This summer, I worked for seven weeks with a company called LbE Japan. This company works with the Japan Tourist Bureau (JTB) and Guy Healy Japan to provide intensive 3-day English summer camps for students. By inviting about 40 university students from America, they aim to give Japanese students the experience of living in America. The students got the ultimate ‘American’ experience – complete with American carnivals, dance parties, and campfire. By the end of August, we had undergone 30 USA Summer Camp sessions, and had had over 1000 attendees. “Let’s go change some lives!” was our unofficial motto – we were ready to help the kids learn to love English.
However, there were a few issues with the provision of the ultimate “American” experience. Because the students usually did not speak enough English to be able to communicate with the “American Counselors”, the company provided a few “Japanese Counselors” to help with translation. Because some were run as school events, depending on the camps, we always had a few students who didn’t want to participate. One boy come up to me, saying, “Learning English is a waste of time. We aren’t going to ever use it anyways.” Sometimes, we had issues with the accompanying teachers, who thought their students were too stupid to understand English, consequently demanding constant translation. Some schools also took the opportunity to discipline their students on living as a community: all the beds had to be perfectly made each morning, and heaven forbid if someone left their suitcase open on the floor. It was definitely not always USA Summer Camp – we were in Japan, after all.
I feel that there is a juxtaposition regarding English. Because of the group-orientated mentality, if one person stands out from the group by being able to communicate in English, he or she is labeled as ‘different’ or ‘strange’. On the other hand, having people who can communicate in English is crucial, especially for Japan to take part in today’s global society. The two ideals, staying within the group, but being able to speak English, is constantly clashing… While English could potentially change our lives, giving us more opportunities outside of the country, for example, it could also restrict us within the Japanese society.
Regardless, the Japanese government is forever trying to figure out the best and the most effective way to teach English. At the moment, the Japanese education system has all of its students learn English for at least eight years (2 years in elementary school, 3 years in junior high school, and 3 years in high school). They are aiming to provide English classes from Grade 1 by 2020. Thus, parents are rushing to put their kids in after-school English conversation schools so their kids will be well prepared when the new system is implemented. Companies focusing on English education are taking advantage of this by marketing new methods and products. However, not much change has been seen – we are still known for our inability to speak English.
Of course, there are multiple reasons besides culture and attitudes that may be the cause of the lack of English proficiency and research is constantly ongoing. At least for the moment, however, methods of English education and instruction are still a very hot topic in Japan.