Don't blame the foreigners - an interesting look into Japan's English educational system

Printer-friendly versionFrom the Japan Times comes an article on the JET program. The entire article is worth reading, but I've copied and pasted a few juicier parts.

The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, touted as the world's largest cultural exchange scheme, has brought thousands of non-Japanese into the country to teach at local boards of education. These days, with many government programs being told to justify their existence, a debate is raging over whether JET should be left as is, cut or abolished entirely.


The debate, however, needs to consider: 1) JET's misconstrued mandate, and 2) Japan's psychotic — yes, psychotic — system of language teaching.


Start with the typical Japanese eigo classroom environment: Sensei clacks away at the chalkboard teaching English as if it were Latin. You get some pronunciation help, but mostly tutelage is in grammar, grammar, grammar — since that is the aspect most easily measurable through tests.

Now add the back-beat of Japan's crappy social science: Sensei and textbooks reinforce an image that speaking to foreigners is like a) speaking to a separate breed of human or animal, where "everything is different from us" and "we must study people as things," or b) attending an international summit, where both sides are cultural emissaries introducing allegedly unique aspects of their societies. This puts enormous pressure on students to represent something and perform as if on a stage (instead of seeing communication as a simple interaction like, say, passing the salt). [Emphasis mine]

Sound familiar? Even as the writer, Debito Arudou, claims "more than two decades' experience in the industry", I doubt you'd need more than two months to figure that out in either Japan or Korea. Among all the things Japan and Korea have in common, neither has effectively figured out how to work with foreign English teachers. Both have programs with noble intentions, but noble intentions without the willingness to look in the mirror are as fruitless as a cherry blossom tree in December.

Let's back up a second here. What, exactly, is the point of the JET program?

According to JET's official goals in both English and Japanese:

"The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme aims to promote grass roots internationalisation at the local level by inviting young overseas graduates to assist in international exchange and foreign language education in local governments, boards of education and elementary, junior and senior high schools throughout Japan. It seeks to foster ties between Japanese citizens (mainly youth) and JET participants at the person-to-person level."

Thus the "E" in JET does not stand for "English"; it stands for "exchange." So when the goal is more "fostering ties," we get into squidgy issues of "soft power." Like "art appreciation" (view an artwork, exclaim "I appreciate it" and you pass the class), just putting people together — regardless of whether there is any measurable outcome (e.g., test scores, pen pals, babies) — is an "exchange." Seat youths next to each other and watch them stare. Goal accomplished.

It is better understood that Korea explicitly goes about bringing in native English teachers to teach English, not culture. Teaching students about your culture, if it has any importance or place in your classroom, plays second fiddle to test scores, homework, and keeping parents happy. At least Korea's clearer about their priorities and interests - not that it's helped their students any more.

Let's not forget about the way both countries go about 'teaching' English:

What kind of school subject involves hectoring [heckling?] its students? Obviously one improperly taught. If you teach adults, take a survey of your own class (I do every year) and you'll find that a majority of students fear, if not loathe, English. Many would be perfectly happy never again dealing with the language — or the people who might speak it. Thus eigo as an educational practice is actually fostering antisocial behavior.


Conclusion: Better to remain shy and meekly say that learning a foreign language is too difficult, so everyone feels less inadequate. The eikaiwa [English conversation schools] schools love it, making a mint out of the unconfident who, convinced they'll never overcome the barriers, settle for being "permanent beginners."

You may or may not consider the military a 'school subject', but there's certainly enough heckling going on there to make grown men cry. Are people better learners when pushed out of their comfort zone? I'd say yes - when you had a choice in the matter. Kids enrolled by their parents don't get that choice.

Although I've not specifically surveyed my adult students, too many of them carry their nervousness regarding English with them well into their adulthood. When even grown men look hesitant to answer a basic question they must've practiced a thousand times a kid, some fear has to be involved. Anecdotally speaking, I can report that a fair amount of time is spent helping students to relax before getting started with bookwork.

The author makes a sound recommendation:

Get rid of JET, however, and the eigo psychosis will force things back to the way it was, with cries of "Gaijin da!" ["foreigner!"] from behind garden fences.

In sum, keep the JET program, even if it involves some cuts and tweaks. Calling for its abolition is counterproductive. Demanding that it work magic — by making Japanese enjoy learning English — is sadly beyond anyone's mandate.

To paraphrase an old saying, you can lead a kid to the classroom, but you can't make them learn. No amount of clever books, high-priced hagwon, or parental punishment support can make a kid want to learn. Teachers, of course, have a responsibility for trying to teach students and try to make things fun; paradoxically, it's the parents who bind the school's hands, who in turn bind the teacher's hands with commands to 'follow lesson plans', 'write monthly progress reports', and 'assign more homework'.

You probably won't hear anyone calling to abolish EPIK, GEPIK, or SMOE anytime soon. The occasional xenophobic / ultra-nationalist side might want to replace native teachers with robots. These are, of course, the same people trying to change the name of an international body of water and two small rocks almost no one else cares about.

So what to do? A radical educational overhaul, bigger and bolder than Korea probably has the cajónes to attempt:
  • Make English tests related to actual speaking and comprehension ability, not the 'ability' to pass a test. These are the hardest things to test, admittedly, but there are ways to test via a neutral third-party. Someone with no connection to either student or school - perhaps a third-party test center that connects to a call-center of trained native English proctors / testers.
  • Give teachers - both Korean and foreign - the flexibility and autonomy they need to do their job. Tell the parents to back off and let the teachers do what they're paid to do. If the parents can't trust a full-time working person to do their job, ask them if they think they can do better.
  • De-emphasize the English language as an educational gold standard. Yes, I did just say that. Take the pressure off of the entire population to learn a language only a fraction will actually need. How many store clerks need the vocabulary of a college scholar to sell a Coke?
  • Sponsor / support new and innovative programs - especially those started by English teachers trying to improve educational levels and standards.
Comments are open - play nice.

Creative Commons License © Chris Backe - 2010

This post was originally published on my blog,Chris in South Korea. If you are reading this on another website and there is no linkback or credit given, you are reading an UNAUTHORIZED FEED.



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