Cash problem hinders English education in Japan, hitting local governments hardest

English classes face cash crisis / Some local govts can’t afford native speakers for primary schools 

Though many municipalities plan to employ native English speakers or bilingual people to teach public primary schools’ fifth- and sixth-grade students’ English classes in April, a recent Yomiuri Shimbun survey showed that some cash-strapped municipalities are reluctant to do so for financial reasons.

Under the government’s new teaching guidelines, English will become compulsory for such students in fiscal 2011.

The government’s measure is aimed at improving English education at public schools, which are said to be failing to teach adequate English conversation skills.

Public primary schools in Minato Ward, Tokyo, will provide about 70 English classes a year for primary school students of all grades. The ward’s 19 primary schools already have introduced advanced English classes.

On March 6, a Japanese teacher and an assistant language teacher showed students a picture of hina dolls for the Girls’ Festival at Minato Ward’s Azabu Primary School, which prohibits students from speaking Japanese during English classes.

“What’s the question?” the assistant teacher said.

“What month is it?” one student said.

“It’s March,” the other students replied.

The session aims to encourage students to think about asking questions on a topic.

The Minato Ward government started to put special emphasis on English education at primary schools in fiscal 2006. In its fiscal budget for 2009, it set aside about 170 million yen for English education at primary and middle schools. The budget allocates 5.86 million yen to each school–far more than schools in the 17 designated major cities and the other 22 wards in Tokyo.

However, some cash-strapped municipalities have no prospect of employing assistant language teachers. Yamagata Prefecture’s Shinjo municipal government, which is required by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry to reconstruct its finances, has scheduled 15 or more English classes at its 10 primary schools, but has no plans to employ assistant language teachers.

“We had to put priority on measures to strengthen the earthquake-resistance of school buildings, which is more urgent,” an official of the Shinjo municipal board of education said.

The Okushiricho town government in Hokkaido has not considered employing assistant teachers. It plans to hold 35 English classes in fiscal 2009, but the classes will be taught by Japanese teachers.

“The island [of Okushiri] has no foreign residents who can teach English, and we don’t have the money to employ assistant language teachers,” an official of the town’s board of education said.

“The most effective method for students to cultivate English pronunciation and listening skills is via the speaking and body language of assistant language teachers,” Mejiro University Prof. Takashi Tada said. “If the classes are badly managed [by inexperienced teachers], students will come to hate English.”

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