Abe wants TOEFL to be key exam


Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is not satisfied with just revising monetary policy to spark the weak economy. He also appears bent on reviving another failing field — the public’s ability to speak English.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s panel on education will propose using TOEFL scores as criteria for entering and graduating from universities, reports said Monday.

Although the idea is still in its early stages, it is hoped the effort will help transform the way foreign languages are taught in the country, where English ability is considered subpar.

“It could have an impact on improving the level of English among Japanese in the long run,” Manabu Horiuchi of TOFL Seminar in Osaka told The Japan Times on Monday. The school specializes in teaching preparatory classes for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and other language tests.

“If the level of each student improves, the country’s skills should go up as well,” he said.

The English-proficiency tests, administered by the U.S.-based Educational Testing Services, are offered two to three times a month in most cities across the country.

The scores are usually required to get into most schools abroad, but the LDP’s proposal is to set minimum TOEFL scores as requirements to get into and graduate from universities. Some universities designated for special language courses could require a student to score over 70 on the 120-point test.

It has been reported that the government could invest up to ¥10 trillion toward education changes in the coming years, with a portion of it to be used on improving English-teaching courses.

While Japanese students take mandatory English lessons beginning in elementary school, Japan has continued to rank among the worst-scoring countries when it comes to the TOEFL.

Data by ETS show that out of 30 Asian countries with TOEFL examinees in 2009, Japan ranked second from the bottom, along with Tajikistan, with a mean score of 67. China scored 76, North Korea scored 75 and South Korea 81.

The education ministry has tried to raise the level, with English classes made mandatory for fifth- and sixth-grade students beginning in fiscal 2011.

But whereas the TOEFL gauges reading, writing, speaking and listening skills, Japan’s English education has often been criticized for lacking balance.

“Most universities don’t test their examinees on English listening and oral skills,” TOFL seminar’s Horiuchi said.

Some say that adding TOEFL preparation to school curriculums could be too much not only for the students, but also for teachers. But studying for the TOEFL could provide a more balanced way to approach the language, Horiuchi added.

The government is also expected to request submission of TOEFL scores from applicants for government employment beginning in fiscal 2015.

  • Spudator

    Maybe the problem of poor English ability in Japan doesn’t lie with the way English has to be learnt but, paradoxically, with the way Japanese has to be learnt. I’m talking about that ridiculous, over-complex, antiquated and completely inappropriate system used to write Japanese–kanji.

    Thanks to this absurdly unsystematic writing system, Japanese students have to spend years essentially learning how to spell. It’s so bad that while students in other countries have long since moved on from the basics of orthography to the advanced skills of essay writing and expressing their thoughts logically and coherently on paper, their Japanese peers are still learning their ABCs. (Maybe this is why so many Japanese are such rotten writers.)

    I think it’s time that the Japanese abandoned kanji and switched to a Romanized writing system. Not only would this free up time for students to learn how to use Japanese instead of merely how to spell it, it would also free up time for those students to learn English.

    • Adam D

      Japanese would be a total nightmare if it were written in romaji.

    • Korekara

      You’ve forgotten that ppl in China, Taiwan, HK, Singapore all read & write Chinese, ie Kanji, but their English proficiency is higher than Japan. Giving up one’s linguistic heritage doesn’t guarantee improvement in a foreign lang. It’s curiosity about other cultures & a desire to communicate with them that motivate lang. learning

    • http://www.facebook.com/codey.du Codey Du

      This comment is perhaps the most uneducated comment I’ve ever seen on this website. Having Kanji doesn’t make this language any harder than English. If your comment is correct, I guess no one in China would be able to speak any language but Chinese.

    • WithMalice

      Completely ridiculous comment.
      The reality is that there are quite literally THOUSANDS who manage quite well. I know of small children who can acquire both languages successfully. There’s no reason that if English were taught correctly in schools, the nation would be proficient in it.

    • Masa Chekov

      The Japanese language is MUCH easier to read and write in kana/kanji than in western alphabets. I cannot overemphasize this.

    • Glen Douglas Brügge

      In addition, Chinese and Taiwanese, even with their “somewhat” more simplified Kanji writing system still have to learn far more characters in order to be able to read and write their language than Japanese high school students do. You seem to have no understanding of either. And to say that Japanese are “rotten” writers? Are you implying that the language makes Japanese completely incompetent in terms of written expression? Or just in written English? I suppose Murakami Haruki has all his books ghostwritten? – either way, both scream ignorance of Japanese society, language and culture – and those of China too.

      The issue at hand is the education system and the Japanese Government’s habit of making English learning a chore, meant purely for entrance exams – not focusing at all on speaking for enjoyment and COMMUNICATION; it also does not help that the teachers employed to parrot grammar patterns cannot speak the language to a competent degree either – but this is because the purpose is not to speak to begin with. If you thrust children into this awkward way of learning, they will not be confident to begin with.

      Sadly, it is all about the money and backward ideas regarding language acquisition. If the Japanese Government moved away from this system of forcing students to parrot grammar patterns, by hiring native speakers, and revamping the entrance exam system, then we would could have progress. Granted, as with learning any language – one needs exposure to some degree or guidance on how to effectively study.

      I had some pals in Japan, who loved English, and purely out of effort, and a supportive environment, spoke virtually perfect English with limited, if no actual experience of having lived outside of Japan. It is not a “Japanese” issue – but a systematic one. Many of these people who could speak beautiful English would complain that their TOEFL scores were not high enough for this or that job – which I would often consider ludicrous, while at the same time I knew of people who had astronomically high TOEFL scores but who could barely introduce themselves in English.

    • Tanaka

      Well, quite a bold statement of yours! And I guess you expected all the angry replies from “I’m a foreigner who loves Japan and its culture and language, and by the way, I can read and write kanji very well, thank you.”.

      Frankly, my opinion was the same as yours when I arrived here. As time passed, though, and I learned enough of the language, I started to notice that, yes, is very hard to read Japanese writen in Romanji, as well as texts in kana/kata only.

      I guess it was just a matter of adaptation and, of course, learning process. That’s not to say that I’m fluent now. I may never be. Kind of quit. Maybe start learning Spanish.

      And speaking about leaning process, I think you have a very strong point. It’s hard, complicated, time-consuming to learn kanji. And we all know, who has time in modern days? Besides, Japanese people have to write less and less, becoming very poor in reading their own language; Japan as a country utilizes more and more foreign words in all fields. One has to wonder, why insist that kanji has to exist? (Sound poetic, eh?)

      I really don’t want to elaborate, since I don’t have an answer for this issue.

      I also don’t have the same patience as you to discuss with belligerent and conservative people.

      But I think this is a reality that can be improved without doubt. But what you suggested (banning kanji) is not a change, it’s revolution. And revolution in Japan?… Maybe in the anime world.

    • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

      That you may have problems with kanji does not mean it is actually that difficult. It is not “over-complex”. It in fact, makes reading much faster.

      Besides, Japanese contains so many homonyms that it would be impossible to read with any efficiency if all you read were romanizations.

      One of the problems of the JLPT is that is presumes that non-native learners of Japanese ought to learn Kanji in the same order as actual native speakers — this is wrong. It is wrong because native speakers learn to speak first, and develop a large vocabulary before they even write anything of significant meaning. The kanji is just a matter of association then. It’s like irregular verbs in English. Japanese students struggle with those, but for you, it was totally natural and not difficult at all.

      Because new Japanese learners have to learn everything at the same time, they should be learning Kanji in a hierarchial order, which leads to a totally different results than copying elementary school’s order.

      If you want to blame something for your opinion about Kanji, don’t blame Kanji itself, blame the government for enforcing a one-size-fits all standard on everyone — and the resulting culture that creates for foreign learners.

      If you want to see an orderly explanation of Kanji, visit kanjidamage dot com.

  • phu

    Note that, even when touted as a valid and important goal like improving Japan’s English language ability, the result is still just a push to make students study with the specific goal of passing a test. It may be arguable that doing so for TOEFL would be more valuable than the current and obviously sub-par English training methods used in schools, but this is still a failure to think outside of the test-shaped box that has been and continues to fail Japanese education.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000580228225 Brian Prager

    I’ve taught in US universities for 26 years where Japanese are consistently among the least expressive students in the world. Changing that, and improving TOEFL exam scores are not the same aims, nor are they particularly compatible. But given Japan’s current form of business-government partnership and the absence of educational psychology in this discussion, it’s not surprising to see that this is the direction robo-education policy makers would choose to take.

  • nobuo takamura

    I had been teaching English for more than 30 years in Japanese high schools. If I’m asked to say the only one thing to prevent many Japanese students from improving English while in school, I’d say that they can’t be willing to make some mistakes in speaking as well as in writing, among others. What’s worse, they must be reluctant to study how to write as well as to read without any tenuous mistakes in grammar and spellings, which forces them to be intimidated to express themselves, especially in front of other students in class. When it comes to language learnig, making various kinds of mistakes leads them to learn a lot, which is sure to take a lot of time and is bound to be quite demanding for teachers and learners alike. I suppose TOEFL won’t help them all as long as it is carried out in a situation such as Japanese schools. To be honest, I’m a little bit embarrassed to see Prime Minister Abe suggested this plan in school.

  • Ted O’Neill

    I am shocked. Shocked to see this kind of cozy relationship between the exam business and government. The owner of a test prep school advocating mandatory TOEFL for university applicants? How could he possibly benefit from that?

    But more seriously, here comes the same old canard about low TOEFL scores in Japan. Could it be that too many students are forced to take TOEFL here even though they do not want to and have no intention of ever studying overseas? Could that possibly bring down the average?

    Students in Japan are already tested too much with little or no educational or pedagogical purpose.

  • WithMalice

    The reality is that unless there’s a focus on teaching English within schools as a communicative tool, rather than a purely scholastic undertaking, then the Nation would quickly improve.
    There are Japanese teachers teaching English who can’t even introduce themselves successfully.
    Whilst grammatical structures and vocabulary acquisition are relatively important, the key focal point of any language should be *communication*. For the vast majority of schools, this is not the case… and merely putting up yet another test as an end-point isn’t going to change much.

  • Emi Rowan

    Why TOEFL exam? I am totally shocked at this.
    They care about score of the exams too much, not care about education. Japanese language education has just started to change, but it’s hard to change it without changing the system of the entrance exam for university. I am totally shocked at teaching at highschools, they still translating English into Japanese, and still explain grammar with old Japanese. We have to finish the language Sakoku era.

  • http://twitter.com/tripod090 tripod090

    I just expect to request submission of TOEFL scores from all of politicians and professors.
    We might be reading a never-ending story about English ability.
    TOEIC(2003~) -> TOEFL(2015?~) -> IELT -> SAT

    Japan should globalize in every field. So TOEFL? that’s not the point.

  • Phillip

    It is the wrong test to use for the purpose, but that’s nothing new in Japan. It is also setting the bar incredibly high compared to what is on offer now. I hope the teachers in high school get the training and support they will need in order to prepare students. I also hope parents and students are prepared for disappointment.

    But if this becomes the measure for all uni graduates and public servants, I’d say that it is a marked improvement; an international test being applied nationally; we don’t see that too often.

  • GCNavigator

    Japan’s entrance exams today are highly inconsistent from school to school, and they are all filled with rarely used words that do not help Japanese prepare for real world communication in English. The Tokyo University exam corpus, for example, requires about 3,900 words to reach 99% coverage and the Keio University exam corpus requires about 6,100 words. When we take Japan’s top 30 universities and put all of their entrance tests together in one corpus, it requires 7,435 words to reach 99% coverage. Lexically speaking the different tests are all over the map. Across the sea in China they have a single national university entrance exam called the Gaokao. It requires just 4,300 words to reach 99% coverage, and the vocabulary on the Gaokao is a very close match with the high-frequency vocabulary commonly used in the USA and UK today. Japan would do well to study the logic behind the design of the Chinese tests.

  • Toolonggone

    I don’t think students and teachers are ready for this. The current version of TOEFL exam is far more challenging than TOEIC or STEP English. How does this lead to the change of teaching practice in English class!? How’s gonna affect student’s enthusiasm in learning? Who’s gonna take responsibility if students fail? Teachers!? Schools!? This is not No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top Education.

  • Nagato

    Requiring TOEFL would simply lead to the goal of passing the test instead of improving proficiency. The problem i think lies in the learning environment outside the school which hardly reinforces what students learned inside the classroom. Movies in english are either dubbed or subtitled, publications written in english are translated, when you turn on the tv you’ll hear ‘katakana pronunciation and so on. Creating a conducive environment where students can apply or practice what they learn in school is really needed.

  • Jake

    “I am shocked. Shocked to see this kind of cozy relationship between the exam business and government” interesting comment

  • Yoshimi

    I think that abolishing Kanji and adopting only Romaji or Hiragana/Katakana is an interesting,idea, but I can guarantee that it wouldn’t possibly be accepted by Japanese people. It only focuses on learning efficiency at school and completely ignores the history and the spirit behind the Japanese language.

    When we inherited Kanji from the ancient China, the Japanese society was dominated by men and it was their prestige to use it. That’s why Kanji is called a “male language.” However, Japanese women invented Hiragana to express their rich emotions in an aesthetic way during the process of establishing their own literature. That’s why Hiragana is called a “female language,” and I would consider this as the first feminist movement in Japan, and you can see that Japanese people appraise those women who contributed to the movement – like Lady Murasaki, for example. Katakana was not invented until much later than that, but it was due to an effort to accept things that were totally foreign to the Japanese culture at the time in a way that Japanese people could understand.

    The Japanese language has evolved with the people and their harmonious relationship with the beautiful nature in Japan. It is not just a tool for communication, as all other languages are not either. If we were to abandon any part of it, we would lose our origin and heritage as Japanese people. You have to consider the totality of the potential effects that your proposal may have. We embrace our spirit and pride as Japanese citizens, and would not easily give them up.

    As far as the Japanese education system is concerned, I don’t see any problem with it. I grew up in it and it benefited me a lot. I wasn’t even an English major at Japanese college, but I received the highest grade in my first- year legal writing class at a US law school. Yes, I’m a law student in the US (of a JD program, not an LLM). All of my professors seem to be impressed with my English grammar. I couldn’t have come this far without the English education I received in Japan. It was not of itself perfect; so I had to make a lot of efforts on my own to supplement it, but remember that nothing is perfect in this world – just like you cannot eat just a single item of food every day. So I don’t think the Japanese education system is the culprit. This tool works. I rather think that the problem is the people who cannot use/manage it properly. I believe that the majority of it comes from their mentality that only focuses on the deficiencies. I think that we need to appreciate what we already have before desperately trying to acquire something we don’t have. Language skills are like happiness. Once we realize how blessed we already are, we will naturally find a way to utilize and bring it to the next level.

  • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

    Tests as such are no replacement for actual learning.

    I remember next to nothing from my ESL classes, or History classes, or Geography classes. I studied because I had to, and then when exams were over, my brain quickly flushed all these useless “facts” — which were never explained how they were facts, thereby chopping my brain out of the learning process and making it a mere task of memorization — down the toilet.

    Exam businesses receiving subsidies from government, or governments mandating particular ESL standards creates a coercive monopoly that destroys competition.

    As a result of the monopoly, few alternatives exist, thus employers are left choosing among “the best” individuals of who “slaved for the exam” and then flushed — since the system being cultivated does not give incentives to actual learning, actual comprehension, and actual speaking (good luck finding an oral examination). Of course, the real “best”, the motivated self-starters, have NO USE for such tests and not reason to take it, except for the fact that some prospective job may demand it — but that condition is only created by the monopoly governments have given to particular language testing standards.

    In a real market, businesses would decide which test they trust, which standard they think is best, and demand that prospective employees pass that particular one — not some-size-fits-all mediocre solution. Several tests might vary from business to business. And each test might be reflective of the skills needed in those particular industries. And individuals would be free to choose the test that they think most comprehensively challenges them, for travelling overseas, moving overseas, for a hobby, for work, for whatever — instead of say, a JLPT that presumes foreigners ought to be learning Kanji, grammar, and structure in the exact same order as native speakers — as if their were no difference in their learning contexts!

    Get the hell out of the way!

  • Peruro

    well functioned and rational thinking/expressing way by mother tongue is first priority.

  • Kansai ALT

    This is a horrible idea and one that, to be honest, will do jack squat to improve English education in Japan. I teach as an ALT in Kansai and what I have learned is that Japanese education is more or less a joke. Students learn little to nothing in their English, all they learn how to do is cram for an exam, then forget everything. In addition, students in Japan don’t care about English because they have zero reason to. Unless you are going to have a job that requires English speaking ability then you don’t have to be able to speak English. The fault lies with the way Japanese education is, and unless that issue is addressed any further policy changes are a waste of money.