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Plan to introduce TOEFL to universities has its merits

by Minoru Matsutani

Staff Writer

The media and kyōiku senmonka (教育専門家, pundits on education) have been voicing the pros and cons of the idea put forward by the Jiminto (自民党, the Liberal Democratic Party) to make TOEFL (Test of English as Foreign Language) mandatory for entrance exams at all Japanese universities.

TOEFL is a test to assess a person’s English reading, writing, listening and speaking ability. The shinraisei (信頼性, reliability) and kyakkansei (客観性, objectivity) of hantei (判定, assessment) delivered by TOEFL is considered among the highest level in this kind of test. Many universities in English-speaking countries use TOEFL to determine whether to accept or reject applicants.

It has often been said that English communication ability is far lower in Japan than in other countries. The ruling LDP’s idea is in line with the long-term trend of trying to strengthen English skill. Using TOEFL is favorable because pundits say current juken eigo (受験英語, English tests for entrance exams) focus on bunpō (文法, grammar) and dokkai (読解, reading comprehension) but do not assess communication ability in English.

But the chimeiteki na mondai (致命的な問題, lit: “a fatal problem,” but actually “a very serious problem”) is that TOEFL is too difficult, Tetsuya Yasukochi, a lecturer at Toshin Business School was quoted as saying on the business magazine website Toyo Keizai Online.

The LDP’s idea is to make TOEFL mandatory for all public and private universities in Japan. If that is done, the teacher believes that most of the students who are nigate (苦手, not good) at English will just sit in front of a computer screen and do nothing for the length of the exam.

The standard English test for an entrance exam is currently the sentā-shiken (センター試験, the preliminary entrance exam common to many Japanese universities that applicants take prior to the individual entrance exams of each university) which is hikaku ni naranai hodo (比較にならないほど, incomparably) easier than TOEFL. It also does not have speaking and writing questions as does TOEFL.

The teacher suggests that instead of using TOEFL, TOEFL Jr., which is meant for chukōsei (中高生, junior high and high school students), would be chōdoii (丁度いい, appropriate).

Whatever the case, holding an English exam assessing reading, writing, listening and speaking is kangei subeki kotoda (歓迎すべきことだ, something to welcome).

An editorial in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper said that raising the English skill of English teachers is senketsu da (先決だ, something that must be taken care of before anything else).

The LDP’s proposal calls for all high-school students to score 45 points or higher on TOEFL and for teachers of English to score 80 or higher out of a possible full score of 120 points.

The editorial assumed 80 points in TOEFL is sōtō suru (相当する, equivalent) to the eiken (英検, Society for Testing English Proficiency [STEP] test) jun ikkyū (準一級, a level between first and second).

According to the article, only 30 percent of English teachers at junior high schools and 50 percent of those teaching at high schools have English skills equivalent to that level.

The LDP’s proposal says that an English skill equivalent to a TOEFL score of 80 points is a saiyo joken (採用条件, criteria for hiring) of eigo kyoin (英語教員, English teachers). It also calls for English teachers who are currently employed to take English kenshu (研修, training).

Hiring native English speakers for English classes has been essential to improve eikaiwa nōryoku (英会話能力, English conversation ability) for a long time. And of course, if the LDP’s proposal jitsugen sureba (実現すれば, is realized), English classes in Japanese schools, shōgakkō kara daigaku made (小学校から大学まで, from elementary schools to universities), will need even more native English speakers.

Meanwhile, an online article on J-Cast News compares TOEFL with TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication). Saidai no chigai (最大の違い, the biggest difference) between the two tests, both of which are run by the nonprofit international organization Educational Testing Service (ETS), is their yōto (用途, intended usage).

TOEIC is used by mainly Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese companies to assess the English communication ability of kyushokusha (求職者, job applicants) and employees, while TOEFL is used by most universities in the United States and taken by almost all hi eigoken no jukensha (非英語圏の受験者, applicants who are not native English speakers) who want to enter universities in the U.S.

Thus, the number of test-takers is much larger for TOEFL than TOEIC. Sekaitekini mite (世界的に見て, looking at it from a global perspective), TOEFL is much more well known and more useful overseas than TOEIC.

The same J-Cast News article quoted an English education specialist at Nichibei Kaiwa Gakuin (日米会話学院, IEC International Education Center) as saying TOEFL is very precise at assessing English ability because it checks kisotekina (基礎的な, basic) and haba hiroi (幅広い, broad) English ability and thus it is difficult to cram for in a short period. Even University of Tokyo students cannot achieve high scores in TOEFL unless they prepare for it appropriately, the article said.

Generally, the LDP’s proposal to make TOEFL mandatory for entrance exams to all the universities in Japan is taken favorably. But details need to be discussed.

  • kyushuphil

    Love the mixture of kanji, romaji, and English here.

    Some of us really love languages — and the oddities of humanity mixed in them.

    • talandisjr

      I agree- I haven’t seen an editorial written like this before, and it was quite nice. Kudos to the author.

  • Sean Montgomery

    The LDP’s switch to TOEFL represents nothing new in Japan’s education system. Using a newer, harder test to evaluate English does nothing to address the basic problem that’s been plaguing Japan’s system all along–its obsession with testing, particularly in language. The article mentions that some think the test is too hard, and that some students might even refuse to take it. The problem there is not with the test, however, but the students’ preparation and ability to actually USE the language. Quite simply, most Japanese teachers don’t know how to effectively teach English and most Japanese students don’t know how to study it. It’s true that Japanese students should be held to more rigorous standards, but relying on testing to motivate and effect long-lasting language acquisition is merely a continuation of Japan’s failed English education policies. If the goal is a society of businessmen and women ready to storm the beaches of foreign markets and shake hands with foreign investors without breaking a sweat, long-lasting language education is the answer. TOEFL may be a part of that education, but it certainly isn’t the key to it. The sooner that Japanese people learn that high test scores don’t equal long-term acquisition–that the key to language learning is USING it rather than TESTING it–the sooner Japan’s education system will stop blunting and start sharpening minds.

  • Phillip

    The author should look closely, really closely, at the speaking element of the TOEFL iBT before singing its praises.

    I don’t know about other people, but I rarely, if ever, have the need to speak into a computer.

    Other internationally recognised English tests, such as IELTS, have face-to-face interviews with real people, as the speaking part of the test. It’s a much more valid form of testing.

    The TOEFL iBT is not world’s best practice.

    But in Japan, it’s good business.