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2011年1月23日 (日)

Japan needs new paradigm of English education




POINT OF VIEW/ Kumiko Torikai: Japan needs new paradigm of English education

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Few people today would disagree that English is an international common language. But what, exactly, is English that is truly universal, and how should it be taught in Japanese schools? Kumiko Torikai, a Rikkyo University professor and former professional simultaneous translator who teaches English language courses on radio and television, is calling for a major shift in the paradigm of English education in Japan. Following are excerpts of her interview with The Asahi Shimbun.

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Question: There once was a major controversy over whether English education should focus on practicality or pure learning. Today, the focus is clearly on improving students' communication skills in English. But some who stress importance of grammar and reading comprehension are calling for a review of the policy. Why do you think English education is always a subject of controversy?

Answer: The major controversy you refer to is the one that erupted in 1974, I assume. Wataru Hiraizumi, then an Upper House legislator and a former diplomat, created quite a stir that year with his argument that students ought to be taught practical English. He offered his own recommendations on how to go about it. But Shoichi Watanabe, then a Sophia University professor, challenged Hiraizumi head-on and demanded, "What's wrong with teaching English purely for the sake of turning out culturally well-rounded students?"

The controversy was never resolved, and the same back-and-forth is still going on today. The way I see it, the issue boils down to whether English taught at schools is usable or unusable. After the collapse of the asset-inflated economy in the 1990s, Japanese companies became unable to spend much money on in-house English training and company-sponsored studies abroad for their employees, and the business community at large exerted pressure on the government to do something about English education. The business community was not happy with the English education system that turned out students who could read and write English but couldn't speak it, even if they went all the way to university.

Anyway, the government did heed the business community, and the English education system underwent a major overhaul. The education ministry's school curriculum guidelines in the 1990s called for greater emphasis on improving students' communication skills in English. The education ministry policy is linked with demand for practicality and the debate on English education theory.

The schools have since followed the guidelines so faithfully that some people, who believe in the importance of grammar and comprehension, insist today that the pendulum must swing back. These people are concerned that not only have students' communication skills not improved, but also that their basic academic performance standard itself has declined.

Q: I think many people today still associate English lessons in schools with grammar and comprehension.

A: What always stumps me is why people are unaware of what English education is really like today. As parents, don't they ever try to find out how their children are being taught? Don't they ever look at their children's English textbooks? I really don't understand. Even at government council meetings, prominent business leaders complain about the state of English education in schools and lament that students are being taught only to read and write English, so they can't really hold conversations in English. These distinguished individuals become quite annoyed whenever I open my mouth and point out to them, "English education has changed significantly over the last decade or two. The problem today is that conversation skills are being overemphasized. You say students can only read and write but can't converse in English, but that's an old story that is no longer true."

Q: Why do you think people are unaware of the reality?

A: Beats me. Perhaps people in their 40s and older have inerasable memories of how rigorously they were drilled in grammar and comprehension, and yet never became proficient in spoken English. But Japanese companies today are pretty harsh on workers who can't speak English. So, these middle-aged and older people feel they were short-changed by the English education system. I imagine they even hold a grudge.

Q: A grudge, you say?

A: Yes, they blame their schools, believing they would have become fluent in English had the schools taught them properly. Let's say a businessman goes to New York for the first time, screws up his courage to speak English to his American business partners, but they don't understand what he's saying. He is disappointed and mortified, and blames the English education he received for his humiliating inability to communicate in English. When he goes back home, still smarting from his unhappy experience, he tells his children, "You'd better work really hard on your English. Don't bother with reading and writing. All you need is to be able to speak English and be understood by English speakers."

In my opinion, however, for years many Japanese businessmen have been able to somehow manage on their own in English in foreign countries precisely because they had been taught in school to read and write. Without that basic training, they wouldn't have been able to function overseas.

Q: Personally, whose side are you on--the people who stress communication skills or those who stress grammar and comprehension?

A: Both. They are both right. The problem today is that kids are doing poorly in both areas. It's about time language experts in both camps stopped quibbling and put their heads together to work out an effective English education system that best matches the needs of Japanese students and will help them do better in both areas. Once the kids have learned the basics, I believe the schools will have fully accomplished their mission. Beyond that, it's up to each individual to further brush up his or her

he or she wishes.

English as a universal language

Q: In this age of globalization, what sort of English should we be studying? I understand you have been calling for a major shift in the paradigm of English education.

A: Everyone talks about globalization and says English is the common international language of our era, but I wonder how many people really understand what they are saying. Today, English is no longer the language of Americans and British and other native speakers of English alone. There are about 400 million people whose native tongue is English. But English is also the official language of countries such as India and Singapore, and when you factor in the peoples of such countries, plus those who speak English as a foreign language, the total number of English speakers by far exceeds 1 billion around the world. For most Japanese people, their probability of speaking English with non-native speakers of English is much higher than with native speakers. This means our present era no longer requires us to mold our English to the standard of English spoken by Americans and British. This is why I am calling for a paradigm shift in English education.

Q: Would you please elaborate?

A: Japanese and other non-native speakers of English tend to forget to use the definite article "the." For instance, instead of saying "the Nobel Prize," we say "Nobel Prize." Native speakers of English say we sound awkward. But that's only how they feel, and non-native speakers could care less. If the meaning is clear, there isn't any problem. And the sort of English that is perfectly intelligible to non-native speakers is the "international English" that serves as a common language of the world.

Q: But then, wouldn't English to cease to be English?

A: Of course, if everyone around the world started mangling English as they pleased, English would cease to function as a common language. So, what is the "core" English grammar and pronunciation that ought to be protected to keep the language's integrity? Studies to determine the core are being done now, mainly in Europe. Once it has been determined, all that needs to be done is to structure English education around that core. We will no longer have to try to pronounce words exactly as Americans or British do.

Q: That means our tendency to mix up the "l" and "r" sounds will no longer be a problem?

A: Exactly. Experiments have been done, in which non-native speakers of English from various countries were made to listen to distinguish between "l" and "r" sounds, and nobody had any problem. It's really just a matter of understanding the context.

Q: While I was in school, I was taught to work very hard to get my "l" and "r" right, because it wouldn't do to say "lice" when ordering "rice" in a restaurant.

A: Nobody orders lice in a restaurant, so it's a non-issue. Again, it's a matter of context. People can readily understand you mean "the" when you pronounce it as "za." On the other hand, I would advise Japanese students of English to work on consonant clusters and try to fine-tune their cadence, so native speakers will be better able to understand them. That said, however, the most important thing to bear in mind is to enunciate each word clearly. There is no need to mimic the American or English accent, nor do you ever have to memorize idiomatic phrases. It is enough for students to learn basics in grammar. When they speak English, they don't have to mind making grammatical errors.

Q: Are Americans and British to be the ultimate judges of what can be considered acceptable English and what cannot?

A: No. The studies being conducted in Europe, as I mentioned earlier, include collecting diverse samples of English being spoken by non-English speakers and checking their intelligibility to other nationals. If nobody can understand what is being said, then steps will have to be taken to ensure that nobody else will learn to speak in the same manner.

The age is long over when native speakers of English alone determine what is acceptable and what isn't. Should they insist on forcing their own standard on the rest of the world, they would be seen as just a bossy, self-serving minority. I regret to say this to Americans and British, but English has ceased to be their private property. I'm sure they aren't happy about strange English gaining legitimacy. But since we non-native speakers are working hard to be proficient in English, surely they can be accommodating enough to meet us halfway.

Q: Many students of English want to learn "natural English," the sort of English that is spoken by people in the United States and Britain. What are your thoughts about this?

A: I can quite empathize with the students, as I myself was attracted to America as a girl and that's what motivated me to learn English. And as an English teacher, I am sometimes tempted to teach interesting colloquial American expressions to my students. But I don't. What merit is there for my students in learning expressions only Americans can understand? None. Such expressions do not belong in the international language that needs to be taught. Of course, it's a different story altogether if you are already quite proficient in English or you intend to become a cultural or linguistic expert. All I'm saying is that colloquial expressions that are current only in limited areas should not be taught in public schools as part of compulsory English education. Public schools should focus strictly on teaching English as a universal language.

Q: In other words, you are saying that a distinction should be made between English as a universal language and American and British English as a "local dialect."

A: Exactly. Now that English has become established as a universal language, it has to be treated differently from any other language.

Q: Do you mean that English, as a universal language, must be "isolated" from its cultural background? But any student of a foreign language is told of the need to study and understand the culture of the people who speak it. What are we supposed to do?

A: Realistically speaking, I'm aware you can never completely isolate English from its deeply-embedded history, culture and popular tradition. This is the real dilemma, but I think it's ultimately up to each teacher to decide what to do. If English is to be taught as a tool of communication, then the teacher should at least make a conscious effort not to teach American or British culture without some really good reason. I know I'm going to come under a lot of fire for saying so. But mine is the only way to overcome the "hegemony of the English language."

One important element of English as a universal language is that it allows each speaker to color it with his or her own cultural background and project his or her own personality. For instance, when you say something to an American and the American tells you, "We don't say that in the States," you can respond, "I'm sure you don't, but we do in Japan."

Q: I like that.

A: Come to think of it, many conversations in English take place between non-native speakers of English who are not proficient in the language. A typical conversation may begin like this: "I'm sorry I don't speak your language. I wish I could." "It's for me to apologize for not speaking your language. But we can at least try to understand each other in English, can't we?"

Japanese can speak English like typical Japanese, and Chinese can speak their version of English, and they can still communicate with each other so long as both parties stick to the basics or "core" of what is English as a universal language. This is how it should be.

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Kumiko Torikai is a professor at Rikkyo University Graduate School of Intercultural Communication. Her specialty is the theory of linguistic communication. A former professional simultaneous interpreter, Torikai currently hosts a Japan Broadcasting Corp. program titled "Nyusu de Eikaiwa" (English conversation on current events). Her published works include "Tsuyakusha to Sengo Nichi-bei Gaiko" (Interpreters and postwar Japan-U.S.


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