Japan: Primary school English: An opponent responds
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu May 25 18:11:17 UTC 2006
Forwarded from edling at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
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
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 Yomiuri Shimbun: And it's specifically because of insufficient support
systems that you're opposed to making English mandatory for primary school
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
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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