Third-grade English may get test run in fiscal 2009

by Takahiro Fukada

The education ministry wants to start teaching English to third-graders on a trial basis at several hundred elementary schools nationwide in fiscal 2009, a ministry official said this week.

“We want to ask (the Finance Ministry) for a budget to have model schools collect data to (determine) whether it is appropriate to start (English education) from the third grade,” said Hiroshi Kamiyama, an official at the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.

While the decision to make the study of foreign languages — basically English — compulsory for fifth-graders starting in fiscal 2011 remains unchanged, the ministry is also considering letting some schools offer English studies for younger pupils on a trial basis, the official emphasized.

In May, an advisory panel to Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda compiled a report suggesting the government should try to introduce compulsory English classes from at least the third grade, and designate, for example, 5,000 model schools to this end.

The trial run is needed to collect data on whether studying foreign languages so early is appropriate, the official said.

Under a new ministry guideline to take effect in 2011, all elementary schools will dedicate 35 class hours each to teaching foreign languages in the fifth and sixth grades.

Details of the trial English program for third-graders are still being hammered out, the official indicated.

The ministry hopes to conduct the trial for at least two years and to collect data, such as the students’ responses and the schools’ evaluations, the official said.

Ikuo Koike, a prominent linguist and English-teaching expert, said he welcomes the plan and believes getting a start on teaching English in elementary schools is desirable.

“Babies will unconsciously absorb anything with their entire bodies,” said Koike, a visiting professor at Meikai University and a Keio University professor emeritus. “Likewise, early students in elementary schools will have such capabilities.”

Koike said many countries have already introduced English education at the lower grades of elementary school, but Japan has been lagging.

“Japan wants as many highly English-proficient people as possible so the areas where Japanese can play active roles will expand, subsequently enabling them to contribute to the world,” Koike said.

Some experts have meanwhile voiced concern about starting foreign language education at an early age and oppose it at elementary schools.

Critics say it will not be helpful for children to attempt to master a language with only limited hours, and that elementary school teachers inexperienced in teaching foreign languages might end up teaching improper English. They also say children should be first given proper education in their own language.