Given all the talk of the JET Programme on the chopping block, I've been thinking about the discussion it has generated. The consensus seems to be that the program should be saved since it's a great soft power tool and exchange program for Japan. Although I wrote along similar lines earlier, I've realized that I was ignoring the elephant in the room: the way Japan teaches English is a complete mess and needs to be changed. Part of that change would involve ending the JET Programme and use of dispatch ALTs, and replacing them with qualified language teachers.
Although Debito's latest column in The Japan Times is about keeping JET, I think he also inadvertently makes the case for ending it by pointing out that the way English is taught is broken.
First, he lets JET off the hook because the "E" in JET is for "Exchange," not "English." While technically correct, anyone vaguely familiar with the program knows that the ALTs are in the classrooms giving English lessons. A quick glance at the JET website shows that "More than 90% of JET participants are employed as ALTs." If nearly all of the participants are ALTs, you can't really let them off the hook given that the program has done nothing to boost English levels over the past 20 years, can you? If JET is supposed to be a cultural exchange program, then there are probably better ways to implement it instead of disguising it as teaching English. It could be rebooted into a homestay or student exchange program, for example.
Debito then goes on to point the finger at Japan's "psychotic" classroom, a combination of rote textbook learning reinforced with ridicule and shame. The problems with the way English is taught in Japan are well known, so just when you think Debito is getting to the heart of the matter, he comes up with this gem:
Ever notice how the Japanese media keeps voicing over Japanese when they speak English proficiently, or picking apart their performance for comic value? Because eigo is not supposed to be easy — so throw up some hurdles if there's any threat of it appearing so.
Good Lord, it's a conspiracy! English is difficult so the media is throwing up all sorts of roadblocks to stop it. He doesn't give an example of the media throwing up a hurdle, but probably has some idiotic variety show in mind where hitting someone on the head with a plastic hammer and laughing at their poor English is considered comedy. The only example of voice overs that comes to mind is the simultaneous interpretation seen on news programs like NHK's Close-up Gendai, when the host, Hiroko Kuniya (bilingual herself), interviews foreign guests. Amazingly, NHK voices over the English on the assumption that the audience might be interested in what's being discussed.
It is Debito's conclusion, however, that reinforces my belief that JET should be scrapped.
Get rid of JET, however, and the eigo psychosis will force things back to the way it was, with cries of "Gaijin da!" from behind garden fences.
Wow. Only JET can save the nation from the inane utterances of school children. That's his justification for saving the program, never mind that he emphasized that JET wasn't a teaching program at the beginning of his column. I need a drink.
If you don't find Debito persuasive, perhaps the Have Your Say feature can scare you into keeping the JET Programme. With photos of school children from Christiana Aretta's English Dreams project mixed in with reader comments, the underlying message is that ending JET will crush these kids' dreams. I find that hard to believe. Little Aki won't grow up to be a pilot because there was no JET ALT in his classroom, he'll fail because he wasn't taught communicative English in the first place and will probably have to get his parents to fork out thousands of dollars to make up for that lack of teaching at a cram school or English conversation school.
Like JET, the use of dispatch ALTs is another practice that needs to end. A recent excerpt from the Yomiuri's Gakuryoku-ko series succinctly illustrates the insanity that goes on:
It's early July, and Eri Imazeki, 26, is teaching her sixth-grade English class at Kashiwa Municipal No. 1 Primary School in Chiba Prefecture, with the help of Australian ALT Dina Tang. But the two educators do not speak to each other.
When Tang stood at the podium and said, "Hello everyone," Imazeki went to the back of the classroom and watched the children as they spoke English with Tang.
In Kashiwa, public schools do not directly employ foreign teachers, instead contracting third parties to supply them. One reason for this is cost-cutting.
However, when using such ALTs, teachers are not permitted to directly instruct their assistants.
In April, a teacher asked an ALT to place cards on the blackboard. Though on the surface this may seem a harmless request, the Chiba Labor Bureau demanded the school instruct its teachers to not ask anything of the ALTs, as it would be considered an order, and making the use of a third-party appear as mere camouflage.
Following the order, the school opted for the safest approach: banning all conversation between teachers and ALTs during class.
The people in charge of teaching the students how to communicate in another language don't communicate amongst themselves because it could violate labor laws. In addition to this, the hiring of dispatch ALTs has been fraught with it own issues ranging from lack of training, illegal contracts, low pay, no job security, high turnover, and lack of benefits.
As it stands, teaching English in Japan, be it via JET or dispatch ALTs, is conducted mainly by untrained, unqualified, university graduates whose skill happens to be the ability to speak English while looking nice at the same time. It's time to end these classroom distractions, but with one big caveat: that Japan gets serious about teaching English. It would be a massive undertaking in terms of time and effort and would require a complete overhaul of the English curriculum, and the hiring and support of qualified teachers. Moreover, it would probably take close to a decade before any concrete results are seen.
This may be wishful thinking on my part since it requires a major change of thinking by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. On the other hand, keeping JETs in the classroom for the sake of diplomacy (or saving the nation from some idiotic conspiracy) and hiring dispatch ALTs because they are cheap does nothing to improve the level of English in Japan. How about some constructive thinking on improving English teaching and boosting TOEIC scores instead of keeping alive ineffective programs and practices and hoping that it will all magically work out? In fact, we should be asking ourselves what are the consequences of amateurs in the classroom.* Leaving things the way they are is nothing more than bread and circuses.
*I'm not so jaded as to think that JETs and dispatch ALTs are incompetent and have not done good things in the classroom. They have, but in looking at the big picture, they haven't been very effective.