English-language education at public schools should shift in emphasis to verbal communications skills, and for that purpose, universities must adopt the Test of English as a Foreign Language for entrance exams, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party’s education reform panel said.
If the TOEFL is introduced in line with the panel’s proposal, it would drastically change public English-language education at junior high and high schools, Toshiaki Endo, head of the panel and a Lower House member from Yamagata Prefecture, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.
The panel is currently putting together a policy recommendation on improving students’ academic standards, including their English. Once it is finalized, the LDP is expected to formally propose it to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the near future.
“Efforts have been made for years to improve (English-language education at public schools), but little has been changed,” Endo said, arguing such schools have failed to teach students practical English and train them to communicate in the language.
If TOEFL, which includes speaking and listening comprehension tests, is introduced for university entrance exams, it would force all high schools to teach English in a way that enhances communication skills more so that students have a shot at higher TOEFL scores, Endo said.
“There’s no other way left to change (the current English teaching system in state schools). We need to set an attainment goal” for students to achieve high TOEFL scores, he said.
Abe and education minister Hakubun Shimomura basically support the panel’s draft proposal on the introduction of the TOEFL requirement for college entrance, according to Endo, who added he hopes such reform will be implemented within five or six years.
Endo and many other Japanese adults have been long frustrated with their poor verbal communications skills in English, blaming it mainly on the apparent shortcomings of language education in the state school system, where much of its emphasis has traditionally been placed on written English.
Most Japanese don’t need to use English either at their workplace or in institutions of higher education, one of the primary reasons often cited for the poor language skill levels.
According to Endo, the apparent failure of public education is the main reason Japanese people’s English communications skills are poor.
“I myself studied English at junior high and high schools for six years, and I might have acquired English as cultural knowledge. But English for practical purposes should come first, and communicating should be the real purpose” of learning the language, Endo said.
After Abe became LDP president in September, the party started studying measures to revitalize the economy to drag it out of a decades-old slump. The LDP swept December’s general election and took power later that month.
With the nation’s rapidly aging population already beginning to contract, Endo pointed out that Japanese companies need to further their advance into overseas markets to survive.
Training human resources able to adapt to the global environment is one of the keys for Japan to achieve future economic growth, he said.
According to a draft proposal by the LDP’s education revitalization implementation headquarters, students should be required to achieve a certain TOEFL score for both entering and graduating from universities. Those applying for administrative jobs with the central government should also have obtained a minimum TOEFL score, the draft said.
The Eiken (Test in Practical English Proficiency) has long been more widely accepted in Japan as proof of English ability instead of TOEFL, but Endo said the LDP panel believes the latter is more communication-oriented.
Thousands of U.S. and European universities select the TOEFL as their principal English-language test for foreign applicants, another reason the LDP is leaning toward the exam, Endo said.
According to draft proposal, the government will designate about 30 universities that will provide special English-language education programs, including student exchanges with overseas colleges. More than half of lectures at those universities should be conducted in English, according to the draft document.
These academic institutions will be eligible to receive financial support from the government.
The panel’s proposal also said the government should give all English teachers at schools and students who wish to become educators in the language the opportunity to study abroad to up their language skills.
In reality, however, budget constraints mean the government will find it difficult to give all teachers and students such opportunities even if the LDP proposal is adopted.