Tuesday, January 13, 2009

English 'Activity' in Japan

I don't know how many people would give a damn about the English language education in Japan - but Brett's post prompted me to jot down the following. After all, I happen to be in Japan, and have been in the industry for a while now.

What has been going on is rather wierd. I shouldn't bore you with details, but let me start with the year 1991, when there was a suggestion to the effect that primary schools should embrace some form of 'special activity' involving a foreign language, such as English conversation. Funny wording, I know - but that's what was suggested: 'special (foreign language) activity'. Judging from what has actually been done, the 'activity' seems to refer loosely to some English-speaking person getting kids to sing, draw, say some words, etc. with no organising principles.

In a country where foreign language education (specifically, the English language education) formally starts at secondary school, this suggestion was new. In the following year, 1992, the (then) Ministry of Education started experimenting with English language 'activities' at primary schools. They did it for one school hour per week.

If you know anything about learning a foreign language, that's not much - especially when what is done is 'activity' rather than actual learning. Years later, researchers found that there were no differences whatsoever between those kids who did this English activity at primary school and those who did not, when they reached secondary school. Surprise, surprise. Those kids just wasted time there ...

Now this is where things get weird. Instead of coming up with a better idea, the Ministry then came back with a booklet entitled 'Practical Handbook for Elementary School English Activities', primarily aimed at non-Japanese teachers, which declared that 'the aim of English Activity is not language acquisition'. It then went on to describe some of the things you, as a teacher, could do in the classroom. Yes, this truly is a totally confused, and confusing, piece of literature (which, by the way, was priced at 100 yen a copy). This was in 2001.

I guess the confusion comes from the fact that they wanted to compile an official-looking manual for teaching English at primary schools, but then, faced with solid evidence that it didn't work, they added some sentences and paragraphs here and there saying 'Well, they may not learn anything, but that's not the point.' Or maybe whoever wrote it was just plain incompetent. Either way, that's my tax money being spent right there. Hey.

Well, people are not stupid; there has been a lot of debate. At the Ministry, too, there is a committee consisting of 21 people to discuss this - er, by the way, twenty out of these 21 people are those who are 'in accord with the government's directions'. What kind of totalitarian regime is this?

But the facts are so against these 20 plus one people that they couldn't come up with a report that would have enabled the Ministry to formally announce that they were introducing the scheme. This was in 2005.

Then in 2006, the Ministry issued a formal statement called 'On English Education at Primary Schools' (this time, they somehow chose the word 'education'). There was nothing in the statement about making English a formal part of primary school education; I guess they couldn't put it there. But the media jumped to it, loudly screaming, 'English classes to be introduced in primary schools!'

What the Ministry - the government - has wanted to do all along is very clear. They want one school hour per week at every primary school taught by a non-Japanese, English-speaking, teacher. They know that there are no educational merits. And they know that they cannot implement it. Their document clearly states that there are 121 ALTs - that is, officially hired English-speaking teachers - in Japan; and there are about 23,000 primary schools.

It is in this context that they sort of turned around and said, 'Hey, English classes ought to be conducted in English in high schools!'

I have just stated facts. I do not wish to speculate. But as I say, people are not stupid, and I just hear them. When America started bombing Iraq, I heard a rough-looking worker saying to his mate, 'It's all too clear, you know. It's about oil.' It wasn't just him; it was like a shared understanding.

This time, the shared understanding may be summarised in four words: 'more jobs for Americans'. I find myself unable to brushing it off outright. But I do not wish to speculate; I would like to remain hopeful. If, and I repeat IF, Japan has democracy that works, people's voices will be heard, and what is best for the kids will be done. But then, don't get me started on how big that 'if' is ...

1 comment:

Alex Case said...

"Or maybe whoever wrote it was just plain incompetent"

or just an overworked untrained generalist who was too shy to tell his boss that he didn't understand the task. Sure he put a lot of hours into it though

The conspiracy theory about ALTs is that the main purpose is to teach them about Japan and send them back as fully trained Japanophiles, rather than to use them to teach the kids about the world. The less extreme version is that the main purpose is to stop the kids being scared of foreigners (by turning them into clowns?) and that language skills are secondary at best. My preferred explanation is that such extreme decisions were never made, because in fact no decisions of any sort were made