Japan: Speak Up / A foreign take on primary school English

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Jul 27 13:35:25 UTC 2007

Speak Up / A foreign take on primary school English

Nabin Panda Special to The Daily Yomiuri

The question of whether English should be made a compulsory subject at
primary schools has been the subject of much debate in this newspaper. The
debate has principally produced three schools of thought. First, the
sanseiha (supporters' group), consisting largely of Japanese education
ministry personnel and their advisers, advocate that English instruction
should be extended to the primary school level. It maintains that younger
minds at that stage can acquire a second language better and more
effortlessly, at least with regard to the pronunciation patterns of English.

In contrast, the second group, the hantaiha (opposition group), is dead
against introduction, alleging that it will undermine Japanese culture and
identity, and affect first language proficiency. Then there is the shinchoha
(discreet group), which advocates a prudent path; it does not resist the
introduction of English but proposes that appropriate groundwork--trained
teachers and a sound curriculum--should be prepared prior to any change. In
looking at these arguments, even an independent observer like this writer,
cannot but feel like giving his own commentary on this vital issue. Whether
English should be taught to Japanese primary school students rests on
whether Japanese education policymakers want to append a new subject to the

Around the world, conventional primary school curriculums concentrate on
subjects like mother tongue language studies, mathematics and science, with
the conviction that language will make the pupil literate, mathematics will
develop her analytical capability and science will introduce her to nature
and society at large. However, with the advent of globalization a new theme
has come to the fore, where individuals and nations come in contact with
different individuals and nations, where they are expected to be
understanding and tolerant of the culture of their counterparts. They are
required to appreciate the intricacies of the different culture. And since
language is the main carrier of culture, they first need to acquire it.

A second language helps establish a bi- or multi-cultural bent of mind.
Hence, the Headmaster's Association of Europe advocated making a modern
language a core obligatory subject alongside the ones mentioned above. This
notion captured the imagination of the sanseiha, who constructed upon it the
national strategy of cultivating knowledge of English among the Japanese
people by introducing it as a foreign language starting at primary school.
Why did the ministry select English for instruction? Under the present
curriculum, schools are free to teach any foreign language of their choice,
and they are doing so. The university entrance examinee, too, has a list of
languages to pick from.

But now that English will be made mandatory even at primary school--English
was made compulsory in high school way back in 1973--no student will ever
study any other language than English. In other words, foreign language
education will be narrowed down to only English. In socio-linguistic
terminology, English will earn the status of an official language, which is
paradoxical when Japanese itself has no such official status under the law
of this country. Further, since it is compulsory for children to attend
primary and middle school, virtually everyone will study English. But there
is nothing untoward about this. The ministry has taken a pragmatic stand and
is doing what should it have done. For historic reasons, English has become
paramount in Japanese society as it has elsewhere. Recall how soon English
replaced Dutch in the closing years of the Edo period (1603-1867). During
the Meiji era (1868-1912), the oligarchs under Education Minister Arinori
Mori even suggested replacing Japanese with English. In the years
immediately after World War II, pupils thronged private English classes
after school hours.

The same trend continues today. One does not have to be an English
supremacist to see the predominance of the language in every domain of
Japanese life. Advertisements and lyrics in pop songs often have one or two
English words in them. Japanese universities entice foreign students by
telling them that they can study in English; no other foreign language is a
medium of instruction. English is known for its vast impact on the katakana
corpus. In practice, Japan has adopted English as a second language. It is
from these perspectives that the ministry apparently has chosen English as
the second language to be taught at primary schools.

There is an international connotation to the selection too. Many countries,
including some in Asia, have made it their national mission to learn
English. It has become a sine qua non of their mounting economic affluence.
It is a mistake to believe that Chinese and Indians have captured the IT
market solely for their analytical capabilities. In reality, it is their
analytical capability coupled with English knowledge that has made their
success possible. The hantaiha needs to appreciate this fact if they are
serious about maintaining Japan's position as a world economic power. The
shinchoha are applauded for their concern for the language rights of foreign
children in Japan. In Tokyo and other areas, both governmental and
nongovernmental organizations are striving hard to bring Brazilian, Korean
and Chinese children into the Japanese mainstream by teaching them in their
mother tongue at primary school level.

However, Japan's structural problems--the low birthrate and graying
population--and global economic trends ought to force Japan to open itself
to a multitude of nationalities before long. The present method of teaching
Japanese through their native languages will fail to work then for want of
finance and manpower. This means there is a need to build a Japanese
workforce who can communicate with foreigners in a common language--English.
And since there are many Japanese who do not go to university but will still
need English ability in the course of their life, the language will have to
be taught during the compulsory education period.

But then there is the argument that the Japanese language must be saved from
contamination with English. In this desire to maintain linguistic purity,
Japan is just like France, and I love it for that. But that does not mean
that Japan never saw any need to learn English. Rather, it deconstructed
English--it used English as a tool to represent itself to the world, while
still retaining its own values and traditions. Japan, moreover, is the only
country in Asia where higher research can be pursued using mother-tongue
material only. Introducing English at primary school will not dilute this
situation. Look at the way English language programs on TV use Noh dances
performed while introducing simple English vocabulary and sentences--how can
this be said to have polluted children's minds? Such evidence should dispel
the anxiety of those who are passionately concerned about linguistic

English is indeed a hegemonic language. But there are ways to contain it. It
cannot be stopped by not studying it; as the saying goes, study it to check
its domination. Alternatively, the other way is to spread one's own
languages around the world. Like China's Confucius Institute, Japan can also
try to spread its language fervently, albeit with caution. Being an economic
leader, the country has the potential and standing to execute this. Efforts
should be made to educate immigrants to this country in Japanese even before
they move here. The ideal should be to integrate English-speaking Japanese
and Japanese-speaking foreigners to enable them to lead trouble-free lives
in Japanese society. Panda teaches Japanese language at the University of
Delhi, India. Presently, he is pursuing his doctorate in foreign language
policy in secondary education in India at the National Graduate Institute
for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at doc07001 at stu.grips.ac.jp
(Jul. 27, 2007)

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