Taking a stand over compulsory English

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue Jan 18 13:23:15 UTC 2005

>>From the Daily Yomiuri, January 11, 2005

Taking a stand over compulsory English

Midori Matsuzawa / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

It probably will be a matter of time before English becomes a compulsory
subject at public primary schools. During the 2003 school year, about 88
percent of such schools offered some kind of English lessons, while the
Central Council for Education--one of the advisory panels to the education
minister--last year started discussions on the issue and is expected to
reach a conclusion by the time this school year ends in March.
Nonetheless, many experts remain firmly opposed to making English
compulsory at public primary schools.

A recent symposium hosted by opponents of the change and organized by Keio
University in Tokyo, drew attention for its title, "Primary Schools Don't
Need to Teach English," attracting an audience of about 650 people. The
symposium lasted for six hours due to heated discussions between the nine
featured speakers and some members of an audience that included both
supporters and opponents of change.

The symposium followed one in December 2003 titled "Is English Education
Necessary at Primary Schools?" The symposium was intended as the second in
a series of three, said Prof. Yukio Otsu, the main organizer of the
symposiums and one of the speakers. In an opening address at the most
recent symposium, Yoshifumi Saito, associate professor at Tokyo
University, pointed out that today's boom in early English education is
supported by "the general public's dissatisfaction with the nation's
English teaching." However, such sentiments "are based on uninformed
opinions, and should not be reflected in education policies," he said.

Saito said his studies on how Japanese pioneers of language learning
mastered English before and during the Meiji era (1868-1912) have led him
to conclude that making the language compulsory at public primary schools
would fail to produce the expected benefits. During the Edo period
(1603-1868), for example, families of translators living in Nagasaki--then
the nation's only international port--taught their children foreign
languages from an early age, leading some experts to conclude that an
early start is the key to language learning.

But Saito says it was a system that depended on intensive teaching of
language--something that can hardly be replicated with a couple of hours a
week of English at primary school.

And if the change does go ahead, he fears it will be impossible to reverse
regardless of whatever happens, pointing to the controversy surrounding
the "pressure-free education" policy as evidence.

Saito's biggest concern is the fall in reading comprehension ability among
middle and high school students--a trend shown in an Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development survey published last month.

"I believe that today's English-language teaching--which emphasizes oral
communication while disregarding reading comprehension--has contributed to
this decline," the professor said.

For this reason, he says primary schools should focus on giving children a
solid grounding in their mother tongue, while English education at middle
schools should center on pattern practices, such as grammar and reading

Saito's criticism of communicative language teaching is shared by
Hiromichi Moteki, president of a publishing company and author of several
books opposing compulsory English at primary schools.

Moteki pointed out that Japanese students' English abilities have been
declining, as shown by the average scores of Asian examinees taking the
Test of English as a Foreign Language.

Japan's rank began to fall in the 1990s, hitting bottom in 1997-98.
Comparing the results of Japanese, South Korean and Chinese examinees in
the test's three sections--listening comprehension, structure and written
expression, and reading comprehension--Japan was furthest behind the other
two in reading comprehension, Moteki pointed out.

This decline has happened because of the pressure-free education policy
that has cut back on grammar and vocabulary learning, while encouraging
conversation-oriented teaching, he pointed out.

"The general public tends to attribute their poor English abilities to the
grammar-oriented system, and to regard the conversation-oriented one as a
solution," Moteki said. "That's fundamentally wrong."

Conversation-oriented English education at the primary school level would
only lead to "miserable results," he said.

Instead, Moteki said English education at middle school level should be
made more intensive, with lessons every day. In addition, "We should offer
intensive training in English pronunciation as a base for building sound
listening skills."


What to make compulsory?

While many members of the public say Japanese people should study English
as the language is the international lingua franca, some speakers at the
symposium expressed concern over excessive emphasis on English.

Tomoko Yamakawa, a graduate student specializing in social linguistics at
Tokyo University, said she was worried that making English compulsory at
primary schools would accelerate such a tendency, even though Japan today
has become a "multilingual society."

Among an increasing number of registered foreign residents, South and
North Korean nationals form the largest group, followed by Chinese and
Brazilians. "Native speakers of English in fact belong to a minority (of
registered foreign residents)," she said.

Therefore, Yamakawa drew attention to the importance of helping Japanese
children develop linguistic sensitivity.

"I believe that at the primary school level, we should provide knowledge
about the wide variety of tongues in the world, rather than teaching one
particular foreign language," she said. "That would bring children closer
to classmates for whom Japanese is not their mother tongue, and eventually
develop interests in the languages and cultures of their non-Japanese
neighbors in local communities."

In this regard, Otsu set out the kind of language education he believes
should be offered to children at this stage, giving details on some of the
sample practices he has tried. The professor said the purpose of this
education was "to help students realize what language is, as well as to
appreciate creative aspects of language use."

On the other hand, cognitive science expert Mutsumi Imai pointed out what
she called some misunderstandings many people have regarding the "critical
period" of language acquisition.

It is often believed that because such a critical period comes in
childhood, exposure to foreign languages at an early stage enables
children to acquire language without difficulty. In other words, the
sooner a child starts learning a foreign language, the better, with an
early start enabling children to pick up foreign languages in the same way
they learn their mother tongue.

According to Imai, who is associate professor at Keio University, babies
develop language-learning-and-processing systems suitable for their mother
tongues by the time they are 1 year old, thanks to the massive amounts of
input they get from their parents.

Once such an information processing system--conducted on an subconscious
level--is established for a particular language, it is not easy to
"rewrite" it even if children start to learn different languages, the
expert said. "Anyhow, it's just a fantasy to think learning a foreign
language can be done in a similar way to learning the mother tongue," she

In terms of the critical period, therefore, it would be too late for
primary school students to acquire a perfect "nativelike" command of
English, Imai said. On the contrary, "If the goal of language learning is
to make yourself understood in a clear and logical way, this has nothing
to do with the critical period."

Imai criticized recent debates for focusing narrowly on English, while
failing to address what children should best spend their time on during
the very limited time available for study during their primary school

"Making the language a compulsory subject means sacrificing something
else. Since school hours have already been cut, what else can we possibly
cut?" she said, adding that she believed class hours for Japanese,
arithmetic and other subjects should be increased from current levels.

For the third symposium in the series, Imai says there needs to be a wider
focus: "I'd like it to discuss not just English education at primary
school level, but how the whole primary school system should


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