How would I sum up the feeling of Japan when contemplating English education?
It’s like crawling into a wardrobe and then complaining that you find yourself confronted by a lion and a witch when you were hoping to smoke a pipe with Ian McKellan.
It really does seem to operate in that world of fantasy and unrealistic expectations. Because, while good teachers are hitting their targets, the general public continues to bemoan the fact that Japan remains notoriously poor at English conversation.
This is nothing new. Japan has been collectively wringing its hands for decades about its poor performance in English, and it’s unlikely to quit wringing them anytime soon. Indeed with the Olympics approaching they may be in danger of breaking a figurative finger or two.
So what exactly is the issue?
Well the issue is that even though Japan knows what the myriad reasons for its difficulties are its been reluctant to acknowledge them, much less tackle them.
Indeed, rather than look at systemic reasons why the nation remains poor in its conversational skills students often seem keen to blame themselves or the English language itself, often going so far as to claim that for a Japanese person it is simply too far from their native tongue to get a handle on it. I’ll grant that compared to a native speaker of a European language they have a tougher challenge ahead of them, but the performance of other nations with equally distant or non-existent relations with English would suggest that it is far from the impossible task some would have you believe it is.
The real answer, and it is ridiculously simple, is schools aren’t teaching kids how to speak English.
By and large, with the exception of private and international schools, Japanese schools don’t teach speaking. If the kids come out of the general system able to speak it’s thanks to the efforts of those within the system, the teachers who go the extra mile, the parents who encourage it at home and of course, the students themselves who somehow find the time in their packed schedule to learn something which currently benefits them to the tune of…zero.
Now, I’m a language teacher, I’m not about to claim that learning a foreign language has no benefit. Economically speaking it’s obviously worth it. A recent episode of Freakonomics Radio placed the ROI on learning English at as high as a 20% increase in potential earnings. Culturally it’s an enormous boon. In terms of your health, bilingualism is routinely cited as something that potentially reduces the risk of mental difficulties in old age.
There are benefits everywhere you look.
Yet, for the average high school kid in Japan.
Because it won’t help them get into university.
And from the moment kids are old enough to be dropped off in a cram school or get fitted for their junior high school uniform that’s the only game in town. So until the target of that game changes let’s just be content with Narnia.