When you see Japan’s PISA scores and world ranking, you might be impressed by Japanese education’s success in the world. But when you look at English test scores, Japan’s scores are less impressive than the PISA scores. Why don’t Japanese people speak English as fluently as people in other countries?
Issues of English education in Japan are not easily solved. For Japanese, speaking English is especially difficult. First, Japanese and English language structures differ; English grammar is subject-verb-object, while Japanese grammar is subject-object-verb. Moreover, English contains phonemes that do not exist in Japanese, particularly the “five obstructions”/r/ /l/ /th/ /wh/ and /v/. Japanese intonation tends to be flat while English intonation is more varied. These factors make English fluency a challenge.
The K-12 education in Japan focuses on college entrance exams, so curricula is created with high entrance exam scores in mind. Because college entrance exams emphases English grammar and reading, Japanese policymakers and educators have realized the neglect of English speaking skills. As a result, many native English speakers have been recruited in the past few years to teach English speaking skills while recruitment of English teachers is a sign of improvement. Explicit instruction in phonics is needed.
Phonetics heavily influence English pronunciation. When students first learn alphabets, they should master each letter, being taught by phonetic specialists who emphasize the letters Japanese people find difficult. It is a misconception that all native English speakers can teach English phonetics. Native English speakers can tell if a sound is correct or wrong, but most of them do not know how they can produce a specific sound or word. When speaking English, Japanese people must make English sounds that do not exist in Japanese. Phonetic specialists are able to teach tongue placements and mouth movements such as how broad/narrow a person needs to open when he or she pronounces a specific letter or vowel. The earlier they learn nuance of pronunciation, the better. Without explicit phonetic instruction, students may learn to speak incorrectly. It takes much time and effort to fix mispronunciation later in life.
Talking from experience, after six years of English instruction in Japan and seven years in the U.S., I eventually realized that I still struggle with “five obstructions”/r/ /l/ /th/ /wh/ and /v/. I had no explicit phonetic instruction in Japan. No teachers pointed out that my pronunciations were wrong. I unconsciously have been producing these sounds in the way I used to incorrectly pronounce them. It is hard to unlearn incorrect pronunciation. Early explicit phonetic instruction in combination with learning vocabulary and sentences would have been beneficial as it would be beneficial to other Japanese English-learners.
As the world becomes more globalized, the importance of knowing and peeking English correctly will grow. Early explicit phonetic instruction is essential for helping Japanese people learn to speak English fluently.
The author is a doctoral student in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum at the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education, University of Oklahoma.© Japan Today