Essays on English in Japan

I like pizza English

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The one topic that Japanese always bring up with me if they speak English, and in Japanese, too is—food! This topic is easy, of course, uncontroversial, and the beginning of many interactions. Yet, more often than not, once the topic of food is finished, the conversation dies. It often seems like a conversation on pizza, or natto or chopsticks, or…nothing! Students all over the country have been trapped inside the “I like pizza” mindset and will never escape. Japan is awash in English textbooks that encourage this “I like pizza” mindset:

"Do you like pizza?"

"Yes, I like pizza. I like pizza very much. I like Italian pizza. I like cheese pizza. What about you?"

"Me, too!"

This approach is what I call "I like pizza English." These "I like pizza English" textbooks are always awash in bright colors, smiling cartoon faces, and super-short sentences with one little blank. Eye candy with little serious content, the “I like pizza” books keep students working away busily, but do not really teach them much. They are the most common type of textbooks at almost all levels of instruction.

Rather than help connect students to a world awash with problems, difficulties and uncertainties, these textbooks entertain and distract but do not challenge and motivate. They aim below students’ real level of maturity with simplistic formulas and silly topics. While in other countries these textbooks would be ridiculed or ignored, because they are in the always-to-be-respected language of English, Japanese accept these, give them their serious attention, and fill in one little blank after the next.

The answer to the question "Do you like pizza?" is, of course, "Yes, I like pizza." So, there the lesson ends more or less. What’s even more inane is that almost everyone likes pizza. I like pizza a lot, probably most readers like pizza, but these textbooks never get around to asking “Why do you like pizza?” or “Why do most people like pizza, do you think?” The point is to fill in the blank with the correct answer. Whatever the other chapter topics are, whether movie stars, my room, the internet, sports, and even the potentially interesting standby—global warming, each is presented without debate, discussion or complexity. Instead of helping students use language to connect to the world, they simplify both language and the world so far as to insult their intelligence.

Why government authorities, school systems, teachers and students accept this kind of textbook is a bit of a mystery. Clearly, the intention is to make things easy for the low level student, but in fact, they never get to move up to another level. The questions in most of these textbooks can be answered perfectly by students simply by copying the basic grammar patterns. You can give your answers without ever thinking. They make it seem like learning is taking place, but it is only on the surface. That may satisfy the authorities in the short run, but in the long run, it undermines genuine progress.

The real loss in using these textbooks over and over is that they do not take students seriously. Young people in Japan have lots of ideas and opinions, though they keep them very well hidden at times. Studying a language should do more than just run through easy language patterns. It should also get students to really engage in expressing difficult opinions and learning new ideas. Students must be asked, tricked or forced to think in the language. Some students are surely attracted to the flashiness and colorfulness of these textbooks, but that isn’t enough for the lengthy business of learning. To me, these “I like pizza English” books look like teen pop idol magazines. Maybe it's the same designers; certainly it’s the same attitude.

The strangest thing perhaps is that for any number of other areas in life, Japanese are very interested in complex, nuanced, detailed information that is hard to understand and challenging to acquire. Specialists, experts, hobbyists, and even ‘otaku’ abound for every field of human endeavor. Yet, when it comes to English, suddenly, everything drops to the lowest level possible.

Textbooks can set patterns and explain grammar, but they must contain real content and serious questions to raise students up to another level of language and of thinking. "Why is pizza the most popular food in the world?" is a tricky question that has to be thought about and answered with original, even argumentative, responses. Textbooks should guide students towards longer sentences, not trap them inside of short, easy ones. Instead of "Yes, I like pizza," a better answer would be, "I like the tangy tomato sauce, delicious melted cheese, spicy sausage and healthy vegetables on top of the pizza." However, the blanks in “I like pizza” textbooks are always too short for anything like that.

Real content and real language treats students like adults. Content-less, fill-in-the-blanks English, presented in what are essentially big coloring books, keeps students thinking like children. School is supposed to move students forward in life, not hold them back, but the low expectation, condescending tone and simplistic approach of “I like pizza” textbooks restrains students. Japanese students are much brighter and more aware than any of these textbooks. Hopefully, one day, the textbooks will rise up to their level.


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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.