What would doubling the JET program look like?

Recent news reports suggest that the LDP is planning to propose doubling the JET Program in three years and placing JET language assistants in all elementary, middle, and high schools within a decade. There are around 38,000 such schools in Japan, so that’s a LOT of ALTs!

According to internal affairs ministry statistics, in fiscal 2012 there were around 4,300 JETs in the country, so the plan is apparently to increase that by a whopping factor of nine. According to the statistics that METI keeps on language schools, there are 10,000 or so full- and part-time language teachers working for regulated schools. I believe that does not count the large number of contractors like the teachers working for ALT placement agencies or the poor devils at Gaba, university instructors, and certainly not the many student teachers or anyone operating their own eikaiwa that does not fall under METI’s purview. But even generously allowing for a teacher population of say 30,000 total (around 3 for every train station), in ten years this number will be more than doubled.

The program is designed to place youthful foreigners, generally native English speakers, in Japanese schools (and to a smaller extent, local governments) for up to five years with two explicit goals: supplement English-language education and promote international interaction at the local level. Another key benefit is that the participants often go on to take influential Japan-related jobs, be it in foreign governments, Japanese companies, or companies that do business in or with Japan. Having a stable of Japan hands around seems pretty necessary at this point, given the relatively poor state of English language ability among the Japanese population. Unlike normal employment situations, JET offers a high level of support in the form of a reasonable salary, free housing, and a network of fellow JETs and regional coordinators to help with problems.

I get the feeling that a ninefold increase in the JET Program isn’t realistic—could they even recruit that many people to come and live in Japan, or would they maybe just cannibalize the entire existing eikaiwa-for-kids market? Still, some increase in the program along these line seems like a fairly simple way for the Abe administration to make a bold move in the direction of “internationalization” that won’t run into much political resistance.

Regardless of your views on the merits of the JET Program or the Japanese education system in general, you must admit that even just doubling the size of JET would have a pretty profound impact.

For one thing, that is double the amount of people coming in each year. That means more foreign faces on the street and more non-Asian foreign exposure for the Japanese public at large.

It also means more “Japan hands,” maybe even double, and this can cut in different ways. I feel like Japan is sorely in need of talented Japanese-to-English translators, so an influx of native English talent that could eventually progress to ace-translator status is a good thing. At the same time, the increased supply in the market could put pressure on prices, and who knows maybe some whipper snapper could come after my job some day.

I think it would also revive the option of teaching English in Japan for graduates of US universities that (from my admittedly limited perspective) seems to have died down a bit in the wake of troubles in the eikaiwa market and competition from China, a bigger and perhaps more intriguing destination. I can envision a near future in which young men see the Tokyo Vice movie and become inspired to chase thrills and excitement in Japan.

And it would necessarily boost the number of international marriages and the resulting children, bringing Japan that much closer to becoming the Grey Race.

On the negative side, the JET Program might have to loosen standards to attract talent. Even if they don’t, the sheer number of additional people will likely result in an increase in the problems that occasionally befall foreigners in Japan – crime, drugs, suspicious visa activity, ill-advised YouTube rants, you name it.

JET is a net good, but not for Japanese people’s English ability 

I say bring it on, mainly to bolster Japan-related talent. Unfortunately, my support of the program is not for its value as an English teaching tool (disclosure: my application for the JET Program was in fact rejected. I am not bitter about it because I handed in a terrible application, but nevertheless I feel like I should own up about it).

I have spoken with/read about perhaps dozens of JET teachers and students over the years. The teachers by and large do not have a particularly high opinion of the job’s value in terms of English teaching, but they almost unanimously credit the program for giving them a great experience. And while the students might not master English thanks to their JET, in many cases they remember them being a friendly adult who helped make school more enjoyable.

From what I gather, the job of an ALT is generally to supplement a Japanese teacher of English by helping with pronunciation and various other tasks. Maybe I just don’t get around enough, but I cannot recall ever hearing someone even try to argue that they are an essential part of the learning process or that what they do has an appreciable benefit to the level of English ability in Japan. I don’t think that is really a problem though because of the program’s other upsides.

On the other hand, what I have heard and experienced is that ALTs can help inspire students to discover the joys and rewards of learning English or encourage them to keep going. I think the value of that should not be underestimated because it is life-changing and the ALTs deserve huge credit for it.

This is kind of an aside, but basically I do not share the government’s fascination with trying to make the entire country proficient in English because for most people that is just not necessary. The way things stand, the biggest result of the current system seems to be the long list of Japanized English loan words that are often such a headache-inducing component of the Japanese language.

To have a more realistic and beneficial impact, I would rather them focus on establishing separate programs for the kids who excel at languages and giving them a place to shine on their own (and while they’re at it they should devote resources to helping returnees re-integrate when they come back while maintaining their language skills). That would hold out the hope of producing a larger population of Japanese adults with near-native English skills.

I feel like there is negative feedback loop whereby most Japanese people are in an environment where the norm is to not be good at English and therefore most people choose the path of least resistance. Separating out the kids that have a real talent and placing them in a more encouraging environment might keep them from missing out just because they have to go along with the crowd.

All in all, JET seems like a worthy program for giving kids a glimpse at a world outside of Japan and the teachers an interesting start to their post-college lives in a way that usually ends up benefiting Japan in some way.

PS: This independent video guide to the JET Program is very well done. If you are reading this and considering doing the program yourself, it is definitely worth a look:

Japanese people can’t speak English because they live among tainted, Japan-savvy foreigners

It seems to me that a major factor behind Japan’s vaunted problems with the English language could have to do with the learning environment.

Specifically, some Japanese people are not sufficiently aware that Japanese-accented English is often incomprehensible to listeners who are not familiar with it.

I call it the Heisenberg property of language – simply being among Japanese people causes native English speakers (eikaiwa teachers, friends, coworkers, etc) to get used to how Japanese people speak, and of course alter how they speak to ensure Japanese people understand them.

This concept came to my attention in a big way at an investment conference that I recently attended for work.

The keynote speaker was a well-known American investment manager, and when it came time for the Q&A session, there was a roughly even mix of question-askers who were native English speakers, Japanese who asked their questions through the interpreter, and Japanese who opted to ask in English.

The guest speaker had trouble understanding all of the Japanese people who asked questions in English. One person in particular asked something like, “What is your view on Abenomics?” and it took about three tries before the speaker got that it was something about the new prime minister.  I understood it the first time because I could hear him say the katakana “abenomikkusu” just really fast and with an attempt at English inflection. But to the American guest speaker, the questioner must have sounded like he was mumbling “obb-nom” instead of the properly enunciated “Abe-nomics” that sounds similar to Reaganomics.

This is just one small example, but I encounter cases of this phenomenon all the time:

  • Several English-speaking Japanese people in my life have heavy accents, but I can understand them because my years in the country have gotten me used to how Japanese people tend to speak. 

  • Japanese commercials are flooded with simplified English

  • Eikaiwa teachers tend to use simplified English to make themselves understood in class. I have even known some to incorporate common Japanese phrases like “hora” to get students’ attention.

  • Lip my stocking!

And so on.

If a Japanese person spends all their time in this “Japanese-familiar” bubble, then when it comes time to go face-to-face with a less Japan-savvy foreigner, they are likely to run into trouble.

I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. For the sake of communication, speaking to make yourself understood (and listening carefully to understand) is only the most natural thing in the world. I just feel like pointing it out because Japanese people who equate speaking English with native speakers in Japan with “immersion” might be in for a rude awakening if they ever step outside that environment.

What are your best “Japanese mistake” stories? I’ll start

In a couple weeks I am supposed to give a presentation (in Japanese) for my company’s family day. The topic is “common English mistakes by Japanese people.” I didn’t decide the theme, but I am hoping to use the opportunity to spread the message that speaking “wrong” English should be welcomed as long as you are at least communicating and using what you know.

And since I don’t think it’s fair to focus only on Japanese people’s English mistakes, to help make my point I am including the following anecdote about my own linguistic history:

About a month into my time as an exchange student in high school (my first-ever visit to Japan), I started staying with host parents who loved to feed me. Very, very nice and welcoming people. One time they served me hot cocoa, and I told them I liked it. Big mistake, because for the next two weeks they gave me the same hot cocoa with dinner every single night.

I was starting to get pretty sick of it, but I wanted to be polite and as such didn’t want to say no without doing so properly in Japanese. So I looked up how to say “I am getting tired of X” in the dictionary and went to my host mother and told her:

ココア、飽きたです (broken Japanese for, “I sick of cocoa”)

Her reaction? She looked shocked, started to cry, and asked why I would say such a thing. She then got her husband, and he demanded an explanation. I was starting to get nervous at this point, so I just repeated ココア、飽きたです thinking they’d get it this time. They didn’t and just seemed to get even angrier and more hurt…

Sweating now, I tried a few more times with different, untested sentence structures, mustering all my training from stateside Japanese classes. (ココアおいしいけど飽きたです?). With each utterance, they would look at me curiously and then start talking among themselves in words I couldn’t understand.

Finally, it dawned on me – ココア、飽きたです sounds a lot like ここは、飽きたです (I sick of this place). So I finally found the bag of cocoa and started pointing to it, saying  ココア ココア!!

Once they finally got it everything settled down. But for a moment I thought I might be in some serious trouble for making a cultural faux pas. I had heard how much Japanese value social protocol, so until I realized the mistake it seemed like saying no to cocoa was a really big deal. I still feel bad about making my host mother cry.

***

Have any of you had similar linguistic misadventures? Please let me know in the comments section. Note that if your story is really good I might have to steal it for my presentation!

My Japanese sucks and always will

Not as good as this guy’s

Just want to get something off my chest. I’ve been studying Japanese for almost 15 years, spent two of them studying abroad, lived in Tokyo for five years now, passed the JLPT 1 and the Securities Representative exam in Japanese, worked as a Japanese-English translator for around 7 years, and on and on. I’ve done a lot of stuff that would seemingly require near-native fluency, and yet…

My Japanese still sucks. I feel like no matter how much I study or live in the country I am always going to have a rough accent, a low working vocabulary, and generally limited fluency. My reading will always be much much slower than a native, and I will forever be looking up kanji on my iPhone even to write my own address half the time. My wife will be afraid to let me go to the doctor alone lest I misunderstand some important detail. I’ll never feel comfortable speaking in public or leading a group conversation among natives. If someone doesn’t feel like being patient with me there’s not a whole lot I can do to take control of the situation.

I feel like I have improved a lot and developed a pretty good working use of the language, but on an objective level it’s just terrible. I’d like to go around thinking I have really achieved something by learning another language and making a career of it, but I need to be honest.

In the US there is a very simple standard for English fluency – either native or foreign. You don’t get any prizes for having 50% fluent English or even 90%. But of course here, Japanese people tend to be overflowing with praise for a Westerner who speaks the language. They make it sound like it’s such an amazing achievement. But anyone who grows up here will learn Japanese – it’s just a way for people to communicate. I don’t think knowing it means you deserve any special credit. I guess I should be grateful that the bar is so low and so many people are willing to be patient with me.

I can only speak for myself, but I get the feeling that a good deal of the long-term Western residents are like me. They’ve developed a good working fluency but will probably never really reach native level. I think that’s great and worthy in its way, but for me I don’t want to lose sight of reality.

There are ways that I could improve, maybe, and I do want to get better. I want to just live a normal life without worrying about the language barrier. It’s demoralizing to stutter and fumble words at my job or even just trying to ask a store clerk something. Having better Japanese and the social skills to use it (a big one here) would make it much easier to disarm situations where people are uneasy about dealing with a foreigner. I have definitely not been in the habit of actively trying to improve my Japanese for quite a while now – at this point in my life (almost 30) my priorities are work and spending time with Mrs. Adamu. Spending extra free time writing kanji is not my idea of fun anymore.

People laughed Debito’s column about not having male Japanese friends, but I actually kind of identified with it to an extent. I don’t hang out with many Japanese people, and next to zero men. Unlike Debito, however, I don’t really blame Japanese people for not being sophisticated enough to understand me. I instead put most of it down to the language/cultural barrier and my own social awkwardness. There are lots and lots of people with similar backgrounds who have successfully integrated, either going native or on some other terms, and they can just make it work in a way that I haven’t been able to.

Maybe what’s made things worse is that my Japanese has improved to a level where I know what it means to speak at a native level and the difference when someone falls short. At the risk of comparing myself to people with real problems, it’s like a disabled person who knows what it’s like to walk but just can’t make his body do what his brain is telling it.

Anyway that’s something I have been wanting to post on Mutant Frog for a while now because I don’t want to put out this image like my Japanese is so amazingly awesome when it’s not. That’s definitely not how I used to feel (I think I have written that I “get” Japan better than other people on more than one occasion) but I am way overdue for some humility.

Learning Japanese in Florida in three years, and why it could be even faster

I just came back from a Golden Week vacation in South Florida, which is the closest thing to a “hometown” that I have. I spent my teenage years in Broward County, just north of Miami, and skipped town after high school to go to an upstate university. My parents moved out of town not too long after that, so now my time in school there is my only connection to the area.

On the long flight to Atlanta I finished watching Season 4 of The Wire (a show which comes up often in comment threads here). Season 4 focuses on a Baltimore middle school and examines the dysfunctional aspects of public education which leave many kids clueless and drive many other kids into a life of crime or destitution. One of the threads in its plot involves an ex-cop and a group of Johns Hopkins researchers who move a group of “troubled” kids out of regular classes and into a special classroom where they get more attention, which has its most noticeable effect on the regular classes—which suddenly become pretty orderly and conducive to learning, rather than total madhouses.

This was timely because I had just made arrangements to visit Hallandale High School, where I spent my sophomore and senior years of high school (before and after my year in Osaka). Hallandale is a bog-standard public high school, in the middle of what counts as “the ghetto” in Florida, and which is mainly notable for having a well-equipped TV studio and a large foreign language program. It is one of only a handful of Florida high schools which offer Japanese classes—and four full years’ worth of Japanese at that.

In my day, over a decade ago, Japanese was taught by a Chiba-native art teacher who was much more interested in art than in language teaching. Although there were four separate levels, all four levels were taught at the same time in the same classroom, which was primarily an art classroom. There was not enough demand to actually have separate class blocks for separate levels. When I returned from Osaka, I enrolled in Japanese IV, where my only classmate was an exchange student from Tokyo, and our main duty was to tutor the lower-level kids in basic vocabulary and writing kana. Japanese was often described as the most difficult class in the entire school: part of this obviously had to do with the difficulty of the language itself, but the relative lack of teacher guidance (since she was dealing with four levels at once) and the cruddy textbooks and materials didn’t help either.

Given this history, I was a bit surprised to discover that there are now three completely separate Japanese classes at Hallandale, that Japanese IV is now an Advanced Placement class (meaning that students can take an exam at the end to claim university credits), and that while our teacher is still teaching art, all of her language teaching responsibilities have been taken over by a newly-hired language teacher who is half-Japanese and splits her time between teaching Japanese and English.

My wife and I spoke to the first two classes, comprised of first and second-year students. At the start of each class, we introduced ourselves in Japanese, and I then asked the kids to tell me what we had just said. They got tiny bits and pieces, like our names, but that was about it. Then they took turns struggling to introduce themselves in Japanese using simple fill-in-the-blank sentences (“namae wa ____ desu. shumi wa ____ desu.“) and then did some exercises in writing hiragana where they were struggling to recall the characters. Nobody knew how to assemble a basic sentence on their own. Keep in mind that this was during Golden Week, so the American school year was almost over.

The kids in these classes were quite varied in their backgrounds and motivations. There were more than a few self-proclaimed otaku who wanted to learn Japanese because of their interest in anime and video games. There were a few kids who chose Japanese because they were interested in street racing and liked the movie Tokyo Drift (no accounting for taste, I guess). One was pursuing a career as a graphic artist and wanted to live in Japan “because they are the leaders in graphic arts.” Another had grown up as an Air Force brat in Okinawa and wanted to learn more about the side of Japan he had missed as a child.

Both classes were full of energy but highly disorganized. As each kid got up to introduce themselves in Japanese, their peers wasted no time in heckling their mistakes, putting words in their mouth and generally vying for the class’s attention. The teacher could only maintain the flow of the class by shouting over the shouts of the kids. My wife, whose only familiarity with American high schools came from watching 90210, was both fascinated and horrified by the scene.

We then went down the hallway to the third-year section, which also contained a handful of fourth-year students studying for the AP exam. The students were silent as soon as the teacher called for order, and again my wife and I did our introductions. This time, the kids understood everything. They introduced themselves relatively flawlessly, and were then asked to write down a list of questions to ask us in Japanese. Their questions were grammatically well-constructed even though they were working “on the fly” in the middle of class, and when we answered them with descriptions of our working environments, our lifestyle in Tokyo and our traveling experiences, the students still understood nearly everything.

We were both amazed. Here was a room of kids who had never been to Japan, who were only a year or two ahead of the kids who were absolutely hopeless in Japanese, and yet they spoke Japanese nearly as well as I spoke it after a year in a Japanese high school.

What happened?

When we mentioned this to the teacher, she explained that two years of a foreign language are now required in order to graduate from Hallandale High. The result of this requirement is that first and second-year foreign language classes are filled with kids who have no particular want or need for a foreign language. Many don’t pay attention, and this distracts the other kids so much that they can’t effectively learn—even the otaku among those kids weren’t even minimally proficient. The third and fourth-year classes don’t have this problem; the only kids in them are the kids who really want to learn Japanese, and they study and practice it with each other like crazy.

Thinking back, this was also the case in my high school in Osaka. Everyone had to take lots of English classes in order to graduate, but almost none of them were really interested, and the few kids who actually were interested had no outlet for their energy. I have always rolled my eyes at the idea that Japanese people will speak better English if they just start earlier—not a chance. Japanese people speak better English when they want to, and when they are surrounded by people who want to. As long as English is simply treated as a universal requirement, everyone will study it and nobody will really learn it.