Japan isn’t alone in its struggles with teaching English. China and South Korea have experienced similar frustrations, but their responses and results have been quite different.

It’s easy to compare the three nations because of their similarities: English is completely different from their native languages; they’ve all had limited immigration and haven’t been completely colonized by an English-speaking Western power; and all three currently share low birth rates (though China has had an only-child policy that is just starting to be relaxed).

The most obvious difference between the three countries is scale. China’s population is 1.35 billion while Japan and South Korea’s are 127 million and 50 million, respectively. This is relevant to the number of English speakers education systems are producing — all three have a high-stakes college entrance exam on which English is a required subject. In 2013, 9.12 million students sat China’s exam, the Gaokao, 650,000 sat Korea’s College Scholastic Aptitude Test (CSAT) while 570,000 sat Japan’s National Center Test. Furthermore, one of the requirements for an undergraduate degree in China is passing the College English Test (CET); in 2013, 9.38 million students sat this exam.

English-language education is fraught with deeper undercurrents of language protectionism and national identity.

“Culture-specific values and beliefs (associated with English) may clash with values and beliefs espoused by a language learner’s native culture,” says Guangwei Hu, a professor at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and an expert on English-language curriculum in Asian countries.

Hu argues that when prominence is given to English in the curriculum, it can come at the expense of other subjects, from basic literacy in the native language to progress in the advanced sciences. In response, starting in 2016, Beijing will not only reduce the weighting of English and increase that of Chinese on the Gaokao exam, but students will also learn English from third grade rather than the first grade of elementary school.

Where is the incentive to learn a foreign language when it is not spoken outside of the classroom in wider society? Hu says a nation’s English proficiency is dictated by whether society perceives and accepts English as a public good. It appears Japan has not.

English-language acquisition also goes through waves corresponding to economic development. In the case of China, Hu says, “Mastery of a foreign language was viewed as vital to meeting the needs of opening up and reform, speeding up socialist modernization, developing students’ intellectual power and raising the level of educational quality.”

Jason Ricciardi is a foreign native English-speaking teacher who teaches in China and previously taught in South Korea. He says the students he has encountered have had an immense appreciation for the English language.

“Everyone wants to speak it,” he says. “If there is a group interested in speaking English, they just get together on random nights and foreigners come. They are building their own clubs and English corners.”

Ricciardi says he felt a similar broad appreciation for English in South Korea, but can’t say for sure if it still exists in Japan.

“Maybe the English fantasy has died out in Japan because they have already secured their position in the global marketplace — Japan surpassed that point,” he says.

Per-capita GDP growth in 2012 reflects Ricciardi’s hunch. According to the World Bank, China’s, Japan’s and South Korea’s were 7.3 percent, 2.1 percent and 1.6 percent, respectively. Japan is also considered a developed economy, while both China and South Korea are considered developing economies by the U.N.

The number of students entering U.S. universities supports this conclusion. Since 2009, China has sent the greatest number of students of all nations — 235,000 in 2012. South Korea ranks third after India, having sent 70,000. Since Japan’s peak in the late 1990s, when it led all other countries, it now ranks seventh with 20,000.

“Because China has just opened its doors in the last three decades, going abroad to further one’s studies is still the dream for many families,” explains Anwei Feng, the author of “English Language Education across Greater China” and a professor of language education at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province.

Gaining social status is another incentive to learn to speak English, according to Hu.

“English proficiency has become a highly valorized form of cultural capital with strong exchange value in China,” he says.

Feng agrees with this sentiment: “A lot of privileged jobs and lifetime opportunities depend on how successfully you did in your English tests in universities.”

Japan is different in this aspect, though, according to Ryoko Tsuneyoshi, professor of comparative education at the University of Tokyo and author of “Communicative English in Japan.”

“In Japan, despite an increased emphasis on English language, being elite is not linked to speaking English,” she says.

The general trend has been to lower the starting age of compulsory English language education in a push for higher levels of attainment and improved pronunciation.

China’s Ministry of Education moved the start of English learning to third grade from junior high school in 2001. However, schools in China’s major cities have been teaching English from first grade since the ’90s. As noted earlier, some cities and provinces in China are countering this trend by raising the starting age.

In 1997, South Korean elementary schools started to teach English from third grade. Japan was the latecomer, beginning English classes in fifth grade as of 2011.

How English is being taught appears to be a common problem. While all three countries now encourage communicative language teaching (CLT) and teaching English through English (immersion) over the well-established grammar-translation method, its effectiveness is questionable.

According to linguistics professor Hyun-Sook Kang of Illinois State University, CLT originated in the ESL (English as a second language) context in the United States, not as EFL (English as a foreign language), as should be the case in Asia. For ESL learners, they hear the language all around them in greater society. Hu believes that mandating a single teaching methodology without taking into consideration local needs and characteristics is a major concern.

“Endeavors to transplant Western language teaching methodologies without giving due attention to the local pedagogical ecology have not met with expected success,” he says.

At the university level, all three countries are offering more classes using English as the medium of instruction. According to Paul Jambor, assistant professor of education at the College of Education at Korea University in Seoul says 35 percent of all undergraduate courses are taught in English and that number is set to increase to 45 percent. Several top universities will soon offer all courses in English only.

In 2001, China’s Education Ministry stated that within three years, 5-10 percent of undergraduate courses would be conducted in English, with the minimum goal of 20 percent thereafter.

It appears Japan is making a similar push with its Global 30 Project, though to a lesser degree, with many Japanese universities offering degree programs in English. Last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that within three years, eight national universities would hire 1,500 researchers from around the world, with the medium of instruction presumably in English. However, there has been criticism that this has been all talk.

In South Korea, when English became a compulsory subject in third grade, Korean teachers were trained quickly. In Seoul, 32 percent of all elementary school training was in English by 2004. This has not happened in Japan, where Japanese teachers are required to teach English but have not been trained to teach it.

At the same time, to increase the number of foreign native English-speaking teachers (NESTs), Japan implemented the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme in 1987, and South Korea the English Program in Korea in 1995. Both initiatives aim to improve English and promote cultural exchange.

In both countries, the general hiring of NESTs has been criticized for bringing untrained, inexperienced teachers into the classroom.

“They are just inviting anybody,” says Jambor of the South Korean situation. “The turn-around rates are crazy — teachers drop off like flies. A very small percentage are qualified to be teaching.”

Maybe this is why municipalities like Seoul have cut back on hiring NEXTs, with English teaching to be shifted entirely to Korean teachers. In Japan, on the other hand, Abe’s economic revitalization plan included a proposed increase in the number of JET teachers from 4,300 to 10,000 in 2012.

Likely due to its size, Feng says China’s situation is much different.

“In terms of policy-making, there does not seem to be as much favoritism toward native speakers of English in schools as in other places, such as Japan and Hong Kong.”

Though NESTs exist, Chinese English teachers are trained internally.

“A large number of English teachers are trained at Normal Universities (teaching colleges),” Feng says. “Foreign-language schools or universities also have English departments. So when teachers go to university, their specialized area is English.”

High levels of English can be achieved through private investment — while 30 percent of overall spending on education comes from private sources in Japan, in South Korea the figure sits at 40 percent (both are well above the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average of 15 percent). Furthermore, 75 percent of all South Korean students attend hogwan (private cram schools), where English is considered more important than mathematics and Korean.

The South Korean phenomenon of “wild geese families” is also becoming more common. This is when a single parent, usually the mother, takes her child overseas to study in an English-speaking country — while the father remains at home, working in order to pay for the experience.

To reduce such gaps in English-language study, it is rumored that the South Korean government is considering a plan to impose restrictions on private schools, preventing them to start English-language education earlier than the fourth grade of elementary school. The government has already imposed a 10 p.m. curfew on its hogwans to curb the country’s “education fever.”

In China, too, Hu says English education can perpetuate inequality.

“Today, there is English-medium instruction for a variety of subjects [such as information technology, chemistry, mathematics, geography and music] at all levels of the school system,” he says. “There is growing evidence that this form of English provision in China affects students’ subject learning and perpetuates/accentuates educational inequalities in China by making English a service to the privileged, the rich and the elite.”

In South Korea, as in Japan, teachers teach to the college entrance exam that tests only reading and listening with multiple-choice questions. In China, however, the Gaokao has reading, listening and writing sections. Also in China, the CET that must be passed to graduate has an additional speaking section.

Similar to Japan, in South Korea there are issues of fairness if writing and speaking are to be included in the CSAT college entrance exam. The present multiple-choice format precludes subjective grading.

“There is no spoken component because the ideology is that everyone should be equal and should be tested using the same method,” Jambor says.

Hu says that for true advancements to be made in English-language education, programs must be “sensitive to the social, cultural and historical context in which teaching takes place — an ecological approach jettisons the assumption about the existence of a universally appropriate and effective methodology.”

For sure, each country is unique, but there are lessons to be learned. China got serious about English in 2001 when it was awarded the Beijing Olympics, as happened in South Korea in 1988 with the Seoul Olympics. Now, Japan has its window of opportunity in the lead-up to the 2020 Games. Let’s hope that in six years’ time, we can put to rest the discussion about whether Japan is serious, too.

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

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.