While all elementary schools in Japan are scheduled to start teaching English this April, other parts of Asia and Europe have been doing it for years.
They are teaching English earlier, longer and with more advanced content. Some even have teachers who are specialists in teaching the language.
According to the education ministry, South Korea began teaching English in elementary schools in 1997. China and Taiwan started in 2001, and Germany and France followed suit in 2004 and 2005, respectively.
What’s more, students in those countries are learning it at a younger age — from third grade in China, South Korea, Taiwan and Germany, and from first grade in France.
Japan’s English-language schedule will consist of a lesson a week, or 35 per year.
According to the ministry, however, Taiwan and Germany give two lessons a week, France gives 54 hours of lessons a year, South Korea gives two lessons a week for third- and fourth-graders, and three a week for fifth- and sixth-graders, and China gives more than four lessons a week.
The lessons in Japan will be 45 minutes long, compared with 40 minutes in Taiwan and South Korea, 45 minutes in France and around 30 to 40 minutes in China, the ministry said.
The curricula differ as well. In Japan, students will learn to listen and speak English through songs, games and self-introductions, among other activities. They will also engage in cultural exchange activities by meeting foreigners and attending cultural events, as well as do their ABCs.
In China, third- and fourth-graders listen to and read easy stories and write down words.
In South Korea, kids are taught how to distinguish accents, rhythms and intonation, and how to understand words and idiomatic expressions. They also learn basic conversation, like how to answer the phone.
In Taiwan, pupils are required to write down around 180 vocabulary words and to speak about 300.
France teaches students how to read letters, postcards and telegrams, as well as how to write congratulatory greetings and postcards, the ministry said.
In terms of words studied, Japanese elementary school students will learn about 285 words, compared with 500 words in South Korea and 600 to 700 in China.
The ministry also said teachers in charge of English in China and some urban parts of Taiwan are specialists, unlike in Japan.
Japan does not require teachers to have a qualification in English proficiency, but one city in Taiwan requires its teachers to have scored at least 213 on the TOEFL, or Test of English as a Foreign Language.
Despite the differences in each country’s English systems, the ministry did not conduct any research into their effectiveness.
“So it is hard for us to say anything about the results of their teaching,” ministry official Hiroshi Noguchi said.