Japan’s English Problem

It’s the elephant in the room. Observers of Japan will complain about the school system, the testing, the monolithic nature of it all. Sometimes they talk about the textbooks. All of these are valid issues, and all hinder students’ ability to learn the language well.

My favorite is when they scapegoat the ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), native English speakers who work at public schools getting paid a pittance, who often have part-time hours and are managed by an outsourcing company. So yeah, blame the completely fluent foreign guy who basically teaches every homeroom once a week, isn’t allowed to use a textbook, and has to prepare his own materials for each class. Yeah, that guys the problem.

No, the real problem is that you have Japanese “English teachers” who can’t speak English. Some barely at all. Others with such a poor grasp of the language it is laughable. The ones that can speak a little, aren’t confident in their abilities – at all!

Because of this diminished ability, teachers spend about 95% of class time speaking Japanese. They explain the grammar in Japanese and translate any English that they feel the students won’t understand (which is everything). I’ve often argued that they don’t actually study English, but rather a completely different subject I like to call “Let’s Learn About How English Is Different From Japanese – In Japanese”. That’s a bit long winded, but you get my point.

I’ll admit, I’m not the greatest teacher in the world. But one essential qualification of teaching any subject matter, especially a foreign language, is being a legitimate expert in the material being taught. Anything less and you are being a disservice to the profession and to your students. It is damaging to your pupils to be a “English teacher” with a limited grasp of the language. In fact, as a student, it would be better to not be taught at all by such an imposter. It is extremely hard to unlearn badly taught grammar and pronunciation.

And that’s my 2 cents.

What do you think?