Systemic, structural problems hinder government goals

English fluency hopes rest on an education overhaul


Special To The Japan Times

Ringing in 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a dream: One nation that will actively re-engage with the global marketplace.

To realize this dream by 2020, it’s commonly accepted that the Japanese need to improve their English. So, what’s the problem? Unfortunately there are a few.

Though English has been a part of the official national syllabus since 1947 and many subsequent education policies have addressed curriculum reform — most recently the 2008 “Revisions of the Courses of Study for the Elementary and Secondary Schools” — there is widespread concern that few Japanese can actually speak fluent English.

Entrance exams

The most commonly cited culprit for Japan’s poor English-speaking abilities is the juken (school entrance exam) system, which does not have a speaking component. Therefore, classroom English is heavily weighted toward grammar and translation as required for admissions exams.

Paul Underwood, a professor at Toyo Eiwa University who has just completed a study on the 2009 policy’s shortfalls, says acceptance to the best universities is the shared goal of students, teachers, schools and parents.

“It’s all about getting into university,” he says. “How can you convince schools to adopt a more communicative approach that might potentially reduce the numbers getting into universities? Why bother changing?”

And indeed, it seems the system has not changed. Robert Aspinall, a professor at Shiga University and author of the 2012 book “International Education Policy in Japan in an Age of Globalisation and Risk,” describes his experiences as an English teacher through the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme 24 years ago: “Learning to speak English was a complete waste of time because it didn’t help in any of the exams students were preparing for.”

Lack of resources

Another significant criticism of English class is the lack of resources in terms of teacher training, time and materials. Teachers are not adequately prepared, and there is no English requirement to graduate with a teaching certification, yet MEXT (the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) requires English to be taught starting in the fifth grade of elementary school — soon to be moved up to third grade.

“It is unrealistic to expect teachers to teach a difficult foreign language on top of a really tough job,” Aspinall says. “The Japanese teacher goes into the classroom and sings a song or plays a CD (in elementary school), and it’s not proper English teaching.”

And regarding ongoing teacher training, he adds: “Those teachers are not English teachers in the first place, so you’re having to start from scratch. The cascade method of teaching where you teach a few people at the prefecture level and take it down to the local town level doesn’t work as a teacher-training method.”

In addition to the Japanese teacher, local school boards hire foreign-native English-speaking teachers through the government-sponsored JET Programme or through privately run dispatch companies. These teachers, often referred to as ALTs (assistant language teachers), are neither professionally trained teachers nor language instructors. And, when they arrive in Japan, they may have as little as three days’ training before they start work.

Though a fan of JET, Charles Browne, a professor of applied linguistics at Meiji Gakuin University who has spent the last 28 years in Japan, criticizes for-profit dispatch companies.

“They hire foreigners for the lowest price, do not adequately provide support, and just fire the ALT rather than fix the problem — it’s a cold system,” he says.

It seems that the problem could be fixed with increased financial investment. However, MEXT’s resources are limited.

In 2007, MEXT invited five English experts to form the Central Education Council For Teacher Education, a national subcommittee to make recommendations on improving teacher education. Though the investigative research project was to last a full two years from 2006, it was prematurely terminated in 2007 due to lack of funds, according to committee member Browne.

Complaints about outdated and obscure English textbooks are also pervasive. Michael Sherwood, an ALT who has been teaching English throughout Japan for 11 years, says vocabulary in his textbook includes cultural artifacts such as “video cassette” and “floppy disk.” Furthermore, he feels the conversational textbooks cannot be effective in a classroom with more than 40 students.

Lost in translation

Communication issues between the Japanese English-language teacher and the ALT can be another problem.

According to Underwood’s latest research: “Already overworked Japanese teachers see it as a tremendous burden looking after the ALTs — spending time coordinating with them and lesson planning with them.” Maybe worse, “as one of the teachers in my study put it, the chances of getting paired with a professional ALT are the same as winning the national lottery.”

A further complication is that labor law does not allow the Japanese classroom teacher to team-teach with the ALT. Miki Nakayama, a Tokyo mother of four, describes what she observed in her son’s English class: “The native teacher didn’t understand the students’ questions and the students didn’t understand the teacher’s English explanation, so the students stopped paying attention.”

Socially, ALTs are sometimes ostracized from the school community.

“I see many ALTs sitting alone in the shokuinshitsu (staff room), and no Japanese teachers talk to them,” says Chie Ohtani, associate professor at Tamagawa University and a board member of the Japan-U.S. Teacher Education Consortium. “It is so important to show their acceptance into the school community as colleagues. Such an attitude will act as a positive role model for the students.”

So, you can imagine the frustration when ALTs request feedback for their lessons, and they are often not given any.

When asked about professional assessments, Andrew Murray, an ALT of 14 years who teaches at a junior high school in Kawasaki, says, “That’s a difficult problem. You have to work it out yourself.” And Norm Cook, another junior high school teacher in Kawasaki, says, “When we ask the Japanese teacher that we are working with afterward for feedback, classically, almost always, the teacher just says, ‘It was good.’ ”

This situation may be exacerbated by the infrequency and irregularity of ALTs meeting with classes in most schools. In rural areas, it is not uncommon for ALTs to visit classrooms once a week. Cook says he teaches a given class maybe once a month. On top of this, the ALT may be on a rotating weekly schedule between multiple schools.

A waste of time?

From the parents’ point of view, the overarching sentiment is that English language instruction in the classroom is mottainai (wasteful). After two years of English in elementary school grades five and six, some parents express frustration that their children cannot recognize letters of the English alphabet. Tomoko Inoue, mother to a junior high school student in Osaka says: “It’s like they are dancing in English. Honestly, I felt this was meant for kindergartners. It’s like an additional recess period.”

Yumiko Seki, mother to a junior high school student in Osaka, describes the disconnect between learning English and its practical application.

“English is not studied as a spoken language — students do worksheet after worksheet,” she says. “It’s studying for a test, not for future use in a career.”

Sachie Araki, an Osaka mother of three, whose eldest child is a fluent English speaker having attended a public school in the United States from grade two through six of elementary school, describes how her daughter struggles in English class because the grammar is too difficult and irrelevant — a common complaint of returnees.

Nobuki Toyoizumi, a Tokyo mother of two, points out that the most common tests that assess English abilities in Japan — the Eiken and TOEIC exams — are unrelated to English mastery, and how the highest scores on these multiple-choice exams are equivalent to a low score on the TOEFL exam that measures English proficiency for higher U.S. university standards. Supporting this, Nakayama says her son’s English tutor told him to forget everything he has learned in his school’s English class if he hopes to perform well on the TOEFL exam.

Another cause for concern is that students have little motivation to speak English.

“Students have no need to speak English, they do not feel it is important, and there is no downside to not studying,” says ALT Sherwood. “Most of the students get 20 percent on vocabulary quizzes. They are allowed to sleep in class.”

A recurring theme is the lack of continuity in the English curriculum as students rise from elementary to junior high school and then again from junior high to high school. Technically, elementary school students are not supposed to be taught reading and writing and are to simply enjoy getting familiar with listening to English. However, by the start of junior high school, students have had disparate exposure to English learning.

“When students arrive in junior high school on day one, they start with A-B-C,” says Aspinall. “And the junior high school gets fed from three or four or maybe more elementary schools, so they are going to get kids from different backgrounds at the elementary level, and that’s even before you take into account parents spending their own money on tutors and things.”

So in response to MEXT’s latest English policy discussions on introducing English from third grade rather than fifth grade, Aspinall wonders: “What is the point in pushing English further down the age range when they are going to start the junior high school level at A-B-C all over again? This is not a coordinated curriculum.”

Nakayama, the Tokyo mother of four, mentions the added complication of the current non-academic way of introducing English in elementary school.

“When my eldest son started junior high school, he was introduced to grammar, and it was gibberish,” she says. “It was completely different from the English he had been exposed to. And when you ask him if he can have simple conversation or form a greeting, he cannot.”

The English divide

A larger, national problem that MEXT must address is the English divide, which means students at private schools or those whose parents invest in English education outside of the classroom have a significant advantage over those that attend public school alone.

“While the number of hours allocated to English in public schools is generally fixed,” Aspinall says, “private schools often choose to specialize in particular subject areas such as English and allocate substantially more hours to the curriculum. . . . Further, as they are privately funded, many choose to include a study-abroad experience as part of the program.”

In his study, professor Underwood found that a private 1,400-student senior high school in Tokyo haa about 15 full-time native English speaking teachers on staff.

“There were at least five to six contact hours with the native speaker per week in addition to the classes they had with their Japanese teacher, which would be the equivalent or more. Private schools have a lot more funding and flexibility, and they can add a lot more hours to the curriculum for which they do not need authorization.”

Parental influence can make up for shortcomings at school.

“In a home where there is not a stress placed on English, English one time per week has no meaning,” Inoue says. “I believe it depends on the academic background of the parents — starting in elementary school taking advantage of summer vacation and getting involved in foreign study programs abroad.”

Masako Suzuki, a mother of two in Osaka, explains: “There is a sense that we cannot depend on the school for English, so I need to continue to send my daughters to an eikaiwa (English conversation) school.”

And Midoriko Takahara, a Tokyo mother of two who runs her own juku (private tutoring or cram school) takes responsibility for her sons’ English education.

“I did kiso eigo (basic English) on NHK every day at 6 a.m. for 15 minutes with my children during elementary and junior high schools. The pace is quick and we follow with a text.” She also reads and discusses newspaper articles with her sons daily.

So, will English ever be a more widespread spoken language in Japan? It seems the Abe administration and MEXT must reallocate resources and overhaul the entire English-language curriculum if English to be a true priority in Japan’s economic rebirth.

A discussion of criticisms without a review of constructive and realistic remedies won’t solve these problems. With this in mind, stakeholders in English education will offer some possible solutions on this page next week.

Send comments and ideas on this topic to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • “Sachie Araki, an Osaka mother of three, whose eldest child is a fluent English speaker having attended a public school in the United States from grade two through six of elementary school, describes how her daughter struggles in English class because the grammar is too difficult and irrelevant — a common complaint of returnees.”

    It is probably uncomfortable for ALT’s, too.

    When a person achieves fluency, they have automatized a lot of knowledge, so taking it apart into its constituent parts only makes sense if one continually is making errors in their communication.

    Miss Araki’s child achieved fluency in a different context than can be achieved in Japan. And that context is the totally English environment, whereas in Japan there is a totally Japanese environment with interspersed English classes. These two learning contexts call for two different pedagogical approaches (and even more sub-approaches based on the child’s interests).

    In short, it should have been obvious to this mother that this would be the result if they chose to move back to Japan. The whole system can’t be changed to suit 0.5% of the kids who learned in a different context. And yet, the limitation that is the source of her problem is not pedagogical, and it is not even geographical, it is economic. As a result of the government’s essential monopoly on childhood education there is simply no economic context for varied and specialized alternative curriculum schools to exist.

    “Nobuki Toyoizumi, a Tokyo mother of two, points out that the most common tests that assess English abilities in Japan — the Eiken and TOEIC exams — are unrelated to English mastery, and how the highest scores on these multiple-choice exams are equivalent to a low score on the TOEFL exam that measures English proficiency for higher U.S. university standards. Supporting this, Nakayama says her son’s English tutor told him to forget everything he has learned in his school’s English class if he hopes to perform well on the TOEFL exam.”

    A dead-end leading to another dead-end all in the name of how it looks. Now where does that idea come from? Hmm. Perhaps the idea from which this approach arises is the thing that ought to be identified and opposed. It might also be interesting to consider the economic factors and subsidies that gave rise to Eiken and TOEIC, and brought them to the top. How could things so seemingly useless become so widespread? Something to think about in all that free time you have to be giving comments to newspapers, Miss Toyoizumi. I wonder if she wonders how her vote and non-activism probably goes about maintaining the problem she complains about.

    “Private schools have a lot more funding and flexibility, and they can add a lot more hours to the curriculum for which they do not need authorization.”

    That’s an interesting admittance. Bureaucracy gets in the way of educating our young minds. Who would have thunk it? With that in mind surely we can —-

    “It seems the Abe administration and MEXT must reallocate resources and overhaul the entire English-language curriculum if English to be a true priority in Japan’s economic rebirth.”

    — continue the same-old, same-old. Of course the conclusion of the article calls for more bureaucratic overhaul, which shows total obliviousness to the real cause of this problem.

    The problem is a monolithic state education system that by definition, as a state-entity, cannot adapt to the diverse values of its students. It doesn’t matter what overhauls are done, or whose ideas are implemented, the ultimate problem will always persist: the nation-wide, top-down, force-wielding, means of that implementation.

    • JB

      I agree with your conclusion, but I think you’re being a bit too harsh on the people quoted in this article. Of course for expats living in Japan it is glaringly obvious what many of the problems are because we have first-hand experiences with entirely different education systems to make comparisons to. But how many Japanese people have first-hand experience with any education system other than the Japanese system? It seems unfair to lambast them for not noticing these things when they don’t have a frame of reference that really allows them to make those kinds of comparisons in the first place. Furthermore, I think in any country you’ll find it difficult to convince people to just chuck out the whole system and start fresh rather than attempt to improve the system already in place. The status quo is never that easily overturned.

  • aL’Orange

    the largest impediment to learning English in Japan is the use of Katakana to portray the sounds of the English language,,,simply, it misrepresents the entire syllabary and makes pronunciation impossible

  • disqus_Gvs3G32z1K

    Couldn’t agree more. I’m a JET going through my third year. Midyear conference finished last month and was filled with Japanese teachers of English that sat there and complained about how they couldn’t understand any of the presentations and that there were too many foreigners present. Why any of these idiots are teaching English is beyond me.

  • JB

    The article hints at the real problem, but doesn’t spell it out completely: the average Japanese person does not need to speak English. The only time they’ll ever need English is if they happen to take a vacation abroad, and even then a simple phrase book will get them through the trip–all accommodations and flights can be booked in advance in Japanese and if they choose a package tour they can even conduct their entire trip in Japanese.

    The reality is that learning to speak English provides no real benefit
    for the vast majority of the population. Speaking fluent English won’t
    get them any higher pay at their jobs or get them promoted any faster, even if they are an English teacher. In fact, ironically, English teachers who are actually fluent in English sometimes actually have to pretend to be less fluent in English because it is face-threatening to their superiors who don’t speak English nearly as well.

    So sure, the English education system is a mess in Japan but why ignore the elephant in the room? The Japanese population on the whole has no need for English and won’t benefit from learning it. The Japanese government would LIKE for the population to be able to speak English but until people have a need or benefit for doing so I don’t realistically see anything changing even if by some miracle the education system were overhauled completely. What motivation, barring personal interest, do students currently have to study English other than the entrance exams?

    • kyushuphil

      We could improve motivation, JB, by looking outside English studies.

      If students in their Japanese classes were to write more — essays, notebooks, reviews (in many areas) — they could be growing not only their own personal voices, but also skills to see what makes others tick as well.
      Seeing the world as more human — and global issues as filled with more complicated aspects of people — could motivate young people even more to put themselves into various areas of life. And when they have that desire, a language such as English opens up with more relevance to serve them. They’ll be eager to interact with gaijin.

      Imagine, too, if instructors of various courses in Japan themselves quoted more — from Japanese novelists, poets, film makers, musicians. These perspectives could enliven education to the same proportion that testing regimes currently deaden all now subject to them.

    • Andrew Kieth Murray

      This article pretty much hits the nail on the head. There are so many problems with English education in the Japanese school system though, it’s difficult to sum up in one article. At the heart of the problem is Japanese labour laws being prioritized over the education. There is a catch 22 problem between the JET program and dispatch companies created by labour laws. The JET ALTs work for the ministry of Education not the BOE which means labour laws make it hard to fire a lousy ALT without going through a mine field of red tape. So many BOEs have switched to dispatch companies to deal with this issue but by labour law dispatch employees cannot interact with the BOE employed teacher to plan lessons as they are an outside contractor ( read- http://japan-press.co.jp/s/news/index_google.php?id=3448) so team teaching is out of the question even though there is a secondary catch 22 labour law in which a member of staff from the school must be present in the class with the ALT at all times in case any damage or harm is caused (by the student or ALT). So if there is a teacher there anyway why not get them involved to show that English communication isn’t some thing to be afraid of? Labour law Catch 22 is why! I think I might just get my class to read “Catch 22”.

  • Emma

    I just returned from India where I met local tour guides who could speak 4 or 5 languages. They had never left the country and had not studied language formally. They learned how to communicate because they had to. I met another local man who learned French in 3 months for his (sales) job. His French was better than mine. I studied it for 6 years. There is no incentive for students in Japan to master English. If all they are concerned with is getting a job in a ‘company’ after university graduation, why bother? The big picture is that Japan is still not adequately globalised or internationalised in its outlook and this is reflected and fed into by young people’s apathy. The education system continues with its insular approach and nothing changes. I’m a lecturer at a university here and I was asked to give a ‘guest’ lecture to a high school class for promotional purposes. I came away stunned at their low level. They could not even make a basic sentence and had very limited vocabulary. This is a hopeless state of affairs, and sadly I see no change in sight, despite what policy-makers are saying (again).

  • Tonyed

    I believe that Prime Minister Abe is attempting to reform several mainstays of Japan’s future geopolitical and economic standing and that these educational reforms represent an integral part of Japan’s future.

    As a foreign resident in Japan, one of my more immediate, and possibly grossly inaccurate, first impressions of the Japanese secondary education system were its overwhelming uniformity (a form of secondary education monochromacity) across the country. From the outside looking in, the schools seem to resemble one another in both their physical construction and the school uniforms worn by their student occupants. However, it was through a university friend teaching on a two-year JET programme that I gained inside access to a couple of his classes and enjoyed a very memorable time meeting his highly animated colleagues in the staff room and playing endless games of last-man-standing table tennis with his equally fun-loving students, that I realized that the outward appearances of these schools do not necessarily portray the character of the vibrant and fun people that occupy them. The other surprise or, in this case, “horror” came to me when I sat at a desk as a student in one of his English classes and opened my prescribed textbook to the designated page for that particular lesson of the English language curriculum. The title of the lesson was, if my memory serves me correctly, ‘The North American Bison’ (or ‘Buffalo’ – I cannot summon the energy required to remember). The moment the lesson began I could see that any attempt of creating ‘classroom connectedness’ would be nothing short of a miracle. The demeanour of those fun-loving students quickly slipped into reverse gear and I immediately began to feel very sorry for them having to sit through an hour of such classroom tedium. At the same rate of speed, I could also see my teacher friend beginning to struggle emotionally in attempt to engage with his class members and my thoughts rapidly drifted towards playing more raucous games of table tennis later that day.

    Classroom connectedness is essential to learning a foreign language. I only hope that the methodology of teaching English in Japanese schools will be transformed with the same aspirational energy that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has for his other reforms. It would also be nice to see public junior/high school students wearing distinctive coloured uniforms that represent their individual school rather than the cross-section of society to which they belong. The wearing of school uniforms during school holidays should also be positively discouraged. If the young are to represent the future of the nation, it’s high time to allow them to begin.

  • JB

    Oh, I agree with you, without a doubt Japan needs a corps of English speakers. But we’re talking about the average citizen here. Most Japanese people work for small to mid-sized companies and have absolutely zero contact with English either at work or home. Why are they being forced to learn English aside from its prestige value? Why not Korean, Chinese, or Thai, which given how much (small) business Japan conducts with those countries coupled with the recent visa restructuring to allow form more tourists from those countries would make infinitely more sense.

    Big Western-style international companies like Sony do indeed look for workers fluent in a second language in some of their departments but their hiring accounts for a fraction of a percentage of the total workforce and the kinds of people who get those jobs usually have extensive experience living abroad in a country that speaks the language (whether it be English, Indonesian, or what-have-you).

    In terms of access to information, the Japanese are prolific translators (from multiple languages, not just English) and as Google translate and other automatic translations become increasingly accurate, it will probably only be a problem for very specialized fields (I read a JT article about how a Japanese zookeeper needed to use an electronic dictionary to translate from English a book on breeding elephants as there were no materials written in Japanese).

    As far as the Japanese workforce concerns go, I don’t understand the reasoning that Japan must accommodate foreign workers by learning to speak their language. No other country in the world does this. If you’re moving to a country to work, you learn to speak the native language(s) of that country. And the reality is that the most readily available workers for high-tech jobs in Japan will likely come from non-English speaking countries such as China and Korea whereas the most readily available workers for service jobs (for example, caregivers for the elderly) will likely come from countries like the Philippines where English is not the primary language.

    So again, why are ALL Japanese people forced to learn English? Mind you, I believe it is important to learn a foreign language because of the cultural insights you obtain in the process (both about your own culture as well as the one you are studying) regardless of whether you obtain fluency in the language or not. So why not allow Japanese students to choose which language(s) they wish to study? Why lock-step everyone to English or make the language a gatekeeper for university studies? This article clearly answers those questions: MEXT doesn’t know what the hell it is doing. And as getironic pointed out in his/her post the top-down state-run education model has failed and will continue to fail miserably in providing for a diverse range of educational opportunities.

  • Christina Gmiterko

    I would love to hear a Japanese teachers perspective on this, but this doesn’t really address the problems mentioned in the article.

    One additional problem not really given much attention in this article is the relatively low level of English ability that the Japanese teachers of English have themselves. Despite this I have heard several Japanese English teachers complain about why they even need an ALT. I assume its a sense of pride? Of the 6 Jhs English teachers I have worked with, only 1 could hold a conversation with me in English. 1 had horrible grammar as well which is usually what they are great at teaching…..there are just so many problems to the system that I don’t even know where to start.

  • happyjapan

    The JET program is a joke. It is designed to keep non Japanese teachers at arms length so that the country doesn’t have do pay them properly/allow them any say over curriculum development. If you are on the JET, enjoy yourself, but don’t fool yourself that you’re doing anything more than propping up a racist system designed to keep foreigners turning over in Japan. The fact that this system helps keep English levels in Japan abysmally low is a price that most Japanese involved in education seem to be willing to pay.

  • Pee Kay

    Also the fact that culturally they are discouraged from even trying if they can’t enunciate perfectly. If Abe is serious about this overhaul then he needs to add a real class (taught and controlled by native speakers or capable speakers). Have the students deal with a science, math, history, art, music class all in English and give them a real grade for it. This creates more jobs for Japanese who actually know English and/or foreigners who have been doing the monkey act for years. Gives the ALTs some sort of advancement in their careers. They can have a real teaching job where they control the planning and are allowed to be a part of the school, rather than shuffled around. Place a group of foreign teachers on each level of education (ES, JHS, HS, Univ).
    -Implement a mentoring program that students must complete to graduate to the next level. Students often become better students after taking on a teaching role.
    This doesn’t have to be restricted to English. They can do classes in Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, German, French, Spanish, etc. as well. Yes, it will cost more money. Perhaps they could start by expelling the crooks from office and reallocate stolen tax money from the pockets of politicians back into education.

  • mchan1

    Try… more pragmatic!
    Hate when optimists call everything NOT happy-feeling pessimistic :P