Poor Teaching, Not Culture, to Blame

Some call it the Eighth Wonder of the World. Others see it as a national tragedy. Either way, the question remains: Why should the otherwise intelligent inhabitants of Japan have such trouble mastering spoken English? Some Japanese complain about the special problems they have in master- ing grammar and difficult English -pronunciations, diphthongs, impure vowels etc. But other peoples whose pronunciations are similar to Japan’s-the Italians for example or the Poly- nesian/Malay peoples-seem able to cope well with English pronunciations. Korean has almost the same grammatical structure as Japanese, yet most educated and international minded Koreans seem able to handle English quite well. Some say that problem lies with Japan’s nonverbal culture, which encourages people to communicate indirectly without resort to words or detailed discussion. Maybe.

But those of us who have to tolerate the incessant chatter of Japanese bar patrons, radio call-in shows, and TV sports commentators determined to tell us in fine detail what is going on before our eyes, can be excused if we have other ideas about the Japanese propensity to remain silent where the rest of us are supposed to rush out to express opinions. Any serious study of Japan’s English- language education problem has to focus on bad teaching in schools and universities-the emphasis on textbooks, obscure points of grammar, passing absurdly difficult paper tests set by universities, reading the impenetrable prose of obscure authors, to mention just some of the atrocities inflicted on students of English.

These problems are well known. Some of the more conscientious Japanese educators try to justify them in terms of at least providing, a conscious knowledge of the language-grammar, vocabulary, etc. Later, when students get the chance to speak the language, they will improve rapidly, thanks to this base of knowledge. Or to put it more crudely, any education in English, no matter how, bad is better than none. I beg to disagree. Take young, impressionable minds and subject them to 10 years of bad English teaching, and you will almost certainly create a generation of linguistic cripples. Speaking a language is a subconscious process. Eventually one has to memorize the language rather as one memorizes a very long song. One then reproduces that “song” in the infinite number of variations called daily conversation.

Young children can handle the memorization process directly, and it would be wonderful if the rest of us could do likewise. But mental clutter and lack of time make it easier for us to learn consciously, using textbooks etc. That too is fine, provided we follow up quickly with conversation and listening practice. In that way we can then transfer what we have learned consciously into the subconscious. The result is not quite as good as the child’s. But good enough. For example, when I first hear or read a new word in Japanese, I have to remember it consciously, using romaji. I need to “see” the written word in my mind, rather like a subtitle on TV, before I can speak it. But from long experience I know that if I use that word often enough soon after in conversation, then one day it will begin to come out naturally without my having to “see” that subtitle any more. The word has been transferred from the conscious to the subconscious. From there on, all is in order.

In Japan, however, the opportunity for this transfer is denied, since little attempt is made to provide serious listening and conversation practice in schools. As a result, almost all the learning has to be done solely in the conscious mind. That alone is a terrible burden for young minds. Worse, by the time students get the chance to listen and speak English, it is too late to make transfers. Speaking English has become an intellectual exercise, in which almost everything has to be spoken and listened to consciously. The result is an agony of frustration and incompetence.

There is an easy and inexpensive way to get round this problem, as follows: First find an interesting story in English close to the comprehension level of the students. Have it recorded on tape in good English. Hand out the tape and maybe a vocabulary list to each student (dictionaries can also be used, but no text), with an instruction to listen repeatedly with the aim of deciphering and writing out what is on the tape. At the next class, students show their written efforts to the teacher, who then hands out the correct text and explains mistakes, points of grammar, vocabularies, etc.

The final stage is conversation practice based on the story just deciphered. That practice can be provided by a nonnative English speakers, since students have already been well exposed to correct pronunciation on the tape. The key feature of this deciphering technique, as I call it, is repetitive and intensive listening. Simply listening to video or sound tapes accompanied by a text is of little benefit; the listening is far too passive. Many think conversation practice is the ideal way to learn a language.

But that simply transfers mistaken English from the conscious to the subconscious. One must listen intensively to something before speaking it. That, after all, is what the child does. The rest of us can learn from them.

(Gregory Clark is a professor in the Japanese Language and Studies Department of Sophia University )