02 May 2008

Why English learning fails in Japan: Reason #4

Why English learning fails in Japan: Reason #4

Note: This is the fourth of a series that will run for at least ten parts. However, readers' comments are welcomed and, where relevant, will be added as reasons in the main series, with full credit given.

Reason #4: Learning to read and write Japanese fluently takes away too much time from the rest of the curriculum

This reason is really an issue that closely relates to the previous Reason #3. Modern Japanese is a mixed language of unknown affiliation written with a mixed system of Chinese characters (which for the most part are logographs or morphographs) and two syllabaries--as well as Arabic numerals and a small amount of Roman alphabet (such as for acronyms, like NATO or OECD).

Written Japanese works well for the fluent reader of the language, especially if that person is already a fluent speaker of the language (this is true for many written languages, including English). But it takes considerable amounts of time to master literacy in Japanese because, for one thing, of the cognitive and memory loads of memorizing thousands of the Chinese characters. It takes even longer to be able to manipulate the characters to produce written Japanese, even though computers, word processors, and now high-tech mobile phones have lessened this burden.

Mastering a level of literacy in standard Japanese is one of the main reasons given for students here getting such a late start at English as a foreign language (EFL). EFL learning does not really begin in earnest for most students until the first year of junior high or middle school.

Now educators, government officials, parents and social commentators fret that today's students have much lower levels with the standard national language and literacy of it. This might be true, though so far actual documentation of the perceived decline is dubious.

Instead what might be happening is that high standards and expectations are being applied to unprecedented numbers of students because so many senior students proceed on to university or college as a matter of course. Academic literacy as conceived by elite academics, educators and bureaucrats has failed to catch up with the social reality of the 'massification' of the university system.

Still, if standards for the national language and literacy in it are perceived as falling or failing, Japan has still yet another reason to be wary in committing to improving foreign language education for all students.

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