Thursday, June 07, 2012

Part Two: English learning today

The one thing any junior high foreign language curriculum lacks is adequate conversation time. I remember learning German in high school, which was great. However, I couldn’t practice German outside of class - with whom would I speak? I could write sentences, read, and learn grammar, but I would not learn how to pronounce it other than three hours a week.

Japanese students learning English are no different. So, although almost everyone in Japan has looked at an English textbook once in their life, if you ask them “Do you speak English?” they will say no.

The first difficulty in getting written English off the page and being spoken comes from all the extra letters English contains. In Japanese, V and B are the same sound. The same goes for L and R and a handful of other letter pairs.

This is only the start, as English words rarely sound like they look, and the trouble of F, ph, and gh sometimes all sharing the same sound is well-ridiculed in English, the most famous being the word ghoti being an alternative spelling for fish. A simple Google search, though, returns many rhymes and jokes based on English spelling’s aversion to consistency.

Japanese teachers of English have studied very hard over the years to get this pronunciation correct. Or, they have not studied it so much and feel inadequate to teach it. Hence, many English classes in Japanese schools focus only reading and writing.

Many solutions have been offered to teach English pronunciation. You may have heard of the JET program, in which native English speakers are hired by the Japanese government to teach English in junior high and high schools in conjunction with the native Japanese teacher. Also, Christian missionaries have come to Japan with the purpose of teaching English in addition to their evangelising. That is what took me to Tokyo in 2005.

Another option is for a Japanese student to find a native speaker and strike up a conversation. Since walking up to a stranger in the grocery store is difficult and uncommon (although not unheard of, as a man approached David and I just last month with the proud news that he had been on a language study tour in Canada), there exists in Japan an institution called the Eikaiwa.  An Eikaiwa is a private English school teaching conversation skills.

Ei, means "English."
Kaiwai means "conversation."

Students who spend all day studying and adults who spend all day working go in the evenings or on weekends to learn conversation skills from a native teacher. This is where I work now.

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