Thursday, December 25, 2008

Please to be teaching in Engrish OK? Congratulations!

Confession time - I am not the painfully hot regular blogmistress, or even Asian ... but rather, a guest contributor. I do, however, have some experience with the topic of this post: Japanese Engrish.

By all accounts, Japan, with a population of 150 million people, should be one of the largest English speaking nations on earth. Why, I hear you ask? For starters, Japanese children are taught English at a very young age, and it is a compulsory subject for Japanese children from grade school through college. English has obtained a status as Japan's unofficial second language, with English language television shows and movies to be found in great abundance. English is used in Japanese advertising, popular songs, as a second language for street signs and subway maps, and is more consistently omnipresent than in some places with an actual native English speaking population I could mention.

And yet, for all of this intensive, mandatory study, the actual quality of the English used in Japan is bad - even infamously so. It's certainly not for lack of effort - or even enthusiasm for the subject. Many English speaking visitors to Japan, myself included, have had the startling experience of complete strangers rushing up to practice their invariably broken English with anyone who "looks American" (read as, white - god knows what German or French tourists are supposed to think). So with all this desire to speak English and all this practice, why does Japanese English still suck so terribly?

Part of the problem lies in the way English is taught in Japanese schools, where the language is presented almost as a theoretical exercise. English grammar is emphasized at the expense of phonetics, conversation and practical usage. A Japanese English student will be drilled extensively on the differences between "Jane walks", "Jane walked" and "Jane will be walking", but will invariably butcher a question about what she's doing to Jane herself.

Japan's Education Ministry is apparently tired of Japanese English being the butt of the jokes of ESL teachers from New York to Johannesburg, and is attempting to remedy the problem by mandating the usage of English instruction in English classes. This move is being met with polite resistance by Japanese English instructors and students alike, for practical reasons (the difficulty), but for cultural reasons as well.

Cultural reasons, you ask? You better believe it. Part of the "problem" with lousy Japanese English is that Japanese English teachers, on average, are better with Engrish than they are with actual English (see the photo above). What's more, this move by the Education Ministry would not only force Japanese teachers to admit that there is a problem (which is difficult in general in Japan), but also that they haven't been doing their job as well as theoretically possible (most Japanese would rather eat a live skunk than admit this). There's some serious face saving to be done here.

For my part, I think I would miss the occasional brain jarring displays of Japanese Engrish. Once you've seen a sweatshirt proclaiming the wearer to be a member in good standing of the "Philadelphia Oatmeal Subway Boy Club" or meekly tried to obey a sign instructing the public not to be "photo taking of nature's koala magnificence if at all possible", real English just isn't as good anymore.


Russ Nelson said...

If Tracy was *really* that hot, she wouldn't feel the Calgary cold. So hmph. Then again, I really like the new piccie. Mmmmmmmatching wool hat and coat.

Roger Williams said...

Oh, snap! I got dissed by anonymous!

Degenerasian said...

Anonymous: What's the point of posting anonymously. And what's your problem with the post? We can't improve if you hide.

Nelson: Yup I'm really not that hot. *blows into your ear*

Anonymous said...

Why not post anonymously? The option's right there.

My problem is that this post in trying to discuss the remedy by the Japanese Education Ministry seems to make a slight, indirect grievance on how people in Japan aren't speaking English as well as they "should" and then afterwards makes a condescending jab that English is more fun because of their lack of fluency.

Roger Williams said...

A "slight" "indirect" grievance? Hell, no!

If Japan taught math the way they teach English, buildings would collapse from lack of qualified engineers, doctors wouldn't have any idea how much medicine to use, and housewives would light themselves on fire every time they tried to cook something. It's not a lack of "fluency", it's a lack of fundamentals in foreign language instruction in general. It is the Japanese revulsion at admitting shortcomings in general that has allowed them to practice the world's worst English instruction with equally characteristic compulsory intensity and hard work in the first place that has raised three generations of Japanese students forced to spend countless hours learning to speak English as if they'd learned it from dyslexic Martians.

The Japanese Education Ministry's plan will almost certainly fail as Japanese teachers pretend (with good humor) to comply, but then cite "difficulties" (which will always go unnamed) in completing the plan, thus forcing both sides to participate in a gross charade of one side pretending to comply with impossible demands, while the other side pretends to observe non-existent "progress" towards unreachable goals.

In other words, educational goals in Japan are hardly any different than corporate, social, etc. goals which are set with the best of intentions, and then ignored while giving the maximum effort of pretending to satisfy them. If that sounds cynical to you, go ahead and prove everyone else wrong.