Note: This is a series that was started about a year ago, so it really is time to bring it to a close, with installments on reasons 9 and 10. This blog post will be reason number 9, with reason 10 and a 1-10 recap article to follow soon.
Why English learning fails in Japan: Reason #9
Reason #9: The foreign language teaching and learning 'culture'
What is meant here by the term 'culture' is the overall approach to teaching and learning EFL (and these are collaborative activities) that is specific to Japan. Aspects of this issue might really reflect EFL situations in developed E. Asia (such as S. Korea, Taiwan, and eastern urban China) and even worldwide, but I hope to get at the heart of what is particular to the situation here in Japan.
It is often said and written that TEFL here in Japan is dominated by 'Grammar Translation'. However, usually the term grammar translation means teaching and learning a FL with compilations of grammar and then activities centered on translation of texts, often authentic and literary ones.
If you have taught at a JHS or SHS here in Japan (for example, as a JET Programme ALT), you might have noticed that students themselves do not actually do much translation (rarely above the level of an isolated sentence) and that the texts used are always 'graded', that is, reduced and re-written with control of vocabulary. Classroom discourse is in Japanese and dominated by the teacher, who presents specific rules of grammar and vocabulary terms. The communicative focus and flow, such as it is, is to get the unknown, opaque English code (L2) into the known, understood human language (standard Japanese). English texts are used mostly to illustrate the previously taught grammar rules and vocabulary.
I would argue that the overall approach goes back to the popularity of the so-called 'Reading Method' between the first and second world wars in the 20th century. The idea behind the method was appealing and simple: since it was impractical to teach oral methods in most EFL situations, why not promote a high level of EFL reading instead? The Japanese term is 'yaku-doku', which does not translate as 'grammar translation' but rather 'translation reading' instead.
So this reading method persists, and no doubt it has proved practical as a way to deliver general education English to the entire school population. However, it hasn't really led to a differentiated, sophisticated or flexible culture of teaching and learning EFL. Instead, it has resulted in a minimal level of familiarity with EFL and language learning in classrooms (and in EFL countries, this the classroom is the key 'interface', since there is no English-speaking society outside the classroom). This 'minimal level' of doing things traps both the learners and the teachers who have to oversee such a system.