[EDLING:1626] Japan: Primary school English: An opponent responds

Francis M. Hult fmhult at DOLPHIN.UPENN.EDU
Wed May 24 21:51:05 UTC 2006

Daily Yomiuri 


Primary school English: An opponent responds

Shigeru Nakanishi Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

This is the second of a two-part series featuring experts' opinions regarding 
a Central Council on Education subcommittee's proposal that English should be 
made mandatory at primary school. The following is an interview with Keio 
University Prof. Yukio Otsu, 58, a psycholinguist and editor and coauthor of 
the book "Shogakko de no Eigo Kyoiku wa Hitsuyo ka" (Is English Education 
Necessary at Primary School?): 

The Yomiuri Shimbun: What do you think of the fact that nearly 94 percent of 
public primary schools have already introduced English lessons of some form or 
other [as of the 2005 school year, according to a survey conducted by the 
Education, Science and Technology Ministry]? 

Otsu: In fact, [the survey shows] about 60 percent of sixth graders [at such 
schools] took less than one of these lessons each month. 

Many parents have great expectations from English education for primary school 
students, but I suspect they are not informed in an easy-to-understand way of 
what making English mandatory would really mean. What kind of impact would it 
have on overall primary school education? If primary schools add something new 
[to their curriculums], they will have to cut something else. 

In addition, who would teach primary school students? Many believe that 
classroom teachers can't. 

The Yomiuri Shimbun: Many private primary schools have a long history of 
English education. 

Otsu: The [primary to high] schools associated with Keio University, where I 
work, teach English beginning from an early stage. We have excellent systems 
to support our English teaching. However, even if our students have enjoyed 
such programs, they do not go on to show outstanding performance in English at 
the university. 

The Yomiuri Shimbun: And it's specifically because of insufficient support 
systems that you're opposed to making English mandatory for primary school 
students, right? 

Otsu: Introducing English education at the primary school level won't produce 
positive results, no matter how many resources we secure for it. It's a knee-
jerk reaction to push for this just because our neighboring countries are 
already doing so. 

In South Korea, enthusiasm over English education has overheated and an 
increasing number of children are developing a dislike of English. 

We can't hope to make the entire general public perfectly bilingual. It's 
crucial that children first establish a firm foundation in Japanese as their 
mother tongue and learn its structure. If they learn a foreign language with a 
clear awareness that it is a foreign language, children will establish much 
more practical skills in the language. 

The Yomiuri Shimbun: So you don't believe that the start of English education 
should even be lowered to the fifth and sixth grades of primary school? 

Otsu: To make teachers capable of teaching English to primary school students 
would require great time and effort. Instructors teaching a foreign language 
to complete beginners need to have much more knowledge and experience [than 
instructors for learners at higher levels]. 

Rather than that, I'd like to bolster English education at the middle school 
and higher levels, giving it much more support, for example, in terms of the 
number of class hours allocated for English, training for teachers, class 
sizes and so on. 

More than anything else, I'd like to help establish an organic linkage between 
English education and mother-tongue education. 

At the primary school level, it's acceptable that children are exposed to a 
foreign language if it's treated as a tool to be compared to our mother 
tongue, but it's problematic to give English a special status. The most 
important thing is to let them understand that Japanese culture and the 
cultures of English-speaking countries are not unique [just because they have 
different languages]. 

The Yomiuri Shimbun: Have you found anything you can agree with in the report 
compiled by the subcommittee on foreign languages? 

Otsu: The most important thing is the report clearly states that, should the 
mandatory introduction of English education be implemented at the primary 
school level, its primary aim would not be focused on the acquisition of 
specific language skills. I'd like that message to be taken seriously. 

The Yomiuri Shimbun: If we leave the current situation as it is, won't the 
gaps existing among primary schools get wider? 

Otsu: The gaps will get wider and wider if all primary schools start teaching 
English. For the education industry, this will be a great chance to sell their 
materials to schools. Meanwhile, some schools will be able to secure assistant 
teachers, while others won't. 

Nonetheless, we don't have to get too worried about this because acquiring a 
truly practical command of English cannot simply be achieved by starting to 
learn the language from primary school. 

The Yomiuri Shimbun: What do you think of gaps between regular schools and 
those in pioneering municipalities in this field, many of which have taken 
advantage of the tokku system [a central government program allowing local 
municipalities to launch special deregulated zones]? 

Otsu: It's strange that only successful cases are widely reported. Some of 
these projects are leading children to develop a dislike of English. 

The Yomiuri Shimbun: Aren't English skills part of the basic knowledge the 
general public needs to have? 

Otsu: If you say basic knowledge, you can acquire it through the current 
English education curriculum at middle school and later. 

The Yomiuri Shimbun: How do you think we should deal with the current 

Otsu: As long as we take advantage of general studies classes, we can foster 
children's awareness of language. 

I believe that advocates of making English a regular class subject at the 
primary school level have only this as their ultimate goal. But I'm convinced 
that this would not produce any positive effects and just cause confusion. 
Primary school students taught in such a chaotic situation would ultimately 
become the victims. 

Some children who were taught English at their primary schools and developed a 
dislike of the language have already become middle school students, and middle 
school teachers are having difficulty in dealing with some of them. 

What often happens to primary school students taking English lessons at their 
schools is that they cannot talk beyond set phrases like, "Hello. I live in 
Tokyo. I like apples." However, to have a command of a language is a very 
creative thing. It's just meaningless to implement language education that 
cannot guarantee this. 

(May. 25, 2006)

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