[EDLING:1685] Japan: Why primary school English puts off students

Francis M. Hult fmhult at DOLPHIN.UPENN.EDU
Fri Jun 30 03:14:55 UTC 2006

The Daily Yomiuri


Why primary school English puts off students

Yukio Otsu Special to The Daily Yomiuri

My interview on primary school English appeared in the May 25 issue of The 
Daily Yomiuri in "The Language Connection" in the form of a response to Akita 
International University President Mineo Nakajima, whose interview was 
published on May 18. The original interviews were conducted for The Yomiuri 
Shimbun in Japanese and were translated into English by a Daily Yomiuri 

It has come to my attention recently that a couple of responses have appeared 
in the "Letters to the Editor" column, and I would like to respond to Jim 
Dunlop's letter of May 30 criticizing my position. I will focus on two issues. 

I suggested that English education at the primary school level will lead to an 
early dislike of English on the part of students. Mr. Dunlop says this 
is "unfounded." This is not true. On a recent TV program produced by NHK--
titled Oya to Ko no TV Sukuru (TV School for Parents and Children), aired on 
June 17--it was reported that about 70 percent of all primary school teachers 
involved in English education at public primary schools in Kanazawa, which is 
one of the municipalities most enthusiastically promoting English education at 
primary school level, confessed that some students had been left behind by the 
studies. The program also reported that some teachers were seriously concerned 
that early English-language teaching was making students antagonistic toward 
the language. 

Hoping that one of the three languages that he is familiar with is Japanese, I 
would also like Mr. Dunlop to refer to Rikkyo University Prof. Kumiko 
Torikai's newly published book, Ayaushi! Sho-gakko- Eigo (Primary School 
English in Danger; Bunshun Shinsho), where he will find some relevant facts 
and statistics. 

It would be worthwhile to add that English education at the primary school 
level has led to a dislike of English on the part of the teachers as well. I 
have received more than 400 e-mails from primary school teachers all over 
Japan. In their e-mails, many teachers express their concerns about teaching a 
subject with which they are not familiar, and some even mention that they do 
not feel like going to school on the days they have to teach English. 

Why does English education at primary schools cause students to dislike 
English? The primary reason is that in most cases activities are limited to 
singing songs, chanting, and learning fixed expressions. Such activities might 
be fun for students for a short while, but they soon get bored. This is 
natural because these activities are not creative. 

To guarantee the creativity of language activities, one should learn grammar. 
Why does the Education, Science and Technology Ministry not encourage grammar 
teaching? Because teachers cannot teach grammar, which requires knowledge and 
skills. Remember that, in most cases, it is the homeroom teachers who are in 
charge of English education at primary schools. In fact, in some advanced 
districts, they use middle school textbooks for primary school students. 

We should remember that the first step in foreign-language teaching is the 
most difficult part, requiring much knowledge and many skills. It is not the 
kind of thing that nonprofessionals--regardless of whether they are native 
speakers of English or not--can ever dream of being able to handle. 

The second issue is Mr. Dunlop's criticism of what he calls my "linguistically 
nationalistic agenda." He should be aware that what I insist on as being of 
utmost importance at primary schools is to establish a firm foundation in 
one's "mother tongue" or "first language," not a "national language" 
or "language of one's mother nation." 

In the original interview, I used the word "bogo" (mother tongue) 
not "bokokugo" (the language of one's mother nation). The concept of "nation" 
is not involved in my objection to English education at primary schools. 

I am fully aware that there are some intellectuals who claim the superiority 
of the Japanese language over others, but be assured, Mr. Dunlop, I am not one 
of them. 

A final word. I am not saying that English education is not necessary. Nor am 
I claiming that the current system of English education in schools has been 
successful. I agree that the current education curriculum is not functioning 
well, leading to much dissatisfaction on the part of the learner, leading to 
such comments as, "I've studied English for ten years, but I cannot express 
myself in English even a bit." 

Hence, reform is necessary. However, what is needed is not to start learning 
English earlier at the primary school level, but rather to enrich English 
education from middle school through university. To be more concrete, 
refresher programs for English teachers, more English lessons per week at 
middle and high schools, and smaller class sizes are necessary. 

These require lots of energy, time, and money. If we apply the energy, time 
and money we are to invest in primary school English to the aforementioned 
purposes, we would have a much better future. 

Otsu is professor of psycholinguistics at Keio University. 

(Jun. 30, 2006)

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