Do Japanese really need compulsory English?

In today’s Daily Yomiuri there was an article about the results from a survey of 3,225 middle school students on their perception about English.

The survey conducted by the National Institute for educational Policy Research found only eleven percent of students want to find work which requires English. But seventy percent also said they believed knowledge of English will help them get work in the same survey.

How to interpret these results?

It seems while there are pressures to learn English from companies and society the reality is most people don’t feel they really need it for work. In all likelihood most students will go on to work for companies which will continue to look at their English abilities all the while not really requiring them to use that knowledge in the workplace for any great length of time.

Do we really need to teach English in schools? The short answer is ‘yes’. This is obvious but it is not clear how we should teach it. Of course it should be compulsory BUT it should not be tested, if the survey results are any indication.

Since the bulk of students do require English in their work English should be taught not for passing tests but for practical communicative skills. If English is taught has a non-tested subject then teachers will have more freedom to teach these practical skills rather than grammar and vocabulary far removed from actual usage.

But because teachers are obliged to get students pass tests they focus on the things which are peripheral to actual communication. I have rarely met an English teacher who is truly interested in some aspect of English culture and so few teachers who ask questions about the pragmatics of language. So how do we expect our students to gain this knowledge when teachers are not interested themselves?

Respect for teachers – Japan at the bottom of the heap

According to a quiz question on Sekai no Hate Made Itte Q (The Quiz Show that Goes to the Ends of the Earth [for answers]) Thailand, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, The Philippines and Romania rank first (with 100%) as countries in which their tecahers are respected most by their students. Second was Italy and Third was Venezuela. The average for the fifty-one countries surveyed was 93%.

At the bottom was Japan with 41.8%.

There are two things which should be noted:

  1. The average is skewed heavily to the top, and
  2. There are at least 196 countries in the world.

One must be suspicious of the results from these numbers, especially if you are a statistician. Firstly, with the above information Japan must be an outlier in statistical terms. Secondly, was the countries for the survey randomly selected. Lastly, Korea was second from the bottom (is there a Asian connection here? Thanks A.E.).

From experience I would have to say Japanese students are rather disrespectful of teachers, often without reservation. But also how many cultures have “respect” grammaticalized as the Japanese language has.

≪学校の先生を尊敬する国ランキング≫ (in Japanese)

1位 (100%)


2位 (99.1%)


3位 (99%)





How many hours do Japanese students have to study in order to master English?

I was told by one of my teachers back in my undergraduate days about twenty years ago that for me to master Japanese it would take me 700 hours of class time.

The number now seems to be 2,200 hours.

Japanese is a language notoriously difficult to learn for native English speakers because of their linguistic differences.

To start with, Japanese has three writing scripts – hiragana, katakana and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are syllabic scripts with, in general, one unit representing one fixed sound where most units are consonant-vowel pairs. Kanji are logograms with each unit representing a word (meaning) but not its pronunciation. Most people know kanji as Chinese characters.

English, in contrast, is based on an alphabetic script where each unit is a representation of a sound be it consonant or vowel. Each letter may represent more than one sound (examples: ‘c’, ‘g’, ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘o’ and ‘u’) and sometimes conbinations represent a single sound (examples: ‘ch’, ‘sh’, and ‘th’). Continue reading How many hours do Japanese students have to study in order to master English?

Literature, second language, authenticity, passion

I have fond memories of my undergraduate days as a Japanese major.

To me they were exciting times. The world was seemingly spinning at a furious pace. The people I met were doing things, going places. My future was ahead of me.

My future now, of course, is still ahead of me (metaphorically, can it be nothing other than ‘ahead’). But it is different, still exciting, perhaps a little more focused and a little less uncertain. Twenty years down the road and I have made more progress (alas! a little slower than I would have liked) towards my goal as an academic. Continue reading Literature, second language, authenticity, passion

If you can’t even get your Japanese right how are you expected to get your English correct

My kids watch this show on NHK called Cooking Idol Ai My Mine. Great show about a girl who is a real live cooking show host. Shows like these truly give kids imagination and creativity.

But I was really disappointed in the looseness of their script writing in this dialogue shown the other day:

Child: “Are there truly angels in the world, Mine?”
Mine: “Yes, there are … Probably.”

So which is it, Mine – yes or maybe?

Were they (the script writers) afraid to take sides on this issue? Afterall, Japan is not a Christian nation (there is no concept of angel in Buddhism). Japanese Children are indecisive like this. Perhaps the writers were only a mirror for society. Or are they wearing rose tinted glasses?

Either way it is troubling.

This is one instant I can think of right now but there are many others I have come across over the years.

Why we should continue to teach the “‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c'” spelling rule

The British government has said this spelling rule is no longer worth teaching because there are so many exceptions to the rule. I think this is a mistake – a mistake to get rid of it and a mistake or misunderstanding of where the rule is supposed to be applied.

I was taught this rule is applied only specifically words with two (or more) syllables which have the long ‘ee’ sound such as ‘believe’, ‘reprieve’, ‘receive’ and ‘retrieve’.

According to the BNC nearly 2% of all words contain either the ‘ei’ or ‘ie’ combination their spelling. This means you will roughly come across this once in every 50 words in writing. Of these roughly two-thirds are ‘ie’ and the remaining one-third ‘ei’. A further one-fifteenth of ‘ei’ (0.04% of the entire English usage) is specifically ‘~cei~’.

This may seem like a small portion but experience will tell you that you come across this enough times to have to think about it when writing.

Let’s put it this way, this rule is catchy enough to stay with most people. It is a just matter of knowing when to apply it – that is, when coming across a long ‘e’ vowel sound usually after the second syllable.


In the real world one would come across one of these words in writing about once in a thousand words (or about four pages of writing). That is plenty to warrant the learner to remember this word … unless looking up a dictionary frequently is something they enjoy doing.

And remember: all the rest of the time the spelling can be worked out from the pronunciation.

Japanese primary schools to teach 285 English words in 2011

From the Yomiuri Shimbun (copied and pasted due to lack of archive)

Fifth- and sixth-year primary school students will learn a total of 285 English words and 50 expressions in compulsory English classes to be introduced in the 2011 school year, the Education, Science and Technology Ministry said Thursday.

The students are expected to learn the words and expressions with textbooks compiled by the ministry titled “Eigo Noto,” (English Notes), according to ministry officials. The 50 expressions are currently taught in the first year of middle school. The ministry has distributed a preliminary version of the textbooks–one each for fifth-graders and sixth-graders–to about 550 schools nationwide to be used on a trial basis in the school year that started this month.

Continue reading Japanese primary schools to teach 285 English words in 2011