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No lack of ideas on a course of action for English education

by Teru Clavel

Special To The Japan Times

Last week’s Learning Curve column, “English fluency hopes rest on an education overhaul,” looked at the persistent mismatch between the education ministry’s stated goals and the actual outcomes of English language education in Japan.

With that in mind, this week’s article features scholars, parents and native English-speaking teachers offering their ideas on how to produce greater numbers of fluent English speakers in the country.

Top of the TEAP

Underlying the low levels of English-speaking ability in Japan is the administration of the university entrance exam — the National Center Test for University Admissions — which does not include speaking or writing. At present, the exam’s English portion consists of an 80-minute reading-based section and a 30-minute listening-based one. After the National Center Test, applicants take university-specific exams of which there are more than 1,000 (with varying levels of English requirements).

Because the Japanese education system is a “degree-ocracy,” in which the path to university acceptance and graduation is believed to determine any success thereafter, teachers teach to these entrance examinations. Absent the presence of speaking and writing sections, the general population of students are unlikely to learn these skills.

Professor Paul Underwood of Toyo Eiwa University hopes that universities will consider offering the Test of English for Academic Purposes (TEAP) exam in addition to their own. Created last year by the Eiken Foundation of Japan in conjunction with Sophia University, it is geared toward native Japanese speakers and includes speaking and writing sections.

Alternatively, 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,” believes that, like the A-level examination system in Britain, only advanced students should sit for English exams that test for all four English skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening. This will ensure that at least a handful of students are “not just passively studying English like it’s a dead language.”

Teacher training

To produce fluent speakers, English teachers must be better supported and their responsibilities reorganized.

“What Japan has needed to do for 30 years is to adequately train teachers with resources and tools,” says Charles Browne, a professor of applied linguistics at Meiji Gakuin University.

He points out that teachers here have earned their certifications without learning about English instruction, but then are required to teach the language.

Specifically, Underwood advocates a system of in-school collaborative professional development instead of the external seminars that are currently prevalent. He also says that training needs to be developed locally — doing so will help meet the unique, specific needs of geographically and demographically distinct schools and school districts.

“For this to happen successfully, there needs to be a reduction in teachers’ administrative duties and extracurricular requirements,” Underwood says.

Teachers also need to be convinced of the importance of communicative English. From his multi-year study, Underwood describes how a teacher’s personal commitment to voluntary professional development was a key variable in the success of her classroom implementation: “She was trained in how to teach grammar within communicative activities, how to manage cooperative group work and how to determine the members in the groups.”

A new finding in Underwood’s research, contrary to the widely held belief that the Japanese are too shy, indicates that students are quite willing to actively engage in communicative English.

“With the right kind of classroom management, the right approaches and tactics, students participate,” he says.

Browne offers the innovative solution of training teachers in English instruction online through his company EFL Technologies. He makes up for where he believes MEXT (the education ministry) has come up short through “tools designed to circumvent the bureaucracy. Our goal is to help teachers and students to learn despite the system.”

In addition to the Japanese classroom teacher, native English-speaking instructors often referred to as assistant language teachers (ALTs) require increased and improved training. Many come to Japan as neither teachers nor language instructors.

“The ALTs are in a foreign country, and they need more support, not less,” Browne says.

Parents weigh in

An overarching sentiment among parents is that English instruction must begin at an earlier age and occur more regularly. A prevailing regret is that despite years of their own English studies, they cannot speak the language.

“I know the current way does not work. It must change,” says Tomoko Inoue, a mother living in Osaka.

Rika Utsunomiya, a mother of two in Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture, suggests that English should start in first grade to help with pronunciation and to overcome the cultural trait of shyness.

Sachie Araki, a mother of three in Osaka, acknowledges that efforts have been made to increase class hours for the past 10 years.

“Greater improvements must be made for the future of Japan,” she adds.

Nobuko Toyoizumi, a Tokyo mother of two describes the problem: “With such limited class time, there is no way students can speak (English).” She explains that this practice further reinforces the self-propagating belief that native Japanese speakers find the language too difficult.

To accommodate more English classes at an earlier age, it has been suggested that the number of native English-speaking teachers placed at schools must increase.

“We need more native speakers to teach the students directly and to teach us teachers how to teach the students English,” says a Japanese teacher at a public elementary school in Hokkaido who asked not to be named. At present, he plays a DVD during his weekly grade five English class.

It’s not just parents and teachers who have suggestions, though. Michael Sherwood, who has been working as an ALT for 11 years, says that smaller classes should meet more often with a larger variety of native-speaker teachers.

However, realistically, Richard Graham, an English-teacher trainer and veteran of the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme, counters that there “will never be enough foreign teachers, so local ones will have to take over at some point.”

Increased international exposure

To appreciate the practical usage and importance of a foreign language, it must be understood within its cultural context. To be fluent, Midoriko Takahara, a Tokyo mother of two who runs a juku (cram school) believes that for a child to learn English, it is better that they study overseas “even if it’s a struggle. Students must experience culture shock.”

Professor Aspinall agrees with spending time abroad. “To master English, parents have got to pay to take the student out of the country,” he says.

AJ Hamilton, a Tokyo ALT, takes the idea further.

“Ideally, by sixth grade, students should have to spend an entire summer vacation in a foreign country,” he says.

Alternatively, Takahara explains that at the very least, there should be increased interaction between Japanese youth and their foreign counterparts — even within Japan. In her junior high school days, she spent a day with a host student at the American School in Japan in Tokyo.

“With only that single experience, my awareness changed,” she says.

Self-selection and inequality

Another possible way to increase fluency in Japan is for English to become an elected subject chosen by those who want to study it. This route could increase efficiencies through a reallocation of resources.

“At some point students should be able to choose an advanced English program,” Aspinall says.

Even more extreme, Browne suggests, “Though it would never happen in a million years, the best thing would be to drop English entirely as a required subject.”

Some critics argue that not every student in Japan needs English instruction. By dropping it as a requirement, only those truly interested in studying the language would choose to do so.

Another area that MEXT needs to address is the increased inequality created by English education — those with financial resources can invest in English education outside of the public school system. MEXT could consider increasing funding to less affluent areas for English-language teacher training.

For example, Azusa Todaka, a Tokyo mother of three who feels strongly that education inequality must be a priority, suggests: “Qualified teachers can be sent to those schools with less means that may be geographically or demographically hindered, and their expenses could be subsidized.”

To be sure, the suggestions expressed here are not an exhaustive list, and it should be acknowledged that MEXT and universities are addressing several of these issues. However, because English-language education is a complex matter that is perceived to threaten Japan’s national identity in the face of globalization, it is sure to remain a contentious topic in the Japanese zeitgeist for the foreseeable future.

The final article in this series will look at how both China and South Korea share parallel struggles and how they have responded in similar and different ways to Japan. It will run on this page next week.

Send comments and ideas on this topic to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Rebane

    It is time for us to realize that how to teach English in Japan has never been an issue purely of education, but one of politics. We are simply brainwashed into believing that we have no other choice than to become ‘global’ and that means becoming fluent in (what is believed to be American) English. Professor Charles Browne has a point: let us drop English entirely as a required subject at school and in university entrance exams, go back to square one and ponder why we have to learn and become fluent in English. We don’t need English to adopt Coca-Cola-McDonald junk culture, but we need it as a tool with which to peacefully deal with our neighbor countries, China, Korea, and Russia, and EU as well as the US. For this purpose, the Japanese language and washoku are totally useless. I have learned through my past experience that English is an indispensable tool of communication when you are in those parts of the world where it is not a local language. Japanese kids will never learn to speak English as long as they are brainwashed into thinking they need English to communicate with sacred ‘native speakers.’ They need to become convinced that English is a global language because it has more non-native speakers than native speakers and that they are among them.

    • mzeiya88

      How about non native English teachers?, i think Japanese Education ministry’s assumption that only native English teachers hold the magic ball is the problem. As matter of fact, Japanese will always speak English with a slight Japanese accent (which isn’t a bad thing by the way.) The most important thing is the ability to express yourself in correct English. We all have accents (American, English, Australian, Scottish, Irish, New Zealander)
      I think they should start teaching English at Kindergarten, use all good teachers, native, and non native. Stop assuming that the American English teachers or British English teachers, are the only solutions and will magically make students fluent in English.

      There are many excellent non native English Professors in US Universities too. The whole point is to grasp the language, speak it as often, good teachers, + start early.

      I was taught by a non native teacher, and i understand English 100% i also speak fluently. Off course like everyone else i have faults, and i’m not saying that i know all English words in the dictionary, but i have no problem finding out further meaning to any word i don’t understand by myself, or doing research by myself.

      Get good English teachers native + non native from all over the World.

  • http://naofumi.castle104.com/ Naofumi

    Professor Paul Underwood gets it.

  • Jon

    A lot this stuff about taking the kids out of the country or starting them in learning English at age 3 etc is nonsense. One only has to look to Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Israel etc to see amazing levels of English that those countries have. I have spent much time in Denmark and a child of 12 can easily hold an English conversation with me, it is impressive. These countries are bombarded with English language content 24/7 through books and TV. More importantly everything on TV in English in Sweden, Norway, Denmark is subtitled not dubbed like Japan. This makes a massive difference. Danish children have no formal schooling until aged 7, until that age they just play. Most can’t read and write that well by age 7. However by going to school at a later age they learn much better. When I lived in Denmark I was picking up Danish words simply by reading the Danish subtitles to the English language content that I was watching. Japan should stop dubbing its English content, go to Denmark and see what they’re doing because for a nation of 5 million people their fluency rate in English is astounding.