Towards a more open-ended English education.
Sony Computer Science Laboratories
It is a widely recognized fact that the Japanese people are not particularly good at expressing themselves in English. To some observers, this is a genuine puzzle, considering the many hours of study that the Japanese typically put towards the acquisition of English skills.
Here, based on the general view of the human brain being elucidated in the neurosciences, I put forward some ideas towards the improvement of English learning process of the Japanese. These concepts are not necessarily limited to the Japanese phenomenon per se, but could be applied elsewhere in the world.
(1) Open-endedness. Natural language is an essentially open-ended system of communication. Given the sheer number of possible word combinations, it is quite conceivable that an non-negligible part of phrases we use in our daily conversation are spoken and heard effectively once in a lifetime. A person with a mature linguistic ability will be able to comprehend what is being said on the first hearing. Even when an unknown word is included, the listener is often able to make a fairly good guess as to its meaning. Parents and other mature speakers rarely restrict their vocabulary when conversing among themselves in the presence of children. Thus, open-endedness seems to be an essential component of the linguistic ability and its learning process.
Considering the properties of the linguistic system above, it may appear that the current teaching guideline ("shido youryou") put forward by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, Science and Education might be too restrictive in its scope for vocabulary. It suggests that during the three years of English education at the junior high school, about 900 hundred essential English words should be acquired . While it is a good idea to start from the easy pieces, too much restriction on the words to be used in the school texts would inevitably lead to an impoverishment of its contents and a suffocation of the intellect of the curious low-teens, who might be otherwise able to assimilate knowledge at a formidable speed.
(2) Context of language acquisition. The human brain is very sensitive to the context in which it executes and develops its functions. Cognitive processes supported by the neural circuits including the orbitofrontal cortex identify the context in which the agent interacts with other agents, and coupled with the brain's reward system, reinforces the relevant circuits of functionality .
From this perspective, it may appear that the present system of English education in Japan is putting too much emphasis on doing well in examinations, rather than encouraging the pupils to express their views in an open and free environment, where the grammatical correctness and scoring are not necessarily the primary concerns. A change in the context of English learning would be necessary to improve the situation.
(3) Power of volume. It is no hidden secret that the dexterity of language abilities increases monotonously as exposure increases. From this perspective, it may appear that the "volume" of English language materials which an average pupil is exposed to in Japan is simply too small, which, again, is related to the vocabulary restriction problem referred to above.
The brain's memory system extracts semantic significances from the multitudes of episodic memories stored in its circuits. The flexible way in which the various words are employed in the English language simply cannot be acquired by referring to a "lookup table" in the style of a dictionary. The appropriateness of the usage of a particular word in a given context could be judged in a robust manner based on a rich accumulation of episodic memories in the brain. From this perspective, the current English education policy in Japan might be simply lacking in volumes of material. The child's brain is naturally ready to absorb more. It is too patronizing for the educators to restrict the number of texts and spoken materials in the education process.
I will finish by citing two anecdotes. People sometimes have the notion that education at an early age is necessary for the efficient acquisition of English. The life history of Joseph Conrad, who was exposed to the English language only after he was over twenty years old, and yet went on to write masterpieces in English literature such as "Heart of Darkness" is a good counterexample to this notion. Hidekazu Yoshida, a famous and respected Japanese music critic, once told me that in the education system of "Kyusei Kouko" (senior high schools in the prewar Japanese education system), the foreign language education was rather "savage". Mr. Yoshida said that when they learned German, on the first day they were taught the ABC (in German pronunciations) and rudimentary grammar, and on the second day they were made to read an essay of Friedrich Nietzsche on the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer!
These two anecdotes, I hope, will remind those concerned with English education in Japan of the dynamic range in the learning potentials of the human brain. Findings from the current studies in the brain sciences would also suggest the validity of a more open-ended and dynamic English education system, away from the suffocation of too much standardization and an pre-occupation with scores.
There are lots of things that a proper usage of the emergent information technologies can help towards an more open-ended English education. The availability of Michael Sandel's lectures at Harvard  is a good example. It is not a far-fetched idea to expose the low-teens to such lectures at some rather early stages of their English learning, in view of the open-endedness of language acquisition.
 Teaching guidelines given on The Ministry of Culture, Sports, Science and Education webpage (in Japanese) at http://www.mext.go.jp/b_menu/shuppan/sonota/990301/03122602/010.htm
 Rolls, E.T. The orbitofrontal cortex and reward. Cerebral Cortex 10, 284-294 (2000)
 Harvard University's "Justice" with Michael Sandel, provided free of charge at http://www.justiceharvard.org.
(Abstract for a conference talk by Ken Mogi at LET 50 )