Essays on English in Japan

What’s that in Japanese? (with audio)

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What’s that in Japanese?

What if all the educational energy spent translating, retranslating, explaining and checking the translating of materials, exams, directions to exams and every single small word back and forth between Japanese and English were instead spent working entirely in English? Imagine students learning through all English input and all English output. Without any Japanese translation! What would happen? 

The English language education system in Japan has been hijacked by a false belief that translation is the best, or the only, way to learn another language. Even when teachers want to teach English in English, the translation mentality remains the go-to default mechanism for teaching difficult phrases, words or activities. Translation helps to slip by the tough passages without too much confrontation and allows everyone to pretend that learning is happening when it isn’t.

This translation obsession is passed on early to students, so it seems natural. They learn language as neatly parallel, with vocabulary words lined up opposite each other, Japanese glosses at the bottom of pages, or full Japanese translations tucked away at the back of the textbook, and in the teacher’s manuals. No English textbook published in Japan is without a lot of Japanese. For some textbooks, it seems, more time was put into the Japanese than into the English.

This translation obsession is passed on early to students, so it seems natural. They learn language as neatly parallel, with vocabulary words lined up opposite each other, Japanese glosses at the bottom of pages, or full Japanese translations tucked away at the back of the textbook, and in the teacher’s manuals. No English textbook published in Japan is without a lot of Japanese. For some textbooks, it seems, more time was put into the Japanese than into the English.

Many university English classes are not English classes at all—they are translation classes. During class, the English literary work, textbook or reading passage rests on one side with notes of the teacher’s translation on the other, and a dictionary in the middle. It’s a symbolic layout of the translation mentality. When ex-students of English apologize for being bad at English, what they really mean is they were bad at translating. They never got to study English.

The belief that English is learned by and through translation is the dominating belief about language study in Japan. The belief that everything in English must be translated into Japanese is also a belief that students can only truly learn in their native language. Even when knowledge is acquired in English, students are taught to store that knowledge in Japanese.

One time when I was giving a final exam to a large class, I learned how deep this belief goes. For exams in classes over a hundred students an assistant proctor can be requested to help to pass out and collect exams. The assistant I was assigned was a professor from another department. He was pleasant and got to work checking student IDs. After we handed out the exam questions and the answer paper, I gave the students a quick reminder of the rules for the exam, in English.

When I asked students if they had any questions, that other teacher stepped forward and translated the directions I had just given into Japanese. The students looked confused. A couple snickered.

With good reason. They had spent the year taking notes and writing responses to lectures on American culture. After a year of lectures, discussions and writing on topics ranging from abstract expressionism to jazz improvisation, blues as poetry and the theme of conformity in film, it was not likely that “Don’t forget to put your name on the paper” was going to be misinterpreted. Yet, that teacher just had to translate my words into Japanese.

It was an odd moment, his interrupting my authority by pointlessly inserting a Japanese translation. His misunderstanding that students needed Japanese was amusing at best and demeaning at worst. Mostly, though, it was pointless. His Japanese translation only disrupted students, who had just set their brains into English mode for the hour-long essay exam.

Did he feel it his duty to interject Japanese? Perhaps he was worried students didn’t understand, or wanted to ensure the test was official by putting the rules in Japanese? Mainly he was trying to ensure that Japanese remained the language of authority. That is, of course, the main purpose of most such translating, to position Japanese as the dominant language and English as secondary. Translation serves little educational purpose in itself, but it serves an important role in maintaining social, cultural and linguistic hierarchies.

At the end of the exam, as we collected the exams and students asked me this or that, or said goodbye (in English), I saw the teacher looking over the four full pages of English essays the students had produced in an hour. He looked confused by how much they had written, and on what challenging topics.

Surely, they could not have translated all that in their heads! They must have been thinking and writing directly in English! And so, they were.

This compulsion to maintain Japanese alongside English only inhibits and restrains progress in learning English. Without ever being loosed from Japanese, without autonomy, students’ English never fully forms as an active working language. The time and energy spent constantly translating is time stolen from meaningful input and constructive output, and as such, it is time and energy stolen from real learning.

 

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Michael is currently teaching at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan, in the American Literature section of the English Department. More information in the About Me page.