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How the Two "L"s Stifle Reform in English Education in Japan

The other day, a Japanese colleague mentioned how he had noticed that it is becoming more and more common to see university job advertisements for teachers with expertise in English education. As he pointed out, this is a relatively new development. Traditionally, English teachers at the university level were required to be experts in either linguistics or literature.

Even now, if a university department wishes to be accredited by MEXT for the purposes of awarding English teaching licenses, the requirements stipulate that it must have experts with research experience in both of these fields. One consequence of this is that in the minds of many educators and officials, linguistics and literature are synonymous with “English education.” This misunderstanding goes a long way towards explaining why Japan has ended up with an English education and examination system that is clearly not fit for purpose.

I would like to stress at the outset that I mean no disrespect to either literature experts or linguists. I regard both of these areas of study as valuable and interesting fields in their own right. The problem is that neither has any direct relevance to the field of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, or “TESOL,” as it it usually known.

So how has English education in Japan been shaped by linguistics and literature specialists? Let us look first at the influence of the linguists.

As I have mentioned elsewhere (often!), I believe that the term “grammar” is thrown around far too casually in discussions of English education in Japan, usually without a clear definition. At the risk of over-generalising, Japanese teachers tend to claim that students need it, and non-Japanese teachers appear to believe that students get too much of it. Among both groups, there seems to be a degree of consensus that Japanese students are “good at it.”

The problem with this discussion is that “grammar” means different things to different people. Grammar is basically a tool for describing languages, and the different grammars (functional grammar, cognitive grammar, etc.) reflect the different goals of the people who create and use them. The grammar used by linguists was developed primarily for the purposes of describing, analysing, and comparing languages, not for learning them. It is, as anyone who has studied it will testify, highly complex. Because of the Japanese tradition of regarding linguists as the primary experts in language education, this is the grammar that gets taught in schools.

To give one example, Japanese students are taught about a structure called meishitekiyouhou, a kind of nominalisation of the infinitive form of a verb. This sounds very complicated, but it actually refers to sentences like “I want to be a doctor.” The description is based on the fact that “to be a doctor” is fulfilling the role of a noun in the sentence. If that were not confusing enough, students are also taught about keiyoushitekiyouhou and fukushitekiyouhou, or the adjectival and adverbial usage of infinitive clauses. No. Me neither. But that is the way it is taught to junior high school students.

These structures have nothing in common in terms of their meaning, yet they are taught as a set because of their grammatical similarities. In other words, grammar takes precedence over meaning in the structuring of the syllabus. Believe it or not, the specialist grammatical terms are also taught. Is it any wonder so many children are put off English before they even get into high school?

What learners of English actually need to study is what we call “pedagogic grammar,” or grammar that focuses on the connection between structures and meaning. Unfortunately, this is not what the older “English experts” at Japanese universities learned, and so it does not appear in either the course of study or the officially approved materials.

So much for the linguists, but how about the literature specialists? What are the results of their influence?

The reason most often given for involving literature specialists in language education is that they are able to provide cultural and historical context to the language that students are studying. Of course, everyone would agree that a language cannot be separated from its culture, but many would question the value of knowing about Shakespearean sonnets or English society in the time of Charles Dickens to students who wish to learn English as a global lingua franca in the 21st century. To make matters worse, traditional employment practices in Japanese universities have encouraged the recruitment of friends, former students, former students of friends, and friends of former students. These are often groups of people who have the same or very similar research interests, which means the English department in one university can easily end up with three or four teachers who are all experts in the novels of Jane Austen. This is very nice for the teachers, but it is of questionable value to the students.

Another problem is that if your primary area of research is the literature of another language, it is natural that a major focus of your interest will be translation. The preponderance of literature teachers in English departments at Japanese universities goes a long way to explaining the education system’s obsession with translating as a method of both instruction and testing. Of course, translation is an important tool for language learners, but not in the way that it is used in Japanese schools, with their emphasis on transliterations based on a grammatical analysis of each sentence.

The other area where the influence of linguists and literature specialists can be seen is the examination system. Anyone who has done a basic course in testing theory is probably aware that this is an extraordinarily complex area best left to experts. In fact, language testing is an entire field within a field. And of course, the field within which it lies is neither linguistics nor literature. Nevertheless, the majority of teachers on university exam entrance committees are, at least in my experience, linguists and literature teachers. This is in spite of the fact that few, if any, of them have ever studied either EFL or language testing theory in their lives.

These days, we are constantly hearing about how drastic changes need to be made to the English education system in Japan in order to prepare students for future participation in the global economy. Unfortunately, it is often the case that the people charged with finding solutions to this problem actually are the problem. I believe therefore, that before any meaningful steps can be taken, Japan needs to completely recalibrate its thinking on what English education is and who the experts in it really are.

To summarise, although I find both linguistics and literature to be fascinating subjects in their own right, I do not believe that knowledge of either of them qualifies a person as a Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages. Expertise in linguistics or literature is not even remotely the same thing as expertise in language education, and it will not be possible for Japan to make progress until this becomes the accepted orthodoxy. If the goal of the government is to teach children how to dissect English sentences and name the constituent clauses, or to have them translate 100-year-old texts word-by-word using a dictionary, then the current approach will continue to serve well. If, however, the goal is to teach children how to use English for the purposes of communication, then Japan is going to have to completely rethink its idea of what it means to be an English Teacher.


  1. Muchi on 2014年08月04日 at 15:37

    I totally agree with this idea. I have taught in junior and senior high schools, and now I’m teaching at a university. I saw how English language is supposed to be taught in junior and senior high, and I, now, realised how and where these ideas and thoughts came from. Of course, I strongly agree that grammar and translation are important and necessary for language teaching and learning.

    This time, the topic is about two “L”s, but I would like to add another discussion point. Many English native speakers think that it is okay to say that they are capable of “teaching” English or they are “professional” even though their fields would be completely different from TESOL. This is not only university teachers but also ALTs teaching at any levels.

    I also don’t understand that Japanese people who think it’s okay to teach Englsih because they think they are “ちょっと英語ができる.” In my experience, many university teachers (especially part-time teachers) are in these two groups. If someone speaks English fluently or knows a little bit of English, it doesn’t always mean that they can teach it.

  2. Simon WJ Thornley on 2014年08月05日 at 05:33

    This article is a good observation of the current state of English as a foreign language education in Japanese Universities. It really begs the question; so how do you bring about such reform? Reform in Japan is quite a problem. Much of the laws of Japan are as they were when they were adopted in the 19th century from the German legal code. Change in this extremely conservative country is very hard to effect. Who will listen to the views of this author? How can they be communicated to people with any power? Will they listen?

  3. Biwa on 2014年09月18日 at 11:09

    Hi David,

    Nice to hear from you again. I read an article about Kinki University tying up with Berlitz a while back. It said that they are going to have ‘real teachers’ teach English to their students from 2016 including all the course planning. I’m not sure how qualified the teachers at Berlitz are, but at least, I guess they can focus on teaching. I mean, they don’t have to worry about publishing research papers, right? I wonder how many research theses university teachers have to write to stay at their positions in the first place. Anyway, I’m quite interested in the outcome of this plan. I don’t think universities will just wait for official reforms. The state is too slow, and universities take this issue more seriously not to go bankrupt!

  4. Yuko on 2014年09月26日 at 16:13

    Wow! This essay has the point for how English education system in Japan should be. I agree with your ideas. I’m an English teacher. I focus on English conversation. If my students need, I teach them English using their own textbooks which they use at school. I see the textbooks improved a little bit compared to 15 years ago. But most of the teachers don’t know how to teach them, or they cannot change the traditional teaching style with some reasons. Japanese government made a law where English teachers in high school should teach English in English. As far as I know in my area, there is no high school to carry out it. This essay should be read by the people who want to change English education in Japan.
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