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    The Nikkei had several good editorials over the last few days while I was busy thinking about other things. One on Friday was about the teaching of English in elementary schools:

    The debate over whether to make English a compulsory subject in elementary schools has heated up. At a meeting at the end of March, the Foreign Languages Division of the Central Education Commission, the advisory body for the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology [actual official English name, kids–SRK], compiled a report approving the move. For Japan to survive in this age of internationalization, we cannot dodge the necessity of perfecting our English education. We must be forward-thinking with regards to making English compulsory in elementary schools.

    Post-war English education has been a disaster. The sad situation is that, despite the long time they spend studying it, English isn’t something the vast majority of people are actually able to use. One option for addressing that is to set up an environment in which students can get to know English from elementary school on.

    However, there are several topics of concern involved in making English compulsory.

    One major concern raised is that putting English into the curriculum could require cutting out time spent studying Japanese language and literature to make room for it. Another is that foreign teachers would have to be brought in in order for students to learn real English. The editors see neither of these as insurmountable, since the time dedicated to English would amount to about an hour a week and electronic media can provide audio stimuli without the presence of a native speaker.

    Oddly for the Nikkei editors–who are usually wonderfully ready to give bureaucracy a good pummeling at any opportunity–they don’t raise what I see as the biggest concern: Given that the Ministry of Education has spent the last half-century non-teaching kids English in junior high and high school, do we really expect it to come up with a program of English for grade school kids that’s efficacious at anything but consuming more of the budget?

    A paragraph I didn’t cite said, “There’s no need to conceive of English and Japanese as opponents.” But one of the problems, of course, is that English education here has been drained of as much possible “foreignness” as possible. Students in Japanese schools learn English the way they learn math–as a set of formulaic rules to be memorized and adapted to situations that fit certain criteria. In its quest to turn children into good Japanese adults, the Ministry of Education has steadfastly avoided impressing upon them that English is a multi-dimensional language and way of thinking about the world that’s different from the Japanese way of thinking. How far the society here should go in cultivating the special Japaneseness of its young is not for me to judge; but the Ministry of Education’s guiding principles to date have clearly been real barriers to effective foreign language learning, and all the talk about “internationalization” will be essentially meaningless until that conflict is faced squarely. It’s odd to see the normally incisive Nikkei glide over that.

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