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May 8, 2006

There's Some Hostility to Teaching English - and Not Just from Kids

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor of the Foreign Press Center/Japan)

Recent proposal to introduce language of international business in elementary schools sparks outrage among some grownups

Shintaro Ishihara, the novelist governor of Tokyo and an influential nationalist, recently blasted the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, saying, "There is no agency more stupid than the Education Ministry."

He was reacting to a recent proposal by a ministry advisory body to make teaching English mandatory from the elementary school level.

"That is total nonsense because Japanese cannot help but think in Japanese when they think," he asserted, emphasizing the supreme importance of the national language.

Taking a position similar to Ishihara's, the author of current best-seller "Kokka no Hinkaku (The Dignity of a Nation)," asked: "What is the meaning of teaching English in elementary school? Is it because this is the age of internationalization? But so what? What comes first is to teach the national language properly, restore reading and print culture, and encourage children to learn our own national culture."

Not a few people agree with this argument, as evidenced by the letters to the editor pages of major newspapers. Criticism has been vocal ever since a panel of the Central Council for Education proposed making English a mandatory subject from the fifth grade at six year public elementary schools.

This venting, which could even be construed as near hostility to the idea of teaching English at the elementary school level, is disturbing in that it does not seem to be based on linguistic, pedagogical or sociological foundations that teaching English to 11-year-olds is ineffective, unnecessary or even harmful.

Rather, the argument reflects the paranoid view that introducing English at an early age comes at the expense of the national language (i.e. Japanese). It also appears to be based on a deep-seated suspicion that a foreign language learned at an early age impinges on a child's mental purity, which should be reversed for the national language and indigenous culture.

The council's proposal for elementary school English-language instruction should not be taken so seriously from this angle.

It represents quite a pragmatic idea and is modest in scope, only assigning one or two class hours per week to the subject. Some scoff at the notion that teaching English for such a short time would sacrifice the learning of Japanese.

But a more fundamental problem that needs to be addressed is the persistent thinking that learning two languages at the elementary school level is a trade-off, or zero-sum game.

There is also the argument that since the teaching of Japanese and pupils' competence in their mother tongue are deteriorating, the curriculum cannot afford to spare even a couple of hours a week for English. If so, the answer should simply be to make greater efforts to strengthen Japanese language education.

While the debate continues, the irony is that many Japanese are concerned about their admittedly poor English proficiency. It almost looks like a national obsession: We must keep up our competence in English so we do not fall behind in international competitiveness - not just as a nation but also in terms of individual careers.

What triggers this concern is Japanese students' famously low score in international English proficiency tests, which are among the lowest in Asia. Complaints always turn to the alleged ineffectiveness of English language education at school.

At the center of this widespread dissatisfaction is the fact that, after putting in six years of English study in junior and senior high school, and for many, four more years in university, most people cannot speak or write English with adequate proficiency.

The situation has driven the Education Ministry to consider teaching English in elementary school. The belief is that starting earlier will make a difference. Most of Japan's neighbors - including China, Taiwan and South Korea - start English language classes in elementary school.

Aside from Ishihara's and other's opposition to the proposal from a nationalist standpoint, there is also the view that questions the significance of teaching English to any student at any level. This view holds that only people who need English or expect to need it in the future should learn the language.

Japanese people's perception of themselves in the world community, however, is that they are often withdrawn and lacking in self-assertiveness, and that this leaves them at a major disadvantage. One factor that is always cited is their self-image of being poor speakers of English, even for those who are in positions requiring an exceptional command of the language.

The question is how to remedy this weakness - should it be addressed by strengthening the broad base of English language education, or should it be focused on special training for those who need the language for career purposes?

This debate aside, the general public regards English as basic knowledge everybody should acquire in this globalizing world. English should be regarded as an essential tool, like mathematics, and therefore the basics of the language ought to be taught to everybody.

Before the Education Ministry started considering making English compulsory in public elementary schools, most private schools were already teaching it.

What's more, an increasing number of parents are sending their children, even preschoolers, to private English lessons. These parents are eager to have their children acquire English so that they will not fall behind in their future careers. Public opinion polls show that more than 70% of parents favor making English compulsory in elementary school.

In fact, about 90% of 23,000 public elementary schools nationwide already devote some class time to the language, though not as a formal subject.

For all the urgency implied in the question, the Japanese education system has yet to work out a consensus on exactly who needs English or how and to what extent to teach it. That is the responsibility of linguists, educators and even politicians.

The largest deterrent seems to be a failure to take a more pragmatic view on the need for English - a view free of nationalistic or cultural hang-ups over a language with which the nation has struggled for more than a century.

(Originally appeared in the April 24, 2006 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

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