Should English be compulsory in elementary schools?

by Takahiko Nagoya

After visiting an English class at an elementary school in Arakawa Ward, Tokyo, early this year, then education minister Takeo Kawamura told the principal, “In the near future, I think there should be English classes in all of Japan’s elementary schools.”

Kawamura had until then been cautious in statements about the issue. He visited the No. 3 Nippori Elementary School because it took the initiative to make English part of the curriculum for students starting with the first grade after the central government designated the ward a special educational zone.

He acted quickly. In a meeting of the House of Representatives Budget Committee in March, he indicated he was serious about compulsory English education in elementary schools, saying, “China and South Korea have already done it.”

He then asked the Central Education Council to study whether to introduce compulsory English education at elementary schools.

But the reaction of education ministry bureaucrats was cold. A high-ranking bureaucrat said, “Is there any time for English education?”

The council’s past recommendations on the issue were negative, saying, “The priority at the elementary school stage is the fostering of Japanese-language skills.”

At a meeting of the council’s foreign-language special division, which was created in April, proponents insisted that compulsory English education should be introduced at an early date if the training of teachers and other conditions are in place and that inaction would see Japan lagging behind other Asian countries.

On the other hand, those taking a cautious stance insisted that priority should be given to improving lessons at junior high schools and higher educational institutions, and that compulsory studies could increase the number of students who dislike English.

The division is scheduled to make public by March whether English education should be compulsory at all elementary schools.

Regardless of whether it is made compulsory, many elementary schools are taking up English, and in fiscal 2003 students at 88 percent of them studied the language in a general study course.

But hours devoted to English studies vary from one hour a year to two to three hours a week. A junior high school teacher said: “There is already a gap (in the level of English proficiency) at the time of school entrance. Uniform compulsory education is fair.”

Education ministry bureaucrats are slowly changing their minds.

One official said, “The acquisition of correct pronunciation is better done by elementary school students.”

A nationwide survey by the Japan Public Opinions Survey Society in September about whether English should be made a compulsory subject at elementary schools found that 82 percent of respondents replied in the affirmative, and the percentage among parents having children was 88 percent.

“Although public opinion gave the green light, the effects of the introduction will not appear until several years later,” said a ranking education ministry official. “We wonder if guardians can be patient.”