According to a recent announcement, high-ranking officials of the education ministry in charge of English education will begin conducting their meetings in English this month. The new policy of holding meetings in English may or may not improve the quality of English education in Japan, but at least it sets an example of how to use English in important ways.
To some observers of the poor level of English used in Japan, it might come as a surprise that the bureaucrats in charge of English education actually speak English at all. However, Tsuyoshi Enomoto, head of the ministry’s International Education Division, noted that English meetings are already common, since many foreign guests and officials from abroad regularly attend meetings or give presentations.
The decision to conduct English-only meetings by senior bureau officials who rank above division-chief level may be more than just lip service to the idea of using real-world English. If decisions and plans are being made in English, it just might produce a more progressive and internationalized mindset. Although that mindset will be no substitute for practical guidelines, language requirements and English study policies, it might help ensure change actually happens.
Unfortunately, though, those top decisions will likely have to be translated back into Japanese for the bureaucrats below the top level, not to mention for school principals and English teachers themselves, many of whom still lack sufficient training in the language. One of the major problems with English-language education in Japan is that it is largely carried out in Japanese. English textbooks have nearly all their vocabulary glosses and activity rubrics written in Japanese.
Even though a recent policy encourages teachers to teach in English, for the most part, suggested answers, explanations to students and preparation activities are conducted in Japanese.
English-language education in Japan remains mired in a grammar-translation paradigm that translates and tests, but does little to compel students to communicate and understand English more deeply and fully.
As a result, students are insufficiently pushed outside their own linguistic boundaries to engage in English. They study about English but do not sufficiently use it for more meaningful activities. It is no surprise that ever-larger numbers of students refuse to study abroad. Many have never spoken a word of English out loud during years of study.
The initiative by senior bureaucrats supervising the International Education Division may not break the past stranglehold, but it is a noble step in the right direction. Maybe by taking this initiative, their can-do attitude of using English to engage in decisions, set goals and enact better practices will trickle down to the classroom.