. The programs were far from being entertaining, but for a couple of hundred yen a month, it was a pretty good deal.

Teachers are not the only ones who have wrong ideas about English education. To me, many of the students seem clueless about how to learn.

Apr. 2014 How to use "they"

Roughly speaking, in English, everybody and everything other than “myself (i.e. I)” is represented by the pronoun “they”.

People in Japan often refer to the company they work for as “the company” as opposed to “I”, an employee. An ordinary English teacher at a junior high school in Japan would explain that “company” is a singular noun, which should be replaced by the pronoun “it”. For example, when a Japanese employee says, “Kaisha ni kubi wo kirareta”, the English translation would be, “It (=the company) fired me.” In daily conversation, however, a native speaker of English would say, “They (=the company) fired me.” It’s because the word kaisha means people in the management.

Let’s say a junior high school student has become the target of bullying at school. Needless to say, neither the classmate who bullies her nor others in class who are turning a blind eye to the situation is her friend. It’s impossible for her to use the word “we” to describe them, which would include herself as somebody on the same side. The student would say, “Minna watashi ga kirai nanoyo.” This is also translated as “They hate me.” or “They all hate me.” In an ordinary English class at a junior high school in Japan, the word “minna” is usually translated as “everybody”. So, Japanese students tend to say, “Everybody hates me.” This translation requires the knowledge of and coordination between your brain and your month for putting an “s” at the end of the verb “hate” to correspond to the third person singular subject in the present tense. It’s not so easy for a beginner. It is much easier to make a sentence using only the present tense and the plural. It helps a great deal to use “they.” If I had to teach English at a public junior high school in Japan, I’d start a lesson about how to use “they”.

Let’s look at the next two lines in English:

They are so beautiful.
I love them.

Based on the English knowledge provided in compulsory English education at junior high schools in Japan, these lines would be translated as follows:

Karera wa totemo utsukushii.
Watashi wa karera wo aishite iru.

The word “they” appears for the first time on page 46 in the 7th grade textbook. The word list in the same book explains that “they” is a pronoun that replaces plural subjects that are male, female or things. Then, in parentheses, it says that the word is the plural of “he”, “she” and “it” respectively. This is exactly how I was taught when I was in junior high. As a twelve-year-old kid, I rarely used the words such as “karera”, “kanojora”, and “sorera” in daily conversation. In Japanese, these pronouns tend to appear much more often in written language. A really pretentious junior high student might use these pronouns frequently while talking with friends. Naturally, I couldn’t immediately understand how to use the English word “they”.

The two English lines above are very convenient in that the pronoun “they” could mean anything depending on who is saying them. If “I” am a mother she means that her daughters are so beautiful and that she loves them. If “I” am a dog owner he means that his dogs are so wonderful that he loves them. By the same token, “they” can be flowers for a gardener and classic cars for a collector.

Using “they” makes it extremely easy to start a conversation in English. I recommend Japanese students to practice using it actively. All you have to do is to explain who or what you mean by “they” if the person you are talking to asks you the obvious question. But how often does that happen? You would already be looking at your daughters playing, dogs running around, flowers swaying in the wind or polished cars lined up in front of you.

“They” is a truly useful word.

May. 2014 When to begin compulsory English education 1

A plan has been proposed for introducing English education in 3rd grade (instead of 5th grade in the current system) in the near future. I wonder why. No clear basis has been provided for this possible early introduction. I’ve heard mothers who are in favor say that English could come more naturally to kids or that they would be able to acquire better pronunciation if they start learning at a younger age. Considering that kids all over the country receive compulsory education, whoever makes a decision must clearly explain the purpose and the reasons.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Science, Sports and Technology has a webpage on the new English education program corresponding to globalization. It lists the goals of the current English education for different stages. The goal for 5th and 6th grades is “to cultivate an aptitude for the ability to communicate in English.” The goal for junior high school is to cultivate the basic ability to communicate in English.” And guess what! The goal for high school (which is not compulsory) is to cultivate the ability to communicate in English.”

I don’t have any idea exactly what they mean. Do you?

They managed to be slightly more specific in the new plan. The new goal for elementary school kids is to be able to converse with friends about their favorite things, family and daily life using familiar fixed phrases, while junior high students will be expected to read short articles or watch TV news and communicate their outlines in English. (Which TV news? Do they mean that everybody gets cable TV to watch CNN? NHK’s evening news programs come with simultaneous interpretation in English, which Jeremy listens to almost every night. Frankly, the Japanese interpreters have such terrible pronunciation that he often can’t make out what they’re saying. He thinks their English is surprisingly poor for professional interpreters. I agree.) For high school students, the goal is to be able to quickly read longer articles, extract necessary information, examine social problems and current events and make presentations about them.

These goals are more specific, but not quite practical enough, are they?

How about something like this?

The goal for Japan’s compulsory English education is to learn as much as possible for the three years from 7th to 9th grade to reach the level of English competency that is necessary to live an ordinary school life as a high school student in an English-speaking country.

As I’ve mentioned before, my “studying” of elementary-level English was limited to the three years of English education at a public junior high and listening to NHK’s radio English programs five days a week for four years. When I arrived in the U.S. as a 16-year-old exchange student my school counselor interviewed me and said that I didn’t need to take ESL lessons. Then she went on to say that if I wanted a diploma a year later I must pass American literature, debate, typing and government, which were required for graduation in addition to the classes normally assigned to the junior year. I knew that taking an ESL course would give me a chance to get to know other foreign students on exchange programs and I was interested. However, I would lose several hours a week in which I could be taking the required courses. Above all, they didn’t exist at my high school in Japan. So I decided to forget about ESL. There are many foreign students who need ESL courses at American public high schools. After all, the U.S. takes in an incomparably larger number of refugees and immigrants than Japan does each year. But the learning environment surrounding Japanese students who go to America to study is usually completely different from theirs. In my case, I simply dropped the idea of taking ESL because I was a foreigner.

It’s natural that Japanese students who study a foreign language at school should expect to go to the country where it is spoken. The image of “me speaking English abroad in the next few years” will become more real to many junior high school students if public high schools become more open toward studying abroad. What better goal is there? Come to think of it, it’s weird to accept that young people live only in Japan using only Japanese. If that’s O.K. why teach them world history or geography? If the message is to “know the world” a teaching environment should be maintained to send them out there. Here, I’m not talking about elitist education for producing business people who excel on the international stage. I’m simply saying that it’s worth seeing more of the world while you are young.

For high schools, it would be ideal to create a system where students can choose from languages other than English. Students who have just been given an opportunity to study English intensively for three years would already know what it is like to study a foreign language. That would be useful in learning a second language. Students who have no interest in learning other languages would have to continue to study English. The English classes in public high schools should focus on specific skills such as translation and conversation so that they will contribute to creating sources of income after graduation. It is meaningless to study English just for the sake of taking university entrance exams.

Would a student who chooses a new language at high school quickly forget English? I think it’s quite the opposite. Learning another foreign language would lead to comparing and also to multi-lateral language learning. I began studying Spanish when I returned from spending a year in the U.S. I had become interested in Spanish in America because I saw many immigrants from Mexico in my area. My high school also had many foreign exchange students from Central and South America (I was the only Japanese person in the whole school.) and I often thought that it would be fun to be able to speak their language. Once I started I found similarities between Spanish and English. In many cases, a Spanish person can understand what you said in English because of the similarities. It was very interesting. I felt that Japanese schools take the fun out of foreign language studies by cramming only English into students’ heads.

Now, about quitting elementary school English lessons and concentrating only on the three years of junior high. Many experts discuss the plan in terms of how best to teach Japanese kids to speak English, but I find it strange. When English is added something else is bumped. They must explain first what is bumped and why. I don’t think other lessons should be bumped in order to add English. It’s also easy to think of other things that elementary schools should spend more time in teaching, including how to grow plants and vegetables or take care of animals.

The other day, Jeremy and I watched the movie, Breakout on TV. The bad guys tie Nicolas Cage’s hands behind his back. In an attempt to break loose, he says to his daughter, “Twist your body.” To my surprise, the Japanese subtitle for this line had a major mistake in the verb conjugation of the Japanese word for “twist”. The command form of the verb “hineru” is “hinere”, but the subtitle said, “hinero,” which is a non-existent word. It’s like putting down Hashiro Melos instead of Hashire Melos for the famous story Run! Melos by Dazai Osamu. This person has a serious problem…A couple of days later, we were, I think, watching Seeking Justice with Guy Pearce and Nicolas Cage. The line should have read, “Make him take some tranquilizer.” Again, a non-existent Japanese word that resembled the appropriate causative verb was used. I remember learning about these grammatical rules in 7th grade.

These professional subtitles translators must be good at English, but they seem to have problems using Japanese, their mother tongue. I don’t agree with the government plan to strengthen English education for elementary school students if it may result in more of these translators. It would make much more sense if Japanese grammar was taught in 5th and 6th grades while waiting to give intensive English lessons at junior high.

Jun. 2014 When to begin compulsory English education 2

Last month, I suggested that the goal for Japan’s compulsory English education should be to learn as much as possible for the three years from 7th to 9th grade to reach the level of English competency that is necessary to live an ordinary school life as a high school student in an English-speaking country. I was thrown into the senior year of a public high school in America as a 16-year-old exchange student from a public high school in Japan. So what was I able to do or not able to do using English at that time? I’m going back to the summer of 1985.

Things I was able to do-1: To fly to my destination in America.

On that summer day, several hundred Japanese high school students flew from Narita to Seattle. A majority of the students were to transfer and fly to San Francisco or Los Angeles, but there were six of us whose final destinations were in remote corners of the country, so to speak. The Japanese woman in charge, who was sent by the exchange program (which still continues to operate on a large scale today,) surprised us by quickly leaving us (all female Japanese high school students who had never met) at the airport to fly with the rest of the students to California. Only Alaskan Air offered services to the destinations for the six of us. She handed to each of us a piece of paper with the flight information on it and a ticket for the connecting flights. She then disappeared behind a thick shiny steel door of the elevator to another terminal. We were quite stunned. None of us had been told that we were going to be by ourselves from Seattle onward.

Looking back, it was a quite reasonable sales move on her part. The exchange program was supported by corporations including a major Japanese automobile manufacturer that had local offices in California, which probably was the reason why there were so many host families there. However, it really was incredible for us to be left alone there on our first trip abroad.

Our final destinations were all different. I had to wait for about six hours on a bench near the Alaskan Air terminal for my connecting flight. When I arrived I was met by my host family and an American lady, who was the regional representative of the program. The terminal was as small as a classroom.

Several days later, in my first letter to my family in Japan, I wrote about what had happened in Seattle. The story stunned my mother as well. She thought that it was extremely irresponsible of the program to do such a thing. Come to think of it, however, that was the first time I ever travelled alone in the English-speaking world.

Things I was able to do-2

About a month after my arrival, I had some problems with my host family and moved to another family in the same town. I had joined the cross country running team at school. One day, I came home from training very hungry. I ate all the hand-made cookies (four or five of them) that were sitting in a bowl in the kitchen before dinner. My host sister, who was a year younger than I, complained to her mother. This prompted a family meeting about the problems I was experiencing. My bedroom, which I shared with my host sister, was an attic that didn’t have a window or a door. A couple of times, my host father or my teen-age host brother had stepped in when I was changing, which made me very uncomfortable. The attic was very small and I didn’t have my own desk. I had to study in the living room where everybody was watching TV. I was not happy about it at all.

Various problems surfaced through the meeting and I ended up clashing head on with the host mother. I remember preparing for our final confrontation by putting down my viewpoints for about ten pages in a notebook in English.

Later, I had a chance to meet other Japanese students on the same program at a social gathering among international students in the region. Some of them told me about their experience with their respective families. However, none of them was able to talk about problems within a month of their arrival and waited until November to finally move to another family. It took them much longer to do what I did. They all said to me that they should have decided much sooner to leave the first family. One of them said that her family fed leftover food from dinner to their cats by placing it under the bed on dirty plates. She said that she wanted to get a new family from the very first day, but that it actually took her three months to bring them to the table to discuss the problem.

In fact, at orientation meetings before our departure from Japan, we, the exchange students, had been repeatedly instructed by the program coordinator to try our best to talk things over with the family to solve the problems before contacting a program representative. Back then, nobody had computer or e-mail at home. It took about two weeks to hear back from my family in Japan by snail mail. Making international phone calls was very expensive. I solved the problems with my host family on my own and I wrote about it to my parents in Japan from my room at the home of my second host family.

Things I couldn’t do-1: To plainly put my thoughts and feeling into words without thinking too much

It was a Sunday morning about two weeks after my home stay began. My host mother took her two kids and me to church for a Sunday mass. They had two cars: one was a pick-up truck that the father mainly used to go to work, and the other was a small warn-out station wagon. We had to run the engine for about five minutes before we actually started to drive to prevent engine troubles.

After the service, everybody began to walk toward the parking lot, which was across the street from the church building. The engine of our station wagon wouldn’t start. Finally, my host brother and I had to push the car from behind in front of the whole congregation. My host sister, who had a bone disease, was not allowed to do any physical work, so she stayed in the car. I didn’t have a driver’s license then, but I was aware that it was dangerous to be in a car like that. What would happen if the engine stopped while driving at a high speed? What’s more, it was pretty embarrassing to have to push the car when so many people were watching. I should have told my family without hesitation that I didn’t feel comfortable riding in that car, but I couldn’t. My honest feeling at that time, which I translated into English, was “I don’t want to ride in this car.” But that sentence seemed too rude to actually say. I thought too much and ended up saying nothing.

We ate potatoes almost every day for dinner. They had an electric French fry maker. When they made pork chops they would mix the lard with flour, salt, pepper and milk to make gravy, which was poured over the pork chops. I never had a diet with such a high fat content. It was quite obvious to any sensible Japanese person that their eating habits were extremely bad for anyone’s health. I remember having a bad stomach and throwing up like crazy in the toilet soon after I began living with them.

Looking back, I could have improved my dinner situation by saying, “I feel like a fresh salad today,” or “Do you like steamed vegetables?” It might have even worked to propose healthier dishes that included vegetables and grains as ingredients. I was an exchange student and it was part of my role to present Japanese food culture to people in America. However, all I did was to make croquettes with a lot of vegetables in the mix once to introduce a popular potato dish in Japan.

English learning in Japan’s compulsory education does not focus on how to raise an objection against a foreigner. Japanese education in general does not encourage students to disagree with others no matter what the subject may be. I had never thought about it until I went to America. Once I was there, however, I realized that it was more important to be able to say “no” tactfully in everyday English.

Jul. 2014 When to begin compulsory English education 3

Things I couldn’t do-2:
As I mentioned before, in order to graduate it was required to take the American literature class, so I did. During the year, I read The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck), The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorn), The Glass Menagerie (Williams), The Catcher in the Rye (Salinger), and if I remember correctly, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Twain). I also had to read some poetry. The teacher orally asked students questions about the content of each book in class, so I had to read for many hours at home to keep abreast. As you can imagine from looking at these titles, I didn’t have a large enough vocabulary. I have to admit that most of my time was spent on looking words up in the dictionary. After I found out the meanings of the words I still had to read the same sentences over and over again to grasp what each author intended. Cultural differences and unfamiliar period and/or social backgrounds continued to interrupt. It was clear that whatever English I had learned at junior and senior high schools in Japan was not at all sufficient for reading famous novels in English.

One of the assignments in that class was to write a short satire. For me, that was not simply a test on creative writing. I had to demonstrate my sense of humor in the English language. It made me aware that I lacked the ability to make jokes or be sarcastic in English. An ordinary high school student should be able to read famous novels in his/her country and to wisecrack as he/she pleases. I recommend that Japanese students should work intensively on multiplying their vocabulary, reading long stories and thinking freely in English during the three years of junior high school.

It was through those many hours of reading that I grew accustomed to reading foreign books from cover to cover. I kept reading foreign books (mostly in English and a few in Spanish) after coming back to Japan. That experience opened the door to the pleasure of reading the original novels on which the movies I’d seen were based. Those books included The Great Gatsby (S. Fitzgerald), Different Seasons (S. King) and Fahrenheit 451 (R. Bradbury). Naked Lunch (W. Burroughs) was very difficult read. Jeremy cracked up when he saw my copy with some hand-written notes on the meanings of the author’s unique expressions.

Japanese students who study English only in school classrooms and produce not-so-bad results think that they are good at English. Foreign language learning should not be about getting good test scores. What’s important is whether the student is able to use English in the way that corresponds to his/her age and in the manner he/she wants. I’ve met someone who spent her elementary school years in the U.S., but returned to Japan and went to a university in Japan, where an American TESOL teacher told her that she spoke English like a little child.

Here is a freshman at a high school in Japan. Suppose he was given an assignment where he has to go to America, get a driver’s license, go to the school cafeteria to pick some friends up to see a movie. Afterwards, he has to make a joke about the movie they’ve just seen and make his friends laugh. This assignment would make him think in more familiar terms what he means when he says, “I’m good at English.” It’s kind of pointless to study a foreign language if you can’t even be funny with your date about the books you’ve read and the movies you’ve seen.

In the state I lived in on the exchange program, you could get a driver’s permit at 14 and a license at 16. I obtained a permit in California at 24 and a license in New York in my 30s. Examinations for a driver’s license in the U.S. are simpler and easier than in Japan. However, I know a Japanese person who had to try multiple times until he passed. He went to a four-year college in Japan and was studying English at Berlitz. His business card says that he is an interpreter among other things.

According to a recent Associated Press article, dual-language programs have been introduced in school districts in some American states including Oregon, California, New Mexico, Washington, Illinois and Louisiana. These programs are offered in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Russian. At graduation, the students who have successfully completed them are awarded bilingual seals. In today’s globalized world, bilingual Americans students have access to more employment opportunities and their parents increasingly consider it necessary for their kids to have bilingual skills to succeed. The participants of these programs, including those who only spoke English until high school, spend at least a part of their school day taking literacy and academic subjects (such as literature, history and geography) in a foreign language. The article explains that the bilingual seals are awarded based on the coursework, bilingual knowledge and a bilingual interview.

I can picture a pseudo-study-abroad environment being created for a couple of hours each day at school, in which students acquire bilingual skills. To me, this method only seems right and natural. In Japan, however, this kind of foreign language learning is rarely implemented. As I mentioned several months ago, school English classes have centered around the same old activity for decades: To slowly trace the word lists created by some forty honorary professors of English.

Last December, a plan was announced by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology as if it would solve all the problems plaguing English education in Japan. It wants to move up to fifth grade the first year in which English is taught as an official subject at school. On July 2, the Asahi Shimbun printed opposing views on this plan by two experts. Next month, I’ll discuss what they had to say.

Aug. 2014 When to begin compulsory English education 4

The education section of the July 2nd issue of the Asahi Shimbun featured two opposing views on the early start of English education in school, which was proposed last year by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. It plans to make English an official academic subject for 5th and 6th graders. Mr. Kensaku Yoshida, director of the Center for Language Education and Research at Sophia University supports the plan. Mr. Mitsuhiro Ohmachi, operator of I.A. Prep School HIRAOKA, a popular cram school in Tokyo, opposes the plan.

As I mentioned before, I don’t support that other subjects will be thrown out of the curriculum in order to teach English. Nobody is explaining why it’s O.K. to bump other subjects and prioritize English. English education, for me, began in 7th grade (the first year of junior high school) and I, as an ordinary adult, have no problem living in the English speaking world. I don’t think that the new plan must to be stopped, but I don’t consider it necessary, either. I don’t believe that the proposed early start will lead to a significant increase in the number of Japanese people who can communicate in English. I don’t think that the two experts’ views are sufficiently explained in this relatively short article. I have questions about both arguments, which I will put down. I think everybody will find it interesting to see the differences between an ordinary person’s view and that of each expert.

Let’s look at Mr. Yoshida’s argument first. He points out that the goal of English education isn’t clear in the current system. Fifth and sixth graders are required to take one English class per week, but English is currently not treated as an official academic subject. He argues that once the new system specifies the goal students will be able to acquire a certain level of English competency by the time they enter junior high school. He then points out that the children who began learning English in elementary school show more interest in different cultures and foreign languages than the kids who held off. He disagrees with those who argue that elementary schools should be fully committed to Japanese in terms of language learning. He doesn’t think that several hours of English at school would affect children’s Japanese competency because they use Japanese almost in everything they do.

The fourth point is to introduce in the future new college entrance exams to comprehensively evaluate the four language skills—to listen, speak, read and write. Why in the future? It would only be a belated step forward if the change were made today. He says that if English education at elementary schools succeeds in providing kids with communication (listening and speaking) skills the same style of teaching can be continued through junior and senior high schools. To be honest, I don’t understand what he means by reading this article alone. Does he mean that the listening and speaking skills acquired at the elementary school level can be retained for the following six years?

His last point is about training instructors. If enough English instructors can’t be secured at the initial stage, foreign assistants, instructors from private language schools and civilians should be trained to obtain qualification. He thinks that it would be realistic to pair them up with homeroom teachers to teach English.

I wonder if making English an official academic subject clarifies the goal of English education. The goal may be defined for the teachers by the Ministry of Education, but how would they communicate it to the students? In the first part of this blog in January 2014 I copied the first three lines of text that appear in one of the English textbooks that are currently used at junior high schools in Japan. Students vaguely understand that those lines represent the unattainable goal of English education at public schools. My English teacher admitted that we the students wouldn’t be able to speak English at the end of the course.

An attainable goal would be to learn to pronounce the English alphabet correctly. For example, kids can be taught that “CNN” is not “SHII-ENU-ENU” as pronounced in Japanese-style English. It would also be practical to show children how to distinguish between English and Japanese-English or katakana-English. Katakana is a Japanese syllabary mainly used to indicate words borrowed from abroad. For instance, Japan is just about the only country where the abbreviated word “BS” stands for broadcast satellite. In the English-speaking world, it stands for bull shit.

On his second point--what makes children more accepting toward, rather than more interested in foreign languages and cultures is to have multi-lingual people around or to live in an environment that incorporates foreignness. When they grow up they would feel more relaxed and natural about diversity. It’s not necessarily about starting to learn English at a young age.

Yokohama has Chinatown. When I was little my parents would often take me to Chinese restaurants where the staff spoke Japanese with a heavy Chinese accent. Some Chinese people had difficulty pronouncing the sound “ba”. It came out as “pa”. It’s just like Japanese people failing to pronounce the word “rice” correctly and sounding like saying “lice” instead. I waited on tables at some restaurants in Chinatown when I was a college student. One of them had a Chinese lady who coordinated the operation between the Chinese cooks and the Japanese hall staff. She had a habit of yelling at us whenever we made mistakes, like taking a dish to a wrong table. She would say, “You stupid” to us in Japanese, but the word “stupid”, which is “baka” in Japanese came out as “paka” every time. To me, this was an amusing mispronunciation and I just couldn’t get mad at her. On the way home after work, I, together with another waitress who worked with me on a regular basis would joke around saying, “What can we do? We are both paka.” Many Japanese believe that speaking a foreign language with an accent is embarrassing or makes them look ridiculous. But that’s because we don’t have an environment in which Japanese is spoken with different foreign accents. In New York, there are many ways to pronounce English, and they are all accepted and understood. If the schools want their students to be more interested in different cultures the source of inspiration should not be limited to English learning. I’d rather have a program that provides kids with opportunities to get to know foreign residents in Japan through different activities.

Mr. Yoshida states that a couple of hours of English at school wouldn’t have negative impact on the students’ Japanese competency. He may be right, but then again, he may not. I had some experience tutoring elementary school kids when I was in college. One of them was a boy in 6th grade, whose mother asked me to help him with his Japanese. She also asked me to give him some easy English conversation lessons. She wanted him to have a head start on English learning. I tutored the boy a couple of times and realized that he wasn’t used to reading Japanese. I asked him to read his textbook and questions on his school exams aloud. He took a breath at wrong places in the sentences he was reading. He frequently paused as if he lost his train of thought. It was easy to see that he couldn’t grasp the meaning of each sentence by reading it once. I brought a copy of Natsume Soseki’s Wagahai wa Neko de Aru (I am a cat) and asked him to read aloud slowly. After each paragraph I would ask him to explain in his words what has just happened in the story. After several months, he grew accustomed to those reading exercises. He now was able to understand as he read. A little while later, his mother told me that his test scores are going up not only in Japanese but also in social studies. The boy was not academically inferior. He just was bad at reading. You can’t do well on written tests if you have trouble reading. He just needed to read more. If his mother was aware of that she would have had him read books in Japanese. Instead, she asked me to teach him English conversation.

That was the beginning of the 90s. Ordinary households didn’t own computers. There was no smart phone. Today, many teenage children spend two to three hours a day exchanging short messages with their classmates on those devices. Those short messages are composed of abbreviations and pictorial symbols. Mr. Yoshida is right in that kids use only Japanese in almost everything they do, but what kind of Japanese? When I think about the quality and the content of the Japanese language they use I wonder if it’s better to give them more time to study or read Japanese before giving them foreign language lessons. Otherwise, in the future, they may not be able to understand other academic subjects that are taught in Japanese, much less English.

On his last point about training instructors, he says that instructors must complete training and obtain qualification first. He also states that it would be realistic that those instructors will be accompanied by the homeroom teacher in the classroom. I disagree.

Today, at elementary schools all over Japan, mothers visit classrooms to read stories to their kids. It never happened when I was an elementary school student. They do it because kids don’t read much. Those mothers don’t have teaching licenses. I think that the same approach can be employed to teach English to 5th and 6th graders. Mothers probably have to make time to practice reading books written in English, but they’d do that if they thought it would be good for their kids. They can explain in Japanese the meanings of English words and sentences as they read. This would show the children that it would be O.K. to speak English with an accent, which may help remove kids’ mental block about saying things in English in class. Isn’t it the parents, not the kids, who feel inferior because they can’t speak English like a native speaker in the first place? Compulsory English education in elementary schools is not meant for churning out Japanese people who speak English with perfect pronunciation. It’s more important and natural that parents read to their children in English. When mothers who can’t speak English force their kids to learn it their likely response would be, “Mom, you can’t speak it, so how can I?” If the parents learn English together with their kids at school it’ll make a new example for the future generations to follow. Communication in English will be more familiar to all of us. Am I right?

Sep. 2014 When to begin compulsory English education 5-1

Last month, I looked at the opinion of a specialist who supports the early start of English education in schools proposed by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The opinion was published on The Asahi on July 2, 2014. I now move on to Mr. Mitsuhiro Omachi, operator of I.A. Prep School HIRAOKA.

Mr. Omachi thinks that the plan is useless. He says that the current method of teaching should not be immediately changed because the proposed early start of English education, if implemented, would not help attain the goal of making high school students bilingual by graduation. His explanations are more specific than Mr. Yoshida’s. For example, Mr. Omachi thinks that Japanese kids don’t learn English because they aren’t strongly motivated like, “I won’t be able to have food on the table unless I speak English.” He also points out that Japanese kids are not in contact with English at school for long enough hours, and that adding an hour of English a week in fifth and sixth grades will not help attain their bilingualism. In the current system, a total of 420 hours of English is taught during the three years of junior high school. It would take only about a month to use up these hours if a student studied English for 12 hours every day. He thinks that language learning is no different from acquiring athletic skills or learning to play a musical instrument and that the only way to improve is to practice repeatedly.

Mr. Omachi points out that the students at his prep school who “regularly perform well in Japanese language classes” get better at English faster. He says that Japanese kids should first learn Japanese properly and that it’s wrong to think that starting English education soon is the answer. Although the ability to listen and speak is necessary, creative composition is impossible without understanding grammar. He refutes the oft-heard criticism on the traditional teaching method comprising grammar lessons and translation exercises. He concludes that the goal of school English education is to provide children with the basics so that they can learn English on their own when it becomes necessary.

I looked at the website of Mr. Omachi’s prep school. It is an English specialty school for promising junior and senior high students. It mentions the pass rates among its graduates on the entrance examinations of prestigious universities including the University of Tokyo. I can see that HIRAOKA’s students and their parents think that school English is insufficient. I felt the same way when I was in school. I attended a weekly conversation class at a private English school for the three months ‘til I left for the U.S. as an exchange student. I had relaxed group lessons with a Canadian teacher. There was no test or textbook. I’ve never considered English as a skill of the elite. However, back then, I did have a vague feeling that my world would remain too small if I stayed in Japan speaking only Japanese. Mr. Omachi sounds really like a prep school operator when he says that kids need strong enough motivation for mastering English. I studied English because it was fun. I liked it and it interested me to learn. My English classes at school weren’t interesting, but I kept studying because I wanted to enjoy Peter Folk’s real voice on Columbo on TV. Actually, aren’t there many people like me out there?

On the August 23 issue of The International New York Times, I read an article about Dave Spector, one of the most familiar TV personalities in Japan. He is an American and a long-time resident of Japan. “His fascination with Japan began in the fifth grade, when a Japanese classmate introduced him to Japan’s manga comics, which Mr. Spector said immediately captivated him for being so colorfully bizarre. He wanted to read them so badly that he said he started taking Japanese-language classes on Saturdays,” the article reads. I was in junior high school when the bilingual broadcasting of foreign movies began on TV. For the first time, I was able to hear the real voices of foreign actors. I was so eager to understand what they were saying. In my mother’s youth, “It was French, not English,” she says. She was born in 1935. The French actor Alain Delon stole the hearts of many Japanese girls. One of my mother’s classmates was so fascinated by his movies that she majored in French at college. Her daughter is a chef and now lives in France.

It may be possible for students to learn English intensively for a short period of time driven by fear and tension. But if English can only be learned through practicing repeatedly just like sports or a musical instrument, wouldn’t it be more realistic for Mr. Omachi to encourage students to enjoy the learning process over a long period of time? I see Jeremy playing the flute almost every day. He seems to be having so much fun. Otherwise, how could he keep doing it for so many years?

I mentioned last month that I had found myself frantically reading books in English for my senior year at high school because I had to pass my American literature class to graduate. But that was just for that year. Foreign language learning took root in my life as I dated American students in college, watched my favorite movies in English, listened to my favorite rock bands, traveled in the U.S. and Europe, and got to know people. The key is to continue learning while having fun. This is something of which many Japanese don’t have any hands-on experience.

Neither Mr. Omachi nor Mr. Yoshida, who supports the proposed early start of English education, said anything about foreign language learning being fun. If I were to find a reason for implementing the proposed plan it would probably be to provide an opportunity to experience the fun of using a foreign language in an exam-free environment.

Oct. 2014 When to begin compulsory English education 5-2

Since Jeremy moved to Japan he has noticed something. He says that Japanese people often recognize more difficult English words than they do easy ones in conversation. For example, a doctor who usually speaks to him in English doesn’t recognize the word “shot” so Jeremy has to say “injection” instead. When Jeremy uses the word “pills” to describe his prescription he doesn’t understand until Jeremy rephrases it and says “my medicine”. In New York, I met some Japanese researchers and scientists who obviously lack conversational skills. They all read and write papers using much more difficult technical terms.

People prefer easier and briefer expressions in everyday conversation. How about incorporating some English learning into, say, home economics for fifth and sixth graders? Students will be asked to write a recipe in English for a cooking drill. Kids will learn how to “put a lid on a pan”, “fry over high heat” and measure “one hundred grams of pork”. These practical expressions require only simple, basic words that any junior high school student knows. However, Japanese people often find it hard to think of them. First of all, who on earth translated the word “recipe” into the katakana English “re-shi-pi” and managed to spread it throughout the country? Using a Japanese writing system for foreign loanwords only keeps children from learning correct English pronunciation. I’ll discuss katakana English in the future, which is a major impediment to learning English.

In music lessons, kids can learn musical terms, such as “bar” and “natural”. To most Japanese, the English word “bar” only means a drinking bar. The word “natural” has become a frequently used katakana English word, “na-chu-ra-ru”. You can find it in phrases like “nachuraru na funniki (a natural ambience)” and “nachuraru me-e-ku (natural-looking makeup). In social studies, kids can learn how to refer to different professions. For example, the word “firefighter” is close to but slightly different from “hikeshi”, an old Japanese name for the same job, which literally means a person who extinguishes fire. In baseball, kids can learn that the katakana English “su-qu-i-zu” comes from “squeeze play” while “su-chi-i-ru” comes from “steal”.

It’s about making kids think, “How do I say it in English?” This approach will involve all the elementary school teachers (not just the teachers in charge of English courses) and prompt everybody at school to discuss a possible practical and useful introductory English program.

Mr. Omachi goes on to say that the only way for Japanese people to learn English is to let the basics take hold while thinking logically in Japanese. He then says that students must be able to write and read English first. I don’t think so.

A student of a foreign language usually picks up expressions for describing the concrete before advancing toward the abstract. After thinking a while about what I must do to learn to speak English in junior high, I came up with an idea. I decided to understand English through imagery. When a Japanese person hears on the radio, “Battaa ga raito sutando e home run wo utta (The batter hit a home run over the right field wall),” he automatically pictures that scene in his head. When an American person hears the same commentary in English he would do the same. Back then, my brain would translate whatever I picked up on the radio in English into Japanese before picturing an image. I thought I should skip that extra step to see how it might feel to understand English like a native speaker. Of course, new words must be looked up in the dictionary first, but after that, I concentrated on the imagery while repeating English phrases in my head. I had to be on the train for 20 minutes to commute, so I took advantage of the skits on NHK’s radio English program. Each story began on Monday and ended on Friday, giving me more phrases to work with toward the weekend.

I consciously kept at it and became pretty good at conversational English. In college, people who heard me speak English often asked me how I studied it. Meanwhile, I found that writing first in Japanese helped when it came to explaining my abstract thoughts at length in English. It’s easy to picture concrete images, but explaining an abstract idea is a different story. I saw my weaknesses more clearly because I kept working concurrently on different activities.

While I was living in New York, I worked as a translator for quite a few corporations. From 9 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m., five to six days a week, I translated both ways between Japanese and English. I would type either a maximum of 6000 Japanese characters or 3000 English words each day. Up until then, I had done my best to avoid translating. In junior high school, I never did any homework involving Japanese translation of my English textbooks. I would improvise whenever my teacher asked me to translate in class. I had kept a journal in English for years since high school. I began speaking English everyday while living in America as an exchange student, which was probably the reason why I kept feeling, at least for several years after coming back to Japan, that there was another English-speaking personality inside me. I no longer have that feeling. I am the same one person regardless of the language I’m using.

Written language is different from spoken language. It’s important to draw a line between them in teaching a foreign language. In today’s disaster-prone world, we often hear the expression, “hinan keiro wo kakuho suru (to secure an evacuation route)” in the news. One day, I saw on TV an elementary school boy after an emergency drill he had just participated in. The reporter asked how he liked the drill, to which he answered. “One must always secure an evacuation route.” He obviously regurgitated the same phrase he must have heard on the news. People, especially single-digit kids don’t talk like that in everyday conversation. There are other ways to say the same thing, such as “We have to know our way out.” Little kids’ brains absorb like a sponge and repeat like a parrot. It makes sense for language teachers to be aware when teaching children with young, flexible brains.

To learn both spoken and written languages, it would be necessary to experience spoken language more in junior high schools. As pointed out by Mr. Omachi, Japanese kids spend way too little time being around English at school. It doesn’t necessary follow however, that that problem will be solved by launching an official English program at the elementary school level. I recommend that the system teaches kids all four skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening) intensively for the three years of junior high school.

Mr. Omachi concluded that the purpose of teaching English at school is to provide students with the basics so that they will be equipped when the need arises to reach an advanced level. Students who already recognize that need take lessons at places like his prep school. The role of public schools, therefore, is to teach only the basics for the mass. Mr. Omachi may have a point if English is merely a professional skill. But learning English is not just about vocational training.

Through the process of working to attain a certain level of English competency, Japanese students will be able to see that people look at things differently in the English-speaking world. That’s necessary experience for all Japanese people. Take newspaper reading, for example. You wouldn’t look at the world the same way if you read both English and Japanese newspapers. If junior high school students could see that first hand, more of them would voluntarily choose to continue to study English in high school or study other foreign languages in adulthood.

Educators may wonder what kind of exams would be appropriate to see if a 9th grader has learned to communicate in English like an ordinary high school student. Grammar and composition exams have already been established within the current system and there already are too many of them. How many more do the teachers want? The important thing is for them to improve their attitude toward test results as quickly as possible. They can continue testing kids, but they must stop acting like that’s everything.

How about writing and performing a short contemporary drama that centers on a high school student, namely “me a year from now”? The goal (using English like an ordinary high school student of an English-speaking country) is just a target that students aim for. Teachers would consciously avoid numerical evaluations based on exams. Scores on grammar and composition tests will only be viewed as personal yardsticks by individual students. If the student feels that his goal hasn’t been attained, he may choose to study English in high school. Or he may not. That’s O.K. If, in the future, a colleague, who has a better command of English gets promoted first, that’s just the fact of life. That’s how it is out there with any skill or ability.

If my ideas are right and more Japanese people begin to choose to live around foreign languages even after they graduate from school, an environment will be created where people with different levels of English competency use English liberally, without fear. No more obsessions with the sense of inferiority or elitism based on English competency.

Nov. 2014 Using a foreign language at work

Among the people who use English professionally are translators who can’t speak English. I have met some myself. They are highly competent in reading English and translating into Japanese, but they can’t carry everyday conversation in English. Several translators in this group voluntarily said to me, “I can’t speak English.” They actually couldn’t talk to Jeremy or other English-speaking people when they had a chance. One experienced translator I had sat across the table from at a drinking party in Japan said to me, “I’ve never met a translator who speaks English as fluently as you do.” Some of these translators have their names printed on books by major publishers. This is how things are in the world of translation in Japan. It’s puzzling how they could translate without being able to converse. I’m sure anyone could empathize. As children, we begin speaking first and then learn to read and write at school. Speaking should be easier than reading and writing any language. I can’t figure out how these translators managed to continue studying English long enough to become professional translators without learning how to speak it. Did they consciously avoid each and every opportunity to practice speaking? I have yet to ask them this question.

If you can write Japanese and also know how to read and understand English you can translate English into Japanese. You don’t have to be able to speak English. These translators that I met were only doing English-to-Japanese translation jobs. They usually didn’t do it the other way.

I was given jobs that involved translation in both directions. Of course, my work was edited by professional editors (native speakers of English for English and Japanese editors for Japanese) before it was submitted to the clients. I was lucky to receive considerable feedback from the editors, especially on my English translation. I learned and improved while working.

I had some interesting experience as a translator. A Japanese company expanding their business in China and Southeast Asia regularly outsourced translation of their monthly newsletters into English. After a couple of jobs they preferred my translation. One day, my coordinator at the translation agency told me that that company wanted my English translation without any rewriting by the editor. This didn’t mean that my translation was so great that it didn’t require editing. It was because unedited English translation by a Japanese person (me) was easier for the company executives (who were also Japanese) to check for accuracy against the original Japanese text. In other words, “English written like English” was unpopular at this particular company. It probably was due to their proofreading method. Most likely, my translation was compared with the original Japanese text word by word to check to see if anything was left out or mistranslated.

Easy-to-read translation evokes in the reader’s mind scenes and ideas described in the original text in the most natural way. Editing is essential to ensure the most effortless reading experience for international readers of sophisticated English translation. In reality, however, Japanese companies may make bizarre requests like the one I had run into.

On the other hand, there are Japanese companies that show allergic symptoms to Japanese-style English. When I was working for a PR firm I coordinated some trial translation jobs for international PR of one of Japan’s major home electric appliances manufacturers. This trial account landed in my lap through a female American editor living in Japan, who was looking for a PR company to work with. The client firm had local offices in the U.S. where Japanese managers were stationed.

I opened the first e-mail from the person in charge at the main office in Tokyo and found a foreign first name, “François” plus a Japanese surname at the end of his message. I thought that he must be a Japanese American person at the main office. It didn’t strike me as odd because the trial account was for international PR. Anyway, the day came to meet this person. Two middle-aged Japanese men showed up at our office. François was 100% Japanese. On top of that, it turned out that he and I had gone to the same college in Tokyo. He told me that he had belonged to the college’s English society and asked if I had also been a member. I answered, “No”.

Both of these men had been stationed in the U.S. and had come back to assume managerial positions. The other guy that came with Francois also signed his e-mails “Mike”. I figured that their U.S. staff used these familiar nicknames to call their Japanese managers during their tenure in America. But why keep using them back in Japan, writing to Japanese people outside their company? Did they want me to know that they had been to the U.S.?

I received the first trial newsletter job from them, which I had an outside translation company translate into English. I then sent it to the American editor, who referred them to us in the first place, for a rewrite. I checked and submitted the complete work. Before the day was over, I got a scolding telephone call from François. He was upset because a sentence that included a phrase, “not only XXX but also YYY” appeared in the translation we had submitted. He said that high school textbook English was used and that he couldn’t accept such typical Japanese-style translation. Based on the original Japanese, I thought that the translation was appropriate. The American editor also objected to his criticism saying that using phrases taught in high school didn’t automatically make anybody’s English bad. We couldn’t agree on the price, either, so I decided not to take the project and wrote to François. Then I got another call from him saying that it was out of the question that a small company like ours would decline an offer from a company like theirs. I explained the situation to my boss. He kept explaining to them that the project wouldn’t be profitable for us.

Translating from Japanese to English is tough primarily because, in most cases, the client can’t properly appreciate the complete work. No matter how great a translation job you’ve done the party that hired you wouldn’t know it because they don’t understand English. The other reason is that translation is often outsourced as some incidental work by Japanese people who have worked abroad and think of themselves as experts of English. They try to beat the price as far down as possible and come up with irrelevant criticism.

As is often the case with Japanese companies, the generation that currently occupy supervisory positions don’t have very high English competency. They are unable to properly evaluate the foreign language skills of their junior staff.

I once helped a group of American tourists exchange their dollars for yen while working at a local department store in Japan. I gave them some sightseeing tips and chatted with them. A male executive near his retirement saw that and said, “You made what is lengthways (meaning Japanese) come out crossways (meaning English). I’m impressed.” In many Japanese companies, your boss may appreciate that you speak English, but they don’t care how good or bad you are. Once they find out that you speak English they’ll try to take advantage whenever possible. In my case, my job description didn’t mention anything about doing translation or working as an interpreter. In reality, however, I was asked, without any advance warning, to be a one-day interpreter for the president’s guests from Southeast Asia, translate sales letters from manufacturers abroad, and help create the English version of their company song (I couldn’t for the life of me understand why they needed it when 99.9% of the employees were Japanese). Officially, I was a sales clerk, so I had to be pulled out of the floor to do these jobs. That I was equipped to deal with these situations didn’t even inspire the company to consider compensating me for my services. They probably had no idea how much money professional translators or interpreters make. In the end, I had to tell my boss to his face that I wasn’t going to take on any more odd jobs involving English that weren’t included in my job description.

Japanese companies, even local small and medium-sized ones, need to use English from time to time, but not quite often enough to hire specialized workers. They don’t want to bother outsourcing because it’s trouble and expensive, and they usually have the nerve to exploit a few of their employees who happen to know some English. Most of these exploiters studied English themselves for as many as ten years at school, but failed to learn it. And they still can’t admit that their few English-speaking employees are of value to them. It may be a form of inferiority complex that many Japanese people share regarding their English competency.

Dec. 2014 Using a foreign language at work (cont.)

How do Japanese companies evaluate the Japanese skills of their foreign employees? For foreign workers, the most difficult task is to write Japanese correctly. The workers I knew from English-speaking countries spoke pretty good Japanese. However, when it came to writing Japanese they showed a common tendency. They couldn’t write katakana English correctly. A Japanese employee at my office secretly called these foreign employees “useless foreigners” because she always had to check for and correct the mistakes they made on business documents. In Japan, we use a Japanese writing system for foreign loanwords, which are literally everywhere. Foreign workers with poor katakana English writing skills can be held in little regard.

Here is a question for the Japanese readers of this blog:

Which one of the three below is the correct katakana English writing for “Los Angeles”?

1. Ro-sa-n-je-ru-su
2. Ro-su-a-n-je-ru-su
3. Ro-sa-n-ze-ru-su

Los Angeles comes from “Los Angeles” in Spanish. It means “the angels”. To write it in katakana in the Romanized style, it should be “Ro-su-a-n-je-re-su”. The “z” sound in option 3 is not usually used for the “g” sound in English, which makes option 3 the remotest in terms of pronunciation. However, it is the most commonly used katakana English writing for Los Angeles.

As I mentioned before, who on earth decided that the English word “recipe” is written as “re-shim-pi” in katakana English?? If we respect the original English pronunciation it should be “re-sa-pi- macron”. If we want to stick to the Romanized style the answer should be “re-shi-pe”. To me, it’s a mystery how the entire population of Japan could go along with “re-shi-pi” without even stopping to think.When I was in high school, nobody was using this katakana English word. I found it in one of the English-Japanese dictionaries that I’ve purchased since the beginning of the 21st century. The Japanese word for “recipe”, which can either be “tsukuri-kata” or “chori-ho”, uses the same number (3) of characters as its katakana English counterpart: two kanjis and a hiragana for the former and three kanjis for the latter. So why bother switching to the weird katakana English?

Let’s look at Liverpool, the birthplace of the Beatles. It’s “ri-ba-pu-macron-ru” in katakana English. In Japanese, when “liver” is used to mean the internal organ kanzo, it is written in katakana English as “re-ba-macron”. The popular dish “re-ba ni-ra itame (liver and leek stir-fry)” is never written as “ri-ba ni-ra itame”. So, there is no consistency unless Liverpool also starts with “re-ba”. “Ri-ba-macron” in katakana English usually means “river”. So that’s it! To differentiate “liver” from “river”! But wait a minute. Then how do you explain using the same “re-ba-macron” to refer to the English word “lever”?

In katakana English, “first” and “fast” look and sound the same. So do “rubber” and “lover”. Is the popular fast food chain First Kitchen “Fast” or “First”? Can the jazz standard “Lover Man” be “Rubber Man”? It’s absurd to insist that a non-Japanese person master this totally nonsensical vast group of words without being able to explain how to write them.

Japanese people are intolerant to the Japanese language used by foreigners. We can’t master English, so we conveniently distort it in Japanese style while demanding correct Japanese out of the people from abroad. It would make much more sense to insert English words as they are into Japanese sentences. That would make too much trouble shifting between half-size and full-size letters on the keyboard? That’s not even a problem. The problem is that we use vocabulary that has no governing rules or universality.

When you act important and demand perfection from others they’ll come back and treat you the same. Many Japanese people can’t speak English because they are afraid of making mistakes. Situations vary depending on the workplace, but Japanese people need to change their mindset in order to increase the number of workers who use high-level English at work.

Calling for others to change their mindset sounds way too serious for a backseat driver…and I laughed at myself for making such a big deal out of it, but then I spotted two newspapers articles on the 20th and 21st of November that made me think twice. The first was on The Asahi and the second, on The Japan Times. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology did a survey on how many of the public school English teachers have passed the Eiken (the ministry-backed English proficiency test) Grade Pre-1 or higher or scored 730 or higher in TOEIC. According to the Eiken website, the Grade Pre-1 is “mainly aimed at university students. Examinees are expected to be able to understand and use the English necessary to participate in social, professional and educational situations.” The result showed that 53% of the public high school English teachers and 28% of the public junior high school English teachers have passed at least one of these tests. The government has been aiming to attain 75% for high school teachers and 50% for junior high respectively.

The Japan Times article on the following day explained that the Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura proposed “making English a compulsory subject for fifth- and sixth-graders as part of a root-and-branch overhaul of the elementary, junior high and high school curricula.” He also proposed that English classes be taught from third grade. Furthermore, in the revised curricula, “English classes would be conducted exclusively in English at junior high school level and high school students would be encouraged to hold debates in English.” The articles said that “the revision is intended to help students compete better internationally, particularly as the nation prepares to host the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.” Strangely enough, however, the same article indicates that the completely revised curricula will be implemented in 2020 at elementary schools, in 2021 at junior high schools, and 2022 or later for high schools. This simply attests that the two-week sporting event has nothing to do with English education in Japan and that the government is throwing “the 2020 Tokyo Olympics” as a slogan into just about anything they can't or won't explain. During the pitch for the Olympics, I heard the Japanese delegation repeatedly say that by hosting the Olympics, the county would be able to give dreams to the children from the areas hit by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. To me, it was unbelievable. If I were an evacuee child and didn’t know if my family had enough money to send me to college next year that pitch would only have sounded like bull crap.

Having read the two articles, I’m inclined to think that the government’s goal will be further removed from reality in the future. It has already set a target that can’t be met by junior high and high school teachers. Now it needs to increase the number of teachers to teach at elementary schools.

The problem with the situation where many of the teachers of English at public schools have never taken reputable English proficiency tests (the article mentions their expensive fees as a reason) or haven’t passed a certain grade in them is that the teachers won’t be considered reliable by the students. This relationship of distrust will spread to elementary schools in the near future. Is this really what you want, Minister Shimomura?

I can’t help feeling that something is fundamentally off.

It’s been a year since I began “What’s up with English education in Japan?”, but thanks to the interesting proposals and actions by many experts in the field I’ve got plenty more to right about. See you in 2015!

Jan. 2015 Speaking English like English?

On December 10, 2014, the new state secrecy law took effect in Japan. Several days before that, I read a newspaper article that said that the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office had warned government offices that people who have studied or worked abroad have a higher risk of leaking secrets designated by the new law. That’s strange. Didn’t Tokyo’s board of education decide to make it a requirement for teachers of English at public junior high and senior high schools to participate in a three-month study abroad program? Naturally, the newspaper article included a comment by a university professor: “The government has been encouraging young people to go abroad amid the trend of globalization. So it doesn’t make sense that it will now judge overseas experience as a negative factor.” Ditto. Violation of this new law can mean ten years in prison. You are told to study abroad to master a foreign language and learn about cultural diversity only to be treated as a more likely leaker of national secrets once back home. Online information shows that Prime Minister Abe himself was an enrollee at schools abroad, though for a short period of time. It means that he, too, should be treated the same. Many problems have recently been pointed out about this new law, making me wonder how Japan can expect its youth to go abroad and do things, given this kind of environment.

In this world, there exists a way of thinking that sees foreigners and those who have lived abroad as a threat and tries to regiment them.

When I was in college, TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) taught students (whose native language was not English) how to use English like English. In a period of a month, I had several occasions where I was one of the TESOL Guinea pigs at a university in the U.S. That summer, when I didn’t have a class to attend I was asked to take different tests. One was an interview. I think there were three American TESOL experts in the room, who asked me random questions. The questions varied. One of them was about things I was most interested in doing. Another time, I, along with two other Japanese students, was given a short English essay to read silently. The teacher was interested in finding out which of us three was the fastest in reading, and who had the best grasp of the content. There also was a one-on-one conversation test in a private room with a TESOL expert. Our conversation was recorded from the beginning to the end. First, the teacher wanted to examine my ability to discuss concrete things. The conversation then shifted to discussing abstract ideas. Later, I sat with another TESOL expert to listen to the playback of the recorded conversation, after which she pointed out how to improve my speech. These TESOL teachers were very friendly. Compared to the Japanese teachers of English I knew in Japan they were much easier to talk to.

The teacher in charge of giving feedback said that the problem with my speech was that I wouldn’t give a clear answer to yes-or-no questions at the beginning. For example, I certainly wasn’t making myself clear to the simple question, “Do you like that movie?” Instead, I sounded slightly like a movie critic explaining what I thought about the movie. As soon as that pattern was recognized my teacher stopped the cassette, and said in a harsh tone, “There you go again!” or “There you’re doing it again!” A lesson learned. English should be spoken in a certain manner. I was surprised and unhappy with her tone. Being a student of the English language, however, I accepted what she said. By changing my speech pattern I might have made it easier for all the native speakers of English that I’ve encountered since then to accept me. They probably felt that I wasn’t as enigmatic or as non-committal as a typical Japanese person.

We often come across a scene on English news channels where the commentator doesn’t give a straight answer to the anchor’s question. The anchor’s intention is to cut to the chase by throwing a penetrating question, which is exactly what the commentator wants to avoid. The commentator, in this case, is making a political or diplomatic choice. To the viewer, however, that type of behavior seems elusive or untruthful.

Twenty years had passed since that summer and I was living in New York with Jeremy. A big TESOL meeting was held in the city and we met with that same TESOL teacher after she had attended it. We took a walk along the Hudson River. I remembered how strict she had been about my speech pattern and asked if she remembered. She said, “I’m sorry that happened.” She went on to say that that method of teaching had been discontinued and that TESOL teachers now respected and encouraged the style of speaking with which each student would feel comfortable based on his/her unique cultural and ethnic background.

I focused on that she didn’t say, “I’m sorry I did that.” She didn’t regret that she had employed an undesirable teaching method. Rather, she was sorry that such a method was widespread back then. It was hammered in to her head at that time, and she must have been simply and faithfully implementing it.

You can think of many reasons why a person wouldn’t say if he likes a certain movie. He may like it in some parts but not in others. He may simply be a person who does not assert his preference about anything. When I was in college, I somehow found Richard Gere’s face so repulsive that I would turn a magazine over if it had his face on the cover. I was fussy about actors and I knew that it swung my cinematic preference. I felt ambivalent about the movies I’d seen most of the time. I wonder what my teacher’s reaction would have been if I had immediately stated that I both liked and disliked the movie and left it at that.

Several years ago, in Japan’s sumo wrestling world, the grace of the yokozuna was brought into question. Yokozuna is the sumo wrestlers’ highest rank. When a non-Japanese yokozuna won the bout that decided his championship for the tournament he raised his fist in triumph, something very common among athletes all over the world. The next morning, commentators (all of them Japanese) on TV variety shows joined in criticizing the wrestler for lacking in “yokozuna-like grace”. Jeremy said, “What’s that?” Jeremy likes sumo. He watched almost every tournament on TV when we were living in New York. We actually went to Tokyo’s Ryogoku once to see it live. While on tour in Japan he watched it on TV in his hotel rooms. However, he had no idea what they were talking about. My answer to him was, “Beats me.” The Japanese commentators on the TV programs seemed to share a definition of “yokozuna-like grace”. If they didn’t, how could they readily agree that a yokozuna must not raise his fist in triumph?

That some Japanese TV people criticized the non-Japanese sumo wrestler for his victorious gesture somewhat resembles my experience of being scolded by the TESOL expert for being vague in English. First, people of a country are telling a foreigner to act the same way as they do. Second, those who are in the position to teach aren’t fully explaining themselves. Needless to say, you must first translate into the foreigner’s language and explain about your own country, culture and history before giving him a lecture. Unfortunately, however, the TV critics didn’t speak that yokozuna’s language. Neither did my TESOL teacher speak mine. Finally, in both cases, a fuss was being made about something that wasn’t intrinsically very important.

A Japanese person once tried to explain to Jeremy in English something like the significance of sumo as Japan’s national sport. He was a friend of a friend of mine from college. He took a shot at this task, employing the English skills with which he had graduated from a four-year college in Japan. I wasn’t surprised to see him fail miserably. It’s difficult even in Japanese. I wonder how those critics on TV would have done in explaining yokozuna-like grace to Jeremy. They would probably have had to look up in a dictionary how to translate the Japanese-English word, “gattsu poozu” (guts pose), which means in English “to raise a fist in triumph”.

Translating is important in that, in addition to its primary purpose of disseminating information to more people, its process will inspire a person to take another look at his country’s culture, which is usually taken for granted, which will bring about humility, which will prompt him to consider the other person’s feelings.

Feb. 2015 Speaking English like English? (cont.)

The final lesson of the English textbook for 9th graders, which I had bought for reference, begins with a spread of reading material entitled, “English for Me”. One of the characters, a Japanese male student says that he thinks and acts differently in each language--English or Japanese, in this case. Most junior high school students in Japan seldom speak English on a daily basis. I wonder what they think about his statement.

In Japanese, we have the expression, “ki ga kawatta”. The literal translation of this expression would be “My mind (or heart) has changed,” but nobody says that in English. Instead, a native speaker of English would say, “I changed my mind.” For example, on a weekend morning, you first plan to go shopping. But after eating late breakfast and watching TV on a sofa, going out seems somewhat troublesome and you end up not leaving the house. For a Japanese person, this situation can be best described as “ki ga kawatta”. It feels inappropriate to begin the sentence with the subject “I” in this case because “I” didn’t actively alter the plan to go shopping. An English person in the same situation would say, “I changed my mind and didn’t go shopping.”

In the English-speaking world, when you run into an acquaintance of yours in an unexpected place you say,” What brought you here?” The literal translation of this expression into Japanese would be, “Nani ga anata wo koko e tsurete kitanodesuka”, which you would never hear under normal circumstances. The same situation would likely prompt a Japanese person to say, “Nande kokoni iruno (Why are you here?)” or “Kokode nani shiteiruno (What are you doing here?)” Personally, I would be concerned about sounding inquisitive and want to be careful about my tone. After all, it’s not my business what and where that person may be doing. The alternative English expression solves that problem perfectly. Because it doesn’t take “you” as the subject I can ask about the other person’s circumstances without being a meddler. Unfortunately, in Japan, I have to speak Japanese to another Japanese person, don’t I? So I hesitate for a moment and jokingly say something like, “Here is a person I never expected to see.”

Not long after I began studying English, one of my English teachers said that the Japanese expression, “yumizu no youni tsukau (squander something like water)” would never exist in water scarce countries. It was a revelation to me. Foreign language learning opens up a boundless world in kids’ minds.

Choose world history as one of the subjects to take college exams on and you’ll be asked which century a particular world map represents. As I crammed to answer such a question I began to think that national borders are simply meaningless lines drawn by politicians as they please. Jeremy’s grandfather was Polish, but his birthplace is currently in Ukraine. Jeremy is an American by nationality, but which country is he really from?

It is important that the textbook should show Japanese students that a person can think or act differently depending on the language he’s speaking. It would give them an opportunity to think why they are studying a foreign language. Though, ideally speaking, the students should actually experience it in person, nobody would feel encouraged under the current government’s policy, which will regard them as possible criminals.

Mar. 2015 College entrance exams, driver's license and English education 1

If you are a middle-aged Japanese person it is highly likely that you stopped studying English after graduating from high school unless you majored in English at college, went to school at a university in the English-speaking world, or landed a job in a foreign-owned company where you had to study English very hard. English courses of average liberal studies at college don’t usually have enough weekly hours and they don’t offer new things—well, it didn’t at least in my time. It’s no exaggeration to say that, for many Japanese people, English studies culminate and also end with college entrance exams. My proposition to those of you, who now have become a parent of a child in junior high school, is to look back on those tests you took decades ago.

Recently, I tried my hand at the latest unified entrance exam prepared by the National Center for University Entrance Exams respectively at home. They print the questions and answers on major newspapers after the exam is over. The big difference between that test and the private university English entrance exams I took is the listening test. When I was in high school, school entrance exams at any level didn’t have a listening test in English.

But that’s about the only improvement I could find. Nothing else has changed. They still give you shuffled words to put back in order and to mark the 2nd and 5th words in the correct sentence on the answer sheet. They still want you to describe what an underlined “it” means within 30 Japanese characters. To test your pronunciation, they ask you to find a word that has the same accentuated syllable as the word in question.

Upon looking at these problems you’d think that they are much harder than you remember. You’d be filled with emotions. “Oh, what a smart kid I was!” But hold on for a second. How is it that you also remember being unable to take orders from foreign customers at a restaurant where you worked part-time as a college student? Even worse, many of you may be currently struggling to give a company building tour in English to corporate guests from abroad. On the day of the college entrance exam all you cared about was to give the right answers on paper. Now, decades later, you look back and may feel disgusted with yourself as you realize that, back then, you almost never questioned why you were studying English the way you were.

I kept the entrance exam sheets of a private university that I took in the 1980s. In fact, I have them right in front of me as I write this. Back then there was a superstition: Four hundred hours of cramming over summer vacation in your high school senior year would enable you to pass the college entrance exam. I think that it probably came from a PR slogan of some cram school. After taking part in the typical rote learning to prepare for the entrance exams of Japanese universities, I became curious and stored the exam sheets in an envelope. I thought to myself, “What will I think in the future when I look back on these tests?”

I looked at each of the problems and wasn’t impressed. I still don’t understand what their aim was. I remember a classmate of mine who proudly said at the beginning of our freshman year that he thought that he had scored 100% on the English exam. He and I were in the same English class. He didn’t speak English at all. He never came close to me on campus when he saw me talking to students from abroad. A person like him could pass that exam with a perfect score.

One of the essays--about 400 words long--is missing seven verbs in the progressive form. Test-takers are asked to put them back in the blank spaces. It’s a multiple-choice question. Three of the seven verbs are ‘stay’, ‘wait’ and ‘try’, all of which appear at the junior high school level, but in this essay, each of them is a part of an idiom. Each blank space is followed by either a complement or a preposition. Another two verbs are ‘drop’ and ‘tidy’ and they are respectively used as part of a colloquial phrase. As for the rest, you can insert them correctly as long as you know their meanings.

The next problem is about choosing a correct preposition that follows a verb to complete an idiom. This is also in the multiple-choice style. One of the idioms uses the verb ‘make’. I looked it up in the dictionary and found a total of 17 usages. The usage in question is the 8th in the list. I showed the problem to Jeremy. He has never in his life heard this idiom being used for that particular meaning. I don’t know it, either, and I’m sure I didn’t back then. If I answered this problem correctly I must have done it by a process of elimination. These questions are possible because they are in the multiple-choice format.

I glanced through new words and expressions listed in the ten textbooks that I had purchased (covering the areas of conversational English, composition, grammar and reading from 7th grade to 12th grade), but I couldn’t find the idioms featured in that exam. This is also the case with today’s unified national exam. It’s just that such questions are fewer in number.

I wonder what the message is from the universities to the test-takers:

1) Read your dictionary back to back and memorize as many idioms as possible. Or simply know by heart every single word and idiom that is printed on your study-aid books.

2) Our university is only interested in enrolling students who have lived abroad or are smart enough to explore cram school material.

3) You don’t need to know these idioms and you probably don’t know them anyway, but if you are lucky enough to guess correctly you may be able to join our university.

4) You can never learn all the words or expressions by heart. We want to enroll students who have learned to understand through an educated guess.

According to the March 17 NHK news, a survey found that more than 90% of the 12th graders in Japan fell short of the government targets in English proficiency. The survey was conducted on 70,000 high school senior students nationwide to examine their ability to read, write, speak and listen in English. The share of the students who have reached the desirable level in writing and speaking turned out to be less than 15%. The same news was on another news program that said that the same survey had found that the students with a poor performance tended to dislike English more. One student said that she didn’t like English because she had to memorize many words, while another said that English is not necessary because he doesn’t think he’ll leave Japan. But haven’t kids been always like this? Last year, I mentioned that Jeremy didn’t take his high school French class seriously because he never thought he would leave America. I heard many of my classmates complain about having to memorize new English words. These students also complained about having to memorize kanji characters in Japanese or the years in which important events happened in history. What was the reason for this survey anyway? It’s not that English education in Japan has gone through sweeping reform and therefore, the government should expect a dramatic change in students’ performances.

Apr. 2015 College entrance exams, driver's license and English education 2

In fact, a big problem of school education, including English education in Japan is that it fails to establish its relevance to real life.

Last year, I wrote about a director of a cram school who thinks that Japanese people will not study English seriously unless it becomes a matter of life or death. I think that may be the case if you look at English as a subject to be taught at school.

Many Japanese people have a driver’s license. Unless you live in a remote area where there is no public transportation system or you drive professionally, getting a driver’s license is not a matter of vital importance. When I got mine my family didn’t own a car and there was no need to get one to get around in Yokohama. But I paid a driving school fee of 200,000 yen (approx. $2,000, which was average back then) and got a license anyway. A driver’s license is useful as an official identification, and also for traveling abroad because a license holder can have an international license issued to drive in more than a hundred countries in the world. This is similar to being able to speak English. If you know basic English grammar and acquire practical skills you can make yourself understood in many countries outside Japan. Wouldn’t it help to compare English learning to getting a driver’s license in visualizing how to help improve English education in Japan? Right now, most Japanese people are supposed to have passed the written test, but not the practical examination. They are not ready to drive yet.

Come to think of it, is it reasonable to issue an international driver’s license to a Japanese person who doesn’t speak a word of English? What if such a Japanese driver runs somebody over in a quiet street of an unfamiliar country? Who would call an ambulance? Dear people in foreign countries! Beware of Japanese drivers! They may be unable to call for help even if you are bleeding to death in the street.

If you have a child who is currently studying English at school, please ask yourself if you can call an ambulance in a foreign country in an emergency. If your answer is “No” then you must look back on the college entrance English exam you passed and admit that the six years of studying English have most likely gone to waste. That would be the first step toward making English education in Japan better.

So what’s up next? At an average driving school, it may take about a month to learn basic traffic rules and practical automobile operation. How much time should we invest in learning basic English grammar and practical conversational skills? As I mentioned before, I think that schools should give intensive English courses for the three years of junior high school, followed by optional programs in high school. I’m going to discuss this as I look at some high school English textbooks.

May. 2015 Keeping your head cool when using English

In each chamber in the public restrooms of a global chain hotel in Yokohama are multiple signs on the wall behind the toilet seat. The top sign reads in Japanese, “Jido-senjo de seiketsu, sessui”, (My translation: “Automatic flushing keeps it [toilet bowl] clean while saving water.”) which is followed by a sign in incomprehensible English: “Saving water and sanitized by switch.” The next sign reads in Japanese, “Shiyou-go, jido-teki ni senjo shimasu. Toppu ni te wo chikazukeru to jido de mizu ga nagaremasu,” which is followed by a rather lengthy sign in English: “Flushing is carried out automatically as you leave. Manual flushing is also available by placing your hand on top of the sensor.” I recommend that the hotel remove the first sign immediately. The next lengthy one can actually be summed up in two words: Automatic flush (or Flushes automatically.) “Placing your hand on top of the censor” in the second sentence of that sign is inaccurate because the censor responds when a hand is held over it.

Why are these signs relevant? It’s no exaggeration to say that one of the enormous jobs to be done in English education in Japan is to fill the gap between the English currently used in those signs at the hotel and “Automatic flush.” Unfortunately however, as far as the English textbooks used in public high schools are concerned, the gap is expected to become even wider. This kind of threat may sound like a prelude to some grandiose theory. But the gap I’m talking about here is nothing but common sense of an ordinary person.

When I was a kid most of the public restrooms in Japan were fitted with Japanese-style toilet bowls. You stood over it, and after you finished you’d step on the metal lever with your foot for a flush. Later on, toilets of that style were taken over by the Western-style ones, and one day, I ran into a futuristic toilet that didn’t have a lever or a button for flushing. My eyes caught the sign that explained that the toilet flushes automatically, but I was still not sure. Of course, it flushed as soon as I stood up. This means that the only necessary piece of information for whoever uses the hotel toilet is that it flushes automatically. Guests could be Japanese or people visiting from countries where there is no automatic toilet. Everybody gets up after being done, which is a natural thing to do. Just about the only person I can think of who stayed on the seat is Sergeant Murtaugh (played by Danny Glover) in the movie Lethal Weapon 2. He was told that standing up would trigger a toilet bomb.

Show Japanese people these signs and ask them to create their own signs in English, and nine times out of ten, they will start by replacing Japanese with English word for word. This comes from the repeated training they received in high school to fill out the blanks in drill sentences. They would first be looking for the subject of the sentence that they are about to write. It is the guest who uses the toilet, but that guest couldn’t be flushing the toilet. The whole point is that it flushes without help from the guest. So how would they start the sentence? The next line would be the same way. It is the guest who would hold their hand over the censor, but what flushes is the water. They would get totally confused thinking, “Wait a minute. A person can flush the toilet, but the toilet can’t flush, can it?” They would remember the drills they did in high school to learn the passive voice in English grammar and think, “Flushing can’t be in the active voice.” Thus, the English currently used in the sign: “Flushing is carried out”. What they don’t know and probably never bother to consult the dictionary to find out is that the verb “flush” can be used as a vi (intransitive verb) to mean “to become empty of waste matter by means of a flow of water”. As a matter of fact, my copy of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English lists an example: The toilet won’t flush; I’ve tried flushing it several times, but it won’t work. Hey, the answer is right here!

The textbooks for public high schools I have feature a number of difficult grammatical terms such as jisei (tense), kankeish” (relative), judotai (passive) and bunshi (participle). Teachers beat them into students’ heads. Students are told to read a printed sentence, followed by another that should have the same meaning if they manage to fill out the blanks with specific expressions based on the grammatical rules provided in the chapter. In most cases, the drill sentences either have the first word printed or come with a group of words to choose from. In other words, Japanese high school students rarely get to start a sentence on their own. Without learning how to decide on the subject of what they are going to say they won’t learn how to use verbs correctly.

Let’s go back to the signs in the hotel restroom. In fact, an appropriate English sign wouldn’t even require a subject. First of all, what is the meaning of putting up long sentences on the wall of a toilet chamber with dimmed ambience lighting? Use your common sense and you realize that the only piece of information necessary for the guest is that the toilet flushes automatically. If, for some reason, a flush fails to occur, the guest will need to know that holding his/her hand over the censor will cause it to flush. In conclusion, the sign that reads, “Automatic flush” should be located at the eye level with another that reads, “Hold your hand over censor to flush” near or above the censor.

I have a couple of English textbooks entitled “English Expression” and “English Writing” for teaching grammar at public senior high schools. They begin by explaining the structure of English sentences. The same kind of lesson was given to me when I was in 7th grade. I found it very confusing to have to categorize English verbs into be doushi (be verbs) and ippandoushi (general verbs), and then into jidoushi (intransitive verbs) and tadoushi (transitive verbs). These unfamiliar Japanese words explaining rules in English grammar didn’t make any sense at all to me. Before I knew it, it was time for the mid-term exam and I barely made 70 out of 100. I showed the result to my sister, who is a year older. She said that I should first learn to write one subject with a verb after it to make a sentence. It was a “eureka” moment, and since then English has never been a problem for me. I understood that in English, the trick is to clarify a subject (who and what) followed by a verb (do what or be what) before anything else. Why couldn’t my teacher figure out an easy-to-understand way to explain something so simple to a 7th grader? To make matters worse, in the current system, the lesson doesn’t even start for another three years. Why?

Jun. 2015 What's missing from lesson 1

Lesson 1 of English education at public junior high schools in Japan begins with "I am Taro (=watashi wa taro desu)," and "You are Mike (=anata wa maiku desu)." Educators have apparently decided to wait until the first year of high school to explain that "Taro" or "Mike" is grammatically referred to as a complement—perhaps out of concern that doing so in lesson 1 would confuse 7th graders. The interesting thing is, however, when to mention "complements" is the least of the teachers' problems.

A dialogue in one of Jeremy’s basic Japanese textbooks reads as follows:

A: Akemi-san wa Kyoto no shusshin desuka. (=Is Miss Akemi from Kyoto?)
B: Iie, chigai masu. (=No, she isn’t.)

Jeremy read it shortly after he had started studying Japanese and was surprised to find that person B was actually Akemi herself. In Japanese, it is common that the word "you" is replaced by your name plus a courtesy title. In this dialogue, person A is talking to Akemi and referring to her as Akemi-san. Native speakers of English usually don’t have a clue why this happens. In Japanese, the word "you" (=anata) is seldom used to refer to the person to whom he/she is talking. Anata is almost never used to refer to one's superiors. Despite these facts, lesson 1 of English education in Japan teaches kids that "you" means anata. After that lesson is given, the teacher asks students to ask him questions to practice what they've just learned. But the students feel strange and uncomfortable about referring to the teacher as "you" because he is their senior. I, too, misunderstood and thought that everybody is equal in America and that even a kindergarten kid may call the President anata.

In lesson 1, it is not as important to explain how to use be verbs or what a complement is. What students need to know is that normally in English one can't talk about oneself without beginning a sentence with "I", and therefore, the person to whom "I" am talking has to be referred to as "you".

From childhood on, Japanese people live subject-less lives. For example, a child often says to his mother: Asobi ni itte kurune (=Going out to play.) His mother may reply: Yuuhan made ni kaette rasshai (=Come home by dinner.) As you can see, the child is not making clear who is going out to play. He may be going out with a friend, in which case the subject should be "we", but we’ll never know what he really means in Japanese. In response, the mother commands in a nice way that her son be back home by dinner, but it is possible that the person who really wants to see him at dinner is his father and not the mother herself. Under normal circumstances, an American child would say, "I'm going out to play," to which his mother would reply, "I want you to be home for dinner." You can see clearly who is doing what.

In lesson 1, Japanese students need to experience that you can’t usually make a sentence without a subject in English. They need to get used to using "I" as the person who is taking action and "you" as the other who gets involved because of that "I".

Japanese people say "I" when they feel that an emphasis should be on the subject. For example, if you were a murder suspect you wouldn't be in the subject-less mode like the kid who is going out to play. You would definitely be saying, Watashi wa koroshite imasen. (="I didn't kill that man.") But the detective still insists that you did it, to which you must reply, Watashi ja arimasen!! Now let's ask 7th graders who have just finished lesson 1 to translate this desperate line into English. According to lesson 1, Watashi wa XXX desu means "I am XXX", while Watashi wa YYY dewa arimasen is translated as "I am not YYY". Therefore, the line in question should be, "I am not!!" But this is not so. The Japanese line Watashi ja arimasen is again missing the subject, which is Koroshitano wa (=the person who committed murder). Watashi ja arimasen should therefore be translated as "It isn’t (or wasn’t) me." Japanese people are usually unaware that they habitually make subject-less statements. It is difficult for them to understand that English sentences can't be completed in the same fashion.

Let's take a step further and ask the 7th graders to use "I am not..." to tell the detective that they are innocent. They would probably first put down, "I am not killer." Wait a minute. That doesn't sound quite right. Oh yes, an article is missing. There is one killer here, so it should be "I am not a killer." Done! Sorry, wrong again. "I am not a killer." means that I am not the kind of person who could kill anybody. The correct answer is "I am not the killer," which means that I am not the culprit of this particular murder.

In fact, these issues that Japanese students are up against in lesson 1 linger for many years to come. They remain problems with which most Japanese struggle even after studying English at school for more than ten years. In reality, Japanese interpreters who work for NHK news on TV make numerous mistakes in using articles in English. Almost every night, Jeremy catches many unnecessary or missing the's in their interpreted lines. I know that very little space is devoted to teaching how to use articles even in high school textbooks, which are supposed to explain grammar and expressions in detail. As far as the textbooks I have are concerned, each section about the article fits in a half-page space or within a page at the most.

How lesson 1 and its related grammatical points are taught in these textbooks is completely off the beam. It isn't at all sensitive to how the Japanese kids may react to the different nuances of English words or the feeling for the English language they need to develop in order to use it.

Jul. 2015 The student-type mindset

Before thinking more about how to learn English grammar, I should stop to think whether I should still be writing “Backseat Driver.” It’s been 18 months. If English education in Japan has made a complete turnaround there is no reason to go on. Unfortunately, however, there seems to be even greater need to continue.

On June 6, The Japan Times printed on its front page, “Ministry announces new junior high school English exam”. The education ministry plans to introduce a new nationwide exam to assess reading, listening and writing skills of 9th graders. It will also “urge” each prefecture to set individual goals for improving English skills and publish their results. The ministry wants 70% of junior high school graduates to achieve at least A1 level in the Common European Framework of Reference for Language Index by 2024. According to a 2014 survey by the same ministry, only 34.7% of 9th graders in Japan have an equivalent proficiency. For high school students, the ministry wants 70% of 12th graders to achieve either A2 or B1 level, “which is to understand sentences in English about things closely related to them, or to create simple sentences about their own interests.” Some experts are opposed to this plan, criticizing the ministry’s approach that involves more tests and orders from above. Some expressed the opinion that it would be difficult to evaluate students’ speaking abilities through the new exam.

On the 26th of the previous month, the same paper wrote that only a little more than 50% of the teachers who teach English in public high schools have either Grade 1 or Grade Pre-1 of the Eiken (Test in Practical English Proficiency) or a TOEIC score of 730 and higher. The percentage for those who have these certificates in junior high schools is 28.5. The education ministry wants to improve these percentages to 75% and 50% respectively by 2017. The article does mention that there are many teachers who’ve never taken these exams and that these numbers do not necessarily represent the real situation. Two days before that article, there was another article about Japanese people’s English skills in The Japan Times. Rakuten announced that the average employee’s score on TOEIC reached 802.6, up from 526.2 five years ago. Rakuten is a major e-commerce company that introduced an internal English-only policy several years ago. According to the policy, all meetings, presentations, documents, training sessions and e-mail inside the company are conducted in English. The newly announced average score was supposed to be amazing because a score above 800 indicates advanced proficiency. A week later, however, I found a letter from one of the readers that basically said that Rakuten’s English ability was overrated. That person wrote: “If Rakuten employees were so proficient at English, why does the Rakuten stock-trading website have no English whatsoever? And why is the Rakuten shopping website as shockingly bad in English as any I’ve seen?” He then gave an example of a strange English sentence from the website: “History of the narrow shaft and power-ups Trivoltage systems in the smash energy increases.” This is supposed to be an ad for a badminton racket. It doesn’t support Rakuten’s self-proclaimed high average proficiency.

The April 19 Kyodo News said that the actor Ken Watanabe’s English in the award-winning Broadway musical The King and I had such a heavy Japanese accent that critics couldn’t make out what he was saying or singing.

Holy cow! Every month, we’re met with a chorus of disapproval of Japanese people’s poor English skills both from inside and outside the country. I didn’t see the musical The King and I with Ken Watanabe, but if the critics were telling the truth about his poor English pronunciation he shouldn’t have been hired for the job. Without intelligible pronunciation, the famous actor would have failed to give their audience what they’ve paid for. A professional person like him has the responsibility to scrutinize his own English skills to set an excellent example on the stage. Many Japanese jazz singers sing in English, too, but I usually can’t make out what they’re singing because of their bad pronunciation. Neither can Jeremy. This is also the case with most Japanese pop singers when they use English in their songs.

By the way, how do you like the still-ongoing phenomenal exam obsession with the ministry officials? They make students cram for the exams authorized by them, and when that proves ineffective they give them another “authorized” test. To these officials, testing kids comes as naturally as breathing. There are three “college professors”—including a deceased one—among my relatives, and they all have one thing in common: They like to start a conversation by giving a quiz. Whenever I have a chance to meet and talk with them every several years or so, they give me a quiz. This has always been the case with each professor ever since I was a little child. For example, I was once asked what the letter A in MBA stands for. I also was recently asked how many centenarians there are in Japan. They usually ask questions that have nothing to do with what is being discussed at each family reunion. Whether a correct answer is given or not, they begin to lecture. I categorize them as “people with the professor-type mindset”. As soon as a quiz is given, I say to myself, “Here we go again.” I’m sick of how they are so predictable. I call that mindset of mine the student-type mindset. That means that most of the junior and senior high school students in Japan who hate English exams should share the same student-type of mindset with me, but do they?

Japanese people have the student-type mindset when they are with their non-English-speaking peers, but they seem to switch to the professor-type mindset in front of native speakers of English or English-speaking Japanese. The student-type mindset doesn’t mind if mistakes are made. Look at the ridiculous and sometimes quite embarrassing English sentences printed on many T shirts sold in Japan. Japanese people deserve the criticism that they don’t know English or they simply don’t care. In the presence of native speakers of English, however, the same Japanese people suddenly become very quiet. They quickly put on the professor-type mindset, which tells them that it’s shameful to make grammatical mistakes or to speak with a heavy Japanese accent.

I once attended a driver’s license class for Japanese residents in New York. The Japanese instructor for the written test told us something very interesting. In America, most of the drivers stuck in heavy traffic keep sounding their horns without hesitation, while in Japan, you hardly see drivers in traffic honking. The instructor explained that most of the Japanese drivers have a parent-type mindset, which makes them act like exemplary people. Drivers in America, on the other hand, usually have a child-type mindset, which is why they naturally sound the horns to say, “Come on. Somebody do something!” Come to think of it, I hardly see Japanese drivers honking even in the incredibly congested roads around the Golden Week holidays in May. In American movies, for example, drivers in a heavy traffic jam never fail to roll their windows down and start yelling or sound their horns. An interesting difference!

In a country like the U.S. where many immigrants co-exist, people have the student- or the child-type mindset both in driving and speaking English. They think that it’s O.K. to make mistakes and that they are not responsible. In Japan, on the other hand, students are made to study English to be approved and certified by the authorities. Students tend to blame themselves for any signs of incompetency, thereby developing the parent- or the professor-type mindset that pushes cramming. Because of the nationwide low average of English proficiency, complacent Japanese tend to use weird English without even knowing it, while serious people lose confidence and can’t put their skills to practical use.

It is the student-type mindset that ordinary Japanese people-- people other than those who must professionally deliver in English, including Ken Watanabe--should embrace when using English with anybody. It doesn’t matter if the other party is a native speaker or a Japanese person. Asking yourself when and why you need to use English will naturally help you understand how to learn as much English as you need to know.

At this point, the best thing that could happen to Japanese students of English is to minimize the period of time when they are under the influence of the so-called experts with the professor-type mindset, at least until the day the education ministry actively begins to recruit honkers in traffic. This is one of the reasons why compulsory English education should be concentrated in the three years of junior high school. A system in which English is optional after junior high school graduation may help Japanese students keep their student-type mindset intact because English stops being a compulsory subject while the students are still having fun with it. This may increase the number of people who end up using it later in their lives. By keeping the student-type approach to English at all times, Japanese people will also be able to agree that it is much more important to look up new words in the dictionary than to have memorized the words and idioms in the textbook. To those who choose to take English in high school, the system should offer specialized English courses as vocational training.

Aug. 2015 Objective and method 1

Now I’m going to think about how Japanese junior high students may want to learn English. To find out how, I must first clarify the purpose of learning English. As for driving schools, their objective is crystal clear. It’s to teach how to operate the machine and to provide students with information that includes traffic rules and driving etiquette so that they will be able to drive safely. Students will learn that they can be held responsible for a person’s death if they make a mistake.

What do junior high school students in Japan study English for? Today’s English education in Japan clamors for the so-called “presentation skills”. These skills will be necessary for meetings at global corporations and international conferences. I hear that Japanese students are lacking these skills. I’m not sure if it’s because they don’t have anything in their heads to present to the world or because they simply don’t know how to express themselves. Either way, the current English education system has it in view that students will communicate in English to the audience outside of Japan. So what about the series of events surrounding the new national stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? Our prime minister, of all people, attended an international bidding to invite a global event, read aloud in English, the language he barely speaks, a manuscript written by somebody else, giving the prime minister’s personal word for all the wonderful things, including a ridiculously expensive brand new national stadium. Now he has retracted the bragging completely, without giving any detailed explanation whatsoever in English. I wouldn’t be surprised if junior high students think that making a presentation in English is about reading aloud a composition of flowery words written by somebody other than the speaker himself with choreographed body language. I remember that the Japanese delegation to that bidding appealed in both English and French for hosting the games the second time, saying that young kids in the disaster-hit areas of the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami would need something to look forward to. How would those delegates explain the 6 billion yen wasted out of taxpayers’ money on the scrapped plan of the new stadium? They wouldn’t be able to say, “Woops, sorry, my interpreter made a mistake!”

Thinking, writing and talking for yourself is difficult even in your native language. It is more difficult to account for what you’ve presented to a large international audience. I think that one of the objectives for Japanese junior high school students to learn English is to understand that. Through learning English students will personally experience how it touches their lives to communicate using the language of the people who have completely different ways of thinking. Once you become an English speaker there is no going back. You’ll never be able to return to the “you” who knew only Japanese. That experience itself should be the objective of compulsory English education in Japan. The important thing is to communicate in your own words. It would be a mistake to think that you can be a responsible speaker/writer without being able to do that first. In other words, the system has to teach students how to make a promise to a classmate or apologize when it’s broken in English. Presentation skills aren't any good to anyone who isn’t already fluent.

This may be making it sound so serious, but my recommended learning method No. 1 is quite simple: Buy the following two dictionaries.

1. Shogakkan’s Visual Glossary of the Physical World—What’s What
2. Kenkyusha’s Guide to Quantitative Expressions in English

Open page 4 of the former and you’ll find the instruction as to how to use the book. It’s a copy of the page under the category “Man/Living Things” followed by the subcategory of “the extremities”. In the center of the page are illustrations of a human foot from which many pointers are thrusting to show different parts of the human foot (heel, toe and so forth) in both Japanese and English. On the right side of the illustration is a brief explanation of related words and expressions: “English for ashiato is footprint while henpeisoku is translated as flatfoot or splayfoot. It’s really a great book in which you can learn how to refer to the specifics of all sorts of worldly things in the two languages with the help of illustrations and photographs. The reason why you should frequently refer to this dictionary is because it helps to develop a habit of understanding English as English. As I mentioned in October 2014, there was a period of time during which I consciously tried putting the Japanese language out of my mind to experience English the way native speakers are supposed to experience it. Simply gazing upon this book will help rewire your brain so that it will start projecting images when it hears or reads English. The dictionary lists the English words next to their Japanese counterparts, but the reader will soon find their eyes moving back and forth between the illustrations/photos and English.

I looked up “stadium (=kyogijo)” in the dictionary. The first feature under the heading is rugby, for which the word kyogijo is translated as “playing enclosure”. This page comes with an illustration of two teams of men in the scrum position along with a column about the rules. The next feature is ice hockey with a photo of the goalie in protective gear standing in front of the goal, which comes with an illustration of the “rink”. For basketball, the players are in the “court” and for soccer, the “soccer field”. This can be a fun and easy way for junior high school students to learn what’s what in their favorite sports in English.

The second book in my recommendation list is also a very useful tool in learning how to say/write frequently used quantitative expressions in English. Each chapter represents a group of expressions you need to know: How to count things, how to describe comparisons, rankings, ratios, averages, directions, periods of time, prices, sizes, and so forth. You can immediately put this book to practical use by complaining that the new Olympic stadium was too expensive to begin with or by asking who was responsible for its construction cost that has swollen to more than double the original estimate. I’ve seen many Japanese adults/students who get stuck for expressions like “once every five years”, “a ten percent increase”, “the southernmost island”, “three days from now” and “the world’s best”. They simply can’t think of them when they need to because they’ve never learned them the way that meets their practical needs. As I mentioned in January 2014, there are groups of basic concrete words such as “front”, “behind” and “side” that need to be taught in the initial stage of English education. You always learn how to move your car forward and backward in the same lesson. It should be the same way with English. Kenkyusha’s quantitative expressions dictionary makes it so easy to look up words and expressions that everybody needs to know. It is a must-have for everybody involved in compulsory English education.

Let’s get these dictionaries so that you can start learning English where it feels familiar to you. Don’t join the weird Japanese people who pretend to be ready to make a presentation in English when in fact they can’t speak it, and furthermore, they don’t have any intention of backing up what they are about to say.

Sep. 2015 Objective and method 2-No need for a textbook in the beginning

It’s obvious to any junior high school student in Japan that compulsory English education here has failed to provide many students with practical English skills for decades. So, let’s NOT begin with textbooks. It probably makes sense to the students if they are instructed to take notes as if to make a textbook on their own.

The vocabulary of a student who is an enthusiastic athlete must be quite different from that of another who is a member of the school brass band. Interests of each student should be respected so that their first English lesson will be as personal an experience as possible. This is to help more students find a connection between themselves and English.

Next, an opportunity will be provided where students get to use expressions that describe concrete things. For example, the teacher can ask each student to take a photograph of their favorite place. It may be a baseball stadium, the music room where the band practices every day, or a famous place a student visited on a family trip. This can’t be too hard given that most junior high school students in Japan have a cell phone. The teacher will ask students to describe what’s in the photo by using three expressions: This/That is---, there is/are---, and I like---because---. They will be encouraged to use everything (including gesturing and facial expressions) but the Japanese language. The students will sit in a circle so that everyone can see each other. After several students describe their photos, the teacher will pick a student whose favorite place is yet to be revealed and ask other students to ask questions to find out the answer. Students will first need to guess how to ask a question. Then the teacher will quickly show how to make an interrogative sentence. The student with the answer must respond by using “yes” or “no”. After a while, some students will probably want to ask more complicated questions such as “Is your favorite place near our school?” or “Why do you like that place?” Knowing that there are returnees and students who take English lessons outside school, the teacher will encourage students to help each other. The teacher will also put down on the board all the questions that come up so that students can refer to them as they make up sentences without knowing grammar. In the end, students will ask, “Is it (=your favorite place) ---?” the question that is supposed to show students how to use the word “it”. If this had been my first English lesson at school, it would have been a fun and easy-to-understand way of learning the assertive and the interrogative. The photographs can also be used to learn how to use prepositions to describe positions and locations. They will be helpful in visually understanding, for example, the difference between “above--” and “on--”, which Japanese students typically find confusing. After several days of this kind of practical lessons, the teacher will give grammatical lessons retrospectively. This will make it much easier for students to understand.

In trying to implement this lesson, the teacher will probably face an obstacle: The students will be unwilling to say anything in English in class. Japanese students are curious about how English-like their teacher’s English and classmates’ English sound. A strong Japanese accent in the teacher’s English is disappointing to most students and makes them suspect that the teacher isn’t very competent or able to carry a conversation in English. I had no problem parroting the sound of English that I’d heard. When my junior high English teacher asked me to read aloud a page in the textbook my pronunciation stirred the whole classroom. It was my classmates’ way of poking fun at me for sounding like an English-speaking person. Some returnee students are bothered by this kind of treatment enough to fake a Japanese accent when they have to pronounce English words in class. I knew a male student in my prefectural high school that had gone to elementary school in Australia, but nobody knew about it because he faked a Japanese accent in English class. I also read in the newspaper about an assistant English teacher (ALT) who could not conduct English lessons at a Japanese elementary school because his attempt to teach English pronunciation caused too much giggling among the kids.

In the past, English pronunciation was taught by Japanese teachers of English with the help of recordings of native speakers of English. I remember a scene at my high school where our English teacher played a cassette to teach us how to distinguish the sound of “l” from the sound of “r”. The Japanese language does not have either. Many Japanese have difficulty knowing, for example, “crowd” from “cloud” or “rice” from “lice”. Our teacher’s instruction was to raise our hands when we heard the “l” sound. He also told us to keep our eyes closed. It was probably to make sure that each student relied on their own ears without being visually influenced by other students. However, the complete silence in the classroom between the sounds of English words on the cassette reinforced our feeling that it was embarrassing not to be able to get it right. An elaborate set-up like that was not necessary at all. All we needed to do was to sing the huge hit song by Bill Haley & his Comets, “Rock Around the Clock” about ten times.

This kind of teaching only contributed to Japanese students’ developing the idea that English must be pronounced a certain way. They tend to believe that any pronunciation other than what they were made to listen to within the limited hours of school English courses to be weird or wrong. This is not just about English. School kids react with negativity to different accents and dialects in the Japanese language, too. I’ve often heard that a transfer student’s dialect invites giggling and bullying by classmates at school. To these students, they are the standard and others are substandard.

In the beginning of English pronunciation lessons, kids should be given a chance to listen to different dialects in the Japanese language and to parrot. In a school in Tokyo, for example, students will try to imitate the Tohoku dialect of the singer Masao Sen or the Osaka dialect of the famous manzai pair All Hanshin Kyojin. Then the teacher will introduce different sounds of English spoken in different parts of the world by people with diverse backgrounds. The teacher will only need to pick up some DVDs of movies and TV dramas in which stories take place in, say, London, New York, Sydney, and Hong Kong. That will show students that no matter how different people’s accents may sound they are all speaking English.

I was born and raised in Yokohama, but I spent about seven years in my twenties in Iwate. Towards the end of that period, I learned to talk like the locals. A colleague of mine jokingly commented that I had done a great job but that I didn’t sound quite authentic yet, which I thought was a compliment. The same can be said about my English pronunciation. It’s only natural that to a native speaker’s ears, my English will always have a Japanese accent. Since both my parents are from Hiroshima, I picked up their local dialect without being aware of it. Once I took a little English-to-Japanese translation quiz. The instructor who graded it commented that he had to deduct points for one of my answers because I had used an expression from the Kansai (Western Japan) dialect. In translating a foreign language, the resulting Japanese must in principle be standard Japanese. Dialects and accents that are deep-rooted in local cultures and traditions usually have no place in textbooks for language learning. However, it is useful to be able to understand more of them to communicate in real life. To me, there isn’t much of a difference between learning a dialect in Japanese and learning English.

It is very interesting to me that the intonation for the English sentence, “What are you doing?” is very similar to that of the sentence of the same meaning in the Hiroshima dialect, which is, “Anta nani shitorun.” I often find the intonation of the Hiroshima dialect closer to that of English. When a word has three syllables (like banana and piano) the middle one often gets accentuated in both English and the Hiroshima dialect. When your intonation is similar you feel closer in emotions as well.

The idea that the goal of compulsory English education in Japan is to teach kids exemplary English of a native speaker will only perpetuate giggling and the sense of shame in the classroom. It is important to create an environment where students feel free to use English on the first day of the compulsory program. In my October 2014 blog, I suggested that the goal be to help kids get as close as possible to the English competency of an average high school student in the English speaking world. An average student makes spelling mistakes, has an accent, and is not at all perfect.

Oct. 2015 Check it out! Here is some great teaching material outside school textbooks

Last month I wrote that there is no need for a textbook in the beginning of compulsory English education in Japan. I might have sounded irresponsible without giving any examples of alternative teaching material. Not that anybody in their right minds should expect accountability from a backseat driver in the first place. In any case, it’s not difficult to find wonderful teaching material for English learners at an introductory level. Let’s, for example, look at the April 29 address by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, entitled, “Toward an Alliance of Hope” and the accompanying Japanese version, both of which are available online at the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. By reading these manuscripts, you can learn the English language, acquire some translation skills, and experience cross-cultural communication. The interesting thing is that these manuscripts are awesome for showing what NOT to do. According to some online info, Mrs. Abe took a picture of her husband practicing reading the manuscript in English and uploaded it on the Internet. It reportedly took him 45 minutes to read the entire address aloud. Let’s take a look.

The section entitled “The Alliance: Its Mission for the Region” in his speech was domestically criticized for having rendered this summer’s Diet debate about the new security bills completely meaningless. The section reads as follows:
In Japan, we are working hard to enhance the legislative foundations for our security. Once in place, Japan will be much more able to provide seamless response for all levels of crisis. These enhanced legislative foundations should make the cooperation between the U.S. military and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces even stronger, and alliance still more solid, providing credible deterrence for the peace in the region. This reform is the first of its kind and a sweeping one in our post-war history. We will achieve this by this coming summer.
A school English teacher has to first explain to the students that the personal pronoun “we” in the prime minister’s speech is usually understood to refer to “Japanese people”. He was on a state visit on behalf of Japan and addressed the U.S. Congress. This is a very important lesson. To mean otherwise, the prime minister had to identify who he meant by “we”. Throughout this speech, however, this didn’t happen. So, it is reasonable to think that the two underlined sentences above were understood by the American audience to mean that Japanese people were working hard to pass the new security bills by the summer. That, however, was a lie. On April 29th when the speech was made, the bills hadn’t even been submitted to the Diet. The statement was about Abe, the LDP and KOMEITO, but not “us Japanese” at least until everybody else gained access to the bills on May 15. To the majority of Japanese other than Abe’s minions, it was totally unacceptable to be lumped together as “we”.

The Japanese version by the Foreign Ministry omitted the “we”s altogether in this section. The first “we” became “Japan” and after that it’s like it never happened. Therefore, the entire section reads as if it was about Japan as a whole.

One of the first essential lessons on English grammar is about the generic person. It refers to a group of personal pronouns such as we, you, and they. It is mentioned in Honyaku Eibunpo (English Grammar for Translation) by Tetsuo Anzai (a recommended read for students of English-to-Japanese translation) that these words are better left out when translating into Japanese. This lesson is usually included in compulsory English programs at Japanese schools as well. Many Japanese readers probably remember the proverb, “You can’t cry over spilt milk” from school English textbooks. Nobody translates the “you” in this sentence because it refers to people in general. So how about it, English teachers in Japan? Does the same rule apply to Abe’s April 29 speech?

There is also an enormous problem of “we” in the section, “Reforms for a Stronger Japan”. This problem has to do with women in Japan, so take a close look! The speech reads as follows:
To turn around our depopulation I am determined to do whatever it takes. We are changing some of our old habits to empower women so they can get more actively engaged in all walks of life.
In the Foreign Ministry Japanese version, “I am determined to do whatever it takes.” is translated as “nandemo yarutsumori” without the subject. It literally means “intend to do anything”. It made me laugh because it sounded as if Abe and fellow Japanese men were collectively ready to run around impregnating women across the country. On to the next sentence. Who Abe meant by the subject “we” in this sentence is never identified. So, it might as well be replaced again by “Japanese people”. What did he mean by “some of Japanese people’s old habits”? Isn’t it the LDP municipal assemblymen who are sexist hecklers that need to change? Isn’t it the establishment that has been guarded by the LDP-led administrations since the end of the war that needs reform? And the Foreign Ministry made a very serious mistake in translating the word, “empower”. It means to give someone power or legal right to do something. It also means to enable someone or give permission to do something. However, the Ministry’s translation is “josei ni chikara wo tsuke”, which means to “improve women”. Today, it is widely acknowledged that well-educated and highly capable Japanese women are denied social advancement because of the country’s system, laws and male-dominated culture. It is not because Japanese women lack competence. Rather, it is Japanese men who needs to improve so that they can start thinking out of the box. Here is a great opportunity for Japanese teachers of English to teach kids the importance of finding the most accurate and appropriate meaning of each English word while checking with their logic and knowledge.

The section, “America and Post-War Japan” opens as follows:
Post war, we started on our path bearing in mind feelings of remorse over the war. Our actions brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries. We must not avert our eyes from that. I will uphold the views expressed by the previous prime ministers in this regard.
The subject “we” here also means “Japanese people” because there is no indication otherwise. Coming from Abe, who is criticized for not facing up to the atrocities committed by the Japanese military in Asia, this statement sounds disingenuous. To make matters worse, the Japanese version puts together the two sentences in the middle to make one, thereby leaving out “who” must not avert their eyes. The fourth sentence in the original English text takes “I”, which is Prime Minister Abe, as the subject, but this has also been lost in translation. It is unclear, therefore, who will uphold the views of the previous prime ministers.

The next section reads as follows:
We must all the more contribute in every respect to the development of Asia. We must spare no effort in working for the peace and prosperity of the region. Reminding ourselves of that, we have come all this way. I am proud of this path we have taken.
The Japanese version of this section obviously overlooked the expression, “all the more”. It is actually important to translate it because Abe mentioned just now that Japan had caused many Asian countries pain and suffering. The translation of the third sentence also dropped “all this way”, which is a poor choice for a translator, given that this speech was made to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. What’s more, skipping the “I” in the previous section about Abe confirming the views of the previous PMs, while including it in this section about being proud of post-war Japan reeks of political intention on the part of the Foreign Ministry. The Abe administration imposes their idea of political neutrality on textbooks and teachers, and that may explain why it’s not checking up on the Japanese version endorsed by the Foreign Ministry.

Overall, this speech is very vague. On top of that, its Japanese version is terribly inferior in that it misses subjects, confounds sentence styles, abridges with inaccuracy and obviously mistranslates. It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money. Hey, Japanese teachers of English out there, this truly is a wonderful example of what not to do. You can’t pass this chance up to show to your students that they don’t need a textbook to learn practical English!

Next month, I’ll look at Abe’s jokes in his speech and the use of katanaka English in the Foreign Ministry’s translation.

Nov. 2015 Check it out! Here is some great teaching material outside school textbooks-2

I picked out seven English words that appear as katakana English in the Foreign Ministry’s Japanese version of the April 2015 speech “Toward the Alliance of Hope” made in English by Prime Minister Abe on his official visit to the U.S. They are:
1. Filibuster
2. Champion
3. Gallery
4. Freeride
5. Quantum leap
6. Rebalance
7. Banner
In translating English into Japanese, loanwords such as chokolēto (=chocolate) and pūru (=pool) can be left as they are, using katakana, but I don’t think “filibuster” falls under that category. Why did the Foreign Ministry choose not to translate this word into Japanese? I saw on a TV show around 1985, in which a reporter asked people in the streets of Tokyo to choose the correct meaning of the word “terminator” out of the three choices they were given on a little board. The movie The Terminator with Arnold Schwarzenegger was a big hit in Japan around that time. I remember that most people didn’t get it right. Chances are, most Japanese people don’t know the word “filibuster,” either. I never heard that the English competency of Japanese people has improved since 30 years ago.

How about “champion”? You may think, “Who doesn’t know this one?” It’s already part of an average Japanese person’s everyday vocabulary and means yūshōsha (=the person who won the top prize). Not so fast!! In this speech, “champion” is used like this:

On behalf of the Japanese people, thank you so very much for sending us such shining champions of democracy.

This sentence follows a list of the names of four of the former U.S. ambassadors to Japan. Most Japanese people don’t know that a champion also means somebody who fights for, supports strongly, or defends a principle, movement, person and so forth (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, New Edition). Why did the Foreign Ministry choose to leave this katakana English in? If the accurate Japanese translation yōgosha appeared instead, Japanese people would understand. In any case, Japanese teachers of English can call students’ attention to the fact that many different meanings can be attached to a single English word. As I mentioned before, students fail to consciously look for more than one meaning of each new English word they encounter in the textbooks because the word list that comes with them show only the featured meaning.

How about the next one, gyararī (=gallery)? On hearing this katakana English, an average Japanese person thinks of garō (=art gallery). A golf aficionado may think of the people watching a golf match, which is usually described as gyararī. In the prime minister’s speech, however, it appears in the following sentence: In the gallery, you see my wife Akie, is there. He is referring to his wife, who was in the bōchōseki (=gallery). What’s the meaning of leaving this katakana English in the Japanese version? No average Japanese person uses the word gyararī to mean bōchōseki.

The fourth word is furīraido (=freeride). Many of the senior people over a certain age have probably never even heard of it. What’s worse, this katakana English appears in the section, “TPP” which has a significant impact on Japanese agriculture, an area where many senior workers are involved. The English speech went as follows:

In the pacific market, we (the U.S. and Japan) cannot overlook sweat shops or burdens on the environment. Nor can we simply allow free riders on intellectual property.

Hey, Japanese teachers of English, how about preparing an opportunity for your students to explain what this part specifically means to senior people in the neighborhood? “Freeride” literally means tadanori in Japanese. Replace the katakana English and you’ll get, “Chiteki zaisan ga tadanori sareru”. What are they saying TPP would do to what sort of items? The Ministry has the responsibility not to leave this unfamiliar expression in, unless they want to be evasive.

Strictly speaking, kakoku na rōdō (=severe labor) for the English expression “sweat shops” is not really accurate, either. A sweat shop usually refers to a situation where mainly blue-collar workers are exploited in places like factories with poor working conditions. It doesn’t get used, for example, when a bank employee dies from overwork in his air-conditioned office. “Pacific market” is commonly translated as either taiheiyō-shijō or kan-taiheiyō-shijō in the media, so why not simply stick to that?

The fifth katakana English I picked is kuontamu rīpu (=quantum leap). This word is actually followed by a Japanese translation, ryōshiteki hiyaku in parentheses. Apparently, the Foreign Ministry decided to feel kindly towards the majority of Japanese readers, who they thought probably wouldn’t have a clue what this expression means. This part immediately follows the part I mentioned last month about Abe’s resolve to reverse Japan’s depopulation. After he proudly announced that, according to the Japanese version, he “intended to do anything” he continues:

In short, Japan is right in the middle of a quantum leap.

The Japanese expression “ryōshiteki hiyaku” is a physics term that means “an abrupt transition of an electron or atom or molecule from one quantum state to another with the emission or absorption of a quantum (Online dictionary). What? Did you know that Japan was in the middle of doing that? I didn’t. Depending on the dictionary, “quantum leap” is firstly a physics term, but in most cases, it is used to mean dai-yakushin, or “a very large and important advancement or improvement”. If the ministry, for some unknown reason, wanted to leave this katakana English in, it had to be translated as dai-yakushin in parentheses.

How about the next katakana English “rebalance”? Junior high school students may say, “I know baransu (= balance), but…” There are many English words that begin with the prefix “re”. An average Japanese person is probably familiar with ribaundo (=rebound as in basketball) and risetto (=reset as in computer and alarm clock manuals). The word “rebalance” was used in the prime minister’s speech as follows:

…we support the “rebalancing” by the U.S. in order to enhance the peace and security of the Asia-Pacific. And I will state clearly. We will support the U.S. effort first, last and throughout.

Japanese teachers of English must mention first that the word “rebalancing” written in quotes carry the nuance, “what’s called rebalancing.” To make sure this nuance is delivered to the audience a speaker usually makes “scissors” with both hands, hold them up to the chest level with the palms facing the audience and fold and open the four fingers twice in a row as they articulate the expression in quotes. Next, it must be mentioned that the Japanese version uses ribaransu, as a noun, for “rebalancing” the original gerund. This provides the students with another important lesson: Many English words function both as a verb and a noun. The way katakana English is usually used to fit Japanese grammar blinds students to this flexibility of the English language. In any case, students who don’t follow the news won’t be able to understand what the U.S. is “rebalancing”. Here, the teacher can also point out that studying English doesn’t help much unless you’re interested in what’s going on in the world.

The last katakana English I picked is banā (=banner). On hearing this word, young people may think of online banner ads. Banner originally means a piece of cloth that is long sideways with a sign painted on it, but it can also mean a symbol, a cause or a principle. Here is how the word was used in Abe’s speech:

… we now hold up high a new banner that is (a) “proactive contribution to peace based on the principle of international cooperation.

It’s in the section entitled, Japan’s New Banner. If you read the whole section, you’ll find Abe saying that this new banner is the Japanese people’s new self-identity. In other words, he is saying, “Next time you see a Japanese person, think of him as holding up a banner that says “a proactive contribution to peace based on the principle of international cooperation”. The katakana English banā that appears in the Japanese version here is actually nothing but redundant because it is literally translated as hata in the end of the same sentence, which makes it poor writing. But surprisingly many Japanese people think that it’s cooler to mix katakana English with Japanese. Does the Foreign Ministry share that same sentiment? Humor me and translate the loanword, kurejitto kādo (=credit card) into Japanese. You’ll probably come up with kakeuri-ken or shinyōgash-fuda. Would Japanese people use their cards as casually? Because these translations would be a constant reminder that you are borrowing money. By the same token, leaving the katakana English banā in may put Japanese people under hypnosis, preventing them from thinking deeply about the true meaning of this sentence. Which countries is Japan going to cooperate with? What does proactive pacifism really mean? Have the Japanese so far been passive pacifists? This is a great introduction to students of English in Japan. Don’t fool yourselves by throwing in a bunch of katakana English into Japanese translation.

ast year, I proposed that there be a project for 9th grade English programs in which students are asked to write a short play along the theme of “When I become a high school students a year from now”. It was partly because this would require the ability to think of funny jokes in English because that’s what kids do. They kid around with friends. In Japan, a public speaker is usually not funny and that’s O.K. In the U.S., however, people expect a sense of humor from the podium. Keeping a straight face all the time is not considered a virtue. In the April 2015 speech by Prime Minister Abe, I spotted some parts where he was supposed to be funny.

The first joke is in the beginning where the aforementioned word “filibuster” appears. Abe said:

…Today, I’m honored to stand here as the first Japanese Prime Minister ever to address your joint meeting. I extend my heartfelt gratitude for inviting me. I have lots of things to tell you. But I am here with no ability, nor the intention…to filibuster.

Hey, junior high school students in Japan, is this funny to you? Your prime minister has just admitted to the members of the U.S. congress that he doesn’t have the English competency to speak without a prepared script and to say everything he wants to say. If I was a member of the audience I would have been embarrassed. A prime minister of a country on an official visit, of all people and of all occasions, announced that he doesn’t really speak English while making a speech in English. I was watching on TV and I didn’t see anybody laughing out loud. Who can blame them? It’s an accepted view that Japanese people have poor English skills. I saw him struggling with pronunciation on TV. He spoke so slowly that it took him 45 minutes to reach the end. I’m not a total stranger to public speaking in English, so I tried my hand at the prime minister’s speech. Jeremy played the role of the laugh track after each joke. It took me 22 minutes to perform the entire speech. Wouldn’t it have been better if Abe had spoken in Japanese then? That way, he would have probably been able to fit everything he wanted to say in the same period of time. In September, I saw China’s Xi Jinping on TV making his speech in Chinese on his state visit to the U.S. Incidentally, Media Mix by Philip Basor in The Japan Times (October 25) mentions that even in Japanese, Abe isn’t knowledgeable enough to answer unscripted questions by the media off the top of his head.

Abe then moved on to talking about when he was home staying in California as a young student. He mentions that his host mom, who was a widow, would always tell him that her late husband was more handsome than Gary Cooper. Abe then says that his wife was in the gallery and continues:

I don’t dare ask what she says about me.

Here is an opportunity for the English teacher to talk about Gary Cooper. My favorite is Morocco, while Jeremy liked The Fountainhead best. How about you? It’s obvious that the joke was about Abe’s looks compared with Mr. Cooper’s. It would be nice if the teacher could show students an image of the actor’s face. I kind of felt sorry for the audience there because they probably had to think about how to respond again. Would you force a laugh or find yourself completely speechless? How would Japanese junior high school students rate Abe’s sense of humor? His speech continues:

Here in the U.S. rank and hierarchy are neither here nor there. People advance based on merit. When you discuss things you don’t pay much attention to who is junior or senior. You just choose the best idea, no matter who the idea was from. This culture intoxicated me. So much so, after I got elected as a member of the House, some of the old guard in my party would say, “Hey, you’re so cheeky, Abe”.
As for my family name, it is not “Eighb”. Some Americans do call me that every now and then, but I don’t take offense. That’s because ladies and gentlemen, the Japanese, ever since they started modernization have seen the very foundation for democracy in that famous line in the Gettysburg Address.

Jeremy couldn’t help inserting many uproars in this part, by the way. This part provides a great opportunity for kids to learn about American culture and history. The teacher should ask the students where the pun is in this section. Kids can learn that Abe in English is a typical nickname for Abraham, a boy’s name. The “Abe” in this speech is supposed to be America’s sixteenth president Abraham Lincoln, whose famous 1863 Gettysburg Address is known to have proclaimed human equality. I wonder, though, if the last part about Japanese people looking to Abraham Lincoln as the beacon of their democracy is a historical fact. I remember being taught at school that Japan followed the examples of Germany and Great Britain rather than the U.S. in its process of modernization. Plus, junior high school students should know that in the U.S., segregation continued well into the 20th century. As I mentioned last year, one of the English textbooks for 9th grade features Rosa Parks.

Last year, Jeremy and I happened to hear CNN’s Becky Anderson call him Prime Minister Eighb on TV. I smiled wryly. I don’t know if it was because she was ignorant or the media doesn’t take him (or Japan?) seriously enough to make sure they don’t make such a mistake. This reminded me of my experience as a high school exchange student. A teacher pronounced my name [a-séi-kou] off the roll book. When I said that wasn’t it, he told me, to my surprise, that he associated my name to the Japanese watch brand, SEIKO. In his mind, I was a Seiko watch! In America, personal relationships begin with asking to have your name pronounced correctly. While I was still a beginner in English conversation at an American high school I accepted that Americans accentuated the second syllable in my name. That’s the most common and easiest way for them to pronounce it. After I became a better English speaker, however, I was able to ask people to pronounce it by stressing the first letter “A”, simply because that’s how it should sound to me. Abe says that he doesn’t take offense when Americans call him Eighb, but does he straighten them out about it in English? He shouldn’t take offense, but because of the previous joke about not being able to “filibuster”, I tend to wonder if he even has the ability to ask to be called his own name. I recall a scene from the lower house debate on the new security bills back in the summer. An opposition party member asked if it was in fact possible for Japanese self-defense forces to refuse to do what the American military asks them to do in real war situations because it’s against the new security law. As far as I remember, Abe’s response was something in the line of “It’d never amount to that sort of situation” or “people just have to take my word because I am the prime minister”. I’ve never heard that self-defense forces members have a much higher level of English competency than an average Japanese person. So, who’s going to say “No” in the actual battle ground? Wait for an interpreter to arrive? If a defense forces member gets involved in an act of war that is against the new law nobody would know about it because it would be a state secret? Considering Abe’s previous joke on himself about his English competency, this may be the most un-laughable joke in his speech. So, how about it, Japanese junior high school students? Your country is going to give you the right to vote when you turn 18 years old. If you are in 9th grade now you only have three more years. Do you think you can learn enough English to read your prime minister’s speech before graduation?

Dec. 2015 Accountability in the Passive

My impression on the passive voice in English grammar at high school was that it was totally useless. Every time our Japanese teacher of English told us to convert an active sentence into a passive one, the result was always a very unnatural and awkward phrasing that I would never use. Here is a typical drill problem our teacher would give us:

My father gave me this watch.

The teacher would ask us to switch the subject from “my father” to “this watch”. The correct answer would be: “This watch was given to me by my father”, which would then be verbally translated into Japanese:

Kono tokei wa chichi ni yori watashi ni ataerareta.

My reaction to this Japanese sentence was, “Who the f?k would say something like that?” The teacher then would ask us to use “I” as the subject and to rewrite: “I was given this watch by my father”, which would then be verbally translated into Japanese:

Watashi wa chichi ni yori kono tokei wo ataerareta.

My reaction at this point was completely sarcastic: It must be a very special watch, otherwise who the hell would compose such a roundabout sentence? So, all I can remember is that I was sick of having to repeat these exercises because it seemed to me like such a waste of time. I used to wonder how useful the passive voice could possibly be in daily English conversation. I thought that I would just stick to the active. That way, I didn’t have to learn to use “be verb + past participle”.

I don’t think I had ever consciously chosen between the passive and the active in my everyday conversation in Japanese until I learned about the passive voice in my English grammar class at high school. I’m pretty sure that many Japanese kids are like that, too. I thought of a situation in a well-known Japanese comic series Sazae-san, which is about a typical Japanese household in Tokyo (back in the early years of Showa) in which two generations lived together under the same roof. (Sazae-san is the name of the heroine, whose husband married into her family that comprises her parents and two much younger siblings. She also is the mother of a little boy.) Sazae-san finds her little sister Wakame-chan crying, so she asks what happened. Wakame-chan replies, “Oniichan ga watashi no oyatsu wo tabechatta. (=My brother [whose name is Katsuo, a mischievous character, with a very healthy appetite] ate my 3 o’clock snack!” On hearing that, Sazae-san would run after Katsuo to give him a good scolding. Most Japanese people never even think that the reply by Wakame-chan is in the active voice, which can be converted into the passive: “Oniichan ni watashi no oyatsu wo taberareta. (=My 3 o’clock snack was eaten by my brother.)”

The October 23 International New York Times had an article, entitled “How Texas teaches history”, which was food for thought for me. It was penned by an Ellen Bresler Rockmore. She teaches freshman writing at Dartmouth College. In the article, she writes that she tries to convey the importance of clear writing by stressing that “students use human subjects, not abstract nouns; and use active verbs, not passive whenever possible”. My American teacher for an optional English composition course at college in Tokyo taught me the same thing.

Ms. Rockmore quotes from the textbooks used in the State of Texas on the subject of slavery in U.S. history:

Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves. However, severe treatment was very common. Whipping, brandings, and even worse torture was all part of American slavery.

Families were often broken apart when a family member was sold to another owner.

English grammar textbooks in Japan would add “by slave owners” at the end of this second passage in order to clarify the sentence structure, but obviously, this history textbook in Texas didn’t. I know from spending time in the English speaking world that the passive is often used without mentioning the doer of the deed.

Ms. Rockmore points to the fact that the sentence subjects “slaveholders” and “masters” are used in the active voice when they are “treating the slaves kindly” and “giving the slaves adequate food and clothing,” while the part about torture and the human trafficking that led to dispersed families is phrased without mentioning them. She writes: …And some of these books distort history…through a tool we often think of as apolitical: grammar. She converts the second quote above into the active voice:

Slave owners often broke slave families apart by selling a family member to another owner.

Ms. Rockmore writes: The textbook publishers were put in a difficult position. They had to teach history to children of Texas without challenging conservative political views that are at odds with history. In doing so, they made many grammatical choices. Her point is that the grammatical choices made by the publishers could be their moral choices and that they made wrong ones.

I looked at some English textbooks used today. One explains that the passive voice is preferred when you don’t know who is doing the deed or when it is unnecessary to mention who is doing the deed. Another lists two different ways of using the passive: 1) to say/write “something is/was done by somebody”; and 2) to phrase a sentence without clarifying who is doing the deed, followed by examples including:

Electric lighting was invented by Edison.

Video tapes are not used often these days.

At my high school, English exams and exercises on the passive voice came with a list of sentences in the active voice headed by a question: Convert each sentence into the passive without changing its meaning. (Incidentally, I found that recent English textbooks use a rather mysterious phrasing, “Convert each sentence into the passive that has almost the same meaning." I’d really like to ask the publishers what they mean by that.) I don’t think anybody in my class even thought to question the part “without changing its meaning.” In our minds, the original active and the resulting passive were supposed to mean exactly the same. So we began to use the equals sign between the two sentences in our notebooks. We mechanically did the exercises as if we were working out equations in math. For example:

My teacher told me to go home. = I was told to go home by my teacher.

What our teacher should have taught us was, however, that using the equal sign would be completely out of the question depending on the case, such as:

Families were often broken apart when a family member was sold to another slave owner. Slave owners often broke slave families apart by selling a family member.

Having made a conscious decision to “resurrect” the buried sentence subject “slave owners” to make an active sentence, I would have stopped and thought before putting down the equal sign. It would have been a revelation to me back then because the active sentence obviously provides a much clearer view of what actually happened.

To make Japanese students understand better what I’m talking about, let’s think about the passive voice often used in discussing the problem of bullying at Japanese schools. Recently, we’ve often run into the news about teenage suicides followed by a report on surveys that schools conduct in an effort to get to the bottom of this wide spread problem. In it, we repeatedly hear the phrasing:

Jisatsu shita A-san wa gakko de ijimerareteita.

The English translation of this passive sentence would be:

The boy A was bullied at school.

Whoever gives this kind of statement must have witnessed the boy being bullied and known who did it, but they don’t seem to want to opt for the active voice to reveal that piece of information. Putting ourselves in their shoes may bring home to us why and when we choose the passive voice. Would an English teacher be fired if he/she asked students to convert that sentence into the active?

It is high time that Japanese teachers of English stopped giving the “solving an equation” style lessons on the passive in English grammar. Perhaps, they should learn by experiencing how closely related their grammatical choices are to their feelings, intentions and sub-consciousness. Let’s take the recently distributed personal identification number as an example. A couple of days ago, I received an envelope myself. The news have been saying, “Otemoto ni anata no mai namb? ga haitatsu saremasu." In English, it means “Your MY NUMBER will be delivered to you.” To convert this into the active, I would put down two sentences:

The government will send your MY NUMBER.
A local postman will deliver your MY NUMBER to you.

This sounds very weird. It doesn’t make sense for me to call the government-issued number MY NUMBER because I never agreed to it. I’m against this new system out of privacy concerns, so don’t expect me to say, “I received MY NUMBER.” As far as I’m concerned they sent me a number saying, “Here is YOUR NUMBER” without MY consent. How this nickname came about may be similar to how Japanese adults often talk to a baby that has barely learned to speak. Instead of saying, “Kore anatano yo (=Here is yours.)” in giving a present or a toy, they often say, “Kore boku no (or atashi no for girls)” which translates into “Here is mine.” When the government tells a grown-up “Here is MY NUMBER,” something is very wrong. What do you think, English teachers?

Both in Japanese and English, we seem to run into the passive wherever we go. I wonder if a modern-day Wakame-chan (of the Sazae-san comic series) would be compelled to use the active voice when her brother stole her snack. The Wakame-chan I used to know was a regular at the active who was one hundred percent positive that her big sister, Sazae-san would always fight for justice in the family. What? You don’t want to sound like a snitch? But I don’t want to live in a society where people have to think twice about making a straightforward statement about who’s done what. Incidentally, the animated version of Sazae-san is still on TV every Sunday. I watched it recently to find that everything was as they used to be in the Showa era. The family has a black telephone with a dial, and there is no computer in the company for which Sazae-san’s husband works.

This is the last leg of this year’s Backseat Driver. With the winter break approaching, English teachers must be busy preparing homework for their students. Hey, how about giving yourselves homework to work on over the holidays? Here is an example of an exercise:
Convert the following sentence into the active:

A huge amount of radioactive soil from decontamination is kept in Fukushima.

Similar expressions were used in a recent NHK Special program on TV. This homework is actually for all Japanese people, including myself. What would your answer be?

Jan. 2016 The third year begins with -will-

I hope that the New Year will bring meaningful changes to English education in Japanese public schools. Here begins the third year of Backseat Driver.

Japanese Junior high school students learn about the English auxiliary verb “will” in 8th grade. Example sentences usually talk about the weather. For example, a sentence in the present tense is given first:
It’s cold today. (=Kyo wa samui desu.)
Next comes the future tense: It will be cold tomorrow. (=Asu wa samui desho.)
The teacher will then show the interrogative:
Will it be cold tomorrow? (=Asu wa samui deshoka.)
Then comes the negative: It will not be cold tomorrow. (=Asu wa samuku naidesho.)
Teachers tell students that the English word “will” is usually translated as “…desho” or “…daro” in Japanese.

Jeremy and I occasionally take the Tokyu Toyoko Line. It operates between Yokohama and Shibuya, Tokyo. Inside the train, they play recorded announcements in English, though most of the time Jeremy is just about the only person in the car who needs it. These announcements are quite lengthy and repeated many times. Here are the four that are routinely played inside the train:
1. We will soon be making a brief stop at Station A.
2. The stop after Station A will be Station B.
3. This is a super express bound for Station C.
4. The next stop is Station D.
Passengers are forced to listen to these incessant announcements in a Japanese woman’s voice during the ride, which takes about 25 to 40 minutes between Yokohama and Shibuya (the fastest being the super express). There are 21 stations in total for the local service.

Please take a look at announcement #2. There is something strange about the way “will” is used. When I first heard this announcement, it sounded as if Station B was still under construction or something. A Japanese person who wrote this announcement probably decided to use the future tense, thinking that when it is played in the train it should be on its way to Station B. In other words, the stop at Station B hasn’t happened yet, and therefore, that sentence should take the future tense. Fortunately, this person didn’t make the same mistake in announcement #4. The announcements #2 and #4 both tell the passengers the name of the station the train will soon stop at. No Japanese person would use the future tense (desho) to make these announcements in Japanese. So all that needed to be done was to literally translate from Japanese to English, using the present tense.

In fact, Yokohama City’s municipal subway line has made the same kind of inexplicable choice of words in English in its recorded announcements for international passengers. Jeremy always cracks up when he hears the announcement, “The next stop is Kannai” when the station is only about 5 seconds away. For native speakers of English, it can only be “this stop”, and therefore, the announcement should be “This is Kannai.”

Any Japanese person who has studied English at school must have felt at some point that native speakers of English perceive time in a completely different fashion from his. This happens because the tenses are taught according to their grammatical names, such as genzai-kei (present), kako-kei (past), mirai-kei (future), genzai-kanryo-kei (present perfect) and kako-kanryo-kei (past perfect). I remember sitting in the classroom without being able to grasp how present perfect or past perfect should be used. My problem was even worse in Spanish, when I found that they had more tenses, including, preterito imperfecto (past imperfect) and preterito plus-cuamperfecto (essentially past perfect, but it seemed so complicated after being bombarded with so many grammatical terms!). I seriously suspected that it was not merely a matter of perception but that time did flow differently in Spain. Once I heard Spaniards use them in everyday conversation, however, their use of different tenses made perfect sense. It was the fastest way to learn how to use them. I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all, rather I thought the way they describe time was very specific.

What do the announcements inside the trains sound like in the English-speaking world? The announcements in the New York City subway cars were usually inaudible. I didn’t think they had very good audio equipment installed. It also was extremely noisy even inside the train. There was no recorded announcements in any other language than English. San Francisco’s BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) on the other hand, was very clean and much quieter. I lived there for a short time in my 20s and used the line frequently. I remember hearing live announcements by the conductor clearly. For example, the name of the next station is briefly mentioned, like, “Next station, Embarcadero.” The only recorded announcement I can remember is a man’s voice saying, “Stand clear of the closing doors, please,” which was played once every time the doors were about to close. I think Japanese railway companies should follow BART’s example. San Francisco has recently welcomed about 17 million visitors annually, about 30% of whom came from abroad. An annual total of six million foreign visitors are said to have visited Tokyo in recent years, so doing what BART does seems quite sufficient for helping international passengers on the trains in Tokyo and in any other part of Japan. On top of that, many foreign visitors to Japan come from China and Korea, which makes it uneconomical to make recorded announcements in English. In a nut shell, if Japanese railways want to choose English as the only foreign language for their announcements inside the trains, all they need to do is to ask the conductor to say, “Next station + the name of the station”. It’s probably hard to find a conductor of any railway in this country who can’t say “Next station” in English. Even a possible longer announcement would be as easy as, “This is a super express for Station A”. It would be insulting to Japanese conductors if their employers thought that they were incapable of making such a simple announcement.

One of the reasons why I began to write Backseat Driver two years ago was that I found it ridiculous that the Japanese government was using the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as the reason for Japanese people to improve their English competency. TV news said that traffic signs and directions would adopt easier-to-understand expressions in English. Such improvements are necessary to avoid traffic accidents and congestion. Generally speaking, however, it is typical of the Japanese to readily agree out of their phobia of foreign languages that spending a lot of money in preparing English signs, recordings and brochures is the answer to meeting a large influx of international visitors. Japanese people tend to think that doing that makes them international, but that can actually be the reverse side of the fact that in Japan, a foreigner who needs information will receive no response unless he/she speaks Japanese.

Last year, Jeremy and I used the Tokyu Toyoko Line connecting to the Tobu Tojo Line on two different occasions with an interval of about a month. As it happens, on both days, there was an accident resulting in an injury on the Tobu Tojo Line, which messed up the early morning timetable badly. Once on the train, I noticed that there was no recorded English announcements. They must have been useless on those two days because of the emergency. There was no connection to the Tobu Tojo Line until late in the afternoon. The destination was changed for each train. The train we rode turned into the local service after Shibuya and stopped at many stations it usually didn’t. But this is exactly the kind of time when non-Japanese-speakers will need assistance in English. In other words, it would be the most effective, reasonable and economical if the conductor made English announcements according to the circumstances of the day.

To improve English competency of Japanese people for real means to help station staff and conductors to say, “We will answer your questions” to whoever gets on the train without relying on pre-recorded announcements or printed signs. Incidentally, the last example sentence should be translated into Japanese as “Watashitachi ga okotae shimasu” in the present tense. The auxiliary verb “will” in this case indicates our will to respond spontaneously.

Feb. 2016 The recent embarassments in Japan's English education

The economy minister didn’t remember pocketing envelops full of money. The minister in charge of the Northern Territory couldn’t read the kanji characters for Habomai, the name of the archipelago in the territory. The environment minister said that the targeted radiation reduction in Fukushima had no scientific grounds and didn’t remember it. The internal affairs minister pressured TV and radio stations based on her self-serving interpretation of the Broadcasting Law. The current Japanese government abounds with scandals and gaffes. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some in the field of English education.

And there it was on February 5, I read in the newspaper that the incumbent Olympics minister Toshiaki Endo took 9.5 million yen (about $8,000) over a period of five years from a Tokyo-based private ALT dispatch company. Endo, in return, allegedly approached the education ministry and lobbied for an increased use of that company’s ALTs. Endo was the head of the Liberal Democratic Party’s education reform team and in 2013, he proposed introducing TOEFL as part of the university entrance exams and as a requirement for graduation. This money scandal dates back to that time. Experts were quoted as saying that Endo had done nothing illegal, a statement repeated by the minister himself.

The backdrop for this story, which wasn’t explained in the article, is something like this. Perhaps as part of the education ministry’s effort to lessen the overemphasizing of reading and writing in English education, ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers, who are native speakers of English) are sent to school classrooms. This system didn’t exist when I was a student. Currently, ALTs are dispatched even to elementary schools throughout the country. They assist Japanese teachers by providing lessons on conversation and pronunciation as well as introducing different cultures. Unfortunately, Japan has a law that denies them opportunities for effective teaching. According to the several newspaper articles I’ve read, Japan’s Worker Dispatch Act (WDA) allows only the ALTs directly hired by the school or the local board of education to team up with Japanese teachers to teach English at school. Some ALTs however, are employees of private dispatch agencies subcontracted by local municipalities, and can’t get involved in team-teaching. As a result, some Japanese teachers who don’t want to teach English may pass on to ALTs the whole job, while others may find it impossible to cooperate with ALTs. On top of this legal restraint, there is the problem of keeping control of teacher qualifications of ALTs. Some simply get the job to stay longer in Japan. It’s as plain as day that Endo’s action didn’t at all help improve English education. We certainly want somebody who has more to offer than just being legal to review the current system, don’t we?

According to the November 14 Japan Times, the education ministry-appointed advisory council is going to announce this month details of the core curriculum of Japan’s first nationwide standard program for English teacher-training courses in universities. The ministry aims to increase the percentage of English teachers in public high schools who have passed either Grade 1 or Pre-1 of the Eiken test from 55.4% (2014) to 75% by fiscal 2017. Obviously, the low proficiency in English of many educators has prompted the creation of the new teacher-training curriculum. So far, each university has given high school teachers the certification to teach based on its own teacher-training program. In other words, at high schools across Japan, some students can get competent teachers while others may not be so lucky.

I had six Japanese teachers of English from 7th grade to 12th grade in two public schools. They could be roughly divided into two types: 1) those who steadily walked us through the contents of the textbook, and 2) those who gave us hard work-out targeting juken eigo (the Japanese term for English for college entrance exams). Most English teachers in public junior high school belong to the former, leaving juken eigo lessons to cram schools for the students who need them. Top-tier public high schools where many students are candidates for passing the entrance exams of prestigious universities could offer both types. What’s important is that neither type would make you bilingual. How awful!

It may sound as if Japanese teachers of English in general had no idea what they were doing, but that’s not really the case. Some of the six teachers who taught me used to say that it was meaningless to study English if we didn’t have something to say in English to begin with. It was the right idea, but the problem was that none of them would encourage students to voluntarily use English in class. A female high school teacher that taught me shared that same idea, but everything about her in class told us to keep quiet and take notes. Here is an example.

One day, when I was in 10th grade, a classmate of mine brought a reference book for the textbook, which was designed for use by educators, to our English class. The teacher saw it and she tore it into pieces in front of the whole class. Any of us could guess that she was basically against us going to cram schools and that she was of the opinion that doing well in her English class would be the ticket to passing college entrance exams. Later, I heard that the classmate had been using the reference book at a cram school and happened to take it out on his desk that day. It was not meant for students because it had all the answers to the drills in the textbook. I didn’t understand it because he wasn’t known for getting bad grades. If he wanted to be lazy it was up to him. In any case, I found the teacher’s action extremely overbearing. She didn’t have any right to destroy his property. What’s important here however, is that my classmates had great regard for the way she taught and that she was popular, even after she destroyed that student’s reference book. This means that, to my classmates, a good English teacher gave lessons for conquering university entrance exams while using only the school textbooks approved by the education ministry. Is the aim of the upcoming teacher-training program to produce more teachers like her? To improve the quality of high school teachers without changing the English tests for university entrance exams?

Needless to say, the guidebook-tearing teacher who was great at teaching juken eigo was against my joining the high school exchange program. I went anyway. I mentioned this in 2014, but the story didn’t end there. About six years after graduation, I visited my high school because I needed my transcript for an enrollment in an American college. I had already been working for a company after graduating from a university in Tokyo. The teacher was still teaching there. She came out to the hallway and admonished me for not having sent her one New Year’s greeting card since graduation. She went on to say that my studying abroad had amounted to nothing. This was surprising because I hadn’t written to any of my high school teachers since graduation. I hadn’t singled her out. I did have more questions about how she had treated me as she had been my homeroom teacher of my senior year. In any case, it was obvious that she wasn’t interested in listening to my side of the story.

Somebody, please come and rescue those poor Japanese teachers of English!! They are just doing their job, which is to make the students understand what’s in the education ministry-approved textbooks. But then, the contents of the textbooks must be totally reliable.

So, here comes another piece of embarrassing news. It was recently discovered that multiple publishers had been showing their textbooks and giving money to school teachers prior to an approval on their textbooks from the education ministry. I followed up on the news to find that they hadn’t done it to receive feedback to help their editing process. In fact, it has been a regular practice soliciting favoritism, which means that the contents of many textbooks are much the same. The TV news I saw showed an image of three of the English textbooks I had bought and read. As I mentioned last year, I was not at all impressed with those textbooks. I even went as far as to say that no textbooks are necessary in early stages of English education.

For now, textbooks cannot be trusted, juken eigo remains unchanged and laws are yet to be revised. We have a long way to go! Strangely enough, however, ordinary citizens never hear about or see students and their parents standing up for better English education. Parents who are serious about making their children bilingual are already sending them to international schools or schools abroad. In other words, currently, no students or parents expect much out of English education at public schools in Japan.

Mar. 2016 English education and the Internet

Last month, I mentioned that my public school English teachers said that English was merely a means of communication and that it was meaningless to study it if I didn’t have something to say to begin with. Well, soon after the English lessons began, in the second semester of my first year in junior high school, I was already writing fan letters to the American actor Robert Redford. I had a friend who also loved to go to the movies and she was a Jackie Chan fan. She and I used to write our fan letters in cursive together after school. We would review the grammar and the content of the letters and mail them to the overseas fan club addresses printed in a monthly movie magazine. A few weeks after we had sent our first letters, my friend showed up at school, with red heart marks popping out of her eyes. “He wrote to me!” she said and showed me the reply from Jackie Chan. To our surprise, he sent his letter in both English and Chinese. I was envious, but thought I might get just as lucky and kept writing to Mr. Redford. My friend was so inspired that she bought an introductory Chinese textbook to write back in Chinese. Though I never heard from Mr. Redford, I still fondly remember how excited we were to consult the dictionary and compose in English. Back then, stationery stores carried air mail envelops hemmed with alternating red and blue diagonal lines. We bought them together, carefully completed the addresses, had the envelopes weighed at the post office and mailed them. Air mails were expensive for junior high school kids, but it was a whole new experience, every moment of which we enjoyed.

As I wrote in September 2014, having a favorite star is a strong enough drive for many people to learn a foreign language. Today’s junior high school students could send a message to, say, a famous athlete overseas, instantly by e-mail for no charge at all. If there had been the Internet in the 1980s my friend and I would have turned into Chan and Redford stalkers by writing too often while making incredible progress in our English proficiency.

On February 18, The Japan Times featured an ALT from Canada, who has been successfully conducting English lessons using SKYPE at an elementary school in Ehime Prefecture. Her program offers her Japanese students access to cross-cultural experiences by allowing them to communicate with elementary school kids overseas who study Japanese. She also teaches Japanese kids practical English and how to treat foreigners with respect. According to the article, at first, her Japanese students motionlessly kept staring at the computer display when the images came on SKYPE of their counterparts overseas. The kids overseas thought that the image froze due to poor connection. The Canadian ALT had to show her Japanese students how to respond for instance by shaking heads and nodding. Her Japanese supervisors point out that she, unlike Japanese teachers, encourages kids to look for things they have in common with their counterparts overseas, which they say has a lot to do with her success.

This is probably an exemplary case of successful English education, but it made me think. First, I was surprised to find that children who probably use cell phones and smart phones everyday hadn’t contacted overseas until they were given a chance at school. If the Jackie Chan fan friend of mine and I were currently in 5th or 6th grade we would immediately think about connecting with people overseas through SKYPE. In our time, we would find our pen pals on a classified section in a magazine where people put down their hobbies and favorite movie stars along with their mailing addresses. Today’s elementary school and junior high school students keep texting to their friends even after school at home. I raise my eyebrows at how limited their mental horizon may be. However, kids like me, who would actively seek to communicate using beginner-level English, would probably be a cause of serious anxiety for today’s parents and teachers. Being able to write and speak English would guarantee kids a huge increase in the amount of information they will peruse and in the number of bad adults they will run into. This would only add to the English teachers’ responsibilities, which are already too many. Teachers and parents may be discouraged to make kids too fluent in English!!

Here is my experience as a member of a U.S.-based cinema fan chat room from about 25 years ago. Chat rooms were quite new on the scene then. The theme of the day was bombings and killings by military arms and weapons in the movies. I entered a comment stating that the U.S.-made movies could be inadvertently responsible for OKing violence and cruelty in the real world because the country actually owns high-tech weapons in large quantities that enable the atrocities depicted in the movies. Within about ten seconds of my entry, a message popped up on my screen, which read something like, “You stupid Jap, an ignorant monkey from a loser nation. Shut up!” I responded by explaining my opinion using respectful language and added that this kind of communication using brief messages may have been a problem for me because English wasn’t my first language. Several moments later, other members typed a couple of messages saying that there was nothing wrong with my English and that I should not mind the other person’s abusive language. I didn’t continue chatting that day. Several hours later, I received an e-mail from the chat room manager saying that he was grateful that I acted considerately and didn’t give that person tit for tat. He said that he had given that person a warning.

If Japanese children improve their English proficiency and begin to use the Internet in English, they will, from an early age, encounter many different people in the communication environment dominated by English, or where it is used as the bridge language. Where would Japanese children learn how to deal with that situation? In school English lessons?

Meanwhile, an article caught my attention recently in The International New York Times. It was about students from low-income households in the U.S. who can’t afford a broadband Internet connection at home. These students have to stay in coffee shops with Wi-Fi for long hours to study or sit in school buses parked in the neighborhood covered by wireless network to finish and submit their homework online. Japan is facing the problem of escalating child poverty. It is possible that many of them may not have access to PCs or the Internet at home. More Japanese schools are beginning to introduce online English lessons that connect students with English teachers in countries like the Philippines to provide cost-effective conversation lessons. But English education that depends too much on online teaching may widen the gap between students with various financial backgrounds.

The bottom line is that the ALT is present in class so that students can learn English by communicating with him/her in person. There are many problems with online communication. Let’s not forget that the children learn things at school based on their relationships of trust with their teachers.

Apr. 2016 English spoken by the President of the United States

The other day, I was watching CNN-J and a lady came on to defend the offensive language by Donald Trump, one of the republican presidential candidates. To my surprise, she kept repeating [pʌndənt] to mean “pundit”. I presume that she had misheard someone say this word before and kept using it without checking. The word “pundit” appears very frequently on newspapers and I have seen it a number of times in both The Japan Times and The International New York Times since the presidential race began. If that lady was a regular reader of any major paper in the U.S., she would have learned the correct pronunciation of the word. Isn’t it a campaign PR person’s job to look through as much media coverage as possible?

Anybody can misquote or misspeak a word, but it is embarrassing when someone illiterate talks big on TV. The whole world pays attention to the English spoken by the president of the United States. The former republican president, George W. Bush, for example, always mispronounced the word “nuclear” as [n(j)úːkjulɚ], which ended up listed in some dictionaries as an alternative pronunciation for the word. Many people on TV and in movies use it. Our society seems to agree when the U.S. president misspeaks a word, though in fact, he should be criticized for his ignorance. When the twin towers came down in NY in 2001, the same president made a headline with his cowboy-style cocky remark, “Bring’em on!” When the incumbent President Obama was first elected in 2008, his speech style was so popular that English conversation schools in Japan used the videos of his speeches to teach their students. Almost eight years have passed and I’ve read that many former Obama enthusiasts are now feeling betrayed. He was so great at sounding convincing. After all, he won the Nobel Peace Prize just by saying that the U.S. would TRY to abolish nuclear weapons. Were those English conversation schools in Japan right in using his speeches as examples for Japanese students to follow?

In any case, you can’t deny that the world tends to OK the English spoken by the U.S. presidents. Will we treat the same way the English spoken by the new U.S. president in 2017?