Saturday, July 21, 2012

English Teaching in Japan: And Why It Hasn't Worked

I have almost a decade of teaching experience in Japan. Much of it is ESL teaching but also I have done work with a Hiroshima Prefectural Board of Education sponsored think-tank that focused on teaching methodologies to enhance English learning in Japan with the goal of English fluency, as well as worked as English Coordinator for the 3rd Annual Hiroshima English Language Camp, again, in Hiroshima, Japan. Now, I have migrated down to Kumamoto, on the southern island of Kyushu, to help spread valuable information about the correct way about teaching ESL to the Japanese. I'm not trying to be snooty, there is actually a correct, and natural, way to acquire English--otherwise there wouldn't be any English speakers.

What I have learned over the years is that the Japanese education system wants instant English ability, and so they have developed their entire English training curriculum around a "cram-and-exam" based learning system similar to how TOIEC and TOEFL are set up. But this is the wrong way around--as these tests are designed to test an already developed proficiency NOT inrease English retention and knowledge. In other words, the current Japanese model of English education expects its learners, who have never studied English before, to already be FLUENT in English! It's such a ridiculous expectation that it makes the English education system in Japan look terribly ridiculous. This embarrassment of Japan's failure to teach English properly and instill it into their students has created an erroneous mind-set which assumes that English is too difficult a language for the Japanese to learn.

This is total nonsense. English is one of the EASIEST languages in the world to acquire. It is what has allowed it to become the dominant language around the world--the ease at which it can be learned and applied, as well as adapted to suit the culture's specific needs. Latin, Greek, Arabic, French, and even Spanish have all been dominant languages in the world at one point or other, but none of them have succeeded because, unlike English, they are much more culturally specific. English is, as I like to say, a mutt language. A not so eloquent way of calling it a heterogeneous miscellany of assorted languages. It is a hodgepodge of other languages, which, interestingly enough, makes it pliable, and allows it to be both culturally diverse and extremely adaptable.

The English language is easy to simplify down to a simple set of loose grammar rules and phonics forms which, if properly learned, can allow one to become entirely proficient.

Japan has largely bypassed the only proved method of teaching non-native speakers English--i.e., PHONICS. It's how ALL native English speakers learn to recognize the sounds, develop an ear, and it is how we all learn to read and comprehend English words. The grammar comes later. English speakers, whether they recognize it or not, typically follow phonics based curriculum when they learn as children, which are the natural English language learning techniques codified.

I have found some great phonics programmes available to ESL learners which I'd like to share here.

The first is the Japanese based company MATSUKA Phonics Institution, MPI for short.

Japanese website:

English website:

I have used MPI for my main lessons at the Elementary school level--and it gets AMAZING results. Most of my JHS school graduates gain their basis for English proficiency from the phonics lessons we did at Elementary school. In Hiroshima, I had JHS students passing the Eikentei pre-1st and 2nd grade exams... whereas other schools are lucky to have anyone pass the 3rd grade exams let alone ace them.

Phonics works. Really. It does.

There is, however, something to be said of getting them while they are still young. The younger the more primed they are for acquiring a secondary language, as their ear has not fully hardened to their own language yet. Which, I find, stresses the importance of teaching phonics based programmes earlier rather than later. The earlier the better.

But the Japanese system is designed to omit phonics based learning by making an inflexible and overly crammed schedule which reduces English proficiency by using a 'cram-and-exam' style--short term memory based--teaching system. It is a joke. It also explains why most Japanese study eight or more years of OFFICIAL English yet retain nearly NONE of it. They lack the reading and recognition base that phonics provides. Without this base, their latter skills drop out once they forget the wrote memorization they drilled for endlessly in JHS and high school. If they have the phonics base well developed, by the time they get to JHS and high school they are only reinforcing and adding to the language architecture firmly established by the sturdy phonics base.

Another reliable phonics program is the Hong Kong based KizPhonics. Most of their materials are available online--for FREE. You can also purchase their workbooks and they have competitive prices.


Also, they have extremely in-depth guides which explain their phonics based programme and how exactly phonics works. It is a bit technical, but I have found it is necessary to relay this information to ALL of my schools, since here in Japan, NOBODY has heard of PHONICS, apparently.

I usually spend a month or so convincing my schools to switch over to phonics based programmes, and this involves TEACHING the ADULTS what PHONICS is exactly. So I have a whole PowerPoint demonstration designed to do just this.

Eikaiwa based programmes are supposed to be for those who already are proficient English speakers. You cannot start with eikaiwa teaching with non-English speakers and hope to get results, but this is exactly what the Japan system tries to do. It is no wonder that after decades of English learning Japan continuously ranks among the lowest and least English proficient nations. They simply teach English incorrectly, and this leads to poor English users and an overall embarrassingly poor English proficiency when compared to other nations which teach English as a second language.

NOW, here is my GRIPE. Every time I leave a school system in Japan for another school, even if it is in the same gun or prefecture, the previous school DROPS the phonics based programme I worked so hard to erect and immediately the children's English ability evaporates into thin air. Meanwhile, the schools revert back to teaching English incorrectly, and this often makes it impossible for the students to learn English properly in the future due to the fact that they have to unlearn the WRONG methods and learn the CORRECT methods--all over again. This is why English learning in Japan has failed so miserably over the years. About the only way to overcome this handicap is for the Japanese ESL students to study abroad--in and English speaking country.

That's my two cents. Take it for what it's worth.


Tristan Vick