Article updated on May 25, 2020
Text: Marcella van Alphen
Why I have learnt to speak 6 languages…
From an early age on, I have been very driven to explore the world around me. I recall ordering ‘une baguette s’il vous plaît’ (or at least, this is what I thought it sounded like!) in France when my parents would send their six-year old Dutch girl to a bakery during the holidays. A few years later I realised that it would take quite a bit of effort to communicate with people abroad and go beyond being polite.
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As a teenager, I loved burying myself in my schoolbooks to study mandatory English, as well as optional French and German. Later, after developing a passion for Sweden, it felt natural to pick up Swedish. Now living in Paris, I am working on improving my French while a three-month trip to Central America allowed me to learn basic Spanish. I admit that at times, I got sick and tired of all these vocabulary lists, but I was driven, and I wanted to be able to make friends abroad and share experiences while travelling!
Why I became a teacher of the English language
Add to this a passion to broaden one’s horizons, the fact that Esperanto hasn’t really picked up making English the closest thing to a universal language, and this is how I ended up as a teacher of the English language. I’m happy to see how the teenagers I work with can spread their wings into the vast world to try and understand it a bit better, and interact with people of different cultures. Being able to communicate in a different language enriches one’s experiences greatly: exchanging with locals, reading books and articles in native languages, finding your way more easily, getting a better idea of what you may be eating, getting you to unknown places, etc.
English in European schools
The tools and methods to teach English as a second language in high schools in Europe converge towards the same philosophy: of course, the ability to read and write is paramount while conversational proficiency is as important. Expanding vocabulary, teaching tenses to form grammatically correct sentences, learning proper spelling, and mastering pronunciation, are all different ways to get there. It proves to be successful as most Europeans have at least a decent basic English. Of course, the level is greater in certain countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden, compared to others like Italy, Spain and France, but overall, past the natural shyness anyone and especially amongst the younger generations can help a lost tourist!
English in Japan
When I travelled through Japan for more than 6 weeks, I was shocked by the apparent poor level of English of the Japanese people I met. I must admit that I felt slightly frustrated as my use of English was most of the time not understood at all. During the first two weeks of our travels on the Southern islands of Kyushu and Shikoku, we only met two Japanese natives with a decent English. Agreed, these islands are not the most touristy, nor the most industrial ones, but when reaching the very touristy Kyoto, I was still puzzled by the seemingly limited level of English of the locals. Even in Tokyo! Whenever we needed to make a booking, choose a dish in a restaurant or ask for the road, I had to speak in such a broken English for people to understand me that I felt embarrassed myself. Often a Japanese person would just stare and smile at me, translating and uneasy feeling leading to uncomfortable situations.
My initial basic assumption was that proficiency in English is so poor that the Japanese cannot speak it. This was rather surprising to me given the importance of academic excellence in Japan and was probably far from reality…
English in the Japanese classroom
English is mandatory in Japanese schools from the age of 10, and probably even earlier soon. Its teaching mainly focuses on grammar rules and expanding vocabulary in order to pass complicated theoretical tests, with the university entrance exams as the ultimate goal.
Mistakes are heavily sanctioned in the Japanese culture and combined to the fact that losing face is the utmost humiliation, trial and error learning schemes, that are extremely efficient for conversational English are not an option. For instance, incorrect use of tenses is immediately rejected by teachers, discouraging students. Japanese teenagers have to spend hours learning grammatical rules while hardly any attention is paid to implementing these rules into conversations.
Expressing opinions, feelings and desires is rather against cultural expectations: a good student is a silent student, which is clearly a challenge in a language class. With an important driver for teenagers to understand US TV shows, the fact that the Japanese culture is extremely rich and the population size large enough to translate foreign movies tends to limit the learning of English to a purely theoretical excercise.
How to combine English proficiency to academic excellence
As an English teacher, the most rewarding sessions are the improvised ones when my students debate passionately about topics that matter to them. They almost forget that they are speaking in English, and they are not that ashamed of making mistakes as they want to out their point of view on the topic. These sessions allow them to gain confidence and be more daring, to understand that beyond mastering a language, learning it opens doors and allows them to communicate with the world. Do not get me wrong, of course grammar is critical and all of these sessions are concluded by a methodical review of the mistakes I jolt down and a reminder of the rules that’d better be fully understood to get a decent grade at the next test.
I have learnt at my expense that the worst question to ask a Japanese person is: “do you speak English?” It may sound polite, rather than starting right away in English, but it triggers a quasi-automatic “No” answer. The fear of losing face and making mistakes overweighs the will to communicate in Japan. However, the Japanese are very well educated, and most of them will shily reply in a rusty English after a “konichiwa” followed by your slowly pronounced basic question.
As a teacher of the English language, I hope for the curriculum to evolve and include speaking skills, to move away from the language to narrow in on communication.