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Time to get real about English instruction

by

Special To The Japan Times

Despite unanimous agreement about the importance of learning English, Japan and the United States still harbor a misunderstanding about how to teach the subject. The result is continuing disappointment over the failure of schools to meet government targets in either country.

A survey of some 90,000 students at 500 high schools and 60,000 students at 600 junior high schools in Japan serves as evidence. It found that only about 10 to 30 percent of fourth-year high school students were proficient in reading, writing, listening and speaking English, even though they were the first generation to be taught in these areas solely in English.

Schools in the U.S. are also struggling to teach English. But students there are not as homogeneous. They are part of a foreign population that has dramatically increased from 10 million in 1970 to more than 42 million today. Half of these newcomers have Hispanic origins. Although new immigrants are learning English faster than previous newcomers, they still do not qualify as proficient.

Therein lies a lesson for Japan. Survival English is not the same as proficient English. Research has shown that it takes on average 100 hours of instruction to move up a level — e.g. from low beginner to high beginner, or high beginner to low intermediate. Since that is the case, Japan is setting unrealistic expectations.

Moreover, the effectiveness of the total-immersion policy that Japan has followed is debatable. In 1998, voters in California passed Proposition 227, which banned bilingual education. Unless parents signed a waiver requesting bilingual instruction, all classes were to be taught exclusively in English. Arizona passed a similar measure in 2000, and Massachusetts followed suit in 2002.

The results call into question the value of this strategy. Less than 40 percent of students achieved “fluent English proficiency” status after 10 years in California schools. In light of the disappointing outcomes, dual immersion has gained in popularity. Subjects like reading and math are taught in two languages. Studies have found that by late elementary or middle school, students in dual-immersion programs perform as well as or better than their peers, and are more likely to be reclassified as proficient in English.

Japan has a distinct advantage in adopting this approach because the overwhelmingly majority of students come from homes where Japanese is spoken. As a result, teachers are able to design instruction geared specifically to their needs. In contrast, teachers in the U.S. have classes with students who speak many different languages.

To accommodate their diverse needs, some programs switch halfway through the day, while others switch every other day or by the subject being taught. The workload exceeds anything teachers in other subjects face, which is reflected in the high turnover of certified teachers in this field.

The only bright side of the story is that in 10 years a small earpiece will whisper nearly simultaneously whatever is said in the wearer’s native language. According to The Wall Street Journal, the lag time is estimated to be the speed of sound. The number of languages spoken won’t matter because the voice in the earpiece will always be whispering the one language selected.

In the meantime, schools need to reassess the strategies and goals they have established. Teachers need greater support in the form of classroom assistants, instructional materials, and a lighter schedule. Anything less will intensify the frustration over the glacial pace of improvement in English proficiency.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

  • Firas Kraïem

    The importance of formal education in the acquisition of foreign languages is vastly overrated. Ask anybody who’s actually fluent in a language other than their native one, and I bet they won’t give much credit for that to their formal education.

    • Charles

      Amen. I reached JLPT N3 without a single lesson in a brick-and-mortar school. N2 with only minimal, once-a-week classroom time from a couple of elderly volunteers. I got to N2 with just self-study, self-study, self-study and using Japanese almost everyday. It was that, and not the once-a-week elderly volunteers, that made the difference.

      Basically, learning a difficult foreign language (as in, Category V) to a business level takes about 2,200 hours (this number is very rough and can be higher or lower depending on the environment, motivation, methods, and intelligence of the learner). Hiring a teacher to stand over you for all 2,200 of those hours is prohibitively expensive and not really necessary after the first few hundred hours when you’ve got the basic techniques down. My guess is that the vast majority of people who speak a foreign language fluently spent the majority of their study time outside the classroom.

      That said, in the first few hundred hours, a teacher can be really helpful to teach technique–not just have the students repeat words or model pronunciation or word stress (which a CD can do just almost well), but actually teach them HOW to learn a language (HOW to memorize words, HOW to practice listening comprehension, etc.). One of the biggest triumphs of my English teaching career was a man to whom I taught the Spaced Repetition System (SRS) Anki. He started using it avidly, went through several thousand flash cards with it, and raised his TOEIC score by 155, and then, after doing so, came up to me and directly attributed his success to Anki, saying it was “a very strong tool” and thanking me for teaching him that! However, I still acknowledge that even though I taught him the technique, it was him who went home and studied for perhaps hours per day. And with his high motivation level, he probably would have discovered SRS on his own, eventually.

      • blondein_tokyo

        But you do know that TOEIC doesn’t measure communicative competence, I’m sure. It’s possible to have a TOEIC score of over 800, yet not be able to communicate sufficiently well enough to operate in an English-speaking environment. I hope your student was also able to use his English for communication.
        Also, you can’t really compare your learning Japanese in a Japanese-speaking environment to a Japanese learning English in a Japanese-speaking environment. That is the mistake the author of this article made.
        One thing you recognize and that I agree totally with is giving students the tools for autonous study. You gave your student a method that motivated him. That is half the battle, and the earmark of a good teacher. :)

      • Charles

        Language tests not measuring communicative competency is a problem not just with the TOEIC, but with the Eiken, the JLPT, etc. It’s a problem shared by all language tests. In fact, it’s shared by not just all language tests, but all credentials (for example, I’ve met some real idiots who hold a bachelor’s degree, and some intelligent people without bachelor’s degrees).

        My response is this:
        – Yes, it’s true, some people game the test and get a higher score than they deserve.
        – However, in the absence of a test, how else do we measure someone we’ve never met? Subjective descriptions, like “my student is elementary-level at English” or “I’m fluent in Japanese?” These subjective self-descriptions are even worse at indicating language ability than the tests.
        – In fact, when we use subjective descriptions, there is even the chance for racism. If you take two foreigners with the same Japanese level, one of which is white and one of which is Asian and ask Japanese people who speaks Japanese better, I guarantee you that the majority will say the Asian guy (they won’t be listening to what he actually says, they’ll just notice that it seems more “natural” when they’re around him). However, the test scores might tell a different story–that the two foreigners have the same Japanese level.

        Language tests certainly aren’t perfect, and we should work to make tests like the TOEIC, the Eiken, and the JLPT more indicative of true language ability. However, they are still the best tool that we have at this point for evaluating the language competency of someone we have never met.

      • blondein_tokyo

        I understand now why you quoted your student’s TOEIC score as a way to communicate your student’s success. But bias in scoring, which is inherent in all tests, shouldn’t stop people from using scales of communicative competence, such as the widely-accepted CEFR.
        When used with tests of communicative competence, such as IELTS, these scales are a much more accurate indicator of communicative competence than any written test, especially TOEIC. As you probably know, TOEIC is only used in Japan and Taiwan, and elsewhere it is uniformly rejected as a test of communicative competence as it lacks construct validity in that respect.

        Why don’t schools and eikaiwa teach autonomous study habits? Personally, I think they simply don’t know how. There are few language teachers in Japanese Jr. and high schools who have training in English language pedagogy, and the vast majority of eikaiwa teachers don’t even know what “pedagogy” means. ;)
        There is more competency at the university level, of course. But the state of English language education in Japan is overall quite poor, so it’s no wonder that TOEIC has such strong foothold here. In particular, the bureaucrats who are running language training programs in Japanese companies haven’t got the faintest clue how to measure linguistic competency or how to improve the language skills of their employees. TOEIC is the only thing they even know, and so they gasp at it as though it is the Holy Grail.

    • Steve Jackman

      You are absolutely correct and this is exactly why the Japanese will never be able to speak English. Learning a different language requires curiosity, flexibility, interest in other cultures, an open mind, willingness to make mistakes and learn from these, the ability and an interest in communicating with those who are different from yourself, an acceptance of diversity, opening yourself to new ideas and influences, and an awareness that there are more than just one way of thinking/doing things.

      All of these are in extremely short supply in Japan and herein lies the problem. The Japanese have neither the interest nor the ability to make the cultural changes needed to become an open society where people can speak a second language. Even in this day and age, I see Japanese people giving other Japanese dirty looks if any of them is speaking in English, as if they were commiting an act of treason.

      • blondein_tokyo

        Yes, exactly. Being open minded to new ideas, and willingness to get out of one’s comfort zone and make mistakes are huge affective factors for language learning. Even with better programs and better instructors, the students aren’t going to learn unless they can overcome their shyness and become interested in the world outside their own little sphere.

      • Ahojanen

        I never deny some of your points, please don’t generalize them to the Japanese people in general. Bias and stereotypes are also involved.

        >> Learning a different language requires curiosity, flexibility, interest in other cultures, an open mind, willingness to make mistakes and learn from these, the ability…. (omitted)

        In fact I’ve encountered many of “maladaptive” internationals living in Japan whose behaviors are identical to what you’re just describing above. Phenomenon is not at all unique to the Japanese.

  • GBR48

    There are no short cuts, no magic tricks, and nobody learns by social osmosis. Exclude the percentage of people with a natural ability to learn languages easily and be honest with every one else: It is a long, hard slog. It isn’t fun, but when you have done it, you will have a merchantable skill under your belt in a harsh world.

    Start as early as you can and just keep going.

  • Charles

    That this article got published in the Japan Times and not The Onion is truly a miracle.

    “total-emersion English education”

    I think you meant “total-immersion.” Walt, it undermines your credibility to be making low-level English errors in the first paragraph of a piece about English education.

    “A survey of some 90,000 students at 500 high schools and 60,000 students
    at 600 junior high schools in Japan serves as evidence. It found that
    only about 10 to 30 percent of fourth-year high school students were
    proficient in reading, writing, listening and speaking English, even
    though they were the first generation to be taught in these areas solely
    in English.”

    Ummm…Japanese high schools don’t have a fourth year! Walt, perhaps you should start your research about the Japanese education system by reading a Wikipedia article about it. It’s a 6 + 3 + 3 system, not a 6 + 2 + 4 or 5 + 3 + 4 system like America.

    Unfortunately, the quality of the article does not improve from here:
    “Schools in the U.S. are also struggling to teach English. But students
    there are not as homogeneous. They are part of a foreign population that
    has dramatically increased from 10 million in 1970 to more than 42
    million today. Half of these newcomers have Hispanic origins.”

    Are you seriously comparing immigrants in English-speaking America, who are immersed in English pretty much every hour of every day, to a bunch of Japanese students who study English for 45 or 50 minutes per week? Seriously?

    “Although
    new immigrants are learning English faster than previous newcomers, they
    still do not qualify as proficient.”

    What do you mean by “don’t qualify as proficient?” Having gone through the American public school system myself, what I saw, over and over again, was this: students come from Country X or Country Y, and one or two years later, they’re virtually fluent in English, with very few exceptions. Perhaps their vocabularies are somewhat smaller, but they can handle everyday life in America just fine after a year or two in an American ESL program. When you write “do not qualify as proficient,” what definition are you using? It would be very helpful to share that definition instead of just making a vague statement and assuming we all agree with it.

    “Research has shown that it takes on average 100 hours of instruction to
    move up a level — e.g. from low beginner to high beginner, or high
    beginner to low intermediate.”

    This is so blatantly untrue, I don’t even know where to begin. First of all, there are diminishing returns. It might take 100 hours to go from low beginner to high beginner, yes, but the leap to low intermediate is much, much larger than the short hop from low beginner to high beginner. Each successive move up a level takes much longer than the previous move. For example, in the case of Japanese:
    – It typically takes ~400 hours of study to become “basic” (able to read hiragana, katakana, ~100 kanji, and ~800 words)
    – It typically takes ~700 hours of study (cumulative) to become “elementary” (able to read ~300 kanji and ~1,500 words)
    – It typically takes ~1,800 hours to reach an “intermediate” level (~1,000 kanji, ~6,000 words)
    – It typically takes ~3,000 hours of study to become “advanced” (able to read ~2,000 kanji and ~10,000 words)
    My source? The JLEC.
    Now, I realize that learning times for Japanese people learning English might be slightly different, but this “it takes on average 100 hours to move up a level” is pure fiction. I mean, seriously, imagine if that were true–a person could spend ten years studying languages full-time and be fluent in 20 languages after ten years. Yeah right.

    “Moreover, the effectiveness of the total-immersion policy that Japan has followed is debatable.”

    Since when does 45~50 minutes per week of English constitute “total-immersion?” To your credit, though, at least you managed to spell “immersion” right, this time.

    “The only bright side of the story is that in 10 years a small earpiece
    will whisper nearly simultaneously whatever is said in the wearer’s
    native language.”

    Using technology salvaged off a crashed alien spaceship?

    Either all the languages for every lesson will need to be pre-recorded for the earpiece (which will take huge amounts of staff time), or the author is betting on artificial intelligence that simply doesn’t exist yet. Either way, I call B.S. on this.

  • Charles

    That this article got published in the Japan Times and not The Onion is truly a miracle.

    “total-emersion English education”

    I think you meant “total-immersion.” Walt, it undermines your credibility to be making low-level English errors in the first paragraph of a piece about English education.

    “A survey of some 90,000 students at 500 high schools and 60,000 students
    at 600 junior high schools in Japan serves as evidence. It found that
    only about 10 to 30 percent of fourth-year high school students were
    proficient in reading, writing, listening and speaking English, even
    though they were the first generation to be taught in these areas solely
    in English.”

    Ummm…Japanese high schools don’t have a fourth year! Walt, perhaps you should start your research about the Japanese education system by reading a Wikipedia article about it. It’s a 6 + 3 + 3 system, not a 6 + 2 + 4 or 5 + 3 + 4 system like America.

    Unfortunately, the quality of the article does not improve from here:
    “Schools in the U.S. are also struggling to teach English. But students
    there are not as homogeneous. They are part of a foreign population that
    has dramatically increased from 10 million in 1970 to more than 42
    million today. Half of these newcomers have Hispanic origins.”

    Are you seriously comparing immigrants in English-speaking America, who are immersed in English pretty much every hour of every day, to a bunch of Japanese students who study English for 45 or 50 minutes per week? Seriously?

    “Although
    new immigrants are learning English faster than previous newcomers, they
    still do not qualify as proficient.”

    What do you mean by “don’t qualify as proficient?” Having gone through the American public school system myself, what I saw, over and over again, was this: students come from Country X or Country Y, and one or two years later, they’re virtually fluent in English, with very few exceptions. Perhaps their vocabularies are somewhat smaller, but they can handle everyday life in America just fine after a year or two in an American ESL program. When you write “do not qualify as proficient,” what definition are you using? It would be very helpful to share that definition instead of just making a vague statement and assuming we all agree with it.

    “Research has shown that it takes on average 100 hours of instruction to
    move up a level — e.g. from low beginner to high beginner, or high
    beginner to low intermediate.”

    This is so blatantly untrue, I don’t even know where to begin. First of all, there are diminishing returns. It might take 100 hours to go from low beginner to high beginner, yes, but the leap to low intermediate is much, much larger than the short hop from low beginner to high beginner. Each successive move up a level takes much longer than the previous move. For example, in the case of Japanese:
    – It typically takes ~400 hours of study to become “basic” (able to read hiragana, katakana, ~100 kanji, and ~800 words)
    – It typically takes ~700 hours of study (cumulative) to become “elementary” (able to read ~300 kanji and ~1,500 words)
    – It typically takes ~1,800 hours to reach an “intermediate” level (~1,000 kanji, ~6,000 words)
    – It typically takes ~3,000 hours of study to become “advanced” (able to read ~2,000 kanji and ~10,000 words)
    My source? The JLEC.
    Now, I realize that learning times for Japanese people learning English might be slightly different, but this “it takes on average 100 hours to move up a level” is pure fiction. I mean, seriously, imagine if that were true–a person could spend ten years studying languages full-time and be fluent in 20 languages after ten years. Yeah right.

    “Moreover, the effectiveness of the total-immersion policy that Japan has followed is debatable.”

    Since when does 45~50 minutes per week of English constitute “total-immersion?” To your credit, though, at least you managed to spell “immersion” right, this time.

    “The only bright side of the story is that in 10 years a small earpiece
    will whisper nearly simultaneously whatever is said in the wearer’s
    native language.”

    Using technology salvaged off a crashed alien spaceship?

    Either all the languages for every lesson will need to be pre-recorded for the earpiece (which will take huge amounts of staff time), or the author is betting on artificial intelligence that simply doesn’t exist yet. Either way, I call B.S. on this.

  • My high school language class was a waste of my time, and the teacher too (and that was the relatively easy french). I now study Japanese by myself, and learn while I travel in Japan, but it takes work, time, effort, persistence, stubbornness. Talk to the people in Japan in English and they are not proficient – it does not take a survey of thousands, pick half a dozen – how about starting in an ordinary office.

  • blondein_tokyo

    TEFL and TESL environments are vastly different, and this author doesn’t seem to quite grasp that. Why compare them, and expect similar results? For that matter, why compare students who have vastly different motivativing and other affective factors?

    The children of immigrants who are living in an English-speaking enviornment are going to be very motivated to learn, most especially if they live in an area where their native language isn’t widely spoken. As an example, a Spanish-speaking child living in New Mexico is going to be much less motivated than, say, a French-speaking child who lives in Oregon. Kids who need English to fit into their social group and have a need to communicate with the people around them are gonig to learn quite fast.

    Japanese children, on the other hand, aren’t motivated to learn English at all. They see it as purely an academic subject and therefore have no impetus to learn beyond what they need for passing written tests. The vast majority of them know they won’t ever use it; a few will use it sporadically, if they are interested in travel, for example; and small percentage will use it for work. But even those who do need it for work tend to learn it at a later time, that is, either in university or on the job. At age 5 or 6, or even 13 or 14, what is going to movtivate you to learn a langauge you don’t need, that is used in a country you’ve never been to, in a culture you have no interest in or curiosity about?

    If teachers first ignited a curiosity about English-speaking countries and cultures of those countries, they would have a much better chance of getting their pupils interested. It’s unrealiistic to expect sheltered Japanese kids who have zero experience of, or interest in, the world outside Japan to suddenly develop the curiousity and desire to learn the langauge of people they consider to be outsiders.

    Speaking of unrealistic expectations, has anyone here seen the textbooks, curriculum, and benchmarks that are used in English education in Japan? Admittedly, I haven’t seen the curriculum for elementary schools, but I have seen what is used in Jr. highl, high school, and university, and I can’t imagine they’ve done much better with the curriculum for younger kids. Those books are bloody awful, they set benmarks way too high, and worse, the teachers aren’t properly trained. How do they expect the kids to learn under these circumstances?

    Every time I see an atricle bemoaning the lack of English skills for Japanese schoolchildren I can’t help but think, “Are these people stuipid?” I want to slap someone upside the head, and say, “The answer is, HIRE QUALIFIED PROFESSIONALS TO REVAMP YOUR SYSTEM.” It seems that in every other area of education it’s a matter of course to hire someone with a degree in that field, but in Japan, people with degrees in subjects as random as history and PE are teaching English.

    As Homer Simpson would say, “DOH!”

  • Two Cents

    From what I’ve seen, elementary school students learn the alphabet and game English. There is certainly no sophisticated level of communicative competence so how could this lay a foundation for college-level proficiency? Are there any book reports or even reports on dinosaurs? The Ministry of Education seems to have settled for a kids’ eikaiwa approach. Strike one.

    And as far as I know, the English-only idea was born in situations in which the curriculum could support it, such as intensive or bilingual English programs in which students are taught many hours a week. The kids I taught in all-English in America studied four hours a day, 20 hours a week. There was ample room for error and time for prolonged explanation in the target language. The kids would also step out into an English-speaking world. How many hours a week are Japanese junior high kids and high school kids in English class? Six? The Ministry of Education seems to have heard great things from institutions which have put much sweat and exhaustive effort into providing students with world-standard materials, and the time to absorb them. They then thought they could get the same results with their Ministry of Education approved materials and curriculum as long as teachers simply avoided Japanese. Strike two.

    And what’s a Japanese English teacher in English-only mode to do within this limited time—say something in Japanese in 10 seconds or fumble with English and frantic gestures for one or two minutes until one of the kids gets it and blurts it out in Japanese? I’ve seen quite a few English-only attempts in which Japanese English teachers simply end up using awkward English to give the most mechanical and rudimentary instruction—nothing that will motivate the students or give them any degree of proficiency. And to be honest, what seems to be missing from these classes, in addition to time-efficient explanation, is the occasional use of the Japanese language for humor, anecdote, or simple relief, not to mention that it helps students and teachers bond. And have you seen how exhausted some kids are after 50 minutes of all English? Many of them never come around. Strike Three.

    Add to this the fact that Japan spreads itself thin by trying to teach English to every child without establishing English as an official language, and you have a recipe for continued failure. As we all know, students in this country have traditionally studied English, not for purposes of being bilingual, but for university entrance exams. English has been taught for the most part as if it were akin to Latin. But you cannot successfully create a bilingual “global” society by stacking new ideas onto the foundation of the old failures.

    I was around when the Ministry of Education was working on the new curriculum. Proper English education for elementary school students was watered down due to a lack of qualified teachers and the “threat to Japanese identity” lobby. As for English-only instruction, those who were involved in the project visited rather high-level “prep” schools and bilingual programs which already had hard-fought success. Sorry guys, but your sample group of motivated and fullly-immersed students was way off the norm from the average Japanese student. And the Ministry of Education choice of “super” as its flagship adjective in “Super English Language High School” and “Super Global” was just another clue that this was most likely going to be another floundering shot in the dark. But at least you got the budget spent on time.