Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Is English worthy of being a required subject at Japanese universities

Yesterday I talked with a colleague about whether English should be a required subject at university. We talked about several issues that I thought about later and replied more thoroughly in this way.

First, you said that we don't know if the students will need English after they graduate. You are right, but that doesn't mean much in anacademic sense. For example, it doesn't matter if a person will use algebra after they graduate, but everyone learns it in junior highschool. I have never and will probably never use algebra in my dailylife, but I sure learned it in school. The point is that society says an educated person knows this stuff. If a university says, in response to student, parent, and social needs, that graduates must know some English then they must know some English. If it isn't a priority for those groups, then we don't need it.

A university is obliged to educate people according to societys expectations. This isn't a trade school, so we don't have to expect that skills students learn here will apply directly to post-graduation life.

One other point I wanted to make is that English is often saddled with the practicality test when other disciplines are not. Take economics for example. How many students expect to make their livings as economists? Very few, but that is no reason not to learn something about it. Language is the same way. We never know if we need it or not, but that's not a reason not to learn it.

Also, when people say "English", they think about language learning, as
if stringing together some words in the right order is, in the end, very
important. It isn't. We stand to learn a lot more about ourselves, our
culture, our language, our minds, than we do about "communication."

Universities most places don't require languages for communicative
purposes. Ancient Latin and Greek are not offered so that learners can order
food at a restaurant. They are offered so students can know their own
languages better, and to know what great thinkers have said in those
languages in the past.

But then, let's look at the practical side. Would English be of use to
our students? Of course it's useful. That is why so many other teachers
at this university are so good at English, because it is a useful skill. 80% of the
Internet is in English. Japanese, the third largest language on the
Internet, commands a mere 3.1%. Do we want our graduates to have that
difficult-to-obtain, but valuable skill? Of course. Do they have to like
it? Does it have to be fun? No more than any other discipline offered
here at the university like math, economics or local governance. We can
try, though. We can work hard at making it enjoyable, but in the end
language is hard hard work, just like any other skill worth having.

So, do I think English (or some other language) should be required? Yes,
I do.


Brian Gaynor said...

In the interest of healthy debate I would like to challenge your arguments on why university students should learn English on two points. The first is your contention that society determines that they should do so. This in of itself is a rather risky argument to make, particularly given Japan's rather confused historical relationship with the wider world. This is not to once more stomp down the well-trod path of historical relativism but in a society where a majority still does not disapprove of their prime minister's visits to a shrine venerating war criminals; or to take a more linguistically appropriate example, expresses at best indifference, at worst ignorance, of the maintanence of minority languages such as Ainu and Ryukyu, I don't think one can vest 'society' and it's judgement with such a high regard.
Secondly, your focus on the English profficiency of your colleagues and the language of the internet are also open to question (again, in my humble opinion). With regard to the former, the Japanese teaching staff at your university are not indicative of the wider public, nor should they be. They are, afterall, hired for their learning and knowledge, and the ability to convey that knowledge to others. As such, it can be reasonably expected of them to possess the skills - cognitive, analytical and linguistic - to enhance both their learning and teaching. In short, it is a practical necessity in their day to day lives. The same cannot be said of most of the working population. With regards to the internet, the fact that the majority of the web is in English is a combination of its origin in America and the current use of English as the world's lingua franca. I think the issue here though is one of quality rather than quantity. Much of the internet is rubbish and is an unfortunate reflection of society that the number one topic is sex (followed closely, I suspect, by shopping). This is not to diminish the immense benefits the internet can provide but is in itself not a particularly good reason for learning English.
Conversely, your depiction of English as a skill that must be worked at, and worked hard, is something I wholeheartedly agree with but this then raises the question of time. As it is, there isn't enough of it to do everything. By necessity we are forced to pick and choose. As an university teacher myself, living and working in japan, I would like to improve my Japanese ability, but to do so takes time - time that also must be allocated to a classroom preparation, teaching, marking, student consultation, doctoral research, family life and the lost socks and 7-11 bentos that make-up everyday life. There's just not enough of it to go around. I suspect it is the same for our students.
I have read your blog for some time now and thoroughly enjoy it. If I am not mistaken, I get the impression you are a strong proponent of student autonomy - of giving them choices. I would agree with this but would extend it to giving them the choice of whether they want to learn English or not. Maybe not at the secondary level but certainly when they enter University. If nothing else it would cut down on the number of sopolistic motivational presentations at the JALT conference each year.
Apologies for the extended nature of the piece but it is not often I find myself intellectually engaged enough to reply to something I've read. Kudos to you sir for doing that and, I hope, continuing to do so.

Marco Polo said...

Hear, hear, Brian, and here're my 2 pee.
"Society" is problematic as a term. I don't think it's this vast, impersonal amalgam of confusing forces that basically cancel each other out into a essentially neutral entity. I disagree that "society says an educated person knows this stuff" is reason enough to make something obligatory. A good place to start might be, who benefits from such an unquestioning attitude, and how (and why) might they sustain this uncritical loyalty?

"Of course English is useful." Well, I'm not so sure, and I think many of my English majors students have similar doubts! This is the official line, I know, but...

"Ancient Latin and Greek are not offered so that learners can order
food at a restaurant". That may well be so (and I learned Latin in grammar school), but most of my students expect their English classes to be practical affairs. They have had enough of 6 years of high school English classes which frustrated their natural expectation that learning English was about communicating with people in that language. Your rationale for teaching foreign languages smacks of elitism which , unless you're teaching at Todai or some place like that, is possibly misplaced, or outdated (or both!).

Good, provocative post! Well done, and full marks to you for nailing your colours to the mast.

Marco Polo said...

Ancient Latin and Greek are not offered so that learners can order
food at a restaurant. They are offered so students can know their own
languages better, and to know what great thinkers have said in those
languages in the past

1) I would amend that to "so that learners can know themselves and their own culture better". My reason for doing so is partly influenced by Brian McVeigh's book in which he suggests (with some justification I believe) that "English" is taught in large part in order to bolster the sense of Japanese identity.

2) The past is full of treasures, but let us not forget the future. What kind of future are we headed for, and does EFL education play a part in in, and if so, what kind of part?

3) I hate to mention this, really, but as Brian had such fun stirring the pot, why not? For profs at uni to say that EFL instruction has a higher, less easily measurable, purpose than merely linguistic competence, doesn't that sound a mite self-serving?

Again, thanks for such a provocative post.

Daniel said...

Brian and Marco,
First, appologies for not responding earlier. I don't get many comments, so I wasn't looking for them.

This comment is in response to Brian's comment:

I agree that vesting this society with and its judgement with high regard is a mistake for the reasons that you pointed out and a huge boatload more. I do believe that idealy a healthy society would be interested contributing to how its population is educated.

I also agree that college educators are not a good sample of the average citizen, but more of the teachers at this school are proficient in English than any other language. As a practical consideration, they have become proficient in English rather than other languages. My point in the original post was that, if a school is going to require a language, English is arguable a practical consideration.

Yes, Internet English is a spurious argument considering your points and the number of people in the world who actually have access to it. It was a quick and dirty number.

Time...if there were only more. But time is a choise. We choose how we spend it. If English is a priorty, then it will happen. Just like Japanese. If it is something that you want/need, you will get it. It doesn't just happen, though. If proficiency were expected for graduation, then students would become proficient. It isn't, so the don't.

Students should certainly have choises about which language to take, and how much. They have had English crammed down their throats for six years before we ever see them. My point in my original post was that language is a good thing for college grads to have studied, and English is a pretty practial option for a language.

Thanks for the long post.

Daniel said...

"I disagree that 'society says an educated person knows this stuff' is reason enough to make something obligatory."

I agree with you that questioning authority, uncovering the agendas of the organs that fix education policy, is essential. Isn't that what healthy societies do?

"'Of course English is useful.' Well, I'm not so sure, and I think many of my English majors students have similar doubts!"

I'm not surprised that your English majors have doubts. I was once an English major with doubts that my English degree was anything more than a fast-track to the fulfulling career of a petroleum exchange engineer, but that doesn't mean the usefulness of the language changes.

"For profs at uni to say that EFL instruction has a higher, less easily measurable, purpose than merely linguistic competence, doesn't that sound a mite self-serving?"

Wouldn't any teacher of any language at a university suggest the same about his or her discipline? There has to be more than an improvement in their TOEIC score after four years. This also goes to Brian's comment that the teaching staff at a university "are not indicative of the wider public." Neither are our students. Only 39% of the population goes to a university. Why shouldn't we be able to expect to do more with them?

Kinjo Yonemoto said...

Hi daniel san, Marco san, brian san,
I am a Japanese man living in the U.S. for 17 years. I would like to answer the original question "Is English worthy of being a required subject at Japanese universities" later. Do I think English is useful for a Japanese? Absolutely. When I say "useful" I am treating a language as a tool. Why do they require English in Japanese universities? I am guessing the bureaucrats at the Education Ministry have never questioned it. I have no doubt the reason why the Japanese leanrn English is that the Education Ministry had decided we must learn the language of the Americans right after the war. They envisioned future Japan where every citizen speaks some degree of English and communicates with Americans and other English speaking people in the world. Now 60 years later what happened? You have a better idea than I do for I have been out of country so long. Please allow me to guess again here. Vast majority of Japanese college students have difficult time engaging in a simplest conversation. They can hardly read a news paper without a dictionary. Am I right? The educators know they have failed to achieve the goal they had set 60 years ago and that's why they are trying to correct the course of English education. Today English is probably the most understood language in the world. People may not be able to speak fluently, however, they understand it thanks to the American dominance in economy. In today's economy where the borders are getting lower and thinner the Japanese should be able to communicate in English. If we would pick a language to learn, it has to be English. So do I think English is worthy of being a required subject at Japanese universities? Yes I do, because they cannot communicate well at the moment. When and if majority of the freshmen becomes proficient in English they may drop it from the requirement. That day may never come unless they start the English education in the elementary schools.
As to the Internet, not much information is available about Japan in English. I love and am proud of my homeland, Japan. So I started a portal called I want to show the real face of Japan to the world in the most popular language, English. It is still young and there are huge room for improvements, but someday I will make it the best information source on Japan. Thank you for an interesting blog and I wish you a success and a happy life.

Daniel said...

Kinjo Yonemoto,
Thanks for the post. Most of it speaks for itself. The most provocotative statement in your comment is "That day (when most Freshmen are proficient at Enlish) may never come unless they start the English education in the elementary schools."

Do you think the Education Ministry will do any better with that than they have done with any of their other English programs? Scares me just to think about it.