According to an NHK report in 2000, Japan has the largest commercial English language education market in the world, valued at $20 billion. So, you would expect most Japanese to be fairly proficient in English, right? Wrong! Official TOEIC figures for 1997-1998 showed Japan to have the lowest average score among the 17 countries in which TOEIC test taking is most popular.
As an ESL teacher in Japan, I should consider myself fortunate that people are willing to spend so much money on learning English. I wouldn’t have a job otherwise. That doesn’t mean to say I don’t take pride in teaching my students to speak the language. After all, that is what they are paying for, right? Wrong again, it would seem.
Time and time again, I hear of students frustrated about using the textbook too much in class, or having too much homework, while many simply forget to do their homework completely. Remember that in most ESL schools in Japan, students only take one class a week, so common sense would suggest that if they really wanted to learn English, they would take their lessons seriously and devote some of their free time to self-study.
Okay, fair enough, a lot of adults just study ESL as a hobby. Hey, it’s cool to tell their friends they study English, regardless of whether they are learning anything or not. But how about children? Surely the parents are paying these huge fees so that their sons and daughters can learn English. Well, that’s debatable.
You’ve got two kinds of schools in Japan, the English Conversation eikaiwa schools, and juku, or cram schools. Eikaiwa are where the foreigners like myself teach, while juku are heads down, study, study, study, Japanese teacher-led classes. Although English lessons at juku focus soley on reading and writing English, I always thought that eikaiwa were equally important for learning communication. Now, though, I’m changing my mind…
After disciplining one of my elementary school students for atrocious behaviour, his mother kicked up an enormous fuss.
“This isn’t a school!”, she said. “We don’t pay this money for you to discipline our children! They come here to have fun! If I wanted my child to learn English then I’d send him to juku!”
Well, that knocked me for six.
The next couple of days I walked around shell-shocked. If I’m not supposed to teach English, then what am I here for? Why did I bother studying to be a teacher? Do all the mothers feel this way? Why have I spent the last few years developing a curriculum to teach English, when I should have just pulled out a copy of 101 Great Games for Kids?
I’m starting to come to the conclusion that the boy’s mother is right, and I should not worry about teaching, and just have fun with the kids instead. I mean, from a business point of view, going head-to-head with the grammar and vocabulary-based English curriculum of juku is a no-win situation, as the Japanese will always consider juku as real education. Instead, I think I’ll just go in the opposite direction altogther and play game after game after game, perhaps throwing in a bit of English here and there just to appease the teacher in me. Who knows, maybe the kids will have so much fun, none of them will ever want to go to juku!
As things stand however, until high schools, universities and companies start requiring English communication skills over the ability to read a book and memorize 10,000 words, Japan will continue to produce the most educated yet worst English speakers in Asia.