Sunday, May 28, 2006

Article from the Japan Times on Teaching English

from The Japan Times

Learn first, then study English later


Sapio (May 24)

English: How should it be taught? By whom? To whom? Where? When? These are the recurring pedagogical questions bedeviling a nation that, inundated though it is with English words and phrases (often comically distorted), can't seem to acquire world-class proficiency in the lingua franca of the globalized marketplace.

In March, an education ministry panel proposed that English be compulsory beginning in fifth grade elementary school -- instead of, as now, in the first year of junior high school. A bad idea, argues veteran journalist Nobuhiko Ochiai in Sapio. "If the plan goes through," he writes, "the English of the Japanese will get even worse."

No wonder the ministry misses the point, Ochiai says, given its history of bureaucratic bungling -- lurching, for example, from the force-fed education of an earlier day to the slower-paced "relaxed education" of today, only to find itself the butt of angry parents and teachers accusing it of dumbing Japan down just when maximum brainpower is needed for global competition. The ministry "toys with" Japanese education, Ochiai says, instead of coherently guiding it.

"I am not saying the Japanese shouldn't learn English, and I grant that English is indispensable if we are to make a place for ourselves in the global society," he writes. It does not necessarily follow, though, that Japanese schools are in a position to teach English effectively. If, as he believes, they are not, lowering the age at which bad English is taught to children risks doing more harm than good.

Problem No. 1: Where will the native-speaking assistant language teachers the ministry plan envisions come from? There are some 23,000 elementary schools nationwide. You'd need a small army of teaching assistants. Who would fill the ranks, Ochiai demands -- foreign backpackers hanging out in Tokyo's Roppongi district? Unquestionably many of them are native English speakers, but few are qualified teachers, and to put children in the hands of nonteachers would be sowing seeds for future trouble.

From unqualified teachers, the kids might pick up colloquial expressions and casual conversation -- the sort of repertoire that "will get you invited to parties to be the target of jokes you don't understand," as Ochiai puts it, while doing little, he feels, to advance the nation's globalization.

A second problem hinges on what advocates of early language instruction often regard as a fact in their favor: The younger the child, the more easily he or she soaks up foreign languages. Ochiai turns the argument on its head. The younger the children, he fears, the more readily they'll absorb bad English, and the more indelibly it will stick to them later in life.

Basic education, as Ochiai sees it, is best acquired in one's own language: "Japanese who can't read Sapio properly in Japanese aren't going to get much out of Newsweek in English."

Nor will they have much to say to foreigners. "If you can speak English, you can speak to a billion people," hypes a private English school commercial quoted by Ochiai. Actually, he shrugs, the true figure is 3 billion -- "but ask yourself: Do you really have anything to say that will be of interest to so many people?"

First have something to say and then learn how to say it in English? A revolutionary idea.

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