I am a member of an Internet group for English school owners in Japan. Recently, some members of that group have been discussing some of the frustrations they have had with students writing perfectly acceptable English in school tests and being marked wrong by their teachers. This is not an unreasonable, ranty group of teachers hell-bent on showing the Japanese where they are going wrong, and they do acknowledge that there are dedicated teachers willing to allow some flexibility in students’ answers, but still, I’ll admit that reading some of their comments had me muttering unpleasantries.
The gist of the conversation was this: it does not matter that an English response is correct linguistically, it must be the answer expected by the teacher and taught in the classroom to merit a point. Thus it was that one teacher’s student had the word ‘siblings’ marked wrong as a translation of the word 兄弟, because that word had not yet been taught in class. Another complained that to translate 晴れて暑いです as ‘It’s hot and sunny,’ was marked wrong because it should be, ‘It’s sunny and hot.’ That, you see, is the way those adjectives appear in the Japanese sentence. Well, yes, but the direct translation of the verb appears at the end of the Japanese sentence and no marks are given for, ‘Sunny and hot it is,’ are they? Most native English speakers would say, ‘It’s hot and sunny,’ and to mark that as incorrect is ludicrous. Sometimes, you need to remind people that learning English does not mean learning to speak Japanese using English words. That’s not how it works.
One teacher, the owner of a well-respected school in Kobe, told of how one of her students had written, ‘I want to be an English teacher,’ as an answer to the question, ‘What is your dream?’ That was wrong, too. Why? Well, apparently, it should have been, ‘My dream is an English teacher.’
I can’t vouch for the veracity of these anecdotes, but I have no reason to doubt them. They were all made by people who come across as very level-headed and not at all the sort of people who have a huge grudge against all things educational in Japan. Their stories also reminded me of the experience of one of my own students, an intelligent girl who was denied full marks in an English test because she wrote, ‘I am from Japan,’ as an answer to the question, ‘Where are you from?’ The testers were looking for, ‘I am from (city).’ Or perhaps it was the other way round. I can’t remember, probably because both are perfectly acceptable.
Now, as I said, not all teachers in Japan are so rigidly inflexible, but tales like these are still all too common. They are common enough that when I am teaching I sometimes find myself showing kids perfectly correct and common ways of saying things and then having to add, ‘But you might get marked wrong if you write that on the test.’
I used to wonder why, when adult students encountered two ways of saying the same thing, they would often ask, ‘But which is more common?’ ‘They’re both common. Either is fine,’ I would say. ‘But which is better?’ They would ask. And when you say that neither is better, they look a tad downhearted. Perhaps because once upon a time they discovered that a little flexibility, which should be key to successful language learning, was sometimes viewed as a dangerous thing.