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Japanese Way of Learning English, and Its Disastrous Consequences



Take a look at the most recent results of the OECD's survey on English skills among non-English speaking member countries embedded at the bottom of this article.

Japan has been glued to the very bottom of the ranking since the inception of this comparative survey. And when it comes to a broader comparison among 151 nations, including non-OECD members, Japan ranked No.140. It's no wonder ranking-conscious Japanese people try to look away from the particularly painful OECD statistics. Some may ask what if the OECD had used some other yardstick than TOEFL scores on which it actually based the ranking. Maybe with something else in use as the evaluation method, Japan's position would have been elevated a notch or two. But I do not believe that would have made a great difference to the ranking.

Japan's disastrous showing in this respect is all the more intriguing because no other nation in the world has tried harder to improve the people's overall English skills.

At the government level, Prime Minister Koizumi, his Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (world's longest name of a ministry!), and their predecessors have implemented various countermeasures including an earlier start of English education and a generous subsidy (kyufu-kin) program, which is nothing but a waste of taxpayers' money to help everyone become fluent in everyday English.

In educational circles, "experts" in English education have made one well-intended proposition after another for decades now, including the replacement of traditionally grammar-oriented English classes in high schools with more conversation-oriented ones.

In town cheap language schools such as AEON and NOVA, staffed mostly with unqualified English teachers, are proliferating all over the nation. Thanks to the media hype fanning the nation-wide English craze, hundreds of thousands of me-too English learners are attending these schools to socialize very nicely with gaijin no sensei, or "native speakers" of English. And the English exposure levels here are higher than anywhere else in Asia and the European Continent.

Now it's evident that these efforts are not paying off.

Under these circumstances some have resorted to such excuses as:
- Voice frequencies particular to the language are outside the range our ears are used to.
- Our tongues are shaped so differently.
- We have not experienced colonialization by an English speaking foreign country.
- Japanese is too remote from English, linguistic family-wise.
These excuses are not really convincing because if one of them was the case with us, we should have given up learning the language by now, or undergone surgical operations, or even volunteered to be a colony. Neither can it be true that our disadvantages have something to do with our evolutionary proximity to apes, I hope.

In fact there is only one thing that can explain the poor showings in the OECD ranking. Although very few people dare to point it out, English, or any other language for that matter, is nothing but a tool for communication. Learning a foreign language cannot be a goal in itself. To communicate, you've got to have your own thoughts to transmit to others. My observation is that a vast majority of the Japanese people are unable to form their own opinions using their own brains because they have been discouraged from doing so since their childhood.

It should also be pointed out that communication, like tango, takes two. As many businesspersons from Western countries have experienced, some, if not most, of their Japanese counterparts sometimes make a good presentation if they are given time for preparation. But once the participants in the meeting have started discussing the topic, the presenter falls silent as if he/she didn't touch off the debate. Generally speaking Japanese people are totally unable, or disabled, to be more precise, to debate because in this "homogeneous" culture, an issue is debatable only when the conclusion has been given beforehand. Sometimes the consensus has been reached the night before, most typically at a bar. It would be fair, though, with these quiet attendees at international meetings to add that they suddenly become talkative at the time of lunch recess.

Admittedly young Japanese people are much more fluent in English than their parents and grandparents as a growing number of them have attended colleges in the U.S. or the U.K. But that's as far as small talks are concerned. And that doesn't help much in a complex world like this one.


Unit:Mean value of total score

Year:2002-2003
Data available : 29 countries

1

Netherlands

260

2

Denmark

257

3

Luxembourg

256

4

Finland

255

5

Portugal

253

6

Austria

252

6

Belgium

252

6

Iceland

252

9

Germany

251

10

Switzerland

247

11

Sweden

244

12

Norway

242

13

United Kingdom

239

14

New Zealand

237

15

Czech Republic

236

15

Hungary

236

17

Spain

234

18

Slovakia

233

19

Canada

231

19

France

231

19

Greece

231

19

Mexico

231

23

Italy

228

23

Poland

228

25

United States

227

26

Turkey

218

27

Australia

211

28

Korea, Republic of (South Korea)

207

29

Japan

186


Note
For countries with 30 or more examinees.
From July 2002 to June 2003

Countries with no data
Ireland
Year:1999-2000
Data available:28 countries

1

Netherlands

256

2

Denmark

255

3

Belgium

252

4

Luxembourg

251

5

Austria

250

6

Finland

249

6

Germany

249

8

Portugal

248

9

Switzerland

243

10

Sweden

242

11

Norway

241

12

Iceland

238

13

Slovakia

237

14

Czech Republic

232

15

Hungary

231

16

Spain

230

17

Poland

229

18

France

228

18

Mexico

228

20

United Kingdom

226

21

United States

224

22

Greece

223

23

Canada

221

24

Italy

220

25

Turkey

213

26

Australia

210

27

Korea, Republic of (South Korea)

198

28

Japan

188



Note
For countries with 30 or more examinees.
From July 2002 to June 2003

Countries with no data
Ireland/ New Zealand

Source
ETS (2003) TOEFL Test and Score Data Summary 02-03 Edition.
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Japanese Way of Learning English, and Its Disastrous Consequences | 2 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
English education in Japan
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, September 06 2004 @ 08:01 AM JST
I couldn't properly sign in, so this is from bradyst

It is funny that Canada and the States come so low in the ranking of countries performance. Embarrassingly funny that they come below the Czech Republic, and Slovakia where people speak English with terrible accents and horrible grammar. I wonder why this is the case? Where the Canadian students so terrible at speaking their mother tongue that they couldn't beat the dismal Czechs? Was it only foreign students studying and taking the exam in Canada? Can anyone tell me the reason for so many countries that have English at the national language have scored so low. Until then, I can't really take the findings of this survey seriously.

Oh, and I have a class with a 60 year old Japanese woman who speaks English 5 times better than any of the 20 year olds, and yet she has only studied English when she was preparing for her Uni entrance exams. She hasn't lived abroad or worked in a foreign country or anything of the sort. Makes me wonder if the education in foreign language has really deteriated over the years no matter how much the gov't wastes on it?
[ Reply to This | # ]
English education in Japan
Authored by: unjapaneseYY on Wednesday, September 22 2004 @ 10:44 AM JST
Neither can I take a certain part of the findings of the OECD survey seriously as far as the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Australia are concerned. It doesn't really add up. You can reasonably assume, though, that each flag does represent the nationality of the TOEFL examinees for the year. So most probably the poor showings among these English-speaking nations were a reflection of an accidental ethnicity- and social class-mix for the year's TOEFL examinees. But I will try to find out how these results can be best explained, and let you know my findings.

And yet, it does add up that Japan has been glued to the very bottom of the list. The 60-year-old lady you are talking about is an exception. For all age brackets, most Japanese people are unable to communicate not only in English but also in their mother tongue. And, as you point out, their communication skills keep deteriorating.
[ Reply to This | # ]