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English-Learning in Japan


Amorey Gethin


Over ten years ago at an English-teaching conference in Bologna I asked a British Council representative with experience of Japan what he thought the solution was to that country's problems with English. I had hoped for a thoughtful insight into the Japanese attitude to language-learning. Instead I was told proudly that the Council was going to greatly increase the number of its centres throughout Japan.


Now, a decade and more later, the problems remain. Yet the Japanese education authorities appear to be making the same old mistake: throwing more money at even more native English-speakers who are to give their pupils 'communicative competence'. They fail to recognize that the real problem in Japan is the widespread misunderstanding about how languages work and how one learns them.


It is true that such misunderstanding is common throughout the world. But in most places this is offset, to a greater or lesser extent, by a practical intuition as to how one should go about learning a foreign language. In Japan this intuition often seems entirely lacking. In its place, particularly among Japanese men, there is frequently an analytical approach to language-learning that can be crippling.


But there is another problem, probably even more serious. Large numbers of Japanese, including many English-teachers at universities, believe they cannot understand anything expressed in a foreign language, either spoken or written, until they have translated it into Japanese. They will not communicate better in English until they rid themselves of what is both a basic misapprehension and a disastrous practice.


Meanwhile it is sad that the Japanese authorities have apparently not noted the doubts that are beginning to be expressed about Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). (See, for instance, an article by Robert O'Neill in the Guardian Weekly's Learning English pages in July 1999). It is strange that anyone should ever have thought CLT would work. You do not learn anything by talking, particularly if the talking is to others as ignorant as yourself. To talk you have to already have something to talk, and you can only acquire that by observation, which means listening and reading. (The radio is probably the most useful resource for those who want to learn how to communicate.)

True confidence in speaking a foreign language, as opposed to the bogus confidence induced by pair work and role play in the unreal world of the classroom, comes from knowing you have gained some mastery of the language. That mastery comes from learning the traditional things (for there are no other): the vocabulary, the grammar and the sounds - and learning them in the right way.


Are the leaders of the global English-teaching industry now at last prepared to tell the truth to the Japanese? Or are they afraid either that they will give offence or that they will reduce the returns from a lucrative market?


12 July 2000



The Editor welcomes your comments or contributions to discussion of this article, either in English, or in Japanese with an English summary.


The English-Learning and Languages Review does not exist solely to attack the dictatorship of the global English-teaching establishment. It has many other purposes. It gives advice on passing language exams. It presents information on English grammar, and in the future, it is hoped, on the grammar of other languages, often approaching problems from a new angle. It debates linguistic theory, and discusses language-learning principles. It invites contributions on all those subjects, and from those who find their own particular delight in the infinite variety of the languages of the world.

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