Dialogue with Prof. Shigenori Tanaka
Ishiwatari: I’d like to talk about Mirai Kindergarten today. If you don’t mind me asking, how long have you been teaching English?
Prof. Tanaka Shigenori (hereafter referred to as Tanaka):
Of course, I would love to talk with you about it. I have been teaching English for almost 36 years. It has been 28 years since I joined Keio University SFC (Shonan Fujisawa Campus), which had just opened at the time.
～Regarding Mirai’s English education～
Ishiwatari: I apologize for getting straight to the point. Mirai Kindergarten, where you currently serve as an adviser, is run by Cocone Co., Ltd. as a subsidiary. You are also the Chief Director of the Cocone Institution for Language Education. Could you tell us a bit more about your field?
Tanaka: My field is English Education, but to be exact, I’m working in Applied Linguistics. Basically, I’m doing research on the nature of communication, how we describe meaning, and the theoretical aspects of English education. I am particularly interested in implementing theory into practice in English education.
Ishiwatari: And you are also administering PEN (Powerful Educators' Network), an online service for teacher training. Are teachers the target users?
Tanaka: Yes, that’s right. I’ve been in charge of NHK English for many years and I learned a lot during that time. I especially believe that in order to improve English education, we should begin with training teachers. Teaching materials are, of course, important for English classes, but more importantly, teachers are the key. I think training teachers is a must for English education in Japan. Online services also have a lot of potential.
Ishiwatari: Most Japanese people have been learning English for over 10 years, and yet, they rarely have the chance to speak English in everyday life. Japanese people have an inferiority complex when it comes to English, don’t they?
Tanaka: Yes. I think many Japanese people dislike English as a school subject. When I ask my students if they like English, to my disappointment, many of them reply, “Not so much.” However, when I ask what they would like to do if they could speak English well, they quickly respond with a smile. So it is not really English itself that they dislike.
Ishiwatari: In other words, they somehow get the idea that they are not good at English during the learning process?
Tanaka: Absolutely. Personally, I believe that teaching and learning are just like the front and back sides of a piece of paper: if you cut the front, you’re automatically cutting the back. Teaching and learning are inseparable. So in order to teach better, one should keep learning and improving his/her teaching skills.
Ishiwatari: I think the same can be said for early education. It is very important for teachers to keep on learning. Our kindergarten, Mirai International Montessori Kindergarten, was founded in April, 2017. How do you feel about Mirai Kindergarten? Instead of a traditional learning approach where students just sit down and listen to the teachers, we provide an environment where students can use English to communicate with native English teachers in an authentic way.
Tanaka: I think it’s great. As an adviser, I repeatedly ask teachers to create a natural English environment where students can naturally pick up English. It is extremely important for students to use English in the natural flow of communication. First of all, children around three years old have a very high language acquiring ability or capacity. At this age, it is very likely that they can acquire English in a natural way, given rich input.
Ishiwatari: In Mirai Kindergarten, when it comes to English class time, even an activity like playing ball would require students to use English to communicate with native English teachers. For example, when a teacher asks a crying student if they got into a fight with someone, the student must try very hard to explain in English that he/she bumped into someone, or got hit by the ball, even while crying. We also provide an activity called “Work Experience Corner” where students play make-believe for different occupations using real objects. Personally, I think Mirai Kindergarten has a really natural atmosphere regarding English learning. How do you see Mirai from the perspective of Bilingual Education?
Tanaka: If one of the parents is a native speaker of English and the other is a native speaker of Japanese, it would be very likely for the child to become bilingual. Every child has an inborn capacity to learn two languages simultaneously if rich input is given in both languages. So, if a child starts going to a bilingual kindergarten from two years old, we can expect that he or she can become bilingual. However, we must note that what really matters is not whether the child has learned many words or shown the ability to reproduce sentences, but whether the child has developed functional competency in the language in his or her own mind. That becomes the foundation of English use. Might I add, if students are in an environment where authentic language is used, it is also unlikely that they will dislike English.
Ishiwatari: I agree. It’s a pity that it is very difficult for children to be involved in other English-speaking communities unless they are enrolled in international schools in Japan.
Tanaka: Yes, but if children are immersed in an English environment like Mirai from around two to six years old, they will surely develop an “ear” for English sounds and will have a “mouth” for English pronunciation. After that, even if they were to join a local elementary school, they would still retain functional English competency. It’s like riding a bike: their ability to use English would come back after being exposed to the language again. Once linguistic competence is acquired, it remains.
Ishiwatari: That's what you said about functional English competence in the brain, right?
Tanaka: That’s right! It’s like a train of thought: once an “English thinking pattern” is established, it remains functional, even when not in use.
Ishiwatari: What would be the difference between students who study Japanese-style English after going to elementary or junior high school and students who experience an English environment in early childhood?
Tanaka: Suppose we have student A, who learned English in a Japanese school and student B, who learned English in a bilingual environment. Even if both A and B have learned the same amount of vocabulary, there is a big difference. Student A is likely to have learned words in textbooks; A has memorized them. Memorized vocabulary can be used for university exams, but it does not become a language resource to be used in communication. Student B has learned words and phrases through interaction in communicative activities, so he or she can readily use them. This, I think, is the biggest difference.
Ishiwatari: So, for a student who has been learning English from early childhood, English is not just memorized, and that is why he/she can actually use it.
Tanaka: Yes, that’s right. In order to acquire English for actual usage, it is necessary for students to learn through handling real tasks, also known as “learning by doing.” Moreover, it is necessary for them to enter an authentic English environment from early childhood, where English can be absorbed and accepted without discomfort, even if it is not the student’s native language.
Ishiwatari: I mentioned earlier that we also provide activities with real objects by using the “working station” corner. This is exactly how they are “learning by doing” English.
Tanaka: I think it is meaningless to force children at such a young age to sit on a chair for a couple of hours a week to memorize English vocabulary. That’s not realistic. However, in Mirai Kindergarten, students can learn English in a very natural and authentic environment for half a day, every day, instead of treating English like a chore.
～Regarding Montessori education in Mirai～
Ishiwatari: What do you think is Mirai’s most unique characteristic? For me, I would say the fact that it is a Montessori school in a bilingual context is very unique. Ms. Miyamoto, the principal of our kindergarten, was trained both in Montessori education and Bilingual education, and she has been putting her professional training into practice for a long time. Thankfully, she has been with us since the foundation of the kindergarten. Parents often ask us if Mirai is a Montessori kindergarten or a bilingual kindergarten. The answer is: “both!” Nevertheless, I believe the core education concept comes from Montessori.
Tanaka: I agree. I think the basis of Montessori education is to believe in a child’s potential.
Ishiwatari: Right. I was told that “every student is born a genius, but adults end up damaging 99% of it." As you mentioned, I believe that the foundation of Montessori education is to believe in the possibility of children and give them the ability to learn on their own.
At Mirai, there are a lot of Montessori teaching tools, but all are within the reach of the student. At the beginning of the class, the teacher will show a model as a hint, but after that, it is all up to the student to choose what and how much he/she wants.
As Ms. Miyamoto always says, “The faces of students are full of pride and confidence when they find the tools without the teacher’s aid. Those who find the tools then go to help the students who were not able to find their own and teach them how to find the tools. Students feel even prouder after having helped their peers.” Ms. Miyamoto also says, “After all, everyone feels better when they can help others and are recognized for their efforts.” Accomplishment gives us confidence and helping others accomplish something boosts confidence even more. I believe this is what students experience at Mirai.
Tanaka: That’s what we strive to provide. With Montessori education, students find out that learning is fun, and they explore their world on their own and grow.
In that sense, it is the same as language learning. By managing to express their feelings and communicate with teachers in English, the students notice things themselves, feel joy and happiness, build up confidence, and further expand their horizons.
Ishiwatari: In Montessori education, we don’t ask the students to complete a task, everything is up to the students; however, it is also the responsibility of the teachers nearby to help students capture things that enhance their awareness. It’s the same for English-teaching classes, where teachers prepare an environment that suits students' interests, and by doing this, they will fit in and enjoy lessons naturally.
Tanaka: That’s very true. Especially for young children, individual learning speed is varied. In this case, I think the teacher’s ability to identify what the student is facing is highly indispensable. That’s why we always have teachers learning Montessori Education alongside the students.
As I mentioned earlier, since English is not immersed in daily Japanese education, it becomes necessary to provide such an environment. And yet, no matter how high the quality of the material is, it does absolutely no good to force students to learn. That is why it’s important to create an environment where students are attracted to learning.
Teachers need to help students feel free to express themselves, so what is really essential is not for teachers to sit students down and teach them, but for teachers to develop the ability to observe each student carefully. From here, they can grasp the timing of when they should interrupt to enhance a student’s learning.
Ishiwatari: In that sense, would you say that the Montessori method and the preparation for an English environment are strongly connected?
Tanaka: Right! The purpose of Montessori education is to bring out the talents of students, to bring out their in-born genius, and to value their potential. This is exactly the same in language (English) teaching.
There is no need to restrict teachers from using difficult vocabulary or longer phrases, because unlike (or like) adults, students acquire knowledge better when they are interested, even in things that are surprisingly difficult.
Ishiwatari: That is very true. We do find students knowing more than we thought they knew. For example, they understand very difficult vocabulary or the meaning of obscure phrases. I feel that students understand most of what adults say, can read between the lines, and are very sensible. Children really know just about everything adults do when it comes to natural communication.
～Regarding Education in Mirai Kindergarten～
Ishiwatari: As we’ve been saying, Mirai’s education is based on Montessori education. From the perspective of teachers and parents, having an English program under Montessori education is highly significant. When parents choose a school for their children, a steady and secure environment is highly considered and welcomed. More importantly, by integrating child development and care with Mirai Kindergarten’s specialties―Montessori and English―we believe we offer something truly beneficial for students.
Tanaka: In order to achieve this balance, it’s necessary for teachers to pursue studying every day.
Personally, I hope that teachers who are in charge of child education can enter the world that the children are experiencing. I believe this will have dramatic results. In a way, this can only be achieved when teachers empathize with children and put themselves in a child’s shoes. In order to create a good English classroom where students and teachers have fun with English, teachers need to engage in active communication with students. As for teachers themselves, they need to continue to evolve “active learning” and “doing and thinking” on a daily basis.
Ishiwatari: I see. Every day, our Japanese teachers that are in charge of Montessori teaching and native teachers that are in charge of English teaching share, review, and improve information regarding students, point by point.
I believe that this accumulation and sharing of information is essential for one of Mirai’s educational aims—that is, raising children to build a solid foundation of using English for a lifelong period, with no language barriers.
Tanaka: More importantly, I hope that parents won’t just focus on bilingual education, where young students can acquire good pronunciation and listening skills, but will also focus on understanding Mirai’s language goal–to raise children who can overcome the barrier of languages, switch between Japanese and English, and accept diversity.
It seems to me that what Mirai provides is an environment for children to develop an ability to tolerate diversity.
Kofi Annan, The Secretary General of the United Nations, mentioned in his famous speech that the “21st Century is a Century of Dialogue.” He claimed that “if diversity is seen as a source of strength, societies can become healthier, more stable and prosperous. But there is another side of the coin, if we fail to manage the conflicting pressures that pluralism inevitably brings.” I hope that students in Mirai Kindergarten will not only develop an “English ear” and an “English mouth” for beautiful pronunciation, but that they also learn to see diversity as a source of strength.
Ishiwatari: I couldn’t agree more. The reason that people need to speak a language is to get to know, share, and interact with each other. Like what Ms. Miyamoto said, “The ultimate goal of our education is peace.”
Because I think that early childhood is the time to form the foundation of a child’s personality, we as adults have a bigger responsibility than just taking care of that child.
From the point of view of Childcare and Development, I want to raise our students to be strong and kind in both Montessori and English environments.
Tanaka: As I said earlier, what really matters is not the amount of vocabulary that could be memorized or the length of the sentences that could be written. What really matters is something invisible, such as the formation of personality, the tolerance to diversity, strength and kindness, confidence, the joy to help others. This is what Mirai strives for.
Professor of Linguistics at Keio University (April 2018 as Emeritus Professor)
Director of the Language Research Institute at Cocone Co., Ltd.,
Main producer of PEN (www.pen-edu.jp)
Mr. Shigenori is a researcher who plays an active part in Cognitive Semantics, English education, and Communication Theory. He is focused on theory construction for practice and the development of teaching material as its application. He incorporated Cognitive Linguistics into English education and created an English learning method called “Core,” which has been applied widely to both lexical and grammar teaching.
He has written many books and published a number of articles both domestically and internationally. He is an author of two articles in the TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching (2018, Wiley).
2002 Registered Lawyer
2016 Director of Cocone Co., Ltd.,
2017 Representative Director of Cocone Education Co., Ltd.,
After more than 10 years of lawyer experience, Ms. Ishiwatari joined Cocone Co., Ltd., an IT company. Based on her experience as a Division Manager, she is currently the General Director of the back office. She is also the CEO of Cocone Education Co., Ltd., a subsidiary company of Cocone Co., Ltd.,. Cocone Education was established to conduct activities that benefit society in the field of language learning, which has been the main intention of the company since its foundation. Cocone Education is also in charge of managing the International Montessori Mirai Kindergarten, which was opened in April, 2017.
Cocone Co., Ltd.
Cocone was founded in 2008. It is an IT company led by Sen Yoshiaki, who founded NHN Japan, which later became the current LINE Corporation. Cocone Co., Ltd. has a language education research institution, in which teaching materials for English education are being developed.
Cocone Education Co., Ltd.
Cocone Education was founded in 2016. It was established with the aim to contribute to society through child education. In 2017, Cocone Education established and currently operates Mirai Kindergarten. Prof. Tanaka Shigenori, Director of Cocone Institution for Language Education and Emeritus Professor of Keio University, is the advisor for English education for Mirai Kindergarten.
(*This passage is translated from its original Japanese version.)