Me on Zoom yesterday
Me at home watching The Fury in our upstairs videotheque on Sunday, but how I actually FELT doing English interviews all day yesterday.
It is no secret that while most Japanese high school and university students are exceptionally adept at reading long, complex, nuanced and often extremely sophisticated reading passages, answering labyrinthine, finickety and ultimately pointless multiple choice questions about the contents therein, they are, on the whole, equally terrible at actually speaking the language – Japan ranks very low in global English proficiency, a deep-reaching psychological ‘complex’ about the tangible lack of fluency that it would be no exaggeration to say is practically a national trauma.
There are several reasons for this dire situation. One is that classes in Japanese schools are largely excessively teacher oriented without enough active practice of speaking the language : the students sit passively, copying information from the blackboard into their daily notebooks, focusing on the anally retentive minutiae of grammatical usage they are required to have extensive knowledge about for tests while not usually uttering a word of their own volitionexcept for repeating, parrot fashion, the drills of the teacher, who will quite often be speaking an English that is a very Japanese version of the language, with approximations of words rendered in the katakana syllabary (imagine reading a Spanish textbook in your own native accent without making the slightest effort to have the natural cadences and emphases of the language you are studying, rendering it almost incomprehensible to someone whose mother tongue is Spanish ): – a tragic misjudgment in linguistic pedagogy that more than often results in halting, torturous failure in miscommunication.
Do I exaggerate? Possibly, a little. But I don’t think so. Not really. Yes , there are plenty of people here who have gone the circuitous route of studying abroad or gone to extracurricular lessons at language conversation schools with native speakers or Japanese teachers who know what they are doing, but those regular students who have been agonizingly peristalsed through the full education system, (with only the odd ‘fun and games’ lessons with a peripatetic clown- like foreign assistant teacher and the extraordinarily tedious textbooks and ponderous reading passages as their knowledge of the language) could quite realistically graduate from university able to read and understand deep philosophy but not be able to answer the fundamental question : ‘’Where do you live?’
Do kids in the US leave school actually fluent in spoken Spanish? Can my friends and family back in the UK all speak French convincingly even though they studied it at school for several years ? They cannot. So the problem is certainly not limited to Japan ( and let’s face it; I have not even come close to attempt mastering Japanese, so should I even be having this conversation?) In my case, though, thinking of myself as the same age as the kids I was talking to yesterday: as a sincere and motivated young pupil, I was chomping at the bit to start learning French when I was 11 years old -a weirdo who asked for a French dictionary on his ninth birthday I was so intrigued by the idea of there being completely different ways of saying the same thing. I was obsessed. I was a ‘linguist’. I wanted to travel and be able to communicate. I was driven.
So, though, were the students, allegedly, who took yesterday’s practice interviews, though to enter a high school that specializes in English and an array of other languages : a deservedly respected institution that produces independent, self-confident, internationally minded students who are relaxed with non-Japanese and are enthusiastic about conversing in what sounds like ‘real English’. They still need work – I teach some of them for the university entrance exams, but it is certainly a good start for any person who wants to explore the liberal arts while also becoming conversant in at least two other languages besides Japanese. If I had been one of the interviewees yesterday ( who on this easy occasion KNEW ALL OF THE QUESTIONS IN ADVANCE), I would have prepared and memorized all of my answers at the very least, as well as jazzing up my English conversation ability in general : practicing various phrases, learning useful vocabulary, ready to look into the cold green eyes ( no, I was doing my very best to encourage the huddled nervousnesses that sat before me and was definitely one of the friendliest of the examiners ) of the English teacher from England before them, asking: , ‘so why do you want to come to this school?’
Whether it was coronavirus blues; inept and incompetent school and cram school English teachers, a particularly lazy or untalented batch of applicants, or whether they have just unfortunately fallen prey to the generally insular, nativist tendencies that have crept across this nation like cold underground plant tendrils in recent years as Japan has become more isolated again, with ever fewer young people studying abroad, a phobia of the foreigner despite the postponed Olympics – whatever the causes, the general level of English ability on display yesterday – whether they were there in person or attending on Zoom – was quite atrocious. Embarrassing. . And exasperating. For once I was actually glad to be wearing a mask.