Olympic swimming’s individual medley as a metaphor for studying English: Can you see Japan’s handicap?



“The 400m individual swimming medley has been an Olympic
competition since the 1964 Summer Olympics, Tokyo, Japan.”
(Wikipedia online)

Metaphors describing the difficulties of studying English in Japan have come and gone over the years: studying English is like learning to ride a bicycle; like learning to play a musical instrument like the flute; or like learning how to cook. In various ways, these metaphors all highlighted the need for practice, perseverance and patience (PPP?). The old adage went, “Imagine being taught, in explicit details, how to play the flute but never actually touching it” or “Imagine being allowed to touch the flute and practice the fingering, but never actually blowing into it.” This picture was painted to argue that learners must use English in to improve at English. Now, a new swimming “medley” metaphor may actually come closer than any of its predecessors to capturing the true essence of what it is like for Japanese to try to learn English in the Japanese context: a context where the educational system handicaps learners way beyond anything that would be advocated or even tolerated in sports, but is completely accepted as the norm in our junior and senior high school English classes.

Can you imagine an individual medley swimmer having to swim the four different strokes in a competition, but never having practiced one or two of those strokes prior to the event? Imagine they worked very hard on the breaststroke and the backstroke but never practiced the butterfly stroke, the crawl, or even making turns at the end of each length. It defies common sense and almost totally handicaps the swimmer’s chance of success when the time comes for them to perform. It goes without saying that if one wishes to compete in the individual swimming medley, and not feel like a complete failure, then you must practice all four strokes, as well as the start, turns and some overall mental “image” training of confidence and success.

Is the goal actually to learn English?

If the goal is to learn English, and this may be a dubious assumption, then learners must consider the metaphor above when it comes to studying English. If the goal is not ultimately to learn English, then we have all collectively been hijacked by the university entrance system, in which students spend six years of their live studying “grammar for grammar’s sake,” culminating in a test that contains some of the most obsolete English that one will ever encounter. This is not stated to disrespect the efforts of many educators who put a great deal of time into creating these tests, it simply becomes necessary to have more and more unreasonable testing expectations and rarely used forms of English included in order to create a normal distribution of scores. Have junior and senior high school teachers thrown in the towel, held up the white flag and given up even pretending to want their students to learn English?

The honne and tatemae of English textbooks produced by Japanese publishers

MEXT (equivalent to the ministry of education here in Japan) recently released its new approach to English education for the next 10 years. It is the government’s attempt to steer English language education in a progressive direction. They have analyzed the approach up until now, evaluated the successes and failures, and have decided to take a more holistic interwoven approach to English language education.

Speaking with a seasoned textbook writer who is also a high school JTE, I asked, “How does the publisher balances the obvious tension between the new MEXT policy and preparation for university entrance exams?” Without missing a beat, she replied, “Do you know honne (what we really think) and tatemae (what we say to appease)?” She elaborated that writers must pay “lip service” to the MEXT guidelines in describing a new textbook, but that the real intention is that 99% of the text design must be geared towards university entrance exam preparation.

Back to the metaphor

I wonder if I even need to spell this out at this point? To be successful in just about any agreed upon way of measuring success with English includes: communicative competence, be able to exchange meaning, or having the capability of using language. One must take a balanced, multi-pronged approach to getting to any of those described levels. If there were four swimming strokes and three other big considerations for the individual medley swimmer, the same can be said of the English learner: grammar, vocabulary, input (reading and listening), output (writing and speaking) are all integral parts of the whole that is necessary to learn English. Sidestepping of any of these parts will result in students who are at a distinct disadvantage compared to those who take a balanced approach to learning English. This is now the case when comparing Japanese learners with other EFL learners.

Back to the basics

If students simply took a balanced approach to English, they would be much further ahead than they are today. The only people who have survived the grammar-translation approach to learning English are now teaching today’s junior and senior high school classes. Currently, everything taught in the classroom is just a slightly different shade of grammar or translation instruction: reading is intensive (one page per class), writing is limited to one-sentence constructions, and listening and speaking opportunities are either negligible or contrived. Fluency practice does not exist, unless the never-ending barrage of test taking could be construed as some form of “fluency”.

Yet another audacity of hope

If only more teachers could have the courage to admit the farcical nature of the current approach, and the audacity to consider taking a new approach, an entire generation of young learners would quickly jump onboard: we see this over and over where in classes where a minority of enlightened Japanese and native speaking teachers have decided to treat English as a live, unscripted entity; a communication tool that brings people together and can make the human experience a more meaningful process.

A call to discuss

So, am I missing something? Is there some reason that Japan should voluntarily handicap itself against the rest of the world in learning English? If you were the coach of the swim team, could you imagine ignoring the butterfly stroke, or not practicing turns or starts? Do you think you would be forgiven for your approach? Now, imagine if you were an English teacher in Japan, what would you do?

2 thoughts on “Olympic swimming’s individual medley as a metaphor for studying English: Can you see Japan’s handicap?

  1. Hi Steve

    Greetings from Finland! I have been reading your blog since last summer, when I learned about it on Twitter through @barbsaka.

    I find this post, and a lot of the others you’ve written very interesting, since there are certain similarities between Finnish and Japanese learners of English. Naturally, I don’t really know the situation in Japan, but I have a few Japanese English teacher friends (even visited one high school in Hokkaido some years back) and we often discuss language teaching.

    It seems to me that in both cultures there is a lot of emphasis on teaching grammar. I wonder if it is because both Finnish and Japanese are considered very difficult languages for foreigners to learn, so mother tongue grammar is also prominent in schools. Anyway, what you wrote about the university exams with testing obsolete English to create a normal distribution is exactly what happens in Finland with our national final exams in high school. Finns, on the whole, have a marvellous passive knowledge of English, so if students were really tested on how much they understand, a vast majority would score well above average. However, this is not possible from the normal distribution point of view, so the exams get more and more ridiculous every year, with the sole goal of making excellent students make mistakes! How mean!

    At the same time, Finns are very shy to speak English, or at least have a hard time shedding their strange Finnish communicative patterns, I would say they are chronically socially challenged when using a foreign language. Why aren’t these skills tested in the final exams, so that we teachers could focus on skills that really matter in real life? The excuse is that such testing would be too difficult and expensive to organise. So the same old written only testing of passive skills continues…

    Another problem here in Finland, of course, is that we don’t have native speakers helping Finnish teachers in class. Although, in theory, all Finnish language teachers are very well educated, I feel many of them don’t possess natural and fluent enough communicative skills themselves. It’s a different ballgame to engage in a lively English conversation from explaining the ins and outs of English grammar in Finnish! No wonder, the Finnish communicative patterns get perpetuated from generation to generation. I wish we had native teachers to work with, as in Japan!

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