The Liberal Democratic Party has a thing for archery. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s financial policies comprise “three arrows.” The symbolism is based on the old Japanese saying, “Three arrows are harder to break.” Since “Abenomics” has proven to be a PR success, at least with the electorate, he’s using the same metaphor to push his education agenda, a “three-arrow” approach that 1) reclaims dominance in the areas of science and math, 2) emphasizes IT education and 3) improves English language skills.
This third prong accompanies a belated acknowledgement that current methods for teaching English in junior high and high schools is inadequate to the task of producing workers who can meet the “challenges of an increasingly globalized society.” In terms of national interest English proficiency is seen as being an economic benefit, and thus a carrot-and-stick approach has been adopted to bring about the desired result.
Though details have yet to be worked out, the education ministry will propose regulations that require a certain level of English ability for anyone who wants to enter a national university, as well as for those who hope to graduate from one. The gauge that will be used to judge these abilities is the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which will replace the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) as the standard for assessing English language ability. The change in testing mode reflects the new practical approach. TOEFL is considered a better measurement of a subject’s ability to communicate in English, since it incorporates more active listening, speaking and writing components.
The reaction in the media has ranged from cool to derisive. In an opinionated feature Tokyo Shimbun pointed out that English language teaching in Japan has constituted “one failed idea after another,” and conjectures that this will prove to be one more. Yukio Otsu, a professor of cognitive sciences, questions the need for students who plan to attend Japanese universities to “take a test that’s necessary for foreign study.”
At the practical level, the change will only lead to bureaucratic chaos. The different approach to English learning will require that the National Center for University Entrance Examination, which all potential college students have to take, be changed accordingly, and that will cost money and time.
Most of the complaints from academics underscore the sclerotic nature of scholarly endeavor in Japan, but a few critics are more fundamental in their assessment. One “education researcher” told the newspaper that gaining high scores, even on TOEFL, does not, as the LDP believes, “guarantee one can speak English.”
The number of universities offering TOEIC and TOEFL courses has been increasing steadily in recent years. Students are not learning how to communicate in English but rather how to successfully pass the tests, and the researcher doesn’t see how incorporating TOEFL as an element of higher learning will improve communication skills. Schools must first give students a reason to communicate, and learning English for the purpose of improving one’s employment chances in the future is not a compelling one. All the testing in the world won’t make a difference.
According to Otsu, the English ability of the average college student has gotten better in recent years due to improvements in methodology, but it only means they can “smoothly carry out” simple functions, such as ordering in restaurants. When it comes to holding a meaningful conversation they are lost, and forcing them to study for these tests just to get into better universities will simply make them hate English even more.
In any case, before you make students take practical tests you have to give them teachers who can use English practically. The Japanese who teach English in junior high and high schools can’t, which is why they have little interaction with the native speakers brought in to conduct conversation lessons.
Last week the magazine Zakzak extensively quoted international economist Kenichi Omae, who says the biggest obstacle to the LDP plan is Nikkyoso, the Japanese teachers association. He proposes that instead of making native teachers “assistants,” which is the current policy, schools should hire them as regular full-time instructors, but Nikkyoso would never tolerate that.
The tabloid press is even more negative, dismissing the LDP proposal as typical elitist posturing, as if English proficiency were something suspicious in and of itself. An article in the weekly Gendai seems to be of two minds. On the one hand, it offers examples of how the widely publicized policies of companies such as Rakuten and Uniqlo to make their workplaces English-only have resulted in employees not being able to communicate at all, whether their interlocutors are foreign counterparts or Japanese colleagues, because they’re not entirely confident in their English ability.
On the other hand, Gendai characterizes completely bilingual employees as being worthless. The magazine profiles a Japanese graduate of UCLA whose English is perfect but whose social skills are deficient because he’s “forgotten how to use polite Japanese speech.” He won’t even pour drinks for his superiors.
Articles like this imply that some media are probably just as sensitive about their English-language skills as are those politicians who took classes at Harvard or Stanford but still can’t discuss the weather without an interpreter, a situation that explains why Japan’s position in international diplomacy is marginal and its outlook parochial.
It also explains why Toshiaki Endo, the person put in charge of the LDP team supervising this new English education strategy, can’t speak the language. Last week he admitted to Asahi Shimbun that he’s never taken TOEFL or TOEIC and that if he did he’d probably “score 10 points.” It’s a good thing he doesn’t have a job that actually means something.