English fluency hopes rest on an education overhaul

Systemic, structural problems hinder government goals
English fluency hopes rest on an education overhaul


Ringing in 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a dream: One nation that will actively re-engage with the global marketplace.

To realize this dream by 2020, it’s commonly accepted that the Japanese need to improve their English. So, what’s the problem? Unfortunately there are a few.

Though English has been a part of the official national syllabus since 1947 and many subsequent education policies have addressed curriculum reform — most recently the 2008 “Revisions of the Courses of Study for the Elementary and Secondary Schools” — there is widespread concern that few Japanese can actually speak fluent English.

Entrance exams

The most commonly cited culprit for Japan’s poor English-speaking abilities is the juken (school entrance exam) system, which does not have a speaking component. Therefore, classroom English is heavily weighted toward grammar and translation as required for admissions exams.

Paul Underwood, a professor at Toyo Eiwa University who has just completed a study on the 2009 policy’s shortfalls, says acceptance to the best universities is the shared goal of students, teachers, schools and parents.

“It’s all about getting into university,” he says. “How can you convince schools to adopt a more communicative approach that might potentially reduce the numbers getting into universities? Why bother changing?”

And indeed, it seems the system has not changed. Robert Aspinall, a professor at Shiga University and author of the 2012 book “International Education Policy in Japan in an Age of Globalisation and Risk,” describes his experiences as an English teacher through the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme 24 years ago: “Learning to speak English was a complete waste of time because it didn’t help in any of the exams students were preparing for.”

Lack of resources

Another significant criticism of English class is the lack of resources in terms of teacher training, time and materials. Teachers are not adequately prepared, and there is no English requirement to graduate with a teaching certification, yet MEXT (the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) requires English to be taught starting in the fifth grade of elementary school — soon to be moved up to third grade.

“It is unrealistic to expect teachers to teach a difficult foreign language on top of a really tough job,” Aspinall says. “The Japanese teacher goes into the classroom and sings a song or plays a CD (in elementary school), and it’s not proper English teaching.”

And regarding ongoing teacher training, he adds: “Those teachers are not English teachers in the first place, so you’re having to start from scratch. The cascade method of teaching where you teach a few people at the prefecture level and take it down to the local town level doesn’t work as a teacher-training method.”

In addition to the Japanese teacher, local school boards hire foreign-native English-speaking teachers through the government-sponsored JET Programme or through privately run dispatch companies. These teachers, often referred to as ALTs (assistant language teachers), are neither professionally trained teachers nor language instructors. And, when they arrive in Japan, they may have as little as three days’ training before they start work.

Though a fan of JET, Charles Browne, a professor of applied linguistics at Meiji Gakuin University who has spent the last 28 years in Japan, criticizes for-profit dispatch companies.

“They hire foreigners for the lowest price, do not adequately provide support, and just fire the ALT rather than fix the problem — it’s a cold system,” he says.

It seems that the problem could be fixed with increased financial investment. However, MEXT’s resources are limited.

In 2007, MEXT invited five English experts to form the Central Education Council For Teacher Education, a national subcommittee to make recommendations on improving teacher education. Though the investigative research project was to last a full two years from 2006, it was prematurely terminated in 2007 due to lack of funds, according to committee member Browne.

Complaints about outdated and obscure English textbooks are also pervasive. Michael Sherwood, an ALT who has been teaching English throughout Japan for 11 years, says vocabulary in his textbook includes cultural artifacts such as “video cassette” and “floppy disk.” Furthermore, he feels the conversational textbooks cannot be effective in a classroom with more than 40 students.

Lost in translation

Communication issues between the Japanese English-language teacher and the ALT can be another problem.

According to Underwood’s latest research: “Already overworked Japanese teachers see it as a tremendous burden looking after the ALTs — spending time coordinating with them and lesson planning with them.” Maybe worse, “as one of the teachers in my study put it, the chances of getting paired with a professional ALT are the same as winning the national lottery.”

A further complication is that labor law does not allow the Japanese classroom teacher to team-teach with the ALT. Miki Nakayama, a Tokyo mother of four, describes what she observed in her son’s English class: “The native teacher didn’t understand the students’ questions and the students didn’t understand the teacher’s English explanation, so the students stopped paying attention.”

Socially, ALTs are sometimes ostracized from the school community.

“I see many ALTs sitting alone in the shokuin-shitsu (staff room), and no Japanese teachers talk to them,” says Chie Ohtani, associate professor at Tamagawa University and a board member of the Japan-U.S. Teacher Education Consortium. “It is so important to show their acceptance into the school community as colleagues. Such an attitude will act as a positive role model for the students.”

So, you can imagine the frustration when ALTs request feedback for their lessons, and they are often not given any.

When asked about professional assessments, Andrew Murray, an ALT of 14 years who teaches at a junior high school in Kawasaki, says, “That’s a difficult problem. You have to work it out yourself.” And Norm Cook, another junior high school teacher in Kawasaki, says, “When we ask the Japanese teacher that we are working with afterward for feedback, classically, almost always, the teacher just says, ‘It was good.’ ”

This situation may be exacerbated by the infrequency and irregularity of ALTs meeting with classes in most schools. In rural areas, it is not uncommon for ALTs to visit classrooms once a week. Cook says he teaches a given class maybe once a month. On top of this, the ALT may be on a rotating weekly schedule between multiple schools.

A waste of time?

From the parents’ point of view, the overarching sentiment is that English language instruction in the classroom is mottainai (wasteful). After two years of English in elementary school grades five and six, some parents express frustration that their children cannot recognize letters of the English alphabet. Tomoko Inoue, mother to a junior high school student in Osaka says: “It’s like they are dancing in English. Honestly, I felt this was meant for kindergartners. It’s like an additional recess period.”

Yumiko Seki, mother to a junior high school student in Osaka, describes the disconnect between learning English and its practical application.

“English is not studied as a spoken language — students do worksheet after worksheet,” she says. “It’s studying for a test, not for future use in a career.”

Sachie Araki, an Osaka mother of three, whose eldest child is a fluent English speaker having attended a public school in the United States from grade two through six of elementary school, describes how her daughter struggles in English class because the grammar is too difficult and irrelevant — a common complaint of returnees.

Nobuki Toyoizumi, a Tokyo mother of two, points out that the most common tests that assess English abilities in Japan — the Eiken and TOEIC exams — are unrelated to English mastery, and how the highest scores on these multiple-choice exams are equivalent to a low score on the TOEFL exam that measures English proficiency for higher U.S. university standards. Supporting this, Nakayama says her son’s English tutor told him to forget everything he has learned in his school’s English class if he hopes to perform well on the TOEFL exam.

Another cause for concern is that students have little motivation to speak English.

“Students have no need to speak English, they do not feel it is important, and there is no downside to not studying,” says ALT Sherwood. “Most of the students get 20 percent on vocabulary quizzes. They are allowed to sleep in class.”

A recurring theme is the lack of continuity in the English curriculum as students rise from elementary to junior high school and then again from junior high to high school. Technically, elementary school students are not supposed to be taught reading and writing and are to simply enjoy getting familiar with listening to English. However, by the start of junior high school, students have had disparate exposure to English learning.

“When students arrive in junior high school on day one, they start with A-B-C,” says Aspinall. “And the junior high school gets fed from three or four or maybe more elementary schools, so they are going to get kids from different backgrounds at the elementary level, and that’s even before you take into account parents spending their own money on tutors and things.”

So in response to MEXT’s latest English policy discussions on introducing English from third grade rather than fifth grade, Aspinall wonders: “What is the point in pushing English further down the age range when they are going to start the junior high school level at A-B-C all over again? This is not a coordinated curriculum.”

Nakayama, the Tokyo mother of four, mentions the added complication of the current non-academic way of introducing English in elementary school.

“When my eldest son started junior high school, he was introduced to grammar, and it was gibberish,” she says. “It was completely different from the English he had been exposed to. And when you ask him if he can have simple conversation or form a greeting, he cannot.”

The English divide

A larger, national problem that MEXT must address is the English divide, which means students at private schools or those whose parents invest in English education outside of the classroom have a significant advantage over those that attend public school alone.

“While the number of hours allocated to English in public schools is generally fixed,” Aspinall says, “private schools often choose to specialize in particular subject areas such as English and allocate substantially more hours to the curriculum. . . . Further, as they are privately funded, many choose to include a study-abroad experience as part of the program.”

In his study, professor Underwood found that a private 1,400-student senior high school in Tokyo haa about 15 full-time native English speaking teachers on staff.

“There were at least five to six contact hours with the native speaker per week in addition to the classes they had with their Japanese teacher, which would be the equivalent or more. Private schools have a lot more funding and flexibility, and they can add a lot more hours to the curriculum for which they do not need authorization.”

Parental influence can make up for shortcomings at school.

“In a home where there is not a stress placed on English, English one time per week has no meaning,” Inoue says. “I believe it depends on the academic background of the parents — starting in elementary school taking advantage of summer vacation and getting involved in foreign study programs abroad.”

Masako Suzuki, a mother of two in Osaka, explains: “There is a sense that we cannot depend on the school for English, so I need to continue to send my daughters to an eikaiwa (English conversation) school.”

And Midoriko Takahara, a Tokyo mother of two who runs her own juku (private tutoring or cram school) takes responsibility for her sons’ English education.

“I did kiso eigo (basic English) on NHK every day at 6 a.m. for 15 minutes with my children during elementary and junior high schools. The pace is quick and we follow with a text.” She also reads and discusses newspaper articles with her sons daily.

So, will English ever be a more widespread spoken language in Japan? It seems the Abe administration and MEXT must reallocate resources and overhaul the entire English-language curriculum if English to be a true priority in Japan’s economic rebirth.

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