Helene J. Uchida / Special to The Daily Yomiuri (Oct. 3, 2012)
Q: You’ve been teaching English in Japan for a long time. Have you seen any improvement in the English ability of Japanese people over the years?
A: Sadly, I must say I have not. I do not think the general public’s English has improved at all. I still never meet a policeman, salesperson, taxi driver, supermarket cashier, nurse, dental hygienist, university clerk, shop owner, hairstylist, waiter or bus driver who speaks English. None of my neighbors speak to me in English. Because of this, when guests from foreign countries stay at my house, they are afraid to go out without my husband or me. Japanese people in general still shy away from foreigners to avoid having to speak English. That is the way it was when I came to Japan many years ago, and the situation is still the same.
On the positive side, thankfully, people in general no longer stare or point at me and say “gaijin” like they did when I first came to Japan. That was very uncomfortable for me. Now people seem used to seeing foreigners in public and do not overreact like many did in the past. I think the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program deserves some of the credit for that.
I do meet Japanese who can communicate in English to varying degrees at international hotels, airports and some hospitals and clinics. The Fukuoka Apple Store has English-speaking One to One Trainers and Genius Bar consultants. That reflects the company’s technical pioneer status and truly international format.
Unfortunately, Japanese moviegoers prefer English movies that are dubbed in Japanese. They do not want to hear the English or read the subtitles in Japanese. This is a strong indication of the reverence for convenience in Japan. It appears to me that the adult population in general regards English as a major inconvenience.
More than ever, we need dedicated teachers and leaders who can revitalize English education in Japan. The students are the answer, not the problem. We need an approach, materials, lessons and teachers who can tap their potential and help them overcome the notion that speaking English is a source of embarrassment and inconvenience.
Q: Are there any benefits to delaying reading and writing for younger learners to concentrate on speaking and listening activities, as the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry guidelines suggest? Or would we be providing a better introduction to English by presenting the four skills naturally together right from the start?
A: I am a big believer in introducing primary school students to all four skills from the very start. I agree with expert David Paul, who says, “The real breakthrough will be when the government sees that it is phonics that makes it possible for Japanese children to learn to speak, read and write in a balanced way while having fun and thinking actively, thus avoiding many of the problems that have plagued middle and high schools in Japan for many years.”
When students learn how to read and write the ABCs (only 26 letters!), it is empowering; the English world is at their fingertips. Being able to write gives students a great sense of accomplishment. The next step is absorbing English phonics (the sounds corresponding to the letters) and learning how to say, write and read clusters of words beginning with the same letter.
At Little America, a typical blackboard writing/reading exercise for beginners might consist of the following words: ball, black, blue, book, boy, big and bag. Students copy the words, repeat them after the teacher and eventually read them by sounding out the letters with teacher support. The words are recycled through other activities, such as flash cards, workbooks, and oral and aural exercises. It’s a step-by-step building process. I would like to add that I successfully used this process in my three-year pilot program in a Fukuoka primary school.
Simply exposing young people to limited amounts of speaking and listening sells the learners short, as they are not exposed to English outside the classroom. Japan, by virtue of being an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) society, has its linguistic limitations. Therefore, empowering learners with the basics of writing and reading opens countless doors to opportunity.
In terms of progression, listening should come first, as a purely receptive activity to begin with; from that comes actively mimicking/duplicating meaningful sounds (speaking). Reading and writing should follow close behind and are intricately connected to one another as well as listening and speaking.
This said, it really depends on the student how and when he or she digests the input and progresses. The multiple intelligences theory reminds us that it is the teacher’s responsibility to expose learners to all four aspects of English and let them advance at their own pace. My advice to the ministry is: “Never underestimate the ability of a child.”
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Readers are encouraged to send questions on any themes related to teaching English to younger learners–particularly those at the primary school level–to Helene J. Uchida via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or fax (03) 3217-8247. Questions preferably should be written in English and should be accompanied by your name, occupation and the area you live in.
Uchida is the director of Little America, a Fukuoka-based company for training teachers of English.